In a courtyard in front of the civil, criminal and family courthouses on Congress Street, there's a little glass shack that leads underground. There are several rooms and auditoriums, and tunnels leading to all the courthouses. It's the Harris County Jury Assembly building, where jurors meet in a centralized location and then conveniently take the tunnels to whatever court they need to go to.
Or at least it was.
The future of the building is up in the air after nine feet of water flooded the underground building, leaving it completely useless since Hurricane Harvey. Here's the kicker: Engineers have no idea how the flooding happened. County Engineer John Blount said that multiple survey crews and consultants have examined the building, but have come up empty-handed on answers.
"We're not sure how it flooded. We've taken high water levels, but the water did not come through the entrance up top — the water didn't get that high," Blount said. "The tunnel system held, so it didn't travel through there either. So we're not sure where it came from. That's going to be part of the investigation."
Blount said no cost-benefit analysis has yet been done to determine whether it would be better to just demolish the building or start all over versus repairing it. The option on the table for now, he said, is to hire some flood-mitigation specialists to get to the bottom of the Jury Assembly Building flooding and see if something can be done about it.
"We're going to hire a team of experts to go in there and figure out what happened and how to prevent it from ever happening again," Blount said. If the only way to do it is to raise it, well, so be it — but I don't think that's the case. I don't want to pre-suppose. I'm an engineer. I don't speculate; I calculate. We'll investigate what happened and take the recommended appropriate action through Commissioners Court."
At least one Commissioners Court member already seems pretty close to making up his mind.
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Last Tuesday, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the Houston Chronicle and KTRK that he didn't think the county would be simply redoing the current building, and that it's likely there will be a "complete replacement" of it — one that wouldn't be mostly in a basement. Spokesman Joe Stinebaker clarified to the Houston Press Friday that this was only Emmett's opinion and prediction of what would happen, based on discussions he has had with the county engineering department and others.
Should the building be torn down, it'd be somewhat of a shame: The Jury Assembly Building was only completed in 2011. At that time, engineers already had the foresight to mitigate flooding in the tunnels through flood doors: Following Tropical Storm Allison, the basement of the brand-new Criminal Justice Center courthouse flooded thanks to water rushing through the tunnels, ruining the building's electrical system. Those flood doors all worked during Harvey, Blount said.
At the criminal courthouse, the problem was that the water was so high for so long that water literally seeped in through the walls. Sewage also flooded the basement and came shooting out of toilets and pipes, making the building a mess. The courthouse is closed indefinitely, forcing 22 felony judges and 16 misdemeanor judges to share courtrooms in the civil and family courthouses, respectively. Trials have been put on hold and jury duty has been cancelled until October 16 — so at least nobody's really missing the jury building for now.
County Court at Law Judge Paula Goodhart told the Press Monday that judges are working to set aside at least two courtrooms in the family law building to use specifically for trials, and that the felony judges will be allowed to share them, too.