By Charlotte Aguilar
Hurricanes with more destructive winds had struck over the decades, but it was the water that Harvey brought five years ago, starting on Aug. 25 and totaling 50 inches in some places, that was so ruinous to neighborhoods in the southwest area of Houston.
Water that filled up Brays Bayou and quickly backed up, gushing into homes, businesses and schools. Water with nowhere to go but up, sending many to their roofs, desperate for rescue.
In West University, 116 homes took on floodwater, and a total of 17 suffered structural damage from the storm. Cleanup services had been lined up by city staff in advance, and within days, it was hard to tell that West U had been in the middle of a natural disaster.
The story was far different in Bellaire, where 2,318 of the city’s 6,688 homes flooded. Solid waste crews and contractors couldn’t keep up with the debris hauled to curbs. Shocked homeowners were left to decide whether to rebuild, even as they reeled from their losses and navigated through bureaucratic red tape.
For government officials, there was the realization that with six major flooding “events” in slightly over a year leading up to Harvey, they were dealing with a new normal. The storms and flooding, they were told by experts, were not aberrations and had to be addressed not only with each city’s own strategies but, as never before, with regional cooperation and planning.
Both West University and Bellaire continued and expanded on infrastructure replacement projects and upgrades that were heavy on drainage improvements. In West U, its five-year Buffalo Speedway project, scheduled for completion early next year, includes installation of 8-by-8-foot box culverts from Bissonnet Street to the outfall at Poor Farm Ditch to keep downpours from turning into floods on West U’s streets. The federal government funded $5.3 million of the cost, with the city responsible for the remaining 20 percent.
Bellaire appointed a Flood Mitigation Task Force shortly after Harvey, which ended up devising three approaches, settling tentatively on a $335 million master drainage concept plan. Under the proposal, Bellaire would work with the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) to expand upon existing drainage, relying heavily on Kilmarnock and Cypress ditches.
Both cities are part of the 137-square-mile Brays Bayou Watershed, which is prioritized in a plan presented by HCFCD in June to create a network of massive tunnels to carry stormwater deep underground from the most flood-prone watersheds to the Gulf of Mexico. The tunnels have reportedly been successful in San Antonio and in Washington, D.C. HCFCD says they are faster and less disruptive to construct than above-ground, culvert systems.
There have been studies by two local institutions that focus more on the human toll of weather disasters than infrastructure, with the Kinder Institute at Rice tracking “resilience and recovery,” and the University of Houston conducting a multi-year study on Harvey’s impact.
And with the specter still lingering of the catastrophe that could have happened with Hurricane Ike in 2008 had it hit not far from where it made landfall, planning for the the so-called “Ike Dike” has accelerated. The $31 billion project spanning the Texas Gulf Coast would create a network of protective gates along Galveston, the Houston Ship Channel and other coastal locations — expected to take 18 years to build — and construct 43 miles of sand dunes as barriers to protect the bays and bayous that are at risk from a storm surge. The House of Representatives approved the Ike Dike last fall, but it still faces a Senate vote, and funding.
Stormwater Conveyance Tunnels
Harris County Flood Control website: https://www.hcfcd.org/Z-08
The Ike Dike
Texas A&M website: https://www.tamug.edu/ikedike/
Bellaire Flood Hazard Mitigation Task Force
West University Buffalo Speedway Project
Hurricane Harvey Recovery
Kinder Institute/Rice University Hurricane Harvey Funding Dashboard
Resilience and Recovery Tracker website
The Impact of Hurricane Harvey
University of Houston study