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The Wrong-Way Flood: Keith Stewart Interview

During the afternoon and evening of May 7, 2019, the sky opened up and streets filled up. I counted one hundred and ninety-six homes in Elm Grove and North Kingwood Forest that flooded. This was by far the largest concentration anywhere in the Kingwood area. This is the story of one home among them.

I first met Keith Stewart online. He messaged me on FaceBook the night of May 3. He was offshore. His wife was panicking. He said, “A lot of flooding for the brief period of heavy rain in Elm Grove. Was almost as bad as Harvey on my block. What’s going on?”

“Something is Wrong!”

On May 7, he messaged me again. “Didn’t flood for 3 days of Harvey. Something is wrong…something has changed.” He sent this image that his wife had sent him.

Not even a black lab likes this kind of water.

This had to terrify Keith. His family was in danger and he was unable to help. He contacted me when he got onshore and we made arrangements to meet in person.

Stewart lives at the north end of Shady Maple Drive on the corner of Creek Manor. I interviewed him to get his impressions of why he flooded and where the water came from. Neighbors’ accounts confirm physical evidence.

The Wrong-Way Flood

Even though his lot backs up to Taylor Gulley, his home did not flood from there. Instead it flooded from the front. Water rushed down the street TOWARD the gulley and its force knocked over a street-facing fence anchored in concrete.

Stewart points to a broken fence post leaning toward Taylor Gulley in the background. The water came from the camera position and pushed the fence inward toward the gulley.
Leaning fence posts show how the force of water from the front of the house (left) pushed the fence toward Taylor Gulley in the background (right). Camera is facing south.

As we talked, we stood on the east bank of Taylor Gulley looking toward the 260+ clear-cut acres to the north that comprise the soon-to-be Woodridge Village. We can see where constrictions in the flow of the gulley likely split runoff and forced it out of the creek.

The Woodridge Village area is in the background. Eyewitnesses, grass patterns, debris, and erosion suggest that these two outflow control devices, in the absence of detention ponds behind them which had yet to be built, split the runoff and diverted it into adjacent neighborhoods.

No More Wetlands

Rehak: Tell me what this property to the north looked like before it was clear cut.

Stewart: All that acreage that has been clearcut… When we moved here two years ago, I bought four wheelers for me and my son. That’s where we rode four wheelers. And no matter how dry, or how much of a drought, or how hot it was in the middle of the summers, back there, you could always find water. It was low. It was always swampy and stagnant water back there.

If we wanted to get wet and a little muddy, no matter how dry it was, we could ride the four wheelers back there.

Rehak: Now when you say back there, there are two sections: the northern and southern. Are you talking about one or both?

Stewart: There were four wheeler trails on both sides: the north AND the one closest to Elm Grove. But a lot of woods were torn down and there’s no standing water back there any more. So they’ve built everything up apparently. There are no swampy areas anymore.

Flood Did Not Come from Taylor Gully

Rehak: How high did the water in this ditch get relative to the top of the bank?

Stewart: I was offshore, but pictures show that it got to the top of the bank. I was comparing it to Harvey. My neighbors who have lived here for 30 years say the water has never even gotten Taylor Gulley three-quarters full. It was three-quarters full during Harvey at its peak…after three days of solid non-stop rain. My neighbor said that Taylor Gulley has never come close to overflowing in his experience. He said, “That’s not the direction water will come from if we get it.” He said, “It will come from a different direction.”

Never Flooded Before Despite Living Next to Taylor Gulley

Rehak: Was your wife home during the May 7 flood when you were offshore?

Stewart: She was at jury duty downtown. And when she got back to Kingwood, she had to pick up my high school kid. We had two dogs and two cats in the house. She thought, “As long as I can make it home, we’ll be OK. We don’t flood here. Never have. Never will … uh … until now. During Harvey, we watched it for three days and it never got close.”

Rehak: How are the dogs and cats?

Stewart: They’re physically OK, but a little distraught. We’re looking for a place to live and it’s hard to find someone that will take four animals. We don’t want to put them in kennels.

Rehak: Where are you living now? You mentioned something about going house to house. Staying with friends?

Stewart: Family members.

Rehak: What do you see as your future here? (Note: I’m thinking 5-10 years out. His answer surprises me. He’s still in shock and dealing with the crisis moment to moment.)

Stewart: I have ten days to see what I can get done here before I have to go back to work offshore. So I have to try to get everything set up for my family before I leave. And my high school kid is going through finals right now.

Rehak: Finals! What a rough ride for him!

Stewart: He’s in ROTC and his uniform got flooded. I just took that to the cleaners. But hopefully that will get straightened out for him.

Stewart worries about his insurance payout and has stacked damaged items he may be forced to salvage “if the numbers don’t work out.”

We walk toward his house from Taylor Gulley and I ask him about the furniture he has piled on his side deck. Pointing to the sinks and countertops, he says…

Stewart: We don’t know what the insurance numbers are going to be yet, so I’m keeping some damaged stuff in case we’re forced to salvage it.

What’s left of the Stewart living room.

Rehak: How much water did you get in the house?

Stewart: Nine inches. And the Friday rain before that … remember I messaged you and said somethings wrong … it came up higher than Harvey!

Remnants of a bedroom. Note how floor and walls on right are still wet.

The satellite image below shows the direction of flow described by Stewart. A neighbor told him the water flowed out of River Rose Drive and down Creek Manor toward his house. He did NOT flood from an overflow of the gulley.

As we were talking, two workers from City of Houston Public Works were checking street drains for blockages. They invited us to see what they saw on their camera. Mounted on the bottom of the pole, it sent a wireless image back up to the iPad that the woman was holding. Stewart is on the left.

The camera showed a trickle of water at the bottom of an otherwise clear drain. Conclusion: blocked drains did not cause the Stewart home to flood.
Regardless of where the water came from, it could be weeks to months before Stewart’s home dries out enough to start replacing wallboard and insulation.

Crowdsourcing Some Detective Work

Stewart always thought that if he flooded, it would be from Taylor Gulley. But something changed. The flood came from the wrong direction. The same thing happened on the opposite side of the gulley. You can see Abel Vera’s home on Village Springs from Stewart’s back yard.

Vera found flood debris plastered to the inside of his fence, but none on the gulley side. Like Stewart, Vera flooded from the street.

Video on Village Springs shows water rushing out of the clearcut area to the north down the street. But I am not yet aware of comparable video or still images from North Kingwood Forest showing whether water came from the clear cut area.

Please Help

Did floodwater come from BEHIND the homes on Right Way and make its way down to River Rose? Please help fill in the gaps in our collective knowledge of this event. If you have any images or video that shed light on this subject one way or the other, please contact me through this web site. I will post the material and credit you.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/22/2019

631 Days since Hurricane Harvey

Figure Four Partners Denies All Responsibility for Elm Grove Flooding; Blames God

Figure Four Partners, LTD, a subsidiary of Perry Homes and PSWA, Inc., its sole general partner, issued a statement today regarding the flooding in Elm Grove Village. Elm Grove is a part of Kingwood that borders Figure Four’s development, Woodridge Village, in Montgomery County.

In the statement, Figure Four denied any responsibility for the flooding and blamed it on an act of God. Further, they invoked the shield of government approval, saying their plans were approved by the City of Houston and Montgomery County.

Their unsigned statement, which I have reproduced verbatim below, says:

 FIGURE FOUR STATEMENT 

“While our hearts go out to the homeowners that recently flooded in the Elm Grove Subdivision, the flooding there this week had absolutely nothing to do with the Figure Four and Perry Homes project nearby.” 

“As virtually every media outlet in the region has reported this week, and Harris County Flood Control meteorologist Jeff Lindner confirmed, Tuesday’s rainfalls at times matched the intensity of Hurricane Harvey. The Houston Chronicle reported that “The rainfall was particularly severe in suburban areas such as Kingwood …” 

“Though our project is still in the land clearing stage, many of the detention ponds are complete – providing improved drainage to the area that did not previously exist. Additionally, the drainage study and construction plans for the Figure Four project were completed by LJA Engineering, an experienced and highly respected firm and approved by the County. All City and County permits were obtained and all applicable building codes have been followed. 

“Several questions have been asked about a concrete structure on the project. This structure is the outfall control device and part of the permitted and approved drainage plan. The outfall control device functioned as designed on Tuesday night. Similar to the detention ponds, the outflow control structure improved drainage in the area.” 

– End of Statement –

Concrete structure referred to in statement above.

Flaws in Argument

At the risk of clarifying the obvious, I would point out that:

  • Elm Grove didn’t flood during Harvey.
  • The improved drainage did not work as well as the previous natural drainage, which the developer filled in.
  • The “highly respected” LJA Engineering, Inc. was sued by almost 500 homeowners in the Woodlands for flooding there (see below).
  • The “many” completed detention ponds, none of which I could see in drone footage, were not up to the task.
  • If the outflow control structure “improved drainage,” why did 400 homes flood that didn’t flood before?

Summary of Woodlands Case and Court Documents

In the lawsuit against LJA Engineering, Inc., plaintiffs alleged that the engineers failed to prepare for, or consciously ignored, a foreseeable weather event, which resulted in the flooding of homes and caused catastrophic losses.

While never really addressing the merits of the allegations, the defendant denied the allegations and responded with 25 reasons why they should not be held accountable. For instance, the defendant responded that the flooding was an act of God. They also claimed the defendants assumed risk when they bought their homes; that the plaintiff’s injuries were caused by unspecified third parties; and that the plaintiffs’ own acts or omissions caused or contributed to their alleged injuries.

Here’s a federal court’s summary of the case, before it was remanded to Harris County District Court.

LJA and co-defendants Woodlands Land Development, L.P. and The Howard Hughes Corporation, pled for abatement of the case, claiming that the plaintiffs failed to provide them with sixty-day advance written notice of the claims. The judge then abated the case on 4/22/19.

Difference Between Woodlands and Elm Grove Cases

The Woodlands and Elm Grove situations are similar in that they both involved extreme weather events and flood damage. However, there are also some major differences. In the Woodlands case, plaintiffs occupied the land developed by the defendants. In Elm Grove, neighboring land owners were damaged during development of adjoining property.

Also, in the Woodlands case, plaintiffs alleged that the property had flooded in 1994, that defendants knew it, and that they failed to raise the property high enough to prevent flooding during Harvey. However, Elm Grove did not flood either in 1994 or during Harvey. It flooded only after clear cutting and the beginning of earthwork on the Figure Four Partner’s property.

It will be interesting to see whether any lawsuits emerge from those damaged in Elm Grove.

In the Figure Four Statement, you can see how the company is already setting up themes for their legal defense if necessary. LJA Engineering invoked the same themes during its defense of the Woodlands allegations.

In Other Developments Saturday…

Yesterday was filled with new developments and discoveries:

  • Elm Grove held a public meeting with a law firm to inform flooded residents of their legal rights.
  • Many residents of Porter came to the meeting to complain of drainage issues on the northern and western sides of the project.
  • It became clear that another 175-acre parcel of land was a part of the project. That parcel has also been clear cut, but no drainage “improvements” were visible.
  • No other precautions were visible to prevent runoff of silt such as berms, sand bags, or silt fences.
  • Water was ponding on neighbors’ property.
  • No stormwater pollution prevention permits were posted at any of the entrances to the job site that I could see. That in itself may be a violation of state regulations.
  • Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo still had not visited Kingwood or declared a disaster. Such a declaration would make residents available for assistance from government agencies.

Additional Parcel Triples Clear-Cut Acreage

Saturday, Porter residents called to my attention the fact that Figure Four Partners was also developing an even larger tract of land not visible from Kingwood.

Location of Woodridge Village, Section 3. MCAD lists it as 161.74 acres, but plat shows it as 175.

This link shows a plat of the northern 175 acres, which Figure Four Partners called “Woodridge Village Section 3.” For those who are interested in contacting the developer or engineering company, the plat shows their addresses and phone numbers.

Here’s what the area looks like. It’s roughly twice the size of the area to the south that directly borders Kingwood.

Elm Grove is on the right out of frame. Note the slope toward Elm Grove.
Another angle on the northern tract shows clear-cutting in progress and the slope toward Elm Grove.
Looking south, directly toward Elm Grove and the area that flooded so badly. Elm Grove and another giant clear-cut tract belonging to Figure Four Partners are beyond the tree line.
Flooded Porter residence that backs up to Figure Four development. Residents in both Sherwood Trails and Porter who border the development complain of the build up of stagnant, stinking water because of altered drainage.

Meanwhile, Clean-Up Continues in Elm Grove

Debris washed into Elm Grove from developer’s property shows how high water flowed in down Village Springs Drive.
Home after home along Village Springs Drive had debris piled head high as residents mucked out their homes.
Oh, that low, down-in-the-dumpster feeling...
Since the flood on Tuesday, Houston City Council Member Dave Martin has been inspecting the clear cut area adjacent to Elm Grove, coordinating City clean-up efforts, and meeting with affected residents.
Houston Mayoral Candidate Bill King (l) consults with flooded resident Abel Vera (r) about events that unfolded during the flood. Piles of dirt in the background are roughly sitting on top of the original stream on the property that was filled in by the developer. Vera’s home is directly behind him. This is one of at least a half dozen trips King has made to Kingwood in the last year to understand flooding issues in the area.
Flooded Elm Grove and Porter residents attending a meeting at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church to learn about their legal options. Shot shows approximately half of the crowd.

Posted by Bob Rehak on May 12, 2019

621 Days After Hurricane Harvey

Thoughts expressed in this post represent my opinions on matters of public policy. They are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the great state of Texas.