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New Drone and Helicopter Footage Reveals How Elm Grove Disaster Unfolded

In the world of process quality-control, a consulting company named Kepner-Tregoe built a reputation for itself with a simple methodology. The foundation? When a problem appears, look for something different you did. Chances are, you’ll find the cause there.

Applying that same methodology to Elm Grove, an area that never flooded before May 7th, but which has flooded twice since then, one would have to look at the clearcut area immediately to the north, home of a new development called Woodridge Village.

Shortly after Perry Homes, its subsidiaries and contractors clearcut approximately 268 acres the problems started. But that wasn’t all the Perry gang did.

Before Harvey

They also filled in all the natural streams and wetlands that wound through the dense forest, slowing down runoff. Here’s what the area looked like before Harvey.

This is where the wetlands were (past tense).

Source: USGS. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, no one requested a jurisdictional delineation for the wetlands on this site. Normally, engineering companies request such a ruling to see if the Corps will object to the loss of valuable wetlands. So this project could have required a Corps permit that the developer never obtained.

After Clearcutting

Here’s what the same area looks like today from a helicopter facing south.

Shot taken on 9/21/19 two days after Imelda. Land slopes generally from NW to SE, funneling toward Taylor Gully at the tip of the arrow. Note the ponding water on the northwest side of the dirt pile near the base of the arrow. Depending on where rain falls within this area, it could take a different path, but the destination remains the same – Taylor Gully.

The LJA engineer who authored the Woodridge hydrology report characterized the slope on the northern section as 1% or greater. That’s confirmed by this contour map. And that slope is enough to make water move.

For the full report, click here.
This map shows that LJA Engineering knew all drainage funneled into Taylor Gully. For the full report, click here.
LJA also knew that the areas on either side of Taylor Gully in North Kingwood Forest and Elm Grove were vulnerable. Large areas were classified within the 100-year flood plain. For the full report, click here.

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

Kepner-Tregoe aside, just because something happened after something else does not automatically mean that A caused B. In logic, that assumption is called the Post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  (Latin for “after this, therefore because of this.”)

Even though the Kepner-Tregoe methodology strongly suggests a linkage, do we have more direct proof that runoff from this subdivision caused the Elm Grove/North Kingwood Forest Flood on 9/19/19? Yes.

Clue #1

Well, for one thing, 75% of the detention pond capacity was supposed to be installed on that steep northern section, which is twice as big as the souther section. But none was. Or at least, none of it was fully functional.

Here’s where LJA intended it to go. It virtually ringed the western, southern and eastern sides.

This illustration shows that 234 acre feet of detention capacity should have been built on the northern section. But before Imelda, only 75.7 acre feet were actually built, all on the southern section. Less than 25% of the detention was fully functional when Imelda hit.

Out of the promised 309 acre feet of detention, only 75 acre feet actually existed before Imelda, about 25% of the eventual total. All of that was on the southern section. Despite the fact that the northern section contained far more land.

N1 detention in NW corner missing. Looking SW.
N2 Detention only partially available in SW corner. Montgomery County excavated this to a depth of approximately three feet between 2006-2008. But it needs to go much deeper to reach its detention goal. Looking West.
Where the top part of the missing N3 detention pond should be on the NE corner. Looking SE.
Where the bottom part of the missing N3 should be. A shallow trench channeled water toward Taylor Gully (out of frame in the upper right), without the benefit of any detention on the northern section to slow it down. Also looking SE.

Clue #2

When all that water reached the tree line that separates Elm Grove from Woodless Village (sic), it pushed the silt fence over. Notice the giant chunks of wood slammed up against the fence.

Silt fence that separates Woodridge Village from Elm Grove now leans toward Elm Grove.
The same thing happened on the border with Taylor Gully. When the rainfall exceeded the capacity of the detention pond, water came up out of it and pushed the silt fence near the culvert outward.
The same thing happened with the silt fence that borders North Kingwood Forest to the East. It leans toward the damaged area.

Water pushed the silt fence outward in all directions, like an exploding water balloon. This indicates the S2 pond exceeded its capacity.

Clue 3

If all this inferential evidence isn’t enough, we have direct evidence – video shot by Allyssa Harris during the flood. It shows water streaming out of the development in the background, directly into the streets of Elm Grove.

What it looked like from the Elm Grove side of the silt fence during the storm. Video courtesy of Allyssa Harris. Video looks north toward S2 detention pond from Village Springs.

This is what happened to the 75% of the runoff that the two southern detention ponds could not hold.

Clue #4

When the flood subsided, there was muck in streets, driveways, yards and homes. This was not just rainwater; it was runoff from 268 clearcut acres.

Abel Vera had to grab his car to avoid slipping in ankle-deep sediment on Village Springs.
What Village Springs looked like the day after Imelda.

Clue 5

According to the USGS gage at US59, a foot of rain fell on this 268 clearcut area on 9/19. All of it had to squeeze through the two tiny box culverts circled in the lower right. It was like aiming firehoses into a kitchen sink. Note: it’s worse than it looks. Additional acreage exists out of frame on left and right.

Likely Path of Water

As in May, water that should have been detained elsewhere rushed to S2. S2 overflowed and added to already heavy rainfall.

Broken fences, leaning grass, the location of ponding water, and erosion patterns all suggest that water followed the same routes on May 7.

It rushed to the SE corner of Woodridge, couldn’t get through the culvert, backed up, and sought ways around – via the streets of Elm Grove and North Kingwood Forest.

Likely path of water in May and September floods. Background image is from February, before S2 pond was completed.

What Should Happen Next?

In my opinion, for all the reasons listed above, as a result of clearcutting all this land without installing required detention, hundreds of families flooded for a second time in four months. Worse, the threat remains.

Perry, its subsidiaries and contractors had ideal construction weather during that time yet construction activity ground to a half almost a month ago.

That exposed hundreds of people to needless flood risk. Again. Worse, more than two months remain in hurricane season. And lawyers for the defendants in the lawsuit are dragging the case out by stonewalling production of evidence. They refuse to answer even simple questions like, “Who was in charge of this project on the day of the flood?” And “Who is your insurance company?”

Water Six Feet Deep in Places

What started as a dispute over negligence has turned into a massive public safety issue. Residents estimated water in the streets of Elm Grove reached six feet in places. That’s deep enough to sweep people away and drown them.

My Wishes for Elm Grove and North Kingwood Forest

  1. That Perry Homes settles these lawsuits immediately and makes people whole, or…
  2. That Perry Homes fast-tracks construction and completes the promised detention ponds, or…
  3. That Perry Homes puts a conservation easement on the land, donates it to the County or a conservation organization, and converts the property back to its natural state or a giant lake/detention pond.
  4. Failing any of the above, that the City of Houston or Montgomery County pulls construction permits for this property and renders it useless and valueless.

But before any of those things happen, the judge in this case may need to throw some lawyers and CEO’s in jail. If someone walked into a 7-11 and stole a loaf of bread, he would get jail time.

But steal the lives and destroy the homes of hundreds of people and what do you get? Delays.

It’s time to put a stop to this nonsense and hold people accountable.

These are my opinions on matters of public safety and concern. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the Great State of Texas.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/23/2019 with grateful thanks to Matt Swint for his drone images, Jeff Miller for his reporting, Allyssa Harris for her video, and Daryl Palmer for arranging the helicopter from National Helicopter Service, Inc.

755 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 3 since Imelda

Elm Grove Has 2-3X More Damage Than After May 7th, Much of It Foreseeable and Preventable

Many homes flooded in Elm Grove this week that did not flood on May 7th, or ever before. Estimates from the homeowner’s association range from 2 to 3 times the number that flooded on May 7th. The shocking part: most of the flooding was preventable.

History of Problems with Woodridge Village

On May 7th, floodwater from a new development in Montgomery County contributed to the flooding of almost 200 homes in Elm Grove Village.

On May 8th, Montgomery County Commissioners should have known they had a problem with the development (Woodridge Village). What did they do? They let the developer’s engineering company (LJA Engineering) investigate itself.

The basic problem: Perry Homes, its subsidiaries and contractors had clearcut approximately 268 acres. They filled in natural streams and wetlands without installing needed detention ponds. Runoff from the development then went straight into Elm Grove.

In the weeks that followed, hundreds of Elm Grove residents filed lawsuits against the developer and contractors. In the months that followed:

The Perry gang, managed to complete less than 25% of the needed detention pond capacity, despite ideal construction weather, and then they apparently stopped work altogether.

They finished only two ponds on the southern section and ignored three on the northern. Work came to a virtual standstill almost three weeks ago.

For a breakdown on detention pond capacity and how much had been built before Imelda, click here.

Drone Footage Shows Huge Clearcut Area Where Three Detention Ponds Should Have Been

As work came to a standstill, residents became concerned. Last Sunday, Matt Swint flew his drone over the development to document the status of work on detention ponds. Just four days later, Imelda struck.

Swint captured all three of the images immediately below on 9/15/2019. They show that no progress was made on ANY of the detention ponds planned for the northern section.

Woodridge N1 Detention Pond should have gone here.
Woodridge N2 Detention Pond should have gone here. It was supposed to be the largest pond on the site, but the only work done on it was between 2006 and 2008 by Montgomery County.
N3 Pond should have gone here.

No Work Ever Done on Northern Detention Ponds Despite Area Having Been Clearcut for Months

They could have hired extra crews to build those northern detention ponds. But no. Why be aggressive when you’re months behind schedule and have ideal construction weather?

Their lawyers were, however, working overtime, blocking discovery in the court case against the developer and contractors.

A judge failed to recognize the dire threat that Elm Grove residents still lived under. She may have unwittingly contributed to this mess. With no sense of urgency, she tolerated deliberate delays and set a trial date a year away.

Meanwhile, at an August 27th meeting, MoCo commissioners considered a motion to close a loophole that allowed developers to get away without installing detention ponds. Commissioners chose to table the motion. They insisted that Montgomery County didn’t have a flooding problem. They worried that closing the loophole could change the economics of work in progress and harm developers.

Then came Imelda. The storm dumped almost 12 inches of rain on a development that was designed to retain exactly 12 inches of rain (see page ES-1). But because less than a quarter of the planned detention pond capacity was functional, the plans failed.

The Harris County Flood Warning System shows that the USGS gage at US59 recorded 11.56 inches of rain on 9/19/19, most of it during the late morning.

Second Verse, Worse than the First

On September 19, Elm Grove flooded again. Worse than on May 7th. Much worse. Beth Guide of the Elm Grove Homeowners Association and numerous homeowners estimate that the water was at least a foot to eighteen inches deeper. The additional water involved twice as many streets, and affected as many as two to three times more homeowners. Now they, too, get to join the lawsuit and battle institutional indifference. (Note: many streets are so congested that it is virtually impossible to get an exact count at this time. That number could change.)

Scenes from Elm Grove, One Day after Second Flood in Four Months

Today, I:

  • Witnessed men and women weeping openly as they hauled belongings to the curb for the second time in four months.
  • Watched kids discarding Christmas and birthday presents in trash piles that sometimes reached rafters.
  • Talked with a family that had just finished installing replacement cabinets from the May 7th flood.
  • Saw desperation in the eyes of young couples who feared bankruptcy.
  • Met the grown children of elderly people there to help salvage what they could for parents.

Defendants’ Responses to Plaintiffs’ Questions

As this tsunami of heartbreak unfolded in front of me, I could not get the defendants’ responses to the plaintiffs’ simple requests out of my mind.

For instance:

  • Request: Identify the entity or individual in charge on May 7, 2019.
  • Response: “Defendant objects to this Request for Production on the grounds it is vague, ambiguous, unclear and overly broad with respect to the requesting party’s use of the phrase ‘in charge…'”

Or how about this one:

  • Request: Identify the person in charge of permit compliance.
  • Response: “Defendant objects to this Request for Production on the grounds that such Request is vague, overly broad, and fails to specify and/or describe with reasonable particularity – as is required by Rule 196.1(b) of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure — the documents and/or things to be produced. Defendant further objects to this Request for Production on the grounds that such Request is argumentative and assumes the truth of matters which are not in evidence, and which may be in dispute, to the extent that such Request suggests and/or assumes that one specific individual was “… in charge of compliance …” by this Defendant as to the terms and conditions of TPDES General Permit TXR150000.”

Whew! That lawyer must be getting paid by the word. I know some people that could have communicated the same meaning with a finger gesture.

The defendants produced 61 pages of such responses. If you ever need to boil your blood, read it. They use the word “vague” 27 times in response to clear and pointed questions,.

Hearing on Monday

The judge in this case will hear a motion to compel responses on Monday, September 23rd in the 234th Judicial District Court of Harris County. I hope she puts a stop to this nonsense. It’s time somebody did…with the rain train spread out across the Atlantic during the worst part of hurricane season.

What 23% Retention Contributed To

This video shows what the people of Elm Grove faced during Imelda from Woodridge Village and what they will continue to face. With only 23% of the detention capacity in place, it overflowed when the design limits were tested. See video below.

On September 19, 2019, Woodridge Village detention pond S2 overflowed directly into Village Springs in Elm Grove. This matches the video shot by Edy Cogdill from the same location on May 7. Video shot by Allyssa Harris, a resident on Village Springs.

It’s kind of like expecting a car with one tire to work as well as a car with four.

At 10:10:09 a.m. on 9/19/19, Jeff Miller’s security camera captured a cloud of silty water invading clear rain water that had been filling Forest Springs Drive (four blocks west of Taylor Gully) all morning. Miller believes that Woodridge Village’s S2 detention pond overflowed minutes earlier. See photo below.

One Day After the Latest Storm

Silt fence pushed toward Taylor Gully adjacent to Woodridge S2 detention pond. This indicates two things: There was not enough detention capacity; it overflowed. And water from the development did not follow the route it should have, i.e., through the outflow control device to the left. Photo by Jeff Miller.
Bent silt fencing above Village Springs Drive failed to stop the flow of sediment toward Elm Grove.
Abel and Nancy Vera burned out two power washers trying to get Woodridge muck off their driveway after Imelda.
Abel Vera had to grab his car to avoid slipping in slippery, ankle-deep sediment on Village Springs. Rainwater alone would not have deposited so much muck.
Nancy Vera says that her home had more than a foot of water in it before Taylor Gully overflowed. The water contained thick sediment from Woodridge just north of her house. It made a dangerous, syrupy mess.
Flood debris lodged in the wheel well of Allyssa Harris’ vehicle which took on water up to the door handles despite being parked in her drive on higher ground.
Bill King, candidate for Mayor of Houston, spent the day after Imelda investigating the causes of Elm Grove flooding. Woodridge is in the background.
King also visited with homeowners who lost everything for the second time in four months.
Another Elm Grove debris pile from Imelda flood. There are hundreds of similar piles.
The joys and fun of children were dragged to the curb, too.
New furniture. Old Story. Another Imelda debris pile in Elm Grove.
For block after block, people were tossing flooded items.
A masking-tape sign on a discarded headboard on Shady Maple in Elm Grove provided the only ray of hope.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 9/20/2019, with images from Matt Swint, Allyssa Harris, Jeff Miller

752 Days after Harvey and One Day after Imelda

All thoughts expressed in this post are my opinions on matters of public opinion and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP statute of the Great State of Texas.