Life in Houston is becoming all too predictable – first, the rain. Then, the floods. Why is this happening? And what can be done to stop it? Stay with the Chronicle as our reporters ask those questions and search for answers.
For years, the Houston area has been losing ground
May 29, 2015
As torrential rains have pounded the city in consecutive years, leading to repeated, heavy and deadly flooding, this inconvenient fact contributes to the region’s misery.
Parts of Harris County have dropped between 10 and 12 feet since the 1920s, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey.
State and local officials have made various efforts over the past 40 years to stabilize the ground, but some areas continue to sink - by as much as 2 inches per year.
The trouble with living in a swamp: Houston floods explained
June 5, 2015
Things get bad when Houston floods. Water swamps homes, takes lives and shuts down the city. But it should be so much worse. There shouldn’t even be a city here.
But there is, and most Houstonians casually accept the enormous drainage system—the bayous, creeks and gullies—that keep it precariously dry in a former wetland.
The weather is outpacing Harris County’s effort to tame, and according to scientists it’s not going to stop.
Residents want answers after neighborhood floods
June 12, 2015
Built 15 years ago, Stable Gate is a relatively small, modestly aspirational upper-middle-class neighborhood off Telge Road, home to a healthy contingent of baby boomers for whom the large, two-story homes represent a lifetime of hard work. For many of them, such as travel business owner Tina Hearn, it figured to be the last house they would own. Now they say they couldn’t sell if they wanted to, certainly not for the appraised values, which typically exceed $400,000.
“Everything I worked for in my whole life is in this house,” said Hearn, whose home flooded a second time last month. “We moved here from Baytown because we were concerned about hurricanes. We never dreamed a rainstorm could come in and take it all away.”
All it took was a single night of rain, pounding and relentless, for the entire Little Cypress Creek watershed to be overwhelmed. Massive rainfall upstream slowly made its way down the narrow floodway to the southeast, where the creek eventually connects with its bigger brother, Cypress Creek. As it did, water flowing into it from a variety of sources, including Stable Gate’s pipes and ditch, had no outlet. Seeking equilibrium, it spread out and in some cases pushed back in the direction from which it had come.
It’s as simple as that, says the Harris County Flood Control District: too much rain.
Some Greenspoint-area flood victims face a crippling choice
July 3, 2015
Images of residents escaping rising floodwaters at Houston’s Arbor Court apartments in April - riding inflatable rafts, dump trucks, even a refrigerator - stunned many after a deadly storm soaked the city in up to 15 inches of rain.
But that scene should have come as no surprise to the federal government, which began subsidizing the Greenspoint-area complex long after it was deemed to be at a high risk for flooding.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development started providing rental assistance at Arbor Court in 1991, six years after the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s first detailed floodplain map of Houston listed the property in the 100-year floodplain.
Yet that knowledge did not factor into housing officials’ decision to subsidize the 232-unit complex or renew its assistance contract nine times, as recently as last summer.
Houston’s development boom and reduction of wetlands leave region flood prone
July 24, 2015
In the greater Houston area, though, the staggering increase of impervious surfaces — roads, sidewalks, parking lots, anything covered with asphalt and concrete — has exacerbated the effects of flooding as development in the region has exploded. When land is covered by these surfaces, it loses ability to act like a sponge and soak up water. Things are further complicated in flat-as-a-pancake Houston, where much of the soil is heavily compacted and acts like pavement anyway, sending sheets of storm water to the nearest low-lying area.
A recent analysis of federal satellite data by the Houston Advanced Research Center for the Houston Chronicle shows that 337,000 acres of 1.1 million acres in Harris County were covered by impervious surfaces in 2011, the most recent year of data. That dwarfs surrounding counties, but the analysis shows many are catching up as the onslaught of development continues pushing from the city farther into the suburbs.
Houston’s dams are old, beat up and a vital line of defense
Sept. 3, 2015
Richard Long drove along empty roads that were almost impossible to see, thanks to an unrelenting downpour and early morning darkness. He tried to follow the yellow line on FM 1093 but found himself drifting into turn lanes.
Long was the first to arrive at the Army Corps of Engineers’ small office off Highway 6 in west Houston, where he had worked for 35 years. As he waited for his team on April 18, still before 5 a.m., he worried about what the water would do to Addicks and Barker dams, each seven decades old and rated seven years ago by the Corps among the nation’s six most unsafe dams. Major repairs are ongoing.
At daybreak, Long went out to check on them, as pounding rain drowned out all other sound. Water rushed into the reservoirs faster than he had ever seen, transforming acres of woods and parks into lakes.
Later that day, the Corps’ district commander came in from Galveston, followed by a dozen volunteers. They would work 12-hour shifts, walking along the dams and riding in UTVs, searching for movement and wet spots, checking groundwater levels.
The rain finally relented, but the water in the reservoirs kept rising. Every day. For seven days.
Measures to control flooding falling short as area grows
Dec. 24, 2015
When Meg Poissant first moved into the Washington Avenue corridor a quarter century ago, chickens wandered quiet streets in the shadow of the downtown skyline.
Then came the towering apartments and packed townhomes, and a bustling bar scene. Feeling hemmed in, many neighbors filled in the drainage ditches in front of their homes for parking.
Now, when it rains, water pours off the new buildings, races across asphalt and pools at Poissant’s top step. For the attorney, it’s no accident that the flooding followed the area’s rapid rebirth.
How to fix he Houston floods
Jan. 1, 2016
Houston will flood again, like it always does.
Rain will back up storm drains, bayous will overflow, water will wreck thousands of homes and people may die. There will be calls for drastic action, but time will pass, and the urgency to respond will fade.
Then Houston will flood again, like it always does.
But the solutions are out there.
“We literally know how to eliminate flooding,” said Wayne Klotz, a veteran Houston flood engineer and past president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
The problem, said Houston flood czar Steve Costello, is that the public’s zeal for protection – and the hefty investment it would require – only thrives while the destruction is fresh.
What needs to be decided is how far taxpayers are willing to go. Cars don’t have airbags to absorb a hit from a train. Should Houston have a drainage system to contain a biblical storm? Where does the city draw the line?
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