Bayou City

Debriefing Harvey: How Houston Is Recovering One Month Later

The unprecedented event that flooded much of Houston.
The unprecedented event that flooded much of Houston. Photo illustration; source images by Getty Images, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr, Doogie Roux
It doesn’t feel like Harvey was just over one month ago, because when you drive down neighborhood streets, piles of debris still line the curbs as reliably as flags on the Fourth of July. Because large pumps with blue and yellow tubes are still sucking water out of parking garages and basements throughout downtown, where buildings like the Wortham Center and the downtown courthouse are closed. And because roughly 800 Houstonians are still living in shelters: a Houston Community College warehouse, the old Macy’s department store at Greenspoint Mall.

The National Weather Service warned on August 28 that “this event is unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced” — and so far that’s remained true. There’s still no way to quantify fully Harvey’s damage. For the most part, understanding Harvey’s impact has been anecdotal: There is no shortage of stories of evacuations on civilian boats and rescues from roofs, of people living in shelters and, more so lately, waiting and waiting and waiting on help from FEMA and the Red Cross and local government.

City and county officials, too, have their stories, recounting the behind-the-scenes chaos that ensued during Harvey, as first responders scrambled to answer more than 50,000 911 calls on the first night alone, and after Harvey, as thousands upon thousands of people sought shelter.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, for one, said that even though the Red Cross was on hand to organize those shelters, that responsibility ended up falling on the shoulders of a hodgepodge of public officials and private partners. People like Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart were stepping up to use county trucks to deliver food and supplies to shelters from a Red Cross warehouse, because the Red Cross didn’t have its own trucks or drivers, Emmett said. People like Councilwoman Brenda Stardig and church leaders were spearheading shelters and mobilizing hundreds of volunteers, Emmett said, because the Red Cross had failed to plan more in advance.


To get a handle on Harvey’s destruction, Emmett said, “I broke every bureaucratic rule in the book.”

As recovery continues, as the debris slowly disappears and displaced residents trickle into temporary housing, we’re taking some time to debrief: After the most destructive flooding event in U.S. history, what about the city and the county’s response to Harvey worked well? What didn’t? And what’s our next chapter? — Meagan Flynn

click to enlarge County Judge Ed Emmett appealed to volunteers with boats to start rescuing people. - PHOTO BY REVOLUTION MESSAGING/FLICKR
County Judge Ed Emmett appealed to volunteers with boats to start rescuing people.
Photo by Revolution Messaging/Flickr
The Risk Return Ratio on Rescues
There were two things on Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s mind when, around noon on Sunday, August 27, he asked residents who owned boats to please help rescue people.

It had already been clear before dawn that the first responders were at capacity, as the City of Houston asked people to call 911 only if they were in a life-threatening situation. The National Weather Service started issuing urgent messages asking those trapped in their homes not to go into their attics but to go onto their roofs, where rescuers could see them. The live coverage was harrowing: people trapped on the roofs of SUVs that had become little islands surrounded by water in what was once a street, people waving from second-floor windows, signaling for help, people hanging onto trees or poles, waiting.

With thousands of 911 calls in the queue, Emmett knew that nightfall would beat the first responders to the punch before everyone would be safe.

“When I said, ‘If you’ve got a boat, bring it out,’ I had two thoughts in mind at the time,” Emmett told the Houston Press. “One was we had a lot of people in trouble, and they needed whatever help they could get. They were gonna try and get themselves out — you’ve seen pictures of people floating in thermal coolers and refrigerators and all that.

“The second part, just having grown up in Texas, is people were gonna bring their boats out anyway. I didn’t have to tell them to do it. They were gonna do it.”

Would-be helpers were directed to call the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office, which would ask the boat owners what neighborhoods they could get to. There was no time for a crash course or training in high-water rescues. The names of more than 100 of those volunteers were plastered to a wall in the Emergency Operations Center on Post-it notes.

Yet for every dozen shining moments of selflessness, there was one of terror. Boats capsized. They became entangled in wires and debris beneath the murky waters. At least six young men died in two such known accidents.

Tomas Carreón Jr., a 25-year-old mechanic, and Alonso Guillen, a 31-year-old DJ and so-called “Dreamer,” originally from Mexico, died after a strong current caused their boat to crash into a bridge along Cypress Creek. They had traveled from Lufkin with a borrowed boat to help.

Jorge Raul Perez, Gustavo Hernandez Rodriguez, and brothers Benjamin Vizuet and Yahir Rubio-Vizuet were lost to Harvey’s floodwaters, too, discovered along the banks of Greens Bayou and in the Houston Ship Channel. They and a third brother, Jose Vizuet, and two journalists from the had just rescued two families trapped in a flooded apartment complex on the east side of Houston when the current from Greens Bayou pulled their boat into electrical wires. The men jumped overboard to avoid electrocution. Jose Vizuet and the journalists survived by grabbing onto trees.

When the two journalists, Alan Butterfield and Ruaridh Connellan, recounted the experience, Perla Jacquez told them, “I just want to let people know these men died giving their lives to save others.”

Emmett said that government officials in the Emergency Operations Center chided him for putting out the call for civilian help — but Emmett said he did not regret it, adding that, if it were not for the volunteer rescuers, more people likely would have drowned. The Houston Fire Department had only one-quarter of its staff called into work during the worst of Harvey, which Chief Samuel Peña said was due to the fact that HFD did not have enough high-water vehicles and boats for all its staff to use.

This, despite the fact that a lack of high-water equipment and a lack of firefighters trained in swift-water rescues plagued the department’s responses to the 2015 and 2016 major flooding events. Since then, Peña said, the department has remained woefully underfunded and incapable of responding to a flood even half Harvey’s size.

“Of course, I knew there were going to be some people who were untrained, but it was one of those things where we needed a flotilla,” Emmett said. “Some people were like, ‘Judge, you can’t do that.’

“The professional side says, ‘No, we’ve got to stick to our model of how we respond.’

“If we stick to the model, people drown.” — Meagan Flynn

click to enlarge More than 3,000 homeowners inquired about buyouts with the flood control district after Harvey. - GRAPHIC COURTESY OF THE HARRIS COUNTY FLOOD CONTROL DISTRICT
More than 3,000 homeowners inquired about buyouts with the flood control district after Harvey.
Graphic courtesy of the Harris County Flood Control District
A Historic Buyout?
In just three weeks after Hurricane Harvey, more than 3,000 homeowners inquired about buyouts with the Harris County Flood Control District — an unprecedented level of interest given the county usually only has funds to buy out 100 homes per year.

“This could possibly be the largest buyout in U.S. history,” said Jim Blackburn, a prominent Houston environmental attorney. “We are looking at a legacy problem of immense proportion. We’re not gonna be able to fix it now. There’s no room to put the retention ponds in that we need, along White Oak, Brays. The upstream development has been built out. The flooding downstream is occurring. The only real solution is to buy people out who keep flooding.”

“We are looking at a legacy problem of immense proportion," Blackburn said.

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Buyouts are reserved for homes “hopelessly deep” in the floodplains where projects such as retention ponds or bayou expansions just aren’t going to make a difference to stop the flooding during major events, said James Wade, manager of the Harris County Flood Control District’s Property Acquisition Department.

Which raises the question: If there’s no hope for potentially thousands of homes to be saved from floods, why were they built to begin with?

Blackburn said that’s due to a combination of early ignorance on the part of developers and continuing willful ignorance on the part of officials in later years. Floodplain maps were not issued until the mid-1980s, Blackburn said, and so developers had been building deep into floodplains. But once the maps came out, Blackburn says, the county failed in the 1990s to build enough retention ponds or basins along bayous it knew posed risks to nearby neighborhoods.

Wade acknowledged the development issues that predated the FEMA floodplain maps, but said that most of the homes that historically have been bought out were built long before the maps.

“That’s what we’re correcting with our buyout program, is to put those areas back to nature, back to their natural function as a floodplain, so that when it floods, it doesn’t impact homes and families,” he said.

The funds for the buyouts come from FEMA’s National Flood Mitigation program or its Hazard Mitigation program as grant money, funneled through the Texas Water Development Board and into the hands of local government — but this process can sometimes take more than a year to complete.

To speed things up, Harris County Commissioners Court approved spending $20 million in county funds to purchase 206 homes deep in floodplains, and hopes to start closing on some of those homes by the end of the month.

If the county purchased all 3,300 homes in areas of interest that the flood control district wants to prioritize, Wade said, it would cost about $650 million. Which doesn’t include hundreds of buyout applications from homeowners who fall outside those areas. — Meagan Flynn
click to enlarge Cynthia Neely made it through the initial downpour from Harvey. It was the dam releases that flooded their house. - PHOTO BY MARCO TORRES
Cynthia Neely made it through the initial downpour from Harvey. It was the dam releases that flooded their house.
Photo by Marco Torres
Floodplain Maps Are Full of Silt
After the initial downpour of Hurricane Harvey, Cynthia Neely and her family were among the lucky few in Houston. Their house in west Houston, which had never flooded, had about an inch of water.

When the rain stopped, they mopped the floors and ate dinner, feeling safe and secure.

Then the U.S. Corps of Engineers released the water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and about two feet of water rushed in, ruining floors and furniture and filling the Neelys’ house with waste after the showers and toilets backed up.

It’s not difficult to understand why the Neelys and the homes near the reservoirs flooded. What is more difficult to comprehend is that according to experts at the University of California-Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, more than half of the houses that flooded in Harris County from Harvey sat outside floodplains — which certainly contributed to the high rate of uninsured victims.

And this is not a new phenomenon. A recent report issued by hydrologists at Rice University and Texas A&M University at Galveston found that from 1999 to 2009, in a section of southeast Houston near Armand Bayou, 75 percent of the flooding occurred outside the floodplain. That figure is high, even for Houston, explained Antonia Sebastian, a postdoctoral researcher with Delft University of Technology and one of the co-authors of the report. On average, about a quarter of all uninsured losses occur outside of floodplains nationwide, and in many coastal areas, like Houston, that figure can exceed 50 percent.

The models used by FEMA don’t account for changing land use, such as the loss of natural wetlands in favor of development. Something as simple as putting concrete in a watershed can potentially double the height of a 100-year flood. And because a city like Houston is changing so rapidly, the FEMA maps often struggle to keep up. One study published in the journal in 2003 found that 33 percent of FEMA maps were more than 15 years old.

“By the time we designate a floodplain as a 100-year floodplain, it’s already outdated,” said Kayode Atobe, a research assistant with the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at A&M.

The inaccuracies can be felt at multiple levels of local and federal policy. Only people living in a floodplain are mandated to purchase flood insurance from the National Flood Insurance Program, sponsored by FEMA, and the rates of that insurance are determined by the maps.

“A floodplain is this dichotomous boundary and you’re either in or out of it,” said Sebastian. “It doesn’t matter if you’re one foot or one mile; you’re out of the floodplain. And in reality that’s just not how flooding behaves.”

These floodplain maps are also not adjusting to the new reality of storms as the earth’s climate continues to warm. Rising sea levels obviously lead to more flooding, but the warming of the atmosphere also means more moisture in the air, and consequently more heavy downpours.

In the past three years, Meyerland has experienced three consecutive 500-year floods, or floods that have a 1-in-500 chance of occurring.

“That might be the new normal for Houston,” said Joel Scata, an attorney for the water program at the National Resources Defense Council. “You can argue that this is just a freak occurrence, but it’s happening enough across the country that you’re seeing these major, major floods.”

FEMA requires states to have Hazard Mitigation Plans that detail how they will deal with natural disasters. But these plans are based on historic precedents, and only recently has FEMA mandated that agencies consider future factors. Texas, which will submit a new plan in 2018, acknowledges rising sea levels, but ultimately determined they’re not a hazard.

Between 2005 and 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found, the federal government spent $278 billion on disaster assistance. — Joseph Fanelli

click to enlarge Water seeped through the walls of the Criminal Justice Center and flooded it. - PHOTO BY MEAGAN FLYNN
Water seeped through the walls of the Criminal Justice Center and flooded it.
Photo by Meagan Flynn
The Courts Get Cozy
It’s been roughly a month since prosecutors had to escape the flooding criminal courthouse with a rope, wading in single file through waist-deep water to get to safety. Since the floodwaters from Harvey and the overflowing Buffalo Bayou got so high that water seeped through the walls and into the Criminal Justice Center lobby. Since sewage burst out of the toilets and the pipes and flooded the basement, leaving the downtown courthouse completely useless and closed for an undetermined amount of time.

With more than 62,000 cases pending, the 22 felony judges and 16 misdemeanor judges are now forced to share courtrooms in the civil and family courthouses, and 700 employees of the Harris County District Attorney’s Office are spread across nine buildings.

On the very first day of the new shared-courtroom system, at least two judges had some trouble after State District Judge Nikita Harmon refused to let State District Judge Jim Wallace have a turn on their shared bench to take a couple of pleas, reportedly leading a frustrated Wallace to threaten to have Harmon arrested (they have since been separated).

In the civil courthouse where felony courts are housed, three out of six elevators leading to the upper floors are broken, and in the family-law building, two out of four elevators are broken, leading to a fantastic morning-docket rush-hour fiasco. And, because of the limited courtroom space, trials haven’t been able to resume, at least not until later in October.

This is not the first time the Criminal Justice Center has flooded and closed down. Just months after the 20-story, $95 million building opened in 2001, Tropical Storm Allison came through and flooded the basement, gutting the new building’s electrical system. It was 11 months before employees were fully moved back into the courthouse. Harris County Engineer John Blount said that, at that time, the county sought grant money from FEMA to install flood-mitigation apparatus, such as the flood gates in the underground tunnels and at the main doors. In fact, Blount said, those measures did their job during Harvey — but the water levels were just too high and the water came through the walls. The Harris County Jury Assembly building, right across the street, got nine feet of water, and County Judge Ed Emmett said it’s possible the county will need to build a completely new jury building.

Still, taking a glass-half-full approach, defense attorneys and the DA’s office are seeing the post-Harvey court chaos as an opportunity to change what they see as cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles.

Tucker Graves, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, issued a list of recommendations that he hoped judges would follow to make things easier for everyone. With Ogg’s backing, the defense bar asked that judges not require defendants to appear for court settings unless they involved a contested hearing, a plea deal or a trial.

But Graves said it did not appear that these recommendations were being followed. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg told the Press that neither her office nor the defense bar was invited to the table to discuss court scheduling changes.

“I believe that the displacement that we suffered is another reason to reform a docket system that is out of step with the rest of the justice scheduling systems in Harris County. Our docket practices are inherently inefficient and I don’t believe that it’s necessary for defendants to appear repeatedly for non-issue settings,” Ogg said.

State District Judge Susan Brown and County Court at Law Judge Paula Goodhart said each judge sets his or her own docket rules and that everyone has tried to be sensitive to defendants affected by Harvey. — Meagan Flynn

click to enlarge Kelly Coleman never through her complex would flood. She carried her belongings out in plastic bags. - PHOTO BY MARCO TORRES
Kelly Coleman never through her complex would flood. She carried her belongings out in plastic bags.
Photo by Marco Torres
Sacrificing the Many for the Many More
The water had been rising steadily since 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, August 27, as Hurricane Harvey continued to pelt the Houston area. Watching from the second-story window of her condominium at The Pines, a complex in Memorial on Houston’s west side, Kelly Coleman saw the water swamp the parking lot. When she was certain the first floor was flooding, Coleman went downstairs and banged on the doors of her neighbors, inviting them to gather some belongings and move upstairs to her place.

“And this was before Addicks and Barker started releasing,” Coleman says now.

Even in Allison the Pines condos had not flooded, but then again, the dams at Addicks and Barker had not been released then. It probably never occurred to most people that the protective structures could be the source of the worst devastation from Hurricane Harvey.

Addicks and Barker were constructed in response to the devastating floods that had ripped through Houston in 1929 and 1935. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed them to stay empty until a major storm comes in. Once the system’s rain gauges register critical levels of water, the dam safety officer orders the dams to close and start retaining water. The dams then block some of the water that would come gushing down Buffalo Bayou in the event of a large-scale rain event.

For more than 70 years, Addicks and Barker have worked exactly as designed. However, in 2009 the dams were labeled as being at “extremely high risk of catastrophic failure.” Since then, the Corps has taken piecemeal approaches to keeping the dams in shape, adding filters to control seepage, more lighting, and an emergency power system to prevent a full-on collapse while also going through the slow process of putting more permanent — and expensive — measures in place.
click to enlarge County officials released water from the dams, flooding nearby neighborhood homes. - GRAPHIC COURTESY OF HARRIS COUNTY FLOOD CONTROL DISTRIC
County officials released water from the dams, flooding nearby neighborhood homes.
Graphic courtesy of Harris County Flood Control Distric
As Harvey began, the dams were in the middle of a $75 million upgrade that started in 2016. The floodgates were closed at 8 p.m. on Friday, August 25. But as the rain continued, it soon became clear that the dams — which can hold roughly 410,000 acre-feet of water — were filling up quickly even as the storm showed no signs of moving on. (Harvey would drop more than 50 inches of rain here.)

By Saturday night, the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management was warning that Barker might spill over. On Sunday night, the Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District announced they were going to begin releasing water from the dams, unsure that the aging structures could continue to hold on against the enormous pressure coming from the floodwater.

Dozens of neighborhoods located below the reservoirs began taking on water.

“It felt like we were sacrificed for the rest of the community," Coleman said.

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Coleman evacuated Tuesday morning when the water was more than five feet high. Water was still spilling over Addicks despite the controlled releases. She walked until she found a grocery store. When a clerk looked at the plastic bags in her hands and asked her if she was there to make a donation, she burst into tears and explained the bags contained her own things.

“When I bought my condo five years ago, there was a 0.2 percent chance it would flood,” she says. “It felt like we were sacrificed for the rest of the community.”

Arturo Leon, a professor of hydraulic engineering at the University of Houston, says most structures built during the 1940s have held up well, but any dam that has dealt with frequent large rain events will have had more wear and tear on its earthen walls.

About 3,000 homes below Addicks and around 1,000 homes below Barker flooded in the wake of the controlled releases. Leon maintains this was still better than risking the collapse of the dams entirely.

“If this had happened, if the dams had failed, 30 to 40 10 to 20 feet of water would have moved in shock waves traveling more than 100  30 feet per second down Buffalo Bayou,” Leon says. (* Editor's note: Initial information given to the Houston Press was incorrect.) Houses and buildings downstream of the reservoirs [would have been] destroyed, and hundreds would have died. As bad as this was, it could have been so much worse.” — Dianna Wray

click to enlarge Never has bottled water been such a popular purchase. - PHOTO BY MARCO TORRES
Never has bottled water been such a popular purchase.
Photo by Marco Torres
Supply-Chain Economics
In the days following Hurricane Harvey’s Houston flooding, it was difficult to even figure out what grocery stores were operating in town, with what hours and what, exactly, they had in stock. Flooded routes kept trucks from stores. In many instances, stores allowed in only a few shoppers at a time to avoid chaos. A month later, and, for much of Houston’s major groceries, things are somewhat back to normal.

“We’re not seeing any shortages in our supply chain,” April Martin Nickels, a representative of Kroger, says, at least concerning food. Representatives from H-E-B also reported zero supply shortages. Strangely, says Nickels, “The only impact has been in floral. We’ve seen a 20 percent shortage because most of it comes from Florida, and obviously they’re dealing with Irma.”

Kroger was able to deliver more than 2,750 truckloads of product to stores within the first seven days after the hurricane. Price hikes that could come because of a hit to Texas ranchers or farmers have not become evident to consumers either.

But behind the scenes, employees of Houston’s big groceries are feeling the impact of Harvey. Kroger estimates that more than 525 of its employees requested financial assistance through its Kroger Helping Hands Fund. And with two area locations closed — the Champion Forest/Cypresswood store and the Cypresswood/Highway 249 store — about 300 employees have been absorbed by other locations. No one has lost his or her job.

The same situation is happening at H-E-B, with president Scott McLellan telling the Press that numerous employees from the shuttered, flood-ravaged Meyerland and Kingwood locations can be found working at other locations around the city. H-E-B has still not announced its plans to either renovate or relocate the Meyerland space, which was also waterlogged last year in the Tax Day floods and had barely reopened before Harvey hit. The company is still weighing its options.

Three Fiesta stores remain closed: 4330 Highway 6, 12201 East Freeway and 9419 Mesa. As for Kroger, both of its closed locations are being gutted and remodeled, with reopenings slated for some time between Thanksgiving and Christmas of this year. Until then, customers will still find a 50-foot-long mobile pharmacy operating at the Champion Forest/Cypresswood location. — Gwendolyn Knapp

click to enlarge Jones Hall was among the many flooded buildings in the Theater District. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL COPPENS/FLICKR
Jones Hall was among the many flooded buildings in the Theater District.
Photo by Michael Coppens/Flickr
Performing Arts Scramble
Jason Watt, a tenor for the Houston Chamber Choir who’s also Kingwood High School’s head choir director, lost his entire choral library — thousands of dollars’ worth of music — when the school flooded. In Third Ward’s Blue Triangle Community Center, roof damage caused mold to grow along the historic John Biggers mural, “Contribution of Negro Women to American Life and Education.” And the Wortham Theater Center — home to the Houston Grand Opera and the Houston Ballet, not to mention a frequent stop for Da Camera, Mercury and Society for the Performing Arts — will not be closed for a few weeks as originally thought, but eight months at least.

The scope of the damage to the arts community is wide, from the Houston Symphony’s cancellation of its opening-night concert with Susan Graham because of flooding at Jones Hall, to the roof, ceiling and electrical damage at small installation space Mystic Lyon in Fifth Ward, which doubles as a studio for local artist Emily Sloan.

Fresh Arts Executive Director Marci Dallas, whose organization is also a member of the local action group behind the Harvey Arts Recovery Fund, says the effects of Harvey are expected to linger for two to three years as organizations reschedule and search for places to stage performances and hold exhibitions.

Many smaller and midsize theaters and companies escaped major physical damage, but the Gravity Players and Dirt Dogs Theatre Company both had runs interrupted. The A.D. Players, Cone Man Running Productions, the Catastrophic Theatre, Stages Repertory Theatre and Opera in the Heights all had to either delay openings or postpone their shows until the spring — all of which directly affects earned income.

The scramble for venues may also leave smaller arts organizations — the ones that rely most on financial support from the community — out in the cold, says Dallas, and Rec Room co-founder Stephanie Wittels Wachs raises an additional issue: She’s finding that attendance has been low across the board, even for the theater’s usual sell-outs, which may spell financial trouble going forward.

“If people aren’t coming to the venue, the venue won’t survive,” says Wittels Wachs by email.

Dallas believes the uncertainty of “If I wasn’t affected, is it okay to get on with my life, because you still see people who need mucking in their houses” is keeping people away. But she’s quick to remind everyone of the value art has to a community.

“I think a lot of times people look to the arts to help them put things into words that they can’t put into words themselves, so if you see something, or if you read something, or if you hear something, it helps you reconnect with the world around you.” — Natalie de la Garza

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