Jim & Melissa Balcom’s Hurricane Harvey Story: A Cautionary Tale

Interview by Bob Rehak

Jim and Melissa Balcom live in a spectacular three-story home built on pylons 12 feet above the ground and 20 feet above the San Jacinto West Fork. Their home fronts on the north bank immediately west of River Grove Park. They named one son River, another Talon (like the eagles that perch outside their windows), and their dog Rio. To say they love the river lifestyle would be an understatement. But they admit it comes with a high level of anxiety. Jim, who is a contractor, built the house himself on property that Melissa’s father owned for decades. Jim wrangled with the City of Houston and FEMA for TWO YEARS over permits. 

Their home now sits about 125 feet from the West Fork. Before Harvey, it was 300 feet. The flood eroded a peninsula and small channel between them and the river. The peninsula used to have a thick stand of trees on it. They’re all gone now. Harvey gave the Balcoms a spectacular view, but it also gave them a constant reminder of the river’s terrifying power.

I interviewed the Balcoms on December 30, 2018, as the river was coming out of its banks for the fifth time last year. 

Permitting Gauntlet and Post-Harvey Repairs

Rehak: You have a beautiful property here. Tell me the history.

Jim: Back in 2007, we started the permitting process through the city and FEMA. We went back and forth with them for two years. They were trying to shut down all building in the floodway and there was a huge lawsuit over it. But since we were in the process before they passed the ordinance about not building in the floodway, they let us finish. But dealing with them was very hard. I always tell people that if you want to buy property out here, you better look into it first. 

It’s very soft sand down here. The engineer told us we would have to go 25 feet down to go 25 feet up with pylons. It’s flooding now at a rate that’s 10 times normal. (Pointing to the rising water) A few more feet and we have to pack our bags and get out of here!

The Encroaching River

Melissa: Before Harvey, there used to be a giant bank of trees just off our property that formed a little canal. You couldn’t even see the river. Harvey took all that out.  

Aerial photo of Balcom property taken two weeks after Harvey.

That peninsula went all the way down to River Grove Park.

Note peninsula along north side of river before Harvey. Now you see it…
After Harvey, now you don’t see it. The peninsula eroded away, leaving the Balcoms almost two hundred feet closer to the river.

Melissa: Now it’s all gone.

Jim: We decided we were going to move in here and we were committed. Our house is all steel framing. We have a hundred yards of concrete in the foundation. The first finished floor is 20 feet above the normal river level, but we still had one foot in the house, which is about where that window ledge is. 

Harvey floodwaters came up more than 20 feet to the bottom of the Balcom’s window ledge.

Pre-Harvey Prep 

Rehak: Tell me about your prep before Harvey. You knew it was coming.

Melissa: We were ready to evacuate. We had our bags packed and were ready to go. We’d put everything up. At 3 a.m., we got a call from a friend in Conroe telling us about the dam release. So, we threw our bags in the truck and rushed over to another friend’s house in Trailwood. Our goal was just to get out. We thought the water would go under the house and everything would be fine. 

That Sinking Feeling

Melissa: But before you knew it, our Trailwood friends were starting to flood.Their house had neverflooded. Then we’re in a panic trying to help them save their house…which is not on stilts. Then we heard that there was water in Kingwood high school and we knew that our house was flooded, because if water got in the high school, it’s high enough to flood us.

Disappearing Neighborhood

Jim: This neighborhood is slowly going away. Pretty soon, it won’t be here. There used to be a hundred homes here. Then it went down to 60 after the ’94 flood. Then 50. Now we’re down to 25. That house on the corner has water in it every time it floods. I don’t even know how they’re surviving. 

Melissa: We moved here because my dad owned the lot for a long time. He’s a CPA by trade and does contracting as a hobby, too, so it was fun to think about building this kind of house. But it took six years to build. Everything took exponentially longer than it would to build a regular house.

Engineering Challenge

Jim: We had to go 25 feet down before we got to any kind of stable ground. The engineer I used was from Galveston. There, they only go 10 feet down. Sometimes less.

He designed an 18-inch solid slab, with three layers of rebar and grade beams around the edge. It all ties into the pylons. We have 4×16 steel beams. It also has an 8-inch thick concrete stairwell in the center. Everything at ground level is designed to let the water flow through, like these louvered shutters.

Rehak: How did you determine the height of the first floor?

Jim: We built this house three feet higher than FEMA required. 

Melissa: It was based on the ‘94 flood. 

Jim: Downstairs, the slab is at 50 feet elevation. 56 is the height of the spillway at the dam. The water elevation is normally at 42.5. Our finished floor was 14 feet above the slab, or 64 feet. We thought we were smart to do that. But still, with all of that, we had a foot of water in the first finished floor. From the ground to where the water came was 15 feet.

So at this spot, the flood reached 65 feet.

A subtle reminder and conversation starter, the Balcoms painted this high water mark next to their front door.

Melissa: The neighbor’s house is set lower than ours. She had eight feet of water in hers. Hers was built 20 years before ours, so FEMA wasn’t requiring what they’re requiring now. 

Rehak: So, they’re not permitting anything down here anymore? 

Jim: After we got our permit, they tried to shut everything down. They let the people who had already applied continue. Then they tried to shut down all floodway permits, but later pulled back on that.

A Home’s Value

Melissa: You may have noticed the for-sale sign down the block. That lot has been for sale the entire time we have lived here. People come out here and they look at it and say, “Wow, look at this. This is really beautiful. It’s great. Then when they go to get the permit, it’s impossible to get because of the location.

Rehak: Is it impossible or just cost prohibitive?

Jim: It took us two years of steady work with the city. Then they said, OK, now you have to get FEMA’s approval. They did everything they could to talk us out of it. It was just one thing after another – endless stuff you had to do. And that was before Harvey when things were flowing better around here. 

Rehak: So, having gone through all that, living in this gorgeous house with this gorgeous view, is it worth it in your opinion? Would you do it all over again?

Melissa: NO!

Rehak: (Laughing) That was pretty quick.

Jim: It’s really scary to think you could lose your home. 

Melissa: We will never be able to sell our house. It’s worth only what its value is to us. We can’t say, “OK, well let’s move.” There’s no way to get out of the house what we put into it. That’s because of Harvey.

Changes in River Behavior

Jim: We don’t know that for sure. I think anywhere on a waterway, you’re at risk. But what’s bad for us at this point is that it keeps flooding and keeps leaving mud in the yard and it didn’t used to do that. We’ve lived here for a long time. Every once in a while, water would come up in the yard, but nothing like it does now.

Rehak: In the eight years before Harvey that you lived here, how often did the water come up?

Melissa: Three times that we had to leave and go stay in a hotel. At 48 feet, the river starts to get in our yard. Anything over 50 feet, that’s when we have to leave to get our stuff out safely. 

Receding floodwater after Harvey

Endless Mud and Dead Trees

Rehak: What was involved in the cleanup?

After Harvey, sediment covered the stairs up to the second floor. Two to three feet covered the ground.

Melissa: After Harvey there were two to three feet of sediment underneath our house. We had to get a bulldozer and push it all over the yard. Harvey destroyed a houseboat and another house just up the canal from us and left debris all over our yard. Then there were all the trees that fell. We had to pick those up, too. 

Jim: We lost several 100-foot pine trees. They’re dying left and right from all the silt that the flood left on top of everything. 

Part of the tree tangle that the Balcoms had to clear from their property after Harvey

Melissa: That was the biggest part of the cleanup. The dirt everywhere. It gets in your house. 

Rehak: How long did it take you to clean up after the flood?

Jim: We’re still cleaning. With this recent flooding, there are so many branches and so much mud, it’s hard to really get it cleaned up completely.

Eagles Outside Your Living Room

Rehak: You said there were eagles living around here. Tell me about that.

Jim: Lately, we’ve had them flying nearby. Two weeks ago, we had two full grown eagles fly into the tree behind the house. White headed. Full grown. We’ve seen them several times. 

Rehak: Are you concerned about the impact of high rises on wildlife?

Soil Like Baby Powder in a Glass of Water

Jim: Yes, but a bigger concern is people’s safety. After spending two years to get a permit for this house, I can’t imagine how they would get a permit for all of that. The river is out of control. The flooding is out of control.  And then to build a road! The soil is so unstable. It’s like if you poured baby powder in a glass of water. If you’re not from around here, you can’t imagine what it’s like.  They would have to put in pylons. It would cost a billion dollars to do that. I can’t imagine how much money that would cost. 

Untamed Nature

Rehak: Still, you chose to live here.

Jim: My son caught a 44-pound catfish right on that bank when he was ten. We have eagles perching outside our living room window.

Pair of adult Bald Eagles perched in tree outside Balcom’s window.

Rehak: You are big nature people. If you take the anxiety of the flooding away, are you still happy you live here?

Melissa: Oh, absolutely.

Jim: We have the most unique house around. In some ways were the lucky ones. But we’re also the unlucky ones, too. In normal conditions, prior to Harvey, the water would get in the yard occasionally. But we never had to evacuate until the Tax-Day flood, the Memorial-Day flood, and Harvey. And those were followed by five more floods this year!

Future of North-Shore Area: Increasing Isolation

Rehak: What do you see as the future down here.

Jim: I feel like eventually were going to be one of the few remaining here.

Rehak: You’re becoming increasingly isolated. Is that good or bad?

Jim: We like the isolation, but I feel that we’re really at risk because of the river. We could lose everything we have.

Visual warning to high-rise developers. Photo taken by Jim Balcom near River Bend during Harvey. Note wet marks on pole. Water was actually several feet higher than shown here.

Melissa: We budgeted for all the trouble. But we have friends in Trailwood and Kingwood Lakes that should have never flooded. That wasn’t supposed to happen to them. So, it was a lot more devastating to them…even though we live right here.

I thank the Balcoms and leave, thinking about the folly of permitting new structures in such a dangerous area, even as the County and City are buying out and tearing down hundreds of homes nearby that were destroyed by repeated flooding. With all the Balcoms did, they still flooded. And Romerica plans to build 5000 condos EIGHT feet LOWER than the level that the Balcoms flooded at.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 3/15/2019

563 Days after Hurricane Harvey