Consider the following scenario:
One of the worst storms that the Texas Gulf Coast had ever seen moved over the San Jacinto River Basin…and stayed there. For four days, it remained in the skies above the floodplains of South Texas, pouring unprecedented amounts of water into the rivers, lakes, and storm drains. Within days, 20 inches of water fell into the waterways—and the counties were unprepared for it.
Years prior, local governments “attempted” to prepare for the storm by buying up properties in high-risk areas, but unregulated growth led to even more people being in the path of the floodwaters.
The San Jacinto River Authority—the officials in charge of Lake Conroe water levels north of Houston—released water from the dam to ensure that the dam retained its “structural integrity,” knowing that it would eventually cause flooding among the housing communities at the mouth of the basin. Due to the bottlenecking effect of the basin, a 10-year flood at the top of the basin became a 100-year flood by the time the runoff reached the bottom. Riverbanks simply couldn’t take the increased volume of water—the four-foot deep sections of the San Jacinto River reached a depth of 32 feet within days.
Despite the destruction, the general manager for the San Jacinto River Authority defended their actions: “Our concern is not the property around the lake. Our concern is the structure of the dam. We have to preserve the integrity of the dam,” said Jim Adams, Executive Director of the SJRA. He went on to say that people at the top of the runoff’s path (the lake) and the bottom of the runoff’s path (the bayou) were both upset at the SJRA—an indication that he had “done his job.”
Seeing as this is a site devoted to reporting on Hurricane Harvey and its effects, you would be forgiven for thinking we were writing about Hurricane Harvey.
Houston Could Have Learned from the Past
The above scenario describes the historic 1994 flood that destroyed homes and communities in Montgomery County and surrounding areas—a flood event that established records of rainfall and destruction that remained unbroken for 23 years. For years following the 1994 flood, city officials had a chance to prevent it from happening again. We had a chance to learn our lesson, start regulating housing developments, and develop better systems for controlling destructive runoff. In 1996, engineers proposed a revolutionary underwater canal that would mitigate the flooding risk in communities located in bayous, where runoff formed enormous walls of rushing water that wiped out entire neighborhoods.
Harris County ignored the proposal.
The information for this blog came from a Houston Chronicle article warning us that another massive flood could happen in the area in only a few years. The date of the article? October 16, 2004. The truth is, we’ve known about Hurricane Harvey for decades. We’ve known it was coming, and local and state officials did nothing to protect our residents, our businesses, and our homes.
History Repeats Itself, But Louder
Shortly after Harvey descended on Harris County, Lake Conroe rose to water levels it had not reached since the 1994 flood. (In fact, it beat the previous record by a full foot: the prior flood raised the level from 201 feet to 205—Harvey raised it to 206). Just like then, the San Jacinto River Authority felt obligated to lower the level of the lake—thus flooding the communities downriver from the dam.
The current Executive Director of the SJRA, Jace Houston, repeated his predecessor when he said that he released a destructive amount of water from the Lake Conroe dam because the “structural integrity” of the dam needed to be protected. “We understand there will be devastating flooding downstream…” he began, later admitting that at no point during Harvey’s rainfall was the integrity of the dam at risk.
Jim Clark, the County Commissioner for Precinct 4, came to the SJRA’s defense, saying “While SJRA may have aggravated the flooding, they probably caused only 10 percent of the problem, while 90 percent was the rain.”
Experts estimate that Hurricane Harvey caused $160 billion in damages all over Texas. Only claiming 10 percent of the fault might seem like a defense—but $16 billion in damages seems plenty damning.