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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

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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.