How It Came To Pass That Hundreds of Families Purchased Homes Inside Houston’s Reservoirs

HOW IT CAME TO PASS THAT HUNDREDS OF FAMILIES PURCHASED HOMES INSIDE HOUSTON’S RESERVOIRS Many of the flooding victims upstream of Addicks and Barker dams learned for the first time that their homes were inside government-designated reservoirs only after rains from Harvey flooded their neighborhoods, reports Naomi Martin. How had they come to live there? “The corps didn’t feel the need to acquire all the land at the time the reservoirs were built, [the Army Corps of Engineers’ Richard] Long said, because that land was nothing but rice farms and fields where cattle grazed. It didn’t stay that way. In 1997, developers came before Fort Bend County government for approval to put subdivisions on the pastures. Aware of the flood risk to the area, the county was in a bind. It didn’t have the authority to prohibit development or establish zoning rules, said County Judge Robert Hebert, who has been in office since 2003. So the county insisted, ‘over great objection’ by developers, on including a warning on the plat, Hebert said. The county, he said, ‘felt it was a defect on the land that should be pointed out.'” The warning appeared as a small note on the plat document establishing some later Fort Bend County subdivisions, but equivalent declarations were absent on documents establishing nearby Harris County subdivisions. [Dallas Morning News] Aerial view of flooding in Canyon Gate, Cinco Ranch: Michael Fry

38 Comment

  • When small government ideals go wrong.

  • Lets recap what happened here.
    Army Corps of Engineers: Hmm, looks like what we originally thought was enough land for the reservoir was insufficient. We better acquire the rest of the land we need because we wouldn’t want someone else to buy it up and develop it. Ok. Put it on the list just after “upgrade New Orleans levy system”.
    County officials: Oh crap. This crazy developer wants to build in the reservoir. We need to do something. Get with the legislature or the Corps. Uh oh. That developer is mad. Fort Bend: Hey, lets put something on the plat so that if there is a lawsuit, developers can say homeowners were on constructive notice! Harris: Hey, Fort Bend is putting something on the plat. That is going to scare people away. Let’s do nothing and steal development from Fort Bend!
    Cublerson: I am going to put a stop to this and get you all a billion dollars so you can do this right! What? Oh. I thought you were talking about light rail and the I-10 expansion. I will have someone look into this and not get back to you ever.
    Developer: Wow. This land is pretty cheap. Oh, it is in the middle of the reservoir. It wouldn’t be right to build in the middle of a reservoir. There is plenty of land out west. I will just find another tract to buy . . . . Hahahahaha. I got you! Now give me my money!!!! (Scrooge McDuck scene showering themselves with cash)
    (this has been an Old School dramatization and may or may not be as bad as what actually happened)

  • So… did they not do easements back when they built the Reservoirs. Even if the County didn’t buy additional land to accommodate water during an extreme flooding event, if they were aware that those areas could be used for stormwater, an easement would have blocked certain construction in those areas. An unofficial “warning” on the plat couldn’t and didn’t do that.

  • Old School, no mention of AIG in your story?!?!

  • So, without pesky environmentalists and righteous whistle-blowers bad actions go unchecked. Of course, homes shouldn’t have been built on the flat back-side of a retention basin!
    That said, every prospective homeowner needs to drive around with a critical eye, look at maps, be pro-active.

  • There is a building permit process in place. The criteria for that process clearly needs to be adjusted.

    Looking at Lakes of Eldridge, you see the house lots were raised above the streets saving houses from the flood waters. It has been done in the area.

  • The part you guys are glossing over is that these homes have only flooded under extreme scenarios. 30+ inches in 4 days and for some reason every development regulation that ever existed is at fault. A 100-year storm would have meant all of these homes are perfectly fine.

    Fort Bend County at least recognized the potential. The plat is a public document. There is all kinds of information on a plat that home owners should look at when buying anywhere.

  • Anon22, actually it was American general at that point in time when they started cinco ranch. Later AIG bought out AG for their Valic group which was very profitable at the time.

  • Haha that’s something else I noticed too…the blameful are in a bit of a bind here; too much blame on the homeowner and some of these places might end up with *more* regulation which they certainly do not want now and apparently did not want at a time in the past either.

  • Every home that is closed requires a flood certification at closing based on final survey that locates house on the lot. This is the document used to decide if flood insurance will be required based on property is in the hundred year flood zone.

  • Our only hope can be that the people who benefited from the building of the homes that were built in the reservoir and flooded lived along the bayou in the areas that were flooded for weeks after the storm when they were draining the reservoirs.

  • Why does it matter? Even after the flood, I am okay with them building there on private land. Flood risk is just one of a million things that you should look at when buying a home. Heck, even knowing what we know now, I might still buy there in the right situation. If I was looking to buy a home in that general area and the only way I can get the one is to build one on the far back end of the reservoir, I would still do it today. Even after we calibrate the models to include the recent rainfall events, we will still find that this is an outlier.

  • “Many of the flooding victims upstream of Addicks and Barker dams learned for the first time that their homes were inside government-designated reservoirs only after rains from Harvey flooded their neighborhoods,” — Uh, you mean to tell me that the giant 100 foot Earthen dams werent a give away. How about calling them, uh dams, what else would, a dam be doing exactly? At some point personal responsibility needs to come into play. Bringing in more government to save us from ourselves, is just going to drive up prices.

  • @bocepus: The dams are over 3 miles away (downstream) from the subdivisions that flooded.

  • @ Neil: Small government doesn’t build giant flood control reservoirs, either. The “small government ideals” you mention cut both ways. The goal shouldn’t be that government is a certain size, it should be that it is administered competently.
    To that end…
    @ kjb434: There are a lot of people, including well-educated professional people, that are wholly unqualified to transact in and own and manage real property. Most don’t even know what a plat is and wouldn’t know how to read it or assess the value of information on it anyway. Flawed though they may be, I can’t really blame people for blindly chasing subsidies linked to homeownership and a dream of wealth accumulation and social acceptance. Nor can I particularly blame developers for giving them what they want.
    There has been a failure here, and it has to do with 1) public education on the very most basic topics related to housing, cars, family, personal finance, and legal documents and language, 2) subsidies for home ownership, insurance, development, and other related functions, 3) poor intergovernmental coordination and that there is no strong imperative to improve that, 4) and a lack of discourse regarding the scope and degree of risks which society is willing to tolerate, especially where that risk is widespread enough to generate its own externalities. I am probably leaving some topics off this list.
    That doesn’t mean that you’re wrong, but what it does mean is that when an engineer or an attorney or a bureaucrat or a lawmaker does work in concert that can only be interpreted by somebody just like them, but their audience is the general public, they have all failed at doing their job. But I also can’t really blame you, personally. The problem is systemic. The only thing that you can do is to acknowledge your limitations and commit yourself to failing as little as possible. And maybe that’s what we all do from day to day, regardless of our profession — but we must acknowledge it.

  • How is it that three weeks have gone by and we still don’t know the names and addresses of the developers who built those houses?

  • Kickerillo built the Marywood Chase subdivision off of Memorial near Eldridge – his daughter lives there and he lives nextdoor. They all flooded.

  • Well I am pretty sure I’ve seen this discussion before, and as far as I can tell at a certain point the conflict is always going to come down to flooding the wealthy established homeowners downstream on Buffalo Bayou vs. flooding the newer-esque developments in Katy. In this case, the answer was “both” unfortunately. Maybe if the Army Corps of Engineers had opened the valve or whatever earlier and been ahead of this thing, the answer could have been “neither” but we’ll never know now.

  • Thanks, @thekid. I am just wondering, which entity was involved in the lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers?

  • @kjb434: there is a big difference between getting flooded and having your home in a flood control reservoir. For most everyone who flooded in Houston, the water went down within a day or two. People were able to get into their homes, demo all the wet stuff and start drying out the studs. Not so for people who live in the reservoir. The water did not go down for over a week and they were kept out of the neighborhoods all that time. Their homes have been sitting in water for over a week. It may not be possible to dry out after being inundated with water for so long. While the odds of a rain event like Harvey are very rare (but maybe less so in a warming climate), water staying in this neighborhood for over a week was 100% by design. You cannot blame mother nature for that.

  • Old School, you’re doing a valiant job, but anyone who is going to defend developers who knowingly build homes inside a reservoir and try to prevent any mention of it from being made even on a plat map, and then blame the homebuyers for not reading all the fine print on the plat map to find out their new house was in a damn reservoir, is never going to be convinced by anything. Don’t feed the trolls.

  • @bocepus: The dams are over 3 miles away (downstream) from the subdivisions that flooded.

    How big is Addicks? Round numbers, I get about 3 miles x 6 miles. Call me callous, but its on the home buyer as much as the developer to figure out they are buying a home inside a 3×6 mile man made crater in the Katy prairie (thats been there for over 80 years). No matter which side of the dam you are on.

  • And the fine print on the plat map was only for Fort Bend County, not Harris.

  • Having ridden bikes for years through George Bush Park I always wondered how the neighborhoods were so close to Barker. It just didn’t seem possible that I had increased my elevation higher than the spillway by the time I got to Fry road, especially with the stagnant water canals the trail parallels in parts. That being said, no one could have predicted that kind of rainfall.

  • @Mike —

    Bet those guys are still proud of their Canyon Gate innovation.

  • Anyone…I repeat…ANYONE, who buys a home and does not inquire/investigate/confirm the elevation of the property they intend to buy is making a huge mistake. If you plan to buy a home within the 100 year flood plain, be ready cause some day it will probably flood. If you are outside the 100 year flood plain, how high above flood level are you going to be? This was not a 100 year flood. This was 500 or maybe more. Also, regardless of how far away from the Barker or Addicks Reservoirs you are (and if you are below Lake Conroe along the San Jacinto River)…if they release waters…where is it going. Will your home be in the path if you buy. Sorry folks, but these are things I learned as a very young guy years ago when looking at buying my first home. Many of my friends and co-workers had homes flood this year. Yes, I do feel very sorry for them and have done what I can to assist them in this time of pain for them. Many have learned a very hard lesson. But, the homeowners have to assume a bunch of this on the fact they did not do their due diligence before they purchased where they did.

  • The perpetrators of this boondoggle on steroids are ,for now, hiding behind foreign and domestic cutouts.Though the now dusty Mephistopholian deals sealed ,30 yr.old whiskies downed,ink long dry -the newly created refugee class will expose them and their friends in ALL levels of government ,and private sector ,in this crony Oz .

  • I lived in Braeswood Place and flooded (10 inches) during TS Allison. We thought we had done our homework on flooding (our neighbor, an original resident) had never flooded. We did however, have flood insurance. Since then we did move and currently live in Richmond/Ft. Bend. Again I did my homework. I was very aware of the Brazos River and especially the dam. And never wanted to be downstream or sidestream do it. And we aren’t. However, I did consider homes in Cinco Ranch, not realinzing they were in that flood zone, and not realzing the dam could overflow and flood UPSTREAM. None of the houses in my neighborhood flooded and we can thank our builders for additional elevation from the street.

  • @Colleen does Buffalo Bayou ever reverse course during heavy flooding – by any chance have you heard anything about this?
    I’m certain I’ve seen it flowing the wrong way but it could just be an optical illusion due to wind direction affecting the way the waves look on the surface.

  • Cinco Ranch is built on former rice paddies. Of course it’s going to flood. That’s why the rice grew so well there.

  • @NorthifNoah so are they basically building in all flood prone areas?!? I am trying to get information about Balmoral and its proximity to FEMA flood zones gave me pause before Harvey.

  • Wow, based on these comments about Canyon Gate, a development I wasn’t familiar with, I googled it and found some amazing drone videos of the flooding, like this one from Aug 30: You can see in the first 10 seconds how the flooded houses are clearly behind the berm of the dam. Then I looked at a map and saw that the neighborhood lies wholly inside the reservoir. Not only that, just north of there, the development at the intersection of Fry and Mason sits between two forks of Buffalo Bayou! What genius thought putting houses there was a good idea?

  • Any bayou can reverse course and that’s sort of the definition… While a bayou isn’t an estuary, my understanding is that as a waterway in flat landscape, it is effected by high tides, storm surges, tsunamis as well as by intense rainfall. Say the Ship Channel received an isolated 30″ of rain one weekend, Buffalo Bayou would most likely flow to the NE, temporarily.

  • Well I’m wondering if Buffalo Bayou reversing course affected the decision to open the floodgates and add lots of water heading downstream from the dam. If that’s true, then it might mean that there are upstream landowners were calling the shots, which would be interesting.

  • Also when it was DRY out there- it was beautiful. Very “park like”! Deceiving…

  • The developers made their money and are long gone.

  • Where were the mortgage lenders and insurance companies on this? Developers may be unscrupulous, and homebuyers may be ignorant or inattentive, but mortgage lenders and insurance companies exist for the sole purpose of pricing and profiting from this kind of risk through interest rates and premiums. Were they underwritten by the taxpayers through the federal flood insurance program? If so, then that explains it. When somebody else is holding the bag, parties make decisions that would otherwise be irrational. Indeed, as a matter of moral hazard, they are compelled to do so.

  • Bailing out the homeowner v. bailing out big lenders and insurance companies…?