Who’s to blame for Houston’s floods?

by James McClister


In April, over an approximate 48-hour stretch, Harris County took on 240 billion gallons of rain water, and flooded. The City claims weather is the problem, but a number of residents disagree; they blame the City.

“I regret anyone whose home is flooded again,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the days following what are now being called the Tax Day floods. “There’s nothing I can say that’s going to ease your frustration. We certainly can’t control the weather.”

The city’s mayor went on to say that when “a lot of rain” falls during a short period of time, “there’s nothing you can do.”

Local nonprofit Residents Against Flooding’s (RAF’s) lawsuit against the city suggests umbrage with the mayor’s sentiment.

The lawsuit claims that Houston’s government has used its authority to support commercial interests (specifically in Reinvestment Zone Number Seventeen, also known as TIRZ 17) at the expense of residential areas.

It reads: “Government power has been used to create a dangerous environment for the residents and their property.”

The allegations

Mentioned in the suit are a number of specific grievances against the city and the overseeing Memorial City Redevelopment Authority in charge of TIRZ 17. The group alleges that despite knowledge that the area surrounding TIRZ 17 is well known as a high risk area for floods, the City and authority still:

  • “Widened and lowered” Bunker Hill Road north of I-10, which “changed the drainage pattern” of the road, and caused rain water to “pond” in neighborhoods on both the west and east sides of the street. Since it was changed in 2007, the bordering neighborhoods have flooded badly in 2009, 2015 and 2016.
  • Rebuilt the Bunker Hill bridge over the W-140 channel but did so in a way that now restricts the flow of water. As a result, “if anything more than a 7-year storm takes place, then water backs up upstream of the bridge, causing flooding of the northwest neighborhood.”
  • Developed projects that have “reduced or eliminated ponding of water on the private commercial properties in and near TIRZ 17, and along the roadways that their customers use.” However, the drainage has been redirected to “send water into the residential areas with inadequate stormwater systems.”

During a press conference, Turner pivoted away from questions pointed at the City’s handling of complaints against drainage and flood preparedness, saying that there is “only one special interest” in Houston, which he claimed was the city itself.

The experts

In an interview with AP, Mike Talbott, director of the Harris County Flood Control District, corroborated the mayor’s earlier statements, shifting responsibility from the city to nature, saying that “almost all of the county is very impervious clay.”

However, AP’s report pointed out that since 1992, Houston’s population has added about 1 million people, and during that time the amount of water-absorbing wetlands has been halved. The problem growth has created is that paved land generates five times as much runoff as woodlands, AP confirmed.

In an interview with AP, FEMA director Craig Fugate said the agency has paid more than $3 billion in flood claims to Houston since 1998, pointing to growth and paving as key problems.

Fugate said: “When we have known hazards and we’re not using our best land use and we’re not using our best building codes to mitigate those risks, we see the costs of disasters go up.”

Ultimately, RAF is not seeking monetary retribution, but rather wants the court to order the City to address some of the longstanding issues that it claims contribute to the flooding.

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  • Cynthia Neely says:

    Thank you for this article! Houston government has allowed FEMA to bail-out our city when it floods time after time, when the city should be using its own money, TIRZ money, and it own efforts to protect its citizens. What happens if FEMA says no more? So far, Mayor Turner has yet to call a meeting with Residents Against Flooding or any stake holders in this crisis. The city should be treating our vulnerability as though it were a raging fire to put out. Should be sending every possible “fire truck” to our rescue. It is not. Mayor Turner jumped on potholes. Well, repaired potholes won’t mean diddly if we are all under water. Our organization has worked for seven years to get responsible action towards flooding that is preventable. None of us wanted a lawsuit but dear God, catastrophic flooding, loss of lives, loss of retirement and savings, loss of health and sanity, loss of homes and irreplaceable belongings have forced us to file suit. We want REMEDY not money. We want the city to do its job. Our beautiful neighborhoods with lovely trees are being destroyed unnecessarily. If it weren’t for the fact that many homeowners are trying to salvage there flooded homes of trying to batten down the hatches in preparation for the next storm, Mayor Turner would probably have an angry mob at the steps of City Hall.
    Board Member, Residents Against Flooding and Fed-Up Homeowner

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