Comment of the Day: Wake Me Up When Houston’s Wake-Up Calls Are Over

COMMENT OF THE DAY: WAKE ME UP WHEN HOUSTON’S WAKE-UP CALLS ARE OVER “The idea that the Houston area has just been complacent all this time and needs to ‘wake up’ is ridiculous. Houston has been steadily improving its situation for decades through various means (infrastructure, regulation, mitigation, response, etc.). This progression got particular boosts by these larger events and we will see the same needed boost post-Harvey. But realize these rainfall events over the last 2+ years have been off the charts and applying these lessons learned takes years.” [Rex, commenting on Comment of the Day: The Even Bigger Reason Houston Might Want To Address Its Flooding Problems] Illustration: Lulu

17 Comment

  • Umm, take a survey and 90% of Houstonian’s will certainly say that we’ve been complacent at doing anything major to address flooding issues that get worse every year. This poster’s comment that we have already “Woken Up” long ago is completely naive and is EXACTLY WHY here we are almost 10years from Ike with no bay-area protection to one of the most national security and economic energy production facility areas in the entire countryand. I’ve got news for that poster: they are appear to be caught in their own real life Inception dream world if they think Houston has done enough over the last 20years since Allison caused many deaths and billions of dollars of damages homes, businesses, Theatre district, and Channel 11 being kicked out of their studios. Shocker: the nightmare repeated itself but grew only bigger. Time to wake up.

  • The Heights and Eastwood saw almost no flood damage and have never seen any flood damage. That is because back in the 1890s through the early 1920s, everyone understood that Houston got torrential rains and would flood. So, the developers of the Heights and Eastwood made sure they developed land that had slope to the bayous, included open drainage ditches to help detain water, made sure that they did not build right up to the bayous and built up houses high enough to make sure they would be dry during a flood.
    Since then, developers in Houston haven’t given a rats butt about flooding. Storm water systems are just government requirements that developers grudgingly accept by adhering to the bare minimum standards and not a penny more spent to try to flood proof a development. The threat of over bank flooding from bayous and flood control systems is just between the homeowner and FEMA. Downstream effects from over-development are someone else’s problem.
    When Allison hit, it was clear that the current flood control infrastructure was woefully insufficient. When Ike hit, it was clear that the petro chem complex on the ship channel was dangerously vulnerable to storm surge. What has Houston done since then?
    Changes to the development code to require better drainage rentention/dentention in developments? Nope. If you redevelop existing impervious cover in Houston, you do not have to do any storm water detention.
    Build a flood gate to protect the ship channel industries? Nope. Haven’t even formally proposed anything.
    Impose restrictions on building in close proximity to storm water systems, bayous and creeks? Nope.
    Heed the 1996 warnings of HCFCD engineers that Houston’s reservoir system was insufficient and make necessary improvements? Nada.
    Make improvements to Addicks and Baker dams, which are considered to be “extremely high risk”. Nah. Why bother when you can just open the flood gates and make a few hundred homes take one for the team.
    Expedite construction of flood control projects? Hahahahaha. Rebuild Houston sat on its hands for a few years so they could refinance debt. Big projects like the Inwood Forest golf course have not seen a single shovel go into the ground. We have sat on our hands and now the whole world knows that Houston has a huge sustainability issue. If we continue with our policy of develop first, mitigate floods much, much later, we will find that the problem will become self correcting as development dies off in Houston.
    So, what has Houston been doing the past two decades? Building roads. Lots and lots of roads. I-10 expansion. 290 reconstruction and expansion. Gulf freeway expansion. Grand Parkway. And a proposal for $7 billion for I-45 expansion through downtown.
    While no one anticipated the size of Harvey, EVERYONE knew that Houston had serious flood control problems. But the clear priority for the past twenty years has been roads and development over flood control.

  • We *have* bay area protection; it’s called Galveston Island. Problem is, we built on it.
    Barrier islands: “As the first line of defense during storms that threaten coastal communities, barrier islands are very important for reducing the devastating effects of wind and waves and for absorbing storm energy.”

  • To a certain extent, building roads IS a flood control project. Hydrology is a major part of the design of these projects.
    The first thing you see during a road construction project in Houston is massive excavation and installation of new drainage culverts. The new detention provided as part of the I-10 feeder construction inside 610 probably prevented a fair amount of additional flooding. The freeways themselves, by being below grade, provided some emergency detention. And if the proposed I-45 project had been complete, a lot of the water that flooded garages and basements downtown would have flooded the freeway instead.
    And while people complain about too much money invested in road construction (the only infrastructure projects deemed unsuccessful when used by lots of people), folks sure were happy when Beltway 8 re-opened on the west side.

  • I agree. What these events do is provide funding that no one is willing to provide when it has been dry. Most major drainage projects are in answer to major events because that is when the Federal government actually provides some funds – whether the floods in the 30’s, Tropical Storm Allison, the holiday floods or Harvey. It takes a special act of Congress – literally – for them to provide funds. Unfortunately, far too often, our governments – local, state and federal – are reactive instead of proactive when it comes to regional drainage projects.

  • So what you’re saying is that if I take a survey it will say 90% of Houstonians are completely ignorant about the actual state of flood control infrastructure projects. The original comment did not say “Houston has done enough”. It is making the factually accurate statement that improvements have been made steadily, and that these things are large and difficult to do, let alone get everyone to agree on. There’s nothing in there denying that there are still problems to be solved.

  • There’s a big difference between knowing what really ought to be done in engineering terms and actually financing it as a matter of federal/state/local policy in addition to coordinating the planning process across various political boundaries.

  • @Old School: You are incorrect about the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Major improvement projects to build stronger outflow structures are underway. If you watched news coverage from helicopters over the reservoirs following the storm, you would have seen the construction. See here:
    That said, since I live a short distance from the Barker levee and its outflow (didn’t flood my home thank goodness) I was tempted to contact the ACE during the day or two before Harvey hit to ask, “So, how’s that dam safety project going?”

  • The massive drainage project that took place under Shepherd for the better part of 2014 and 2015 seems to have helped a lot. My house is nearby and structures that have flooded in the past didn’t even get close to flooding this time.

  • @Local Planner: The current work on the reservoir is considered by the corps as an “interim risk reduction measure” to give them time to come up with a long term fix. They just want to be sure they can flood a few hundred people if the dam shows signs of stress in a big flood event. Nothing has been put up for approval as far as a long term fix to the structural issues on the dam.
    @Angostura: you are just trolling now. Roads are a major net burden on our flood control infrastructure. And whatever amount of water can be stored in a future I-45 tunnel will do nothing to mitigate all the flooding caused by further sprawl out along the Grand Parkway.
    @Googlemaster: Get on your own maps and look at all the holes in our barrier islands.

  • @meh Really? steady improvements? what ones? Name them. I’ve lived here 30years and I’ve not seen ANY major flood improvement mega projects. Not after Allison, not after Ike, none proposed after 2015/2016 when the reservoirs were also in danger and needed water released. None. Never. The notion that Harvey will finally get us must needed focus and political will and money to do the needed big projects, as you and Rex assert, is naive and (as I already said) EXACTLY WHY we are here in the first place. People think some small tiny projects like redoing Sheperd street drainage (which isn’t even a flood control project, is just normal course of business when redoing decades old roads and was in no way inspired by Allison or Ike concerns) is Houston “having “been steadily improving its situation for decades is a crock. Again, wake up, you clearly are in an Inception dream. You think 90% thing that knowing is the answer; I got news for you: 90% want something BIG done and now.

  • @ Old School: No, Angostura is right. Flood control is a consideration to TXDoT. Sometimes they actively seek to mitigate runoff because they are now required to by statute, and sometimes they take it upon themselves to go further — with projects that get trenched perhaps for different reasons. And you’re right that widening the I-45 trench or tunneling wouldn’t have helped anybody on the Cypress Creek watershed, Angostura was providing an example by specifically referencing the relevant watershed and Cypress Creek wasn’t it.
    At a smaller scale, developers are also now required to provide on-site stormwater detention and can satisfy some of that requirement by regrading land so that streets are at a lower grade. Fill is expensive to truck out, so it usually gets used to raise the height of lots. That’s why the western part of The Woodlands, to give one particularly striking example, is so aesthetically different from the older eastern parts.
    The problem with Cypress Creek in particular is largely that the FM 1960 corridor was developed in a time before any of these requirements existed. If you want to understand the extent of the problem of legacy development, look at a detailed map of Houston in the early 1990s. We have changed the policy, but changing today’s policy doesn’t erase the manifestation of yesterday’s policy.

  • @ Gman: The following is not an exhaustive list of projects that the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) has participated in. But… There’s Project Brays ($480 million), the Sims Bayou Federal Flood Damage Reduction Project ($379 million), White Oak Bayou Federal Flood Damage Reduction Project ($166 million), the Greens Bayou Federal Flood Risk Management Project ($58 million), the Hunting Bayou Federal Flood Risk Management Project ($165 million), the Clear Creek Federal Flood Damage Reduction Project ($249 million), and Buffalo Bayou Channel Conveyance Restoration. These were all taken from the HCFCD’s website and were basically projects that caught my eye. Dozens of other smaller projects are planned, under way, or completed.
    A closely related topic is subsidence, and much has been done over the decades to reduce the use of groundwater resources in the Houston area and switch over to surface water. In particular, the Luce Bayou Interbasin Transfer Project (LBITP) was recently completed at a cost of $351 billion to pump water from the Trinity River to Lake Houston. This extra supply has been used primarily to get many of the utility districts in the northern suburbs off of groundwater.
    And on that note, not every project of consequence is a mega-project, nor are they financed in a way that touches the central city or central county of the Houston region. For example, flood control is a subject addressed by private land developers and they finance it through fairly obscure taxing entities including utility districts; and Fort Bend County, for example, has a lot of levee districts in addition to its own subsidence district and other efforts.

  • @gman there were substantial changes to drainage and detention requirements for new development in Harris County after Allison in 2001; as a consequence very few houses in developments built to these codes experienced flooding. New developments (including roads) are designed so that they do not increase runoff above pre development levels. The entire county completely remapped the flood plains after that storm.

    Most of the areas which flooded also flooded in Allison because they received comparable amounts of rainfall. Current flood management improvements may not be enough, but substantial investment improvements is underway.

    As we look to make further improvements, can you tell me where they have drainage and detention systems that can handle 40+ inches of rainfall over the span of just a few days and not flood?

  • As TheNiche so helpfully pointed out, the list of projects is publicly available. You can also drive around Houston and see them; the Willow Waterhole and the Eldridge/Westpark detention areas might even meet the “BIG” standard you are so obsessed with. Again, the original point remains – you can have a conversation about what needs to be done, and plenty of people are willing to do that. But running around shouting “Houston has done nothing! We need something BIG now!” without even attempting to recognize the work that has been completed, the nature of this event, and the cost/benefit tradeoffs that *will* have to be made going forward is about as useful as putting buckets in the yard to keep the house from flooding. A rational conversation about this is possible, believe it or not.

  • There was a story in the HBJ today about groundbreaking on a $1.4 billion water treatment plant taking water from Lake Houston, supplemented by the $351 million Luce Bayou Interbasin Transfer Project I mentioned earlier, which pumps from the Trinity River. And this is being done so that several water authorities can continue their work to take development off of groundwater, reducing subsidence, which contributes to Houston’s flood problems. Goodness knows what the cost of all that pipe and all those pump stations will be, but if all of this, taken together, doesn’t qualify as a mega-project, then I don’t know what does.
    Ah never mind, who am I kidding. Teh reel problm iz no zoning!!!!1 Houston, why you suck so much?