Harvey evacuation. Sally Geiss

Harvey Flood’s Sixth Anniversary Passes Virtually Unnoticed

August 29, 2023 – Six years ago today, thousands of Lake Houston Area residents woke up with water in their bedrooms thanks to Hurricane Harvey and a massive release of 79,000 cubic feet per second from the Lake Conroe Dam.

Harvey was a near week-long event. So it’s hard to pinpoint an exact day for the anniversary. But I chose to start the clock ticking from the day floodwaters arrived at my doorstep – August 29, 2017, 2191 days ago.

will this get any of the $750 million in CDBG-MIT funds from the GLO?
Looking east at West Fork Flooding over Townsen Blvd. during Harvey

Since then, I have investigated why we flooded (beyond the heavy rainfall) and how to prevent similar catastrophes in the future. The causes include:

  1. Unpredictability of storms
  2. Development in risky places
  3. Construction practices
  4. Sand mining
  5. Political complications
  6. Short memories

Let me explain each briefly.

Unpredictability of Storms

The only way to predict the future is by looking at the past. But the future often surprises us. Unfortunately, we base engineering on yesterday’s storms, not tomorrow’s. Engineering bigger safety margins into our flood control systems is too costly. Especially when you try to do it retroactively.

Development in Risky Places

We build too close to rivers. In swamps. Over wetlands. On fault lines. Why? Simple. Money. There’s always an engineer somewhere willing to render a favorable report about the safety of doing so with certain precautions. But again, they are looking at the past, not the future. And they write lengthy reports that defy comprehension by ordinary homebuyers.

The developers and their trade associations also lobby regulators and politicians to keep requirements loose. Every dubious project falls into that gray area called “acceptable risk.” And it can take years or decades to incorporate known flood risks from storms like Harvey into regulations that govern development. That gives everyone with property in risky places plenty of time to develop it.

Clearing for Madera. 2022 photo of development at FM1314 and 242. Parts of development are in 10-year floodplain.

Construction Practices

Why build stormwater detention basins and ditches as big as you should? Why install silt fences? Why plant grass in them to reduce erosion if nobody is inspecting them? All that costs money. But it also sends extra silt downstream. And when the extra water comes on top of it, there’s nowhere for the water to go but into people’s homes.

Eroding ditch in Colony Ridge due to lack of erosion control measures such as backslope interceptor systems and grass.

Sand Mining

To produce marketable sand, mines must wash small particles of clay out of it. Miners then direct the wastewater to settling ponds. But that wastewater builds up. And soon it must be released. Some mines pump it over the sides of dikes. Some just open up their dikes. The result: accelerated deposition of sediment, again blocking rivers and streams.

white water caused by flaunting regulations
Confluence of Spring Creek and West Fork. TCEQ found that Liberty Mines discharged 56 million gallons of white waste water into the West Fork.

The construction of dikes also makes them susceptible to rupture during floods. They are thin, tall, made out of sand, next to rivers, and often unvegetated. Floodwaters can push them in, scoop up silt, and carry it downstream.

Triple PG sand mine draining industrial wastewater into Caney Creek and Lake Houston.

Political Complications

Political leaders deal with dozens of problems a day. A storm like Harvey gets their attention. Six years later, in the middle of a drought, not so much. Flood control spending has dropped precipitously. And what little spending remains has focused on low-to-moderate income areas, not the areas with the most flood damage.

Spending by watershed since 2000
As of end of 2023Q1. Data obtained via FOIA Request.
Based on same data, this shows a totally different rank ordering that ignores impact on communities.

Would it surprise you to learn that halfway through a ten year flood bond, we’ve spent only about 30% of the money? That six years after Harvey, we’re just now seeing the outline of the state’s first flood plan? That sprawling upstream developments pay little attention to sediment control? That many jurisdictions still haven’t adopted minimum drainage regulations?

Short Memories

For the most part, homeowners have restored their property using insurance payments, public assistance, and/or their kids college funds.

Now they want to worry about their kids’ prom dresses, birthday parties, the next vacation and a new car they can’t afford. They just assume that the Flood Bond they approved after Harvey is being spent wisely to protect them. Most don’t even remember what the money was supposed to be spent on.

Photo by Camille Pagel. Her children are helping to gut the kitchen instead of going to school after the Harvey flood.

So it might surprise them to learn that not one capital improvement construction project in the Lake Houston area has yet been approved. It would also surprise them to learn that after spending millions of dollars on studies, their flood risk remains and that the economics of upstream development (see sand mining and construction practices above) continue to increase that risk.

Higher Priorities Replace Flood Mitigation

Now we have crime, election chaos, impeachment spectacles and Trump mug shots to divert our attention. But we will grow weary of these, too. And then the rains will return. People will flood. And we will wonder, “Why didn’t that get fixed?”

Posted by Bob Rehak on August 29, 2023

2191 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.