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.