Royal Pines Floods Neighbor on Less Than 1″ of Rain … AGAIN

On October 28, Royal Pines flooded a neighbor on less than an inch of rain. Two months later, on December 29th, the same thing happened again. The video below provided by the homeowner shows the volume of water funneled across her property by the developer.

Video from NW corner of Royal Pines

This video and the previous one from October demonstrate the dangers of clearcutting and redirecting drainage without first constructing sufficient stormwater detention capacity.

Altering Landscape Accelerates Runoff Toward Homeowner

The homeowner who shot the video lives adjacent to the left border in the photo below. Royal Pines has apparently sloped its property toward that corner where contractors will eventually build a stormwater detention basin.

Looking N across Royal Pines. This and other photos below taken on 1/3/23.

Land now slopes toward where video was filmed at left corner. But that area used to slope in the opposite direction. See details below from the USGS NATIONAL MAP and the developer’s plans.

Green arrow on left shows location of homeowner’s property. Red X within V-shaped contour shows exact location of low point (graph on right) before clearing and grading the land.

There used to be an 8-foot drop east of the homeowner’s property. But now, instead of water flowing directly north to White Oak Creek, it flows northwest.

The general plan for Royal Pines (below) shows the same V-shape in the proposed detention basin (upper left). The line represents the edge of the floodplain and confirms that the developer A) knew about the slope and B) changed it.

Royal Pines
Royal Pines General Plan.

Silt Fence, Trench Ineffective Against That Much Water

The video above and the photos below show that silt fence makes a terrible dam against even small rains funneling toward a point from such a large area.

Exercise in futility. A series of silt fences have done little to catch and slow the water...or the silt. Note erosion deposited in woods.
Looking south. The developer apparently tried to divert runoff racing toward the homeowner with a trench. But erosion from the barren land rapidly filled it in.
Runoff also collects at the entrance to Royal Pines. Looking ENE from the entrance at the northern end of West Lake Houston Parkway.

Unfortunately, the developer plans to build homes there, not another detention basin.

0.88 Inches of Rain Fell in Two Hours

The graph below from the Harris County Flood Warning System shows that .88 inches of rain fell in the two afternoon hours before the homeowner shot the video.

Homeowner shot video after first two bars on left.

The table below shows that that much rain in two hours constitutes less than a 1-year rainfall event.

atlas 14 rainfall probabilities
Atlas 14 rainfall probabilities for this area.

That’s consistent with actual observed events and climate records. According to the National Weather Service, on average, we can expect rainfalls greater than 1 inch 14 times per year in Houston. That’s about once per month.

Woodridge Village Revisited

The Montgomery County Engineer’s Office has reportedly asked the developer’s engineering company to revise its plans. The homeowner says that according to the engineer’s office, not even a 6-7 foot tall berm around that portion of the property would be enough to stop all the water flowing in that direction.

So, what lessons can we learn from this example? As with Woodridge Village, don’t clear and grade this much land before constructing detention basins!

The first sentence of Section 11.086 of the Texas Water Code states that “No person may divert … the natural flow of surface waters in the state, or permit a diversion … to continue, in a manner that damages the property of another…”

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/13/2023

1963 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.

Some Still Deal with PTSD, Five Years after Harvey

Five years after Harvey, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) still haunts many of the victims. Readers have written me about how hard they find it to shake painful memories.

  • Some complain about periodic flashbacks, often related to a trigger event, such as looking at a photo of a cherished possession they lost in the flood.
  • Others still panic in thunderstorms or can’t sleep when it rains.
  • Many feel rising anxiety as they track each new storm crossing the Atlantic.
  • Dozens feel anger at or get depressed by the slow pace of mitigation.
  • Two even told me recently that they may move away. Recovery after Harvey was so traumatic that they “can no longer live with the risk of flooding again” as one succinctly phrased it.

Recurring, Unwanted, Intrusive Thoughts

These different reactions represent a spectrum that most likely reflects a blend of the individuals’ experiences and tolerance for risk. The thing they all have in common: recurring, unwanted, intrusive thoughts that they find disturbing or disruptive.

Even though PTSD symptoms may not be as strong or as frequent as they were immediately after the storm, some still find them hard to shake and difficult to handle.

The Professionals’ Perspective

So, I contacted two local, highly respected therapists, Janice Costa LPC, LMFT, and Joni Adams M.A., LPC-S, to learn more.

Both said that they rarely see clients with Harvey trauma as their main complaint these days. But Harvey does often come up when dealing with clients’ other concerns.

Said Costa, “Things pile up. It wasn’t just the flood. It often relates to dealing with the aftermath.”

Chain-Reaction Traumas

That fits with what people have told me. One trauma piles on top of another. At first, it might have been throwing out treasured family heirlooms, such as a grand piano. Seeing belongings piled at the curb. Losing privacy as strangers gutted your home. Dealing with absentee contractors. Living in travel trailers for 18 months. Applying for financial aid. Waiting years for a check, then being denied. Depleting savings or cashing in their kids’ college funds to pay for repairs. Living with the consequences of that as kids apply to colleges. Losing a lifestyle once loved and friends cherished.

We’ve all heard similar stories.

The trauma caused by a storm like Harvey can have extensive and long-lasting consequences. Like a series of dominos, one thing leads to another, triggering recurrent and unwanted thoughts of the original event.

Said Costa, “They’re still trying to process one trauma, when something new happens. It’s like the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Trigger Events

Without revealing any patient information, both Adams and Costa talked about things that trigger flashbacks.

Said Adams, “Many people find that anniversary dates of trauma events are triggers. So are stimuli similar to the client’s experience (such as heavy rain, street flooding, weather notifications, or storms in the Gulf).”  

Costa mentioned that sometimes the traumas can be unrelated or only loosely related. For instance, one reader told me about the death of a parent. The parent had taken in her daughter’s family after the storm. At the parent’s funeral, the memories of Harvey, mixed with grief, became overpowering for the daughter.

Blended Traumas

Adams echoed Costa’s observations. “Although clients may not present with Harvey complaints as their primary reason for entering therapy today, it likely still affects some. Some already had a trauma history when Harvey hit. Then they experienced more trauma in the years following. Harvey gets blended into the client’s internal reality as opposed to being seen as an isolated trauma event that happened five years ago.”

“Because of my son’s allergies, we couldn’t move back in until all the drywall repairs were finished.”

“For some clients, the correlation between Harvey and current PTSD symptoms may be clearly identifiable,” said Adams. But in others it may be hard to link symptoms directly to Harvey alone.

The woman who owned the house above, for instance, was struggling with the aftermath of a divorce and her son’s medical issues when Harvey struck. She told me with a tear in her eye, “I can’t do this anymore.” Her parting gift to Houston was emotional testimony to the SJRA board about her experience. During her talk, she broke down crying; so did some in the audience. Shortly after that, she moved closer to family in another state.

Progression of PTSD

Said Costa, “After Harvey there were people who had symptoms of PTSD within a few weeks. Some took much longer to show symptoms. Not everyone who flooded got PTSD. 

“With the flood many people dealt with multiple traumas. PTSD can often be dealt with within six months, but in some people it can become chronic and last for years. There definitely are people still suffering from PTSD caused by the flood.” 

Costa also talked about how PTSD might manifest itself in people’s lives today. It varies from client to client. “Intrusive thoughts about what they went through, avoidance of external reminders, negative changes in thoughts and mood, and changes in reactivity are all recognized symptoms. People may still be having nightmares, sleep disturbances, intrusive thoughts, inability to concentrate, and more anxiety than in the past.”

“Some feel like their brains are stuck in danger mode.”

Janice Costa, LPC, LMFT

Costa also talked about children and people in their seventies. “Children who have PTSD,” she said, “may be emotionally numb for a period, or have depression and/or anxiety.”

“I also see people in their seventies with these negative flashbacks,” she added. “They can crop up after being dormant for years.” When I asked about why, she theorized that it might relate to the extra time that people in retirement have to ponder life. She observed, “They aren’t consumed by the obligations of work and raising kids.”

EMDR Therapy

Many people who experience fears, anxiety, or sleep problems may not realize that therapy could help. Both Adams and Costa mentioned the success they have had with EMDR therapy. People continuing to struggle may wish to explore the EMDR International Association site. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

The Association says, “EMDR is a structured therapy that encourages the patient to briefly focus on the trauma memory while simultaneously experiencing bilateral stimulation (typically eye movement), which is associated with a reduction in the vividness and emotion associated with the trauma memories.”

Therapists use EMDR to help people recover primarily from trauma and PTSD symptoms. However, therapists also use it to treat symptoms of anxiety, depression, OCD, chronic pain, addictions, and other distressing life experiences.

Other therapies sometimes used include Trauma Resolution Therapy and Desensitization Therapy.

If you still experience PTSD symptoms, you may want to explore one of these alternatives. The memory of Harvey may never go away. So, it’s best to learn how to live with it. It could become burned into our collective consciousness under the heading of History. After all, we still talk about the Galveston hurricane of 1900!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 8/27/22

1824 Days (Five Years) since Hurricane Harvey

Hurricane Records

Today, I discovered a fascinating 49-page document produced by the National Weather Service, the National Hurricane Center, NOAA and the National Climatic Data Center. It contains hurricane records going back to 1851. It covers the deadliest, costliest and most intense U.S. tropical cyclones and other frequently requested facts. Unfortunately, it only goes through 2010. But the wealth of information on the period it covers more than makes up for that.

Like the Baseball Encyclopedia for Weather Geeks

It’s like the Baseball Encyclopedia for tropical storms…a must read for weather geeks and anyone who wants to impress out-of-town friends. Texas plays a prominent role in this chronicle.

From Page 8. Mainland United States tropical cyclones causing 25 or more deaths, 1851-2010. The black numbers are the ranks of a given storm on Table 2 (e.g. 1 is the deadliest all-time – the Galveston Hurricane of 1900). The colors are the intensity of the tropical cyclone at its maximum impact on the United States.

A look at the lists reveals striking facts. For instance:

  • Fourteen out of the fifteen deadliest hurricanes ranked Category 3 or higher intensity
  • Large death tolls resulted largely from storm surge 10 feet or higher
  • A large portion of the damage in some of the costliest storms resulted from inland floods caused by torrential rains
  • One third of the 30 deadliest hurricanes ranked category 4 or higher
  • Only seven of the 30 deadliest hurricanes occurred between 1985 and 2010 while more than two thirds of the costliest hurricanes occurred during the same period.

A Look Behind the Facts

All costs are adjusted for inflation, so that’s not the major issue. Migration is. 1990 Census data showed that 85% of U.S. coastal residents from Texas to Maine had never experienced a direct hit by a major hurricane. But we have more risk now because more than 50 million people have moved to coastal areas since then.

The study warns, “If warnings are heeded and preparedness plans developed, the death toll can be minimized. However, large property losses are inevitable in the absence of a significant change of attitude, policy, or laws governing building practices (codes and location) near the ocean.”

Filled with Tables, Maps and Insight

One of the most interesting features: maps that show the tracks of record setting storms during the entire period and during each decade.

Amaze your friends with trivia, such as:

  1. Average number of tropical cyclones per year AND how it has varied in different periods.
  2. Years with the most and least hurricanes and landfalls.
  3. Earliest and latest hurricane formations (hint: March 7 and December 31).
  4. Longest- and shortest-lived hurricanes.
  5. Lowest pressure in the Atlantic basin.
  6. Most hurricanes occurring in Atlantic basin at one time.
  7. Number of hurricanes in each month.
  8. Hurricane strikes of various categories by state.
  9. When hurricanes are most likely to strike different areas.
  10. Average return periods for hurricanes in different areas.
  11. Hurricane landfall CYCLES.

That last one really caught my eye.

Hurricanes tend to cluster in certain areas during certain decades!

Biggest Lesson Learned

The study concludes with another warning. “The largest loss of life can occur in the storm surge, so coastal residents should prepare to move away from the water until the hurricane has passed! Unless this message is clearly understood by coastal residents through a thorough and continuing preparedness effort, a future disastrous loss of life is inevitable.”

To read the full study, click here.

This is a genuine work of scholarship dished up in a way that makes it accessible to the general public. That takes some talent! Credits go to Eric Blake and Christopher Landsea of the NHC, and Ethan Gibney of the National Climatic Data Center.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 7/8/22 based on a study by NOAA, NWS and NCDC

1774 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Harvey Victim Denied Aid for Not Communicating After Contacting City 17 Times

Bureaucracies never make mistakes; they just defend them.

A Harvey flood victim was denied aid because, the city says, she didn’t respond to the Houston Housing and Community Development Department’s (HCDD) invitation to submit an application on May 14, 2020. However, the invitation got lost in the victim’s email and she didn’t learn of it until September 7, 2021, when the City first mentioned it in a denial of her second appeal.

Between those two dates, Jennifer Coulter, the victim, contacted the City 17 times to ask if she could file an application.

In every call, no HCDD employee ever told her that she was eligible to apply. In fact, they told her the opposite – that they hadn’t gotten to her “Priority Group” yet. After misleading her, when New Year’s Eve came and went last year, the Harvey Reimbursement Program expired, and Coulter was out. Despite multiple requests to clarify her status and two appeals , HCDD denied aid to Coulter for not communicating with them.

Meticulous Records Read Like Horror Movie Script

Fortunately, Coulter kept meticulous records of her calls, emails and attempts to contact HCDD. Reading her log is like a horror movie.

Many others, who were denied aid, experienced variations of her problems. For instance, after two years of being kept in the dark about whether he could submit an application, HCDD notified one man that he could apply just hours before the program expired on New Year’s Eve. HCDD told him that he needed to submit his application by 5PM or lose eligibility. Unfortunately, he was visiting out-of-town relatives and didn’t have access to required documents.

Chronic bad planning, mismanagement, disorganization, understaffing, miscommunication and poor record-keeping at HCDD created a malignant and crippled aid-distribution system after Harvey.

In Coulter’s case and many others, HCDD problems victimized flood victims a second time.

Coulter
Coulter home after Harvey. The family lived in a travel trailer in their driveway for a year with two adults, two kids, two cats and one dog, while they made repairs with money in their 401Ks and kids’ college funds.

Organizational Travesty Compounded Natural Tragedy

I would say Coulter’s case is one of the saddest stories to come out of Harvey…if so many others hadn’t been denied aid for similar reasons.

A 2019 HUD audit of HCDD found in part that “Staff members worked independently and did not communicate with each other re: applications.” Coulter’s call log vividly brings to life the chaos that flood victims were forced to deal with as they struggled to find assistance from the City.

Of the tens of thousands of homes damaged in Harvey, Houston managed to reimburse only 120 families a mere $2,024,000 out of the $164 million allocated by HUD – just 1.2% of available funds. Those figures were as of December 31, 2020. The City’s 10/31/2021 pipeline report shows that HCDD has manage to reimburse another 22 families that managed to squeeze in under the Reimbursement Program deadline.

Audits 2 Years Apart Show Similar Organizational Problems

After Harvey, the City of Houston lobbied the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for approximately $1.3 billion to aid Harvey victims, such as Coulter. But a subsequent 2019 HUD audit showed HCDD was unprepared to manage the money, the caseload or the approval process.

Despite assistance and training by the Texas General Land Office (GLO), which manages disaster relief for HUD in Texas, Houston never got its disaster relief programs in gear. A second audit by GLO released last Wednesday arrived at conclusions similar to HUD’s.

While interference by the Mayor in HCDD operations has drawn headlines, Coulter’s case and thousands of others remain footnotes in this tragedy.

City’s Needlessly Complex Two-Step Application Dooms Program

Among the problems: HCDD set up a needlessly complex application process involving two steps. Victims had to “apply to apply” by filling out an online survey. Based on survey answers, HCDD placed victims in one of six “priority groups.” Group 1 represented highest priority flood victims and 6 the lowest.

HUD and the GLO warned Houston about the two-step application process even before it started. They told Houston it was too complex and would cause delays. They recommended that the City have everyone submit full applications and then sort through them to find enough qualified applicants to match the amount of aid available.

That way, everyone would have had a fair chance to meet the deadlines involved. Delays and miscommunication would not have been a factor. HCDD’s repair program expired last December 31st at 5PM with only a small fraction of the aid distributed.

HCDD initially told Coulter that she was in Group 6, the lowest priority. But on May 14, 2020, HCDD sent her an invitation to submit a full application. The invitation got lost in her email. And Coulter continued to call the City for the remainder of the year. Each time she would ask if she could submit an application and each time she was told, “Not yet,” despite already having been invited.

GLO Help Rebuffed by City

GLO attempted to help HCDD, but was rebuffed and actually barred from HCDD offices at one point. When HCDD continued to miss interim deadlines for the dispersal of aid, GLO even attempted to take over the repair program. But Houston sued GLO to retain it. Ultimately, the repair program expired with only a tiny fraction of the funds dispersed and with thousands of flood victims left empty handed.

Even though Coulter called HCDD dozens of times to clarify her status, in 15 months, nobody at HCDD ever told her over the phone to check her email or that she could apply. That’s how bad HCDD’s record-keeping, database systems, and internal communications were!

Sadly, we’ve come to expect and accept stories like this from the City of Houston. HUD and GLO audits repeatedly showed problems in HCDD.

After Reimbursement Program Expired, Mayor Claims Commitment to Improvement

The mayor’s response, after the latest audit and after the program expired, was in essence, “We’ll look into it and fix it if we find problems.” His press release about the latest audit concluded, “The City is committed, as it always has been, to transparency and improving its Housing processes.”

Admittedly, the Reimbursement Program that Coulter applied to is just one of many HCDD programs.

But for the Jennifer Coulters of the world, it’s too late. The HUD money will likely go unused and return to Washington for future grants that may give other victims false hope.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/27/2021

1551 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.

MoCo Couple That Flooded 13 Times in 11 Years Finally Gets a Buyout

I first interviewed Tammy Gunnels and her husband Ronnie almost three years ago. They had flooded ten times at that point even though they weren’t in a flood zone. The Gunnels are devout people and prayed for a buyout. Friday, their prayers were answered. Here is the story of how their faith and persistence paid off in the long run. This interview also included Morgan Lumbley, the Disaster Recovery Manager for Montgomery County who guided the Gunnels through the application process. Ironically, the skies unleashed torrential rains just before the closing. But this time, everyone was smiling instead of worrying.

Ronnie Gunnels (left), Morgan Lumbley (middle), Tammy Gunnels (right) at Chicago Title in Montgomery for closing.

Early Frustration

Bob: You flooded 13 times in 11 years. Tell me how you finally got the buyout offer. 

Tammy: After Harvey, one of my cleaning clients who’s an attorney vowed to find a way to get us a buyout. She put me in touch with the Office of Emergency Management for Montgomery County. Initially, they told me there were no open programs available.

Tammy: That was in 2017. Then in May of 2019, we flooded twice – on May 3rd and again on May 7th. Once more, I contacted their office and went to commissioners meetings, begging for a buyout. But nothing happened. After we flooded a third time that year during Imelda, I called their office just to scream and holler and cry into the phone. But this time, Morgan answered. I told her our story and by the end of the conversation, she was crying and promising that she was going to do everything she could.

Patience Finally Pays Off

Bob: And she wrote a beautiful note.

Tammy: She put it on her computer where it stayed until today. It says, “No one before Miss Tammy. Number one priority.” Later, she called back and said, “Look, I’ve found a couple programs. Which do you want to go with?” I said, “I don’t care. The quickest. Just get us out of this house.” 

When Morgan Lumbley came to the Gunnels’ closing today, she brought the note she wrote during her first phone call with them.

Initially, we thought the buyout was going to be done in early 2020. But it kept dragging out. Red tape. Then COVID hit. That changed everything. I would email Morgan nights, weekends, whenever it rained, asking “When?” But never once did she get irritated or say, “I’m doing the best I can.” 

All throughout biblical scripture, it says we do not understand His ways or His timing or His plans. If we had been bought out before now, no way would we have gotten the offer we got. 

We got full current market value. We hoped the county would pay off the mortgage, which was about $60,000 but FEMA covered full market value…$250,000.

Bob: How did you find these programs, Morgan?

FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Program

Morgan: There are a couple funding programs for buyouts. The one we got the Gunnels in is FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance Program. It is a “cycle funding” opportunity – available every year. But it’s a competitive grant. So, we have to fill out an application that names the homes you want to buy out – and their values – on the front end. The county collected data for “severe repetitive loss” homes. And when we won the grant, those were the people who got offers.

But buyouts are probably the slowest of all the mitigation processes. So, sometimes  people drop out before deals close. And when they do, that opens up room for others. 

Bob: Is that how Tammy and Ronnie got in?

Morgan: Yes. Tammy and Ronnie could also have qualified through a HUD program, but we focused on FEMA’s, because they had a current National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) policy. It was also based on their flood losses. They were considered a “severe repetitive loss.”

Active Flood Insurance Key to Buyout

Not counting our own personal funds, NFIP spent three quarters of a million on that property. They could have bought us out five times. 

Tammy Gunnels

Tammy: People said we should just walk away. But we literally had no place to go. When you flood, yeah, you get insurance. But the lien holder on your home gets the money. The lien holder releases it in increments so that you make the repairs. And they inspect the repairs before releasing the next payment. There IS no walking away. Most people don’t understand that. You don’t have money to go anywhere.

We had already drained Ronnie’s 401K and every bit of savings we had. We’re at the age that we’re supposed to be looking forward to retirement. But we don’t. I have nothing left from my kids from when they were growing up. The childhood memories – all those silly little pictures they make for you in birthday cards – I have none of that left. The floods took everything. This has aged us physically and mentally by years.

Ronnie and Tammy as they sign the last of the closing papers.

Ronnie: When we first got insurance, it was fairly cheap and then once we flooded, it skyrocketed. We were just going to handle the losses ourselves. But our neighbor said, “If you’re not insured, you can’t be on any buyout list. That woke us up. We said, “We’ve got to get back on insurance.”

The 13th Time is the Charm

Bob: So Morgan, put this in perspective for me. Flooding 13 times. Where does that rank?

Morgan: 13 is a lot.

Bob: Is it a record?

Morgan: Of those that have come across my desk, it definitely is! Five or six is pretty common, maybe even seven. But 13 is a lot. I think that’s what got me the most. To hear that someone has flooded that many times! 

Tammy: Morgan says she’s the low person on the totem pole, but she’s on a throne in my heart forever.

Home Will Be Demolished and Lot Turned to Green Space

Bob: What will Montgomery County do with the home you just bought?

Morgan: Demolish it. The land will be regraded and then it becomes green space to restore the natural flood function. Nothing else. Another residential structure cannot be built on that land. 

“I just want to be a normal person again!”

Bob: Tammy, where do you go with your life from here? 

Tammy: I don’t think we’ve even thought about it. For the last 13 years, we haven’t been able to plan anything.

Ronnie: We’re just hoping we don’t freak out every time it rains.

Tammy: I just want to go to sleep at night without pacing the floor, wondering when the next flood will hit, and whether the water will come in through the front door, the back door or the patio. I just want to be a normal person again.

Advice for Home Buyers: Research, Ask Right Questions

Bob: What advice would you give people looking for a home to buy?

Morgan: Research! Research is the biggest thing. Diligent research. Too many people take information at face value. They look at the seller’s disclosure. And it asks, “Has the home flooded?” But it doesn’t say when. And it doesn’t say how many times. And no one has to tell you that. Also, the damage amount is not indicated anywhere. And no one has to disclose that either.

If you’re looking at a house, go over to the neighbors. Knock on doors and ask, “Did you flood? Do you know if that house flooded? How high did the water get in your yard? Those are questions that you want to ask.

Ronnie: I’m guilty. I didn’t ask the right questions.

Morgan: A lot of people, when they go looking for their forever home, they’re looking at granite countertops. Is the backyard big enough for the kids? But the questions they really need to ask are, “Am I near a flood plain? Has this house been flooded? How many times? How high? Those kinds of things.”

Tammy: She is exactly right. EXACTLY.

Posted by Bob Rehak on October 1, 2021, based on an interview with Tammy and Ronnie Gunnels, and Morgan Lumbley

1494 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Day of Terror Relived: Sally Geis’ Harvey Evacuation Story

In August 2017, Sally Geis and her husband JG watched as Harvey’s floodwaters crept over the San Jacinto West Fork river bank. They thought they would be safe. But soon rising water turned to raging water. As they moved upstairs, they took a hatchet. JG said it was to kill snakes that got in the house. But Sally wondered if it was to chop a hole in their roof in case they needed an escape hatch.

I’ve known Sally and JG for almost three years. They first contacted me in regard to development practices in floodplains and floodways. But it wasn’t until today, that Sally sent me pictures from Harvey showing her harrowing escape. Rick Alspaugh’s comment about PTSD in yesterday’s post caused her to review her pictures from Harvey and share them. Like Rick, she has a hard time overcoming the memories of what for some neighbors turned into a fatal experience.

Photographing the River’s Rise During Four Days

Sally’s rediscovered cache of photos creates a valuable addition to our understanding of how Harvey’s floodwaters rose and spread in the Kingwood area.

Before Waters Rose
West Lake Houston Parkway Bridge over West Fork San Jacinto before the flood. August 25th, 2017, 11:09 a.m.
Waters Begin to Rise
August 27th, 2017 at 7:17 a.m. Note how much closer the level of the water is to the bridge and how part of the boat dock is under water.
River Fully Out of its Banks
August 28, 2017 at 10:44 p.m. Boat dock is completely under water. Street signs visible in earlier photos are almost completely submerged.

Serious Trouble

August 29, 2017 at 8:35 a.m. Street signs are under water but top parts of light poles are still visible. Note bridge on far right. Water almost touches bridge in center. But at far end on Atascocita side, the road bed is tangent with the river. All surface features in foreground are submerged.

River Rescue

Soon a boat was the only way out…a boat which snatched them from the second story of their home.

Said Sally, “The current was very fierce — he really knew what he was doing!! We could touch the tree tops and the street name signs overhead!”

Geis rescue during Harvey. Two men from Paris, TX drove 6 hours with their boat to help. Sally said they had to rev their engine up to full speed to fight the cross current. Notice the churning waves among the trees in the background as they make their way north on West Lake Houston Parkway to the drop off point. August 29, 2017 at 6:55 P.M.

The picture above was taken north of Kingwood Drive almost two miles from the main channel of the West Fork. Yet look at that turbulence in the water. Normally, a point this far from a river would be designated as “floodplain storage.” Normally, that would mean placid waters, the opposite of what you see.

Eventually, the rescue boat dropped Sally and JG off at Wendy’s on West Lake Houston Parkway at Rustic Woods, several blocks north of where the photo above was taken. From there to the water’s edge on the south side of the West Fork is approximately 2 miles…wider than the widest part of Lake Houston itself – just upstream from the spillway – during normal times.

Eventually the river became wider than Lake Houston normally is.

From Wendy’s, a car ferried Sally and JG to a volunteer’s home where they slept the next night.

Day After Explorations

The following day, they explored the area on foot, still in shock, surveying all the damage. Water remained high in many places. Rescue operations continued.

At Woodland Hills and Tangle Lake, rescue efforts continued. August 30, 11:26 AM.
Shady Run at Kingwood Drive. Water normally flows from left to right here. But note how the trees appear to have been pushed from right to left. August 30, 2017 at noon.
At the same intersection, water reached halfway up street signs. August 30, 2017, 12:07 PM

Revisiting the Escape Route Days Later

“We went OVER this bridge in the boat!!” said Sally Geis.

West Lake Houston Bridge over Bens Branch after water receded. Photo taken 9/1/2017. Geis says her rescue boat went OVER, NOT UNDER THESE BRIDGES.

According to Geis, on the way out, rescue-boat propellers kept striking submerged cars, nearly capsizing boats on more than one occasion.

Photo taken 9/1/2017 after water receded. Car destroyed by propeller of rescue boat was totally submerged when struck. Side window was likely blown out by water pressure.

“A lot of boats were hitting submerged signs, cars, heavy things — they had no idea what was underwater. One boat hit a car, began to sink and nearly capsized. Thankfully it didn’t. A lady onboard could not swim. The water was over our heads and the current was scary and swift, plus contaminated. I heard there were 500 rescue boats in all — including the Cajun Navy, helicopters, jet skis,” said Geis.

After Shocks

Sally and JG lost their vehicles in the flood. And like so many others, they lost all the belongings on the lower floor of their home. Here is a short video of a scene they filmed on a walkabout after Harvey’s floodwater’s receded.

Video of Harvey Debris in Kingwood, TX by Sally Geis. Shot September 3, 2017, at 5:29 PM.

Sally’s brother later picked the couple up when the water receded and took them to a friend’s home. The friend was on vacation, so they got to rest up for five days before facing the destruction.

Says Sally, “Those images of every street lined with trash – of complete households hauled to the curb – for months on end added to the depression and PTSD.”

Geis and her husband spent the next two years restoring their home.

After fighting developers who wanted to build in the floodway of the West Fork, they finally sold their home earlier this year. They now live in a high rise downtown.

Sally says, “People who have never been through an experience like this have no idea how real the PTSD can be. It can take over your life.”

Posted by Bob Rehak on September 16, 2021, based on the photos and memories of Sally Geis

1479 Days since Hurricane Harvey


The Long Road to Recovery: Rick Alspaugh’s Harvey Story

Four years after Harvey, the storm’s effects are still visible at Alspaugh’s Hardware Store in Kingwood’s Town Center. To this day, Rick Alspaugh struggles to balance inventory with service, the thing that made his business formula unique. This is the story of how Harvey affected him, his business, his customers and 60 employees.

Bob: Your family’s first hardware store in Kingwood was up near the front. When did you move to Town Center?

Rick: We bought our property from Friendswood in 1993 and opened our store in ‘94.

Rick Alspaugh (center), wife KellyAnnette (right) and manager Dallas Behman (left)

27 Years of Success Based on Unique Formula

Bob: You’ve been there 27 years! Did the entry of Lowe’s into the market affect your business?

Rick: Not really. They don’t do what we do.

Bob: How would you characterize that?

Rick: They have great inventories. But we have people who can walk you through a project. We were the go-to place for service. People don’t come here for lumber, tile, sinks and carpet. They come for parts, paint, smaller things. And we have this amazing boutique with unique things that nobody else carries. With goods at all price levels. Plus free gift-wrapping. You can’t get that anywhere else in the city. 

Back before Harvey, we also had a huge selection of barbecue equipment. We’re struggling right now, but God’s going to get us through it. 

Bob: Let’s go back to Hurricane Harvey. 

3.5 Feet of Water in 16,000 SF Store, But No Flood Insurance

Rick: August 28th 2017. I’ll never forget it. Everything went underwater. Deep under water – three and a half feet.

Alspaugh’s during Harvey

We lost twenty-seven computers. They were all on desktops, but that wasn’t high enough.

The height of Harvey’s floodwaters meant Alspaugh lost 27 computers sitting on desktops – all but one in the paint department.

Bob: Were you insured for that?

Rick: Not a bit.

Bob: (shocked) You didn’t have flood insurance?!

Rick: About a month before Harvey, my insurance agent came in. We talked about how we had grown and increased my coverage. Then Harvey hit. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

60 Employees Help Jumpstart Business

Rick: At the time, I had about 60 employees. The day after Harvey, everyone showed up and started cleaning. It was amazing, Bob. They rebuilt the store. It was unreal. It was just… We came together!

Within three days, we were able to open by working out of trailers and a cargo container outside with one surviving computer from the paint department. We ran wires out there. And we re-opened out of that container.

I ordered about $400,000 worth of stuff that people would need for cleanup.

“I Just Assumed I Had Flood Insurance”

Rick: In the flood, we also lost three trucks. A generator. And our forklifts. I used up all my cash reserves to get going again and keep people working. So, I called my agent to make some insurance claims and he says, “For what?” 

“We flooded in Harvey! This was a total loss,” I said.

Alspaugh tossed his entire inventory, fearing contamination from a sewage treatment plant just upstream.

He goes, “You’re not covered for rising water. You don’t have flood insurance.”

My agent never once asked me if I wanted flood insurance. And I never asked if I had it. I just…assumed. I assumed I had it. 

Luckily, the three trucks were covered under our automotive policy. So, I got money for them. But it was not enough to replace them.

Bob: How long did it take to reopen? 

Doing Business Outside While Rebuilding Inside

Rick: By September 1st, we were selling outside. But for all of September and October, and most of November, we were rebuilding the inside.

At lunch, our barbecue vendor came in to cook for us. We would pressure wash the tables, turn a bunch of buckets upside down, sit, pray, and eat. That really brought us together. 

Before the store was even cleaned out, I targeted reopening inside for the Saturday before Thanksgiving. Everyone just looked at me with giant eyes. But by God, we got to work. And we made it happen. 

Bob: Were there any setbacks? 

Rick: We received three 18 wheelers of shelving…in the wrong order. We needed uprights first. But they came on the last truck…a week late. So, we literally lost a week of assembly. But we were back in the store by Monday before Thanksgiving.

Bob: Wow.

Rick: In about eight weeks, we completely redid the store. But that was eight hours a day for 60 people.

Starting over from the ground up

$3.2 Million in Flood Losses

Bob: How much did you lose in Harvey?

Rick: $3.2 million dollars. We lost the entire inventory. We trashed it all because I was concerned about contamination. It was nasty. We’re less than a quarter of a mile downriver from Kingwood’s main sewage treatment plant. We just had to trash everything.

Store interior after floodwater receded. Note water line on standing cardboard cartons.

But when we reopened, everything was 100 percent clean. Brand new. We threw out everything touched by Harvey. Four trailer loads of barbecue pits were crushed and hauled straight to the scrap yard. 

Even the barbecues, his signature product line, went to the dump.

Bob: I had no idea. Did any of the newspapers write that story?

Rick: No. I never felt I was special to where I needed to talk about it. All the people around me suffered similar losses. The jewelry store. The photofinisher. The barbershop. The cupcake guy. Everybody in Town Center lost everything. 

Bob: Did you ever think the water would get this high?

Rick: I knew it could reach Town Center because of the 1994 flood. So, during Harvey, we tried to raise everything up about a foot. But I never thought three and a half feet!

If you had three and a half feet of snow, it would melt by next week and it would be business as usual. But when you have three and a half feet of water in your store…well, here I am talking about the recovery four years later.

Plagued by PTSD

Bob: How has this affected you personally?

Rick: People don’t realize how real PTSD is. I have my eye on the Weather Channel all the time now.

Bob: Do you have flood insurance now?

Rick: Yes, sir. And I’ve got a different insurance agent, too.

Business Since Harvey

Bob: So, you lost $3.2 million worth of inventory and computers. You had to start over. Without help from insurance. How has Harvey affected your business since then?

Rick: Harvey not only destroyed our store, it wiped out 3000 homes within a nine-iron shot of here. This entire neighborhood…gone. Customers didn’t need most of what I had at that point. They needed major remodel stuff: carpet, tile, wallboard, like that. They needed contractors, not light switches. Plus, they didn’t have flood insurance and had to bear the cost of recovery out of pocket. 

We have problems. But not like most people. We’re not on the way to M.D. Anderson. Having burned through my own savings, I just don’t have enough money to offer the kind of service people came to expect.

Government Grants Slow in Coming

Bob: What comes next?

Rick: We’re poised to recover. I just need inventory. We filed for some Harvey help.

I got some tax relief, which was very nice. An SBA loan which we’re paying back. The Humble Chamber helped us, which was a huge blessing. 

Congress appropriated $100 million to small businesses for Harvey grants. But they take forever. Worse, they had $250 million worth of need.

Luckily, friends in the community stepped up to help fill that gap. That’s why we are here today. I’m not begging friends anymore. I’m just not. But I would like to get some of this Harvey aid. I certainly qualify.

Banking on Community Spirit

Bob: So where do you go from here?

Rick: We’re here every day. The lights are on. And we still have stuff to sell. Just not as much as we used to.

Bob: You know, I can’t imagine cooking barbeque without your store.

Rick: Thank you.

Bob: I see Alspaugh’s as a central location for community spirit.

Rick: It used to be. And it can be again. There’s not a whole lot that we can’t do as a community.

Posted by Bob Rehak on September 15, 2021 based on an interview with Rick Alspaugh

1478 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Family Trapped For Three Days As Floodwaters Ripped Through Sand Mine, Then Under Their Home

Yesterday, I wrote how the San Jacinto East Fork seemed to have re-routed itself through an abandoned sand mine. This morning I got a call from a couple who live near the mine. The woman and her husband had been trapped in their home for three days by the river which is now – incredibly – running right beneath their home. As of 5 p.m. Tuesday, floodwaters subsided enough for them to boat to safety. But their story is a gripping lesson in how quickly life can change.

Dream Turned into Nightmare

Jack Arnold bought 25 acres in the country back in 2002 to have a retreat from the noise of the city. He works in structural steel and quiet Plum Grove in Liberty County seemed like the perfect place to unwind. He and his sons built a home in 2011 on steel poles 21 feet in the air about 400 feet east of the San Jacinto East Fork.

The spot Arnold cleared for his home in 2011, east of the East Fork San Jacinto which runs through the woods to the left of the red box.

Then three things happened.

  • In 2012, a sand mine started up about 1100 feet south of him.
  • Later that year, Colony Ridge started building northeast of him.
  • His ex-wife sold 16.5 acres of their property to the sand mine, which then expanded around him.

It didn’t take long for Arnold’s flooding woes to start.

Sand Mine and Colony Ridge Permanently Alter Hydrology of Area

Here’s what the surrounding area looks like today.

Arnold’s home is partially surrounded by a sand mine (white box) on three sides. And the first two Colony Ridge subdivisions are dumping water into the East Fork upstream of him with fewer detention ponds than they likely should have to meet Liberty County regulations.
FEMA’s National Flood Hazard Layer Viewer shows that the sand mine’s dikes have constricted the East Fork floodway (cross-hatched area) about 90%. This puts tremendous pressure on the mine’s dikes as water tries to squeeze through a fraction of the space. That also increases erosion which further breaks down the dikes. The constrictions could be one reason why the river rose 10 feet in 24 hours at this location.

Arnold says his property never flooded in the first five years he lived there. Then in 2015, as Colony Ridge and the sand mine expanded around him, he started flooding regularly. Last Sunday, the water started rising again. This time, it was from an 8-inch rain that areas upstream received. Plum Grove itself received only a little more than 3 inches. Harris County’s meteorologist characterized the 8-inch rain, which fell over a two-day period, as a ten-year rain.

Near Death Experience, Not to Mention…

As floodwater rose around the Arnolds last Sunday morning, they had a hard time understanding why. But it kept coming up and up. Three days later, it’s still four-feet deep (waist high) under their house and moving so fast it could knock strong men over.

Arnold nearly died in a previous flood event when he was swept away. He clung to a tree for two hours until his second wife and stepdaughter rescued him. Then all three had to be rescued by the game warden three days later. Now, Arnold takes no chances. He and his wife have been holed up alone for three days waiting for the water to go down. They each have missed two days of work so far this week, because they couldn’t reach their cars which they parked on higher ground.

Altogether, they have lost nine vehicles, two campers, and a boat since the flooding started. Another reason they were reluctant to leave their home despite being trapped: looters stole all their valuables after they evacuated during a previous flood.

Begging For a Buyout that Hasn’t Yet Come As Flooding Gets Worse

The Arnolds don’t want to move; after all, Arnold built the home with his own hands. But he and his wife just can’t take any more flooding. Now, they just want out. They’re begging for a buyout that hasn’t yet come.

And their flood woes will likely not change. Colony Ridge built the subdivisions north of them using dubious engineering reports that classified the soils as more permeable than the USDA did. That enabled the developer to avoid building detention ponds and maximize the amount of land he sold. But the runoff is likely greater than the developer promised the county engineer. And now the officials have stopped producing documents that might prove suspicions.

Perhaps worse, the sand mine has been sold to a company that wants to turn it into an RV park. Which means there’s no one to fix the dikes which ruptured during the latest flood. In a phenomenon that geologists call pit capture (or river capture), the East Fork rerouted itself through the sand mine and then filled the mine up like a water balloon. The water balloon then broke more dikes on the southern end of the mine in a location that is not aligned with the bridge openings over the East Fork.

The main current of the river has been running through the mine and under the Arnolds’ home for days now.

House Built in the New River Bed?

Now the Arnolds worry they may have a house built in the river. Of course, they won’t know until the flood water goes down. And even though the water level has lessened slightly since yesterday, it is still too high and too dangerous to venture out. See images below.

Looking SE. Sand mine dikes have broken on the lower right and now water rushes out of the west fork, crosses the mine and goes under Arnolds’ house in the trees on the left.
Looking NW. Note how the pressure of the water has collapsed the swimming pool in their side yard.
Looking NW. The water then rushes back into the mine from the south side of the property.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/4/2021 based on personal observations and interviews with Michael Shrader, and Jack and Pamela Arnold

1344 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 593 since Imelda

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.

Rosemay Fain’s Harvey and Imelda Stories

Rosemary Fain and Archie Savage live on three acres in Magnolia Estates, in far northeast Harris County just a block from the Liberty County line, about halfway between Luce Bayou and the San Jacinto East Fork. They’re more than two miles from each and never flooded before the development of Colony Ridge, one mile north. Since then, during both Harvey and Imelda, East Fork floodwater rose so high that it came through their property and started flowing down toward Luce Bayou. The water damaged their home, barn, garage, workshop, pool, hot tub, well, septic system, chicken coop and more. But they were lucky compared to neighbors who had homes swept off foundations. This interview discusses their attempts to recover and their advice for others.

Rehak: How long have you all lived here?

Fain: Archie’s lived here since 1995. I joined him in 2015.

Never Flooded Before Harvey

Rehak: Did the property ever flood before Hurricane Harvey?

Fain: No, not at all.

Rehak: OK. How far are you from the East Fork of the San Jacinto?

Fain: More than two miles.

And Then Came Harvey

Rehak: What happened during Harvey?

Fain: Well, we knew that the hurricane was coming. And we did as much as we could to prepare for high winds. But how could we prepare for that much water? We never expected that much. It just…it looked like a river.

It looked like we were sitting in the middle of a river. 

Rosemary Fain

We had people calling from all over the country to make sure we were OK. Then we lost power. Power lines went down at Magnolia Boulevard and Plum Grove Road and there were kids riding four wheelers in the water!

I have video of the water. It was coming from the East Fork and running into that gully that goes to Luces Bayou. And it was just a torrent. It was just an absolute torrent.

Video of Hurricane Harvey in Magnolia Estates courtesy of Rosemary Fain

On FM1485, people were loading boats to go down Huffman/Cleveland Road and rescue people that had their homes washed completely off foundations. And the East Fork … Oh, my God, way up here. Way up here! 

After, on FM1485, people with tractors were pulling cows out of the ditches.

Rehak: You’re kidding.

Fain: No.

Rehak: Dead cows?

Fain: A lot … dead. They found an awful lot of carcasses down in the culvert. 

Imelda “Much, Much Worse”

Two years later, Imelda came along. And it was worse! Much, much worse. Kids were kayaking out on the street. That’s how bad it was.

Kayaking down the street in front of Fain’s house during Imelda

Rehak: Wow.

Fain: Archie had made it to work that morning and I called him and asked, “Do I need to start getting blankets and comforters to put in front of the door? And he says, “Honey, it’s water. Nothing’s going to stop it. If it’s coming in, it’s coming in.” And that’s when it came right up to the top step. It was within inches of coming in the house.

Video of Tropical Storm Imelda in Magnolia Estates courtesy of Rosemary Fain

Rehak: Did it undermine the corner of your house?

Fain: It messed up more than that.

Rehak: Catalog the losses for me. You lost some machinery in your wood shop.

Fain: We lost the jumper pump in our well house. Our septic system flooded. We had damage to the pier and beam foundation under our kitchen and dining room, where the foundation later collapsed – between Christmas and New Years of 2020. We had no idea how bad it was.

Part of damage caused by delayed collapse of one corner of house after Imelda
Corner of the house in kitchen that bore the brunt of Imelda’s floodwaters.

The pier-and-beam foundation and kitchen floor have to be completely replaced, as well as the bottom kitchen cabinets. We lost the motor and the heater to the hot tub, and the hot tub footings shifted, causing the hot tub to crack. We lost the motor to the pool. Our chicken and pigeon coops had to be demolished.

The neighbors behind us lost their sheep pens, but there were no sheep there at the time.

Neighbors sheep pens destroyed by Imelda.

And there’s now black mold in the well house and the garage shop.

Black mold in well house.

And, you know, by law we can’t sell this place with the black mold issues. So, what do we do? 

We can’t afford to fix it and we can’t afford to move. This house is paid for. It’s our investment for retirement. But we can’t afford to fix what needs to be fixed and sell it.

Insurance doesn’t cover black mold. 

Who would have thought we’d need flood insurance this far from the river? We have it now. But we didn’t when the floods hit.

Poorly Drained Soils Now Much Worse

Rehak: What can you tell me about the soils around here? Were they a factor?

Fain: It’s all clay-based.

Rehak: How does it drain?

Savage: Not well. These properties, if there’s a lot of water, they’ll hold it a good while to where it should percolate down. But it doesn’t. It cannot go through clay. Harvey deposited a lot of silt. Since Harvey, it just seems like the ground is constantly saturated even during the summer. And, if you dig down two … two and a half feet, it gets really, really messy.

Clay-based soil throughout area drains poorly.

Rehak: When you first moved here, did you go up Plum Grove Road and explore?

Savage: You could tell that it was a low-lying area.

Rehak: A lot of palmettos up there? 

Savage: Yeah. 

Loss of Thousands of Acres of Forest, Wetlands with Colony Ridge

Fain: The first time I came out here, it was a very pleasant, beautiful little drive. I was really impressed with the canopy of the trees and this whole area. And I’m telling you, it just is such a shame what it’s come to. It was all woods and all trees, and now it’s just nothing but tore up roads and mud.

Rehak: How did the changes coincide with development of Colony Ridge? 

Fain: We never flooded before Colony Ridge. All the problems came after they started clearing trees. I remember all the logging trucks coming up and down Plum Grove Road. And then in 2017, Harvey hit and it was just horrendous. 

Rehak: Do you feel that if the development hadn’t happened you would have been safer?

Fain: Definitely. It was scary. I mean, I wish we had taken our little flat bottom boat and tied it to that tree.

Slow Recovery and Then More Disaster

Rehak: How has the recovery been? 

Fain: FEMA came out and they cut us a check for $357.

Rehak: $357!

Fain: And there is nothing available for Imelda. Project Recovery … I’ve called them twice, emailed them, and they haven’t responded at all. 

Rehak: Are you in the City of Houston?

Fain: No, this is New Caney. But we’re in Harris County. The Liberty County line is about a block east.

Rehak: Tell me more about the damage to the corner of your house?

Fain: We just didn’t know the extent of the damage under our house after Imelda. We were just thankful that it didn’t get in. Then all of a sudden the whole corner of the house collapsed more than a year after the storm.

One day between Christmas and New Years of 2020, I walked into the kitchen to get dog food and I saw the whole corner of the house had collapsed. I went, “Oh, my God, oh, my God, Archie! There’s something going on in the kitchen.” 

Close up of corner of the house that collapsed suddenly 15 months after Imelda.

We started pulling the flooring and floorboards away. I marked the wall and it’s gotten much worse since. We just had no idea what the extent of the damage was. 

And now it looks like the window has closed for any assistance. So we’re having to repair this essentially on our own. Insurance will cover some of it, but they’re not going to cover all of it.

Refrigerator resides in front entry hall until repairs to kitchen can be made.

Disabled and Trying to Recover With One Income

Rehak: You’re disabled now? 

Fain: Yes, I can’t work anymore.

Rehak: How has the COVID situation affected Archie’s job? 

Fain: He’s been lucky. They cut him back to forty hours. There’s no overtime, but he’s been very fortunate to keep his job through all this.

Rehak: He’s the sole breadwinner. That has to make doing all these repairs tougher.

Fain: Oh yeah! 

Rehak: Is there anything else around here, besides Colony Ridge, that may have affected flooding?

Fain: Not in our neighborhood. There are no new homes going in at all. It’s been built out for a long time.

Doesn’t Want to Move, But Can’t Afford to Fix

Rehak: If you could sell this house right now without taking too much of a loss on it, what would you do? Would you find another place in the country?

Fain: We’re so close to retirement, we don’t really want to move. But if we did, it would definitely be to a place in the country. And away from anywhere with a hurricane, tropical storm or any of that.

Rehak: Until you’ve gone through a few of them, it’s hard to imagine the destruction.

Fain: Well, I’ve been through two in five years now, Harvey and Imelda. I’d never been through one before.

Rehak: Did this place flood during Tropical Storm Allison?

Fain: No. Archie told me that he could see the trees leaning, leaning, leaning in front. And then he went to the back and he’d see them lean in the other direction. But it didn’t flood.

Rehak: What about during Ike?

Fain: Same thing. Wind, but no water near the house.

Advice to Others

Rehak: If you could tell the world one thing, what would it be?

Fain: If you see development going on around you or your neighborhood … get involved. Make sure they understand they’re being watched. If they don’t do things right with their drainage, it could ruin your neighborhood and ruin your home and ruin your life.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 1/17/2021 based on an Interview with Rosemary Fain and Archie Savage

1237 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Expert Witnesses Model Surprising Flood Risks in Sand Mine Lawsuit

The case of Emil C. Shebelbon, II v. Upstream Holdings, LLC ET AL (Montgomery County Cause No. 15-10-10710) provides fascinating new insights into how sand mines can affect flooding. This case is NOT about broken dikes, unauthorized discharges of sediment-laden water, or mines inundated by super-storms such as Hurricane Harvey. It involves the opposite of all those things. Yet it still has implications for state regulations – or lack thereof. Specifically, I’m talking about setbacks of mines from rivers, lack of best management practices, reclamation of mines after the completion of mining and monitoring of floodway development.

All of the mines around Shebelbon’s property (bottom center) lie completely within the West Fork floodway (cross-hatched area). Development in floodways should not impede flow.

Defendants in this case appear to have filled in or walled off more than 200 acres of floodway property north of Shebelbon. That should have raised eyebrows from Washington to Conroe City Hall, but didn’t.

Two sand mines north of Shebelbon occupy more than 200 acres of floodway. The one closest to I-45 has been abandoned without remediation. Mining debris still litters the site. Shebelbon’s property lies immediately to the south, across the river.

Plaintiff’s Property Did Not Fill Floodway

The plaintiff in this case, Emil Shebelbon, purchased approximately 200 acres of land on the southwest corner of the San Jacinto West Fork and I-45 North about 20 years ago. He operates a motorsports facility there with dirt tracks and jumps for cyclists. Most of his land is in the floodway at the original level. He did not bring in fill. However, he did push some dirt into mounds to create the jumps. Very little impervious cover exists. It resembles a park. If you were going to build a business in the floodway, this is one of the few you might consider. It does not obstruct floodwater.

Increase in Flood Frequency, Depth and Erosion

When Shebelbon bought his land, everything north of him was farm, ranch or forest land. Then one mine came in and another. They expanded and started building up their property or walling it off from the floodway with dikes.

Shebelbon soon started to notice an increase in the depth and frequency of floods. He also started to lose land to erosion during statistically small floods.

Allegations in Lawsuit

Shebelbon’s lawsuit alleges that:

  • Mines blocked half of the floodway, forcing their flood water south onto his property, a violation of state law.
  • Cutting the floodway width in half forced floodwaters up to 3-4 feet higher on his property.
  • The increased flow in a smaller area increased the velocity of floodwaters.
  • That increased what hydrologists call “sheer stress,” the force necessary to start erosion.

Modeling showed shear stresses increased upwards of 0.5 pounds per square foot. The hydrologists claim that’s enough to cause substantial land and bank erosion near and within the Shebelbon Property. That, in turn, widened the river, eroding Shebelbon’s property, they say. Shebelbon estimates he lost seven acres due to erosion caused by constriction of the floodway (see photos below).

The mine north of Shebelbon’s property on the San Jacinto West Fork. Shebelbon’s property is out of frame to the right, underneath the nose of the helicopter. To visualize the height of the dikes, compare activity in the red circle with the following photo.
A dredging expert estimates that the height of the berm at this point is 50-60 feet based on the size of the dredge. Note: this photo and the one above were taken on April 21, 2020, more than a year after the hydrologist’s study. Dikes here are likely taller than 2018 LIDAR data in the study indicates.

Federal, state, county, and city regulations all prohibit restricting the conveyance of floodways. So how did this get permitted? That will be the subject of another post.

Court documents show that the mines deny any connection to Shebelbon’s damages. They issued simple, general denials and are fighting Shebelbon tooth and nail.

Surprising Expert Witness Testimony

Shebelbon, however, has produced hundreds of pages of expert witness testimony to support his claims. This 197-page document downloaded from the Montgomery County Clerk’s office contains the testimony of several experts. For this post, I’m focusing on Exhibit E-22: Flood Impacts from Surrounding Activities, prepared by Dr. David T. Williams and Dr. Gerald Blackler. Their testimony and credentials run from pages 19 to 101 of the PDF. (Caution: 19 mb download.)

Surprisingly, experts for the plaintiff found that the problem is most visible in smaller floods, i.e., less than 18-year floods. 100-year floods can overtop dikes and spread out. But smaller floods cannot.

Despite hundreds of posts on the relationship between sand mining and flooding, I have not previously focused on the phenomenon described by these experts. But every flood expert I talk to – at local, county and state levels – says their findings make perfect sense.

Looking west. Compare height of dikes on right with river bank on left by Shebelbon’s property. Photo 11/2/2020. Also note how little flood storage capacity is left in ponds.
This abandoned sand mine virtually blocks TxDoT’s auxiliary bridge on the north side of the river (upper right). TxDoT commonly uses such auxiliary bridges to convey water in floodplains. Photo 11/2/2020.

Public-Policy Concerns Raised by Shebelbon

Shebelbon’s case has not yet gone to trial. But I see similar situations every time I get in a helicopter. Together, they raise some disturbing public-policy issues. For instance:

  • Do we need greater setbacks of mines from rivers? Greater setbacks would allow greater expansion of floodwaters and help protect neighboring properties.
  • Do we need a comprehensive set of best management practices for sand mines that cover reclamation and abandonment? Restoring the natural floodplain instead of leaving an elevated mine next to the freeway might have prevented some of Mr. Shelbelbon’s damages.
  • What happens when local officials turn a blind eye to those apparently violating regulations? Is there a higher authority to enforce compliance – short of expensive lawsuits?

Hopefully, the TCEQ or State Legislature can address these questions. But it won’t happen without public pressure.

I would simply ask.

Why should miners’ property rights outweigh those of a neighboring business or resident?

Food for thought as we approach the upcoming legislative session!

Posted by Bob Rehak on 11/4/2020

1163 Days after 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.