Damage Control

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Though it is not part of the homeowners' lawsuit, the most troubling issue surrounding the case may be the district's failure to notify residents when it was discovered the White Oak floodplain was bigger than anyone thought. Garcia says there are "a few problems" with distributing floodplain information before it has been approved by FEMA. For one thing, buyers and sellers would, understandably, disagree on which floodplain information should be recognized.

The map revision process can take years in some cases, Garcia acknowledges, but "it is designed to ensure due process and to make sure that everyone has consistent information at the same time."

Blackburn simply points to the West Houston Association's challenge to assumptions reached by Klotz Associates in 1993 as proof that "due process" is considered important only for developers.

"That group threw a monkey wrench into the map coming out, whereas a lot of the neighborhood associations along White Oak Bayou never even got to play in that ball game," Blackburn says. "The best protection anyone could have is the fact that they get told when they should get flood insurance.

"What I'm really angry about is the fact that the citizens are not being protected with regard to flooding. What I'm talking about is we have never treated the public as a consumer of floodplain information, a consumer of flood protection information."

On the morning of June 11, 2001, Eric Andell -- who was brought in to hear the case by 130th District Court Judge Lamar McCorkle -- dismissed the homeowners' lawsuit. Exercising his prerogative, Andell chose not to issue an opinion on the merits of Blackburn's arguments, though presumably the judge determined that the homeowners simply didn't have much of a case, or at least not one worth bringing before a jury.

Under normal circumstances, Andell's ruling might have generated some attention. But June 11 was not a normal day in Houston. It was the Monday following Tropical Storm Allison, which flooded some 30,000 homes -- 5,000 of them in the White Oak watershed -- and inflicted hundreds of millions of dollars in damages to downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

Andell signed his order from his apartment at the Four Seasons Hotel because the courthouse had flooded and wouldn't open for business again for another month. The judge's decision didn't even merit a brief in the Houston Chronicle because reporters were focused on the misery and destruction at hand; nor was there much interest a week later, when Andell moved to Washington to become special counsel to Rod Paige, U.S. secretary of education.

Ed Kerr had just about finished recovering from Tropical Storm Frances when Allison paid him a visit. The weekend before, he had put the final touches on the floor in the bathroom and had a few hours of baseboard work to complete. Instead, he and Norma Jean moved to a hotel, where they lived until about a week ago. Though they had flood insurance this time, Ed estimates the damage was close to $80,000.

Sheila and Wendell Wyborny's house in Creekside Estates took on three feet of water, which destroyed a number of antique furnishings and "little things" the couple had collected during their 30 years of marriage. Though their house is almost back to normal, Sheila says her view of life along White Oak Bayou has changed forever.

"We don't feel safe," she says. "When the thunder starts, I'm awake and I stay awake. A few weeks ago, when that double front came through, I moved some of the furniture upstairs and went to a hotel just so I could sleep. It's not right."

The magnitude of the destruction caused by Tropical Storm Allison, more than half of which occurred outside the mapped floodplains, has prompted a massive effort by FEMA to gather updated information on all 22 watersheds in Harris County. The study will incorporate the latest airborne radar technology, called LIDAR, to create new topographic maps of the county. Steve Fitzgerald says he's "excited" about the project, which will be a joint effort by FEMA and the flood control district.

"We need better models," Fitzgerald acknowledges. "It will be a monumental effort, on the order of $16 million. But it's long overdue."

But while the LIDAR analysis is expected to significantly alter the current understanding of the county's floodplains -- Blackburn predicts "people's jaws will drop" when the new maps are issued -- business goes on as usual along White Oak Bayou.

For years residents along the reach of the bayou inside Loop 610 have pleaded with the flood control district to build more storm-water detention ponds. The district, however, concluded that it would cost too much to build the needed capacity. Meanwhile, the City of Houston has approved construction plans for a half-dozen major development projects on East T.C. Jester, alongside the bayou. The developments have been most vehemently opposed by residents of Timbergrove Manor, where more than 500 homes were damaged by Allison.

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Brian Wallstin