“Flood City Part 1 and 2”

Houston Press 
September 22, 2016


During the Memorial Day floods in Houston, Brays Bayou jumped its banks and flooded 1,185 homes. A majority of the homes were in Meyerland, one of Houston’s most celebrated neighborhoods.

In Part 1 we told how although southwest Houston received record setting rain on top of an already saturated ground, the complete devastation of the southwest Houston communities could have been avoided. Since 1994, Harris County Flood Control District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have worked on Project Brays, a massive $480 million, flood-control project that will widen 21 miles of the bayou. However, the federal project – the largest partnership project between the Flood Control District and the Corps – is eight years behind schedule and won’t be completed until 2022 at the earliest.

One week after the rain stopped, the City of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department began issuing roughly 1,000 substantial damage predetermination letters to flood-affected homeowners. The letter states that a homeowner who has suffered substantial damage under the 50 percent rule – if repair costs exceed 50 percent of the structure’s pre-flood value – then their foundation and structure, under floodplain regulations, needs to be raised by at least one foot. Critics say that these letters were rushed and filled with misinformation or not enough information. The result has been panic among displaced residents who are still living in rentals for the foreseeable future. Many abandoned their homes after receiving the letters that critics say are inaccurate.

Part 2: The Houston Fire Department was outmatched and overwhelmed during its response to this devastating flood. Three people, including an elderly couple and a younger man who trusted the Fire Department to save them, were instead swept to their deaths after their rescue boat capsized. Months of investigation and open records requests, as well as interviews with a survivor uncovered the facts that: HFD did not train its firefighters in swiftwater conditions, used leaky boats and lacked proper life jackets. Disorganization and personnel shortages significantly hampered the department’s ability to deal with the situation. And although the HFD claimed there was no swiftwater training available, a check with other departments in Texas found that such training wasn’t far away at all.

Other media walked away from this as an event story. We spent months digging into what happened and the reasons behind the failures on several fronts. Aggressive, dogged reporting got the answers the City of Houston fought to keep secret.

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Submitted by Margaret Downing.

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