Think your street’s drainage is bad? Listen to this: In 2015, Kris Handoyo was heading north on Travis St. in the backseat of a Mazda when the downtown storm drain cover pictured above came loose and punched through the floorboard of the car, severing half of his right foot. Handoyo, a digital content employee of the Houston Rockets, filed a lawsuit against the city asking for up to $1.25 million in recompense. And this morning the city voted to give it to him. Well, some of it: After mediation, the parties had settled on $200,000.
The drain in question — shown above in the Travis St. bus lane just north of Clay St. — is still there, although the particular grate that impacted Handoyo has been removed and patched over with concrete. Many of its relatives remain in their asphalt habitats however, where they’ve been since the late ’90s and early 2000s.
And where neighbors in Downtown and Midtown have been complaining about them for at least a decade:
“The newly installed ‘trench drains,‘” wrote the Houston Press’s Richard Connelly in 2008, “had almost immediately proven to be not up to the job of carrying the traffic.” In an effort to prevent their grates from becoming dislodged, as they often did, the city tried out a makeshift solution: “a bunch of steel plates laid over” some of the drains in the bus lane on the 1600 block of Milam St. in 2006. Every time a large vehicle (like, say, a bus) drove over the patchwork, it emitted a loud boom, prompting Connelly to dub it “one of the loudest, cheapest jerry-rigged street repairs around.”
City staff recognized that this approach wasn’t going to work, but the drains — MD200 models purchased from manufacturer ABT — were everywhere in Downtown and Midtown; they couldn’t just take them out. So they went with a retrofit, consulting East Jordan Iron Works — already a supplier of manhole covers and other Houston public works fixtures — to build new custom covers for the drains.
That’s what Handoyo drove over in 2015. Looking over the East Jordan covers, an engineer brought in by the plaintiff’s legal team pronounced them just as unsound as the drains they were supposed to fix. His chief observations: The new covers weren’t long or heavy enough to resist becoming dislodged when traffic ran over them, the slots made to bolt them down didn’t line up with those on the original ABT drains underneath, and East Jordan never provided any bolts to secure them anyway. For a while, city workers started modifying other bolts themselves and installing them in the drain covers. But after a while they stopped bolting them down at all.
The city’s manager for storm sewers Braxton Coles told lawyers in a February deposition he still believed the drains were safe to drive over even without the bolts in place, adding that he wasn’t sure whether the one Handoyo had been bolted down or not. But, if money was no object, he said, he’d replace the trench drains entirely. The reason they were originally put before Coles’s time on the job: “I’ve been told,” he said, “. . . water would pond by the curb [and] when cars would come by, people would get all wet up on the bus stops.”
Images: Harris County District Court