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Post-Harvey, Houston considers the line between safety and sacrifice

Why We Wrote This

When is it acceptable to sacrifice the few for the survival of the many? A year after Harvey, residents are challenging the government's decision to flood their communities to save downtown Houston.

Matt Rourke/AP/File
Homeowner Manoj Gupta walks past a wall marked by floodwaters in the aftermath of tropical storm Harvey on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2017, at the Canyon Gate community in Katy, Texas. Canyon Gate lies in the flood pool for Houston's Barker Reservoir and was intentionally flooded.

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When home buyers purchase a home in a flood plain, they know that they run the risk of taking on water during rain events. But when Maria Ageyeva bought her home in Houston’s Lakes on Eldridge neighborhood, she had no idea that she was buying land in a flood pool. She learned that when tropical storm Harvey hit and the US Army Corps of Engineers allowed her neighborhood to become an extension of Addicks Reservoir to protect downtown Houston. Today, she is part of one of hundreds of lawsuits against the Army Corps over its management of Houston’s reservoirs during Harvey. The lawsuit centers on whether the government has the right to use private property in this way. But the situation raises a deeper question of whether it is acceptable to sacrifice one neighborhood for the sake of the broader community. For residents like Andrew Nat, the sacrifice makes some sense, but he adds, “I would hope that there would be some lessons learned.” 

As the rains from tropical storm Harvey intensified last year, Marina Ageyeva stayed relatively calm. As the water crept up her driveway, she moved books and important papers into kitchen cupboards and to the second floor – and then she settled into a chair on the second floor and began reading Russian novels. 

She had lived in the house for six years, and it had never flooded, after all. Fifteen miles to the southeast, Andrew Nat had been in his home for 22 years and never flooded. They had grown to love life in their comfortable middle-class neighborhoods, with good schools and beautiful parks nearby. Both thought they would emerge largely unscathed. 

What they didn’t know was that they were living inside the flood pool for the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, which meant that, in the event of torrential rain, their neighborhood could be intentionally flooded to protect downtown Houston. So when Harvey’s deluge came, they were caught by surprise when their communities became extensions of the reservoir.

A year later, mostly due to issues with contractors repairing the damage, they’re both still living on their second floors. They’re also both part of one of hundreds of lawsuits against the US Army Corps of Engineers over its management of the reservoirs during Harvey.

The decision to flood these communities raises a deeper question of whether it is acceptable to sacrifice one neighborhood for the sake of the broader community. Communities around the United States may face similar quandaries, as intensified rain events become more common and cities expand and pave over natural floodplains.

Perhaps no area is more vulnerable to this rainfall-driven (pluvial) flooding than Houston, experts say, yet the region is far from a national leader in prevention. As other US cities have moved to mitigate the growing threats of urban flooding, residents here are demanding similar actions be taken. But after seeing their homes essentially sacrificed in order to prevent worse flooding downtown, some are wondering if they can afford to wait out the years it will likely take for the systemic overhaul they desire. 

“It’s an uncomfortable feeling,” says Ms. Ageyeva, who came to the US as a refugee from Russia in 1989. “I don’t feel scared, but I feel uncomfortable that it could happen again.” 

Concrete prairie, suburban reservoir 

Heavy rainfall has been pummeling the swamps of southeast Texas for centuries. The Katy prairie, west of present-day Houston, is one watershed that collects that water and funnels it, via more than a dozen tributaries, through Houston toward the Gulf of Mexico. So when a flood devastated Houston in 1935, the Katy prairie is where the Army Corps decided to build Addicks and Barker. Recently released documents have shown the agency didn’t purchase enough land behind the dams to fill their respective “flood pools” – the areas that would fill with rainwater held back by the dam. But back then it was all prairie anyway.

David J. Phillip/AP/File
Water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods as floodwaters from tropical storm Harvey rise in Houston Aug. 29, 2017. Residents of flooded neighborhoods in the area are suing the US Army Corps of Engineers for using their homes as extensions of the city's reservoirs.

Fast-forward fifty years, and the prairie had turned into suburbia both around and – unbeknownst to many of the residents – inside the two reservoir flood pools. It would still take an unusually heavy deluge for water to reach those areas, however, the Army Corps reasoned at the time, according to an internal agency document obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

That deluge came with Harvey. As the reservoirs filled over a weekend of heavy rain the Army Corps began controlled releases from the reservoirs, but with huge volumes of water still flowing into the reservoirs from tributaries to the west, private homes in the flood pool took in water.

If the Army Corps hadn’t gone ahead with the releases, the results could have been much worse, officials say. Water could have crested the dam walls, or flowed uncontrolled around their edges, or broken through them. (A 2012 inspection found cracks in some of the dam’s spillways.)

“If they allowed water to go downtown and it killed [thousands of] people and caused thousands of dollars of damage – [preventing] that is a valid government decision,” says Daniel Charest, a co-lead attorney in a lawsuit representing property owners upstream of Addicks and Barker.

But if the government wants to own the decisions to both release water and hold back so much it flooded property it didn’t own, Mr. Charest and his clients argue, then it needs to compensate those whose properties were damaged.

“I suppose I understand there was a reason to release the water to save other properties within the city,” says Mr. Nat. “But whoever made the choice consciously decided to damage [other] properties.”

“I would hope that there would be some lessons learned,” he adds.

'A real wake-up call'

New gates were installed on the reservoirs in July – an upgrade planned before Harvey – and the Harris County Flood Control District has begun a $13 million project to dredge silt from waterways flowing into Addicks. On Saturday, on the one year anniversary of Harvey making landfall, 85 percent of voters in Harris County approved a $2.5 billion bond measure to finance more than 200 local flood-control projects. Bigger solutions, like building a third reservoir, could be years away, however.

Urban flooding is a growing issue in cities around the country. A study in February reported that about 13 percent of US residents are at risk from flooding – about three times the number estimated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which historically hasn’t studied pluvial flooding as closely. 

“One of the biggest threats facing this country, and a big issue we need to deal with, is urban flooding,” says Sam Brody, a professor of urban planning at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

“These are chronic problems all across America,” he adds. “Houston has been less vigilant at a regional level, but my hope is the event of hurricane Harvey has been a real wake-up call.”

For the love of home

Many residents learned they were in the Addicks and Barker flood pools during Harvey, but now that they know, many are still reluctant to leave.

Nat, a consultant for investors in the biotech and medical fields, describes living much of the past year on the second floor of his house as like being back in college. He and his wife eat out a lot, but when they don’t it’s food from a microwave or a toaster oven. 

He got a disaster loan from the US Small Business Administration, and he’s hoping he will be able to repay the loan with money from the lawsuit. If that doesn’t work out he plans to take out another lien on the house. He doesn’t see moving as an option.

“I think it’s a great neighborhood,” he says. “Once it’s rebuilt, four to five years down the line, the houses will have enhanced values.”

On Ageyeva’s street, three neighbors are selling their homes, but after fleeing Russia and then moving from New York to Houston she doesn’t think she could handle another move. Besides, she’s actually got to know her neighbors much better as they’ve recovered from Harvey together.

“Out of seven houses I only knew one neighbor, and now I know basically all of them,” she says. 

“I was not planning to stay in Houston [in 2012], but I fell in love,” she adds. “It’s my home.”

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