HOUSTON (CN) – A week after Hurricane Harvey saturated Houston with historic rainfall and as neighborhoods in the western part of the city are still underwater, residents claim in a class action that governmental mismanagement of two dams is to blame for the flooding that’s forced them to evacuate their homes.
Buffalo Bayou is Houston’s main watershed. It is fed by water released from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
The earthen dams straddle Interstate 10, 20 miles upstream from downtown Houston. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built them in the 1940s to hold back Buffalo Bayou after it flooded the city in 1935.
The Corps of Engineers usually releases water from the dams at the rate of 2,000 cubic feet per second, but the record-shattering 51 inches of rain Harvey dumped on Houston, starting Aug. 25 and continuing for four days, forced the Corps to increase the rate to 13,000 CFS.
Officials said they had to drain the dams quickly to reduce the risk of a breach that would cripple downtown Houston, and to make room to absorb rainfall from more storms during hurricane season, which usually runs from June until November in Texas.
The output had raised the roiling, chocolate-colored Buffalo Bayou to its all-time record of 62.7 feet by Sept. 1, and the swollen bayou has flooded 4,000 homes and apartments and numerous businesses.
Lead plaintiff Val Anthony Aldred filed a class-action lawsuit against the Harris County Flood Control District and Houston on Sunday night in Harris County District Court on behalf of all homeowners and commercial property affected by the rising waters of the Buffalo Bayou caused by the decision to release water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs after Monday, Aug. 28.
Aldred is represented by the Houston-based Potts Law Firm.
“Each plaintiff named in the petition owned property that was not flooding after Hurricane Harvey sat over Harris County on Saturday and Sunday, but only began flooding when the Harris County Flood Control District and the City of Houston aided in the release of water from the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs. After the release, each property took on several feet of flood water,” the firm said in a statement.
Aldred says in the complaint that Houston and the flood control district “failed to adequately prepare each reservoir for the possibility of flooding and have permitted unmitigated development around the reservoir such that they knew homes and businesses would flood in a heavy water event.”
Class members seek damages for their repair costs, diminished property values and lost income, claiming the release of water from the dams amounted to the government taking their property without paying them for it as required by Texas law, a legal claim known as inverse condemnation.
There’s been at least one other complaint filed in Dallas County by a business owner seeking insurance coverage for damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Asked for an exact number of homes that flooded in the area and when residents will be able to return, a Harris County Flood Control spokeswoman told Courthouse News on Tuesday, “We have no idea right now. They’re still out there collecting information.”
An Army Corps of Engineers spokesperson said Tuesday afternoon that Buffalo Bayou had receded to 58.61 feet at a section where it widens before flowing into downtown, but both the Harris County Flood Control District and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner say it could be at least a week before the bayou goes down enough for residents to return to the area to survey their flood damage.
The Corps said in 2016 that if the dams failed, they could cause $60 billion in damage to downtown Houston, the refinery-lined Houston Ship Channel and the 21 hospitals and 54 research institutions in the Texas Medical Center.
Harvey has forced the Corps of Engineers to suspend a $75 million retrofit of the dams that was expected to be done by 2020 or 2021.
Late Saturday, Mayor Turner issued a mandatory evacuation order for 300 people in flooded parts of west Houston, where 4,000 homes and apartments have remained mired in floodwaters from continuing releases from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
Turner issued a mandatory evacuation order late Saturday for 300 people who had hunkered down in their homes downstream of the dams, and power was shut off to the homes at 7 a.m. Sunday for the safety of residents and first responders.
“The situation of the release of water from the reservoir is not going to change in the next 10 days. Think of the first responders,” Turner said on Saturday.
The Corps of Engineers said in a statement Sunday that it started a gradual reduction in the water release from the dams Sunday night.
“Downstream homeowners will see a gradual decrease in water elevations as releases are reduced. However, if the area experiences more rain before the reservoirs are empty, higher releases could become necessary again. Therefore, your local emergency management agencies may encourage you to stay out of flooded areas until Buffalo Bayou is within its banks,” the Corps said.
A Freedom of Information Act request by the Sierra Club brought to light a memo the Corps of Engineers circulated internally in July 2010 that stated the dams “currently face significant risks of ‘catastrophic failure.’”
The Corps of Engineers categorized them as “extremely high risk” to move them to the front of the line for federal funding for repairs.
Corps officers backtracked from the doomsday warnings in spring 2016, and said the dams are not in imminent danger of failing, but they were retrofitting the dams out of abundance of caution due to the potential impact of a failure on one of the nation’s biggest cities.
“The fact that the Houston metropolitan area is the nation’s fourth-largest population center is a primary concern,” the agency said at the time. “Any dam safety issues at Addicks and Barker could have a far greater impact due to the magnitude of people and property downstream, as opposed to other dams around the country in rural or low-population density areas.”
The earthen dam embankments are massive – Barker spans more than 13 miles and Addicks a little over 11 miles. The two reservoirs can store up to 410,000 acre feet of water, enough to cover 410,000 acres a foot deep.
CNS reporter James Palmer contributed to this story.