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The Harvey Recovery in West Houston Is Being Botched

It’s been nearly two months since Harvey made landfall in Rockport, but city officials still haven’t answered all our questions regarding how Hurricane Harvey was handled. An in-depth report from Houstonia Magazine investigated the impact of Harvey on Memorial Thicket, a neighborhood in Energy Corridor southeast of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.

The article covers a wide range of questions and topics about the way the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers handled the controlled releases (and the city’s response to it), but it began with a look at the people who were hurt most by it—us.

Flooded Without Warning & Without Aid

Houston residents whose homes had never been flooded before were greeted with 5 feet of water the morning of August 28—and many residents understood that it was necessary. In the moment, they knew that their neighborhood had to pay the price for all the water held in the reservoirs. The alternative was uncontrolled flooding all over the greater Houston area.

What residents don’t understand is this:

  • Why were they never warned about the incoming water?
  • Why didn’t the city create a better contingency plan years before?
  • Why has the city taken so long to respond to the aftermath?

No Evacuation Orders

According to city officials, the Addicks and Barker reservoirs were nearly full by August 27, when Harvey had dumped 50 inches of rain on the greater Houston area. The Corps had been notifying the city about their plans to conduct controlled releases to protect the dams. However, the city claims that the Corps released far more water than the city had originally been told. This is why there wasn’t a mandatory evacuation (or any warning on any channels) sent to residents in Memorial.

“We weren’t given any time to save anything,” one resident commented. Voluntary evacuations were recommended on September 1st and mandatory evacuations on September 2nd, but hundreds of homes had been flooded for days by then. It was too little, too late.

No Contingency Plan for a Flood Years in the Making

We’ve reported extensively on Houston’s flood infrastructure—how it could be so much better, how officials ignored an major opportunity to save thousands of homes from flooding. Houstonia’s report includes statements from the Army Corps of Engineers that offer an even bleaker portrait of local government’s unwillingness to fix flood control issues for decades.

Past blogs that cover this topic include:

In 1996, the Corps released a statement that warned “In the absence of a public awareness program, residents are likely to forget or ignore the flood threat.” That’s exactly what happened—homes were built on the edge of federal reservoir land, and buyers were told the local reservoir “parks” were an amenity, not an emergency structure with the authority to flood the neighborhood on command.

In 2009, the Corps listed Addicks and Barker as 2 of the 6 most dangerous dams in the United States. A short time later, a local official claimed he saw nothing wrong with the flood control infrastructure. More recently, the Corps wrote a report about the impact of a potential flood on the neighborhoods around Buffalo Bayou, but it was not publicized or released to residents.

No Response from the City

Many of these homeowners couldn’t return to their homes for two weeks. One resident got a staph infection when she tried wading through her house—again, because the city had not tested the waters or warned residents about the toxicity of the flood water. Memorial residents felt slapped in the face when Mayor Turner was a guest on Face the Nation and claimed that West Houston only had 26 homes still flooded. The accurate number was around 2,600.

They had also heard that 300 trucks were working quickly to pick up trash around Houston. So why had Memorial only gotten 2 trucks—despite experiencing some of the worst and longest-lasting flooding in the city? Why did city officials take 11 days to visit residents or survey the damage? Memorial residents felt like they had accepted their role as the “sacrificial lamb” for the rest of Houston, but being ignored was unacceptable.

Mayor Turner has defended his staff’s response to West Houston, claiming that extensive money and effort was expended to help neighborhoods like Memorial. So why do so many residents feel ignored or pushed aside? When Houstonia conducted their investigation, they rode along with Councilman Greg Travis, the┬árepresentative for District G. Of the 8 million cubic yards of debris, only 400,000 cubic yards had been picked up. Travis insists that even if the flooding was unavoidable, the botched clean-up effort is inexcusable.

“It’s not rocket science,” he says. “It’s just organization. And you just have to plan ahead.”

Arnold & Itkin recommends that you read the Houstonia report in full here.