City in a Swamp: Houston’s Flood Problems Are Only Getting Worse

A tour of flood-damaged neighborhoods still recovering from Hurricane Harvey reveals choices that left this booming city exposed to the risks of climate change.

A version of this story was originally published in Scalawag Magazine.

In a corner office in City Hall last July, Stephen Costello ticked off Houston's recent floods from memory: Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 dumped on the northeastern part of town. A storm in 2009 hit the west side. 2015 saw Memorial Day flooding swamp the northwest closer to downtown, while Halloween rains slammed the south side. The Tax Day floods of 2016, the worst since Allison, spread across the city; Memorial Day that year saw the county northwest of Houston underwater.

Then came Hurricane Harvey, and everywhere turned to soup.

It is Costello's job to make sure that whenever the waters arrive, the city is prepared. He is Houston's "flood czar," a position minted the day after those Tax Day floods to respond to more frequent and damaging storms. Yet Costello has no dedicated staff and no clear job description. A whiteboard attests to his "all the above approach." It's more a wish list, with initiatives from bayou renovation and wetland protection to citizen participation in simple storm-drain maintenance.

"The unique thing about Houston," he said, "is we're never going to prevent flooding. All we can do is try to mitigate for it."

Residents walk out of their flooded neighborhood after water was released from Addicks Reservoir in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey's record rainfall. Credit: Erich Schlagel/Getty Images

Residents walk out of their flooded neighborhood after water was released from Addicks Reservoir following Hurricane Harvey's record rainfall. Credit: Erich Schlagel/Getty Images

How Houston residents feel about this position, and about Costello, says much about what they think of the city's flood-protection efforts these days.

They are surely less optimistic after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey in August. The numbers hint at the scale: More rainfall than from any U.S. storm in 138 years of record-keeping, with more than 60 inches of rain reported in two locations, according to the National Hurricane Center. Fifty thousand 911 calls on the first night alone. At least 68 people dead. Half a million cars flooded out.

Images of Houston underwater remind us that the place is subtropical, less like the vision of Texas as tumbleweed country and more like the dank wetlands of southern Louisiana. Built atop a swamp, the city—now the nation's fourth largest—has been booming. Since 2000, the metropolitan population has jumped from around 4.5 million to nearly 6.3 million.

That's meant more homes at risk of flooding and more paved land to usher the water downstream. Houston, bustling with engineers, has constructed an elaborate series of reservoirs and channels to remove its water safely into Galveston Bay. But the water has gone delinquent.

Developers and Politics

Flooding is a threat throughout Houston and surrounding Harris County. But the battles to address the floods are fought neighborhood to neighborhood. If tony River Oaks floods, the residents call City Hall. White Oak Bayou floods and its neighbors sue the county.

Dean Bixler lives in Memorial City, itself home to a local drama. While he escaped much damage during Harvey, his home has flooded three times since he bought it in 1996. He's lost two cars to the water. Gruff, goateed and fatalistic, Bixler chuckled at what he sees as callousness from the city.           

"Now, three floods later, they are still developing as if the area is not a flood hazard," he said.

After Hurricane Harvey, residents living near Barker Dam are brought by boat to check on their flooded homes. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Hurricane Harvey dropped more than 5 feet of rain in parts of Texas, the most of any U.S. storm on modern record, according to the National Hurricane Center. Afterward, residents living near Barker Dam were brought by boat to check on their flooded homes. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In 2009, his neighbors formed Residents Against Flooding (RAF) to battle what they deem official complacency. In their neighborhood, much of the property is owned and developed by MetroNational.

Much of the flooding in Memorial is exacerbated, RAF claims, by development in the area. The city, they charge, does nothing to reign in developers. Ed Browne, president of RAF, told me, "There's no zoning, so you can pretty much do whatever you want. Or whatever you can convince the politicians to let you do." Developers' connections appear to be well lubricated. MetroNational put on a fundraiser for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner during his primary race in 2014. The following year, former MetroNational President Jim Jard hosted a Super Bowl party, and Turner and his then-opponent, Stephen Costello, were in attendance. MetroNational did not respond to requests for comment.

Bixler, Browne and their neighbor Cynthia Neely took me through the neighborhood to show the consequences of Houston's building practices. Browne, an engineer, blames fill dirt for much of the flood risk: Before construction, developers truck in thousands of cubic feet of earth to lift the base of buildings and prevent flooding. But that fix upstream sends more water downstream, where many older houses are not elevated.

Residents Against Flooding alleged as much in a lawsuit filed against the city in 2016. RAF charged that the city postponed mandated mitigation to contain runoff from new construction, so that "hundreds of homes in the Memorial City area have suffered repeated and horrific flooding." Houston's lawyers responded that the city did not do anything to intentionally flood residents, and that "the Fourth Amendment addresses the 'misuse of power,' not the incidental effects of otherwise lawful government conduct." The case was dismissed in federal court, but is currently under appeal.

Life Downstream

When I spoke with Cynthia Neely before Harvey, her home had never flooded. That was still true after the heaviest rains of Harvey passed. On Aug. 27, a Sunday, she saw the water levels outside dropping. The sun came out; she and her family took a walk. But then the flow reversed, and the levels began to rise again. Night fell. Sewer water gurgled up through her shower and tub, spreading across her bathroom floor and into her bedroom, where it met with water that had surged past the front door.

Harvey's flooding carried dead animals, chemicals, debris and, infamously, floating colonies of fire ants. That noxious brew sat in Neely's house for a week.

Cynthia Neely's son, Robert Neely, sits in the family's flood-damaged home after Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

Cynthia Neely's son, Robert Neely, sits in the family's flood-damaged home after Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

Her first floor had to be gutted, and the house was rendered all but worthless. Neely hopes to sell for the value of the lot. For months, a pile of junk sat on the grass out front like a beached whale.

The late-hitting flood came because the Army Corps of Engineers determined that Harvey's rains were about to overrun two huge reservoirs on the west side of town, Addicks and Barker. A "controlled release" of water, into Buffalo Bayou, reduced pressure on the dam. "This whole Memorial area was the reservoir's detention basin," Neely said.

More inflow to the reservoirs would have meant overflow or, worse, a catastrophic dam failure. That possibility is not abstract: the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rated the two dams in 2009 among the six most at-risk in the country.

Houston's Barker Dam, where water was released into neighborhoods in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

Water behind Houston's Barker Dam spilled into neighborhoods following Hurricane Harvey's extreme rainfall. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

"Anger is what keeps me from crying," Neely said. "We lost all three cars. We lost our home. I don't think it can be restored."

"We said it over and over, for years and years, and nobody would listen," she added. "People before thought 'oh, you're just an alarmist.' My husband was one of them! Because we had never flooded."

Asked about the flooding after Harvey, the Corps, in a statement, emphasized the sheer volume of the rainfall: "The United States Army Corps of Engineers does not intend to flood anyone and projects are operated in a manner deliberately and carefully designed to preserve the structure and protect life and property to the fullest extent possible. The two reservoirs are not designed or intended to prevent all flooding occasioned by every massive storm in the Houston area, and cannot in practice prevent all flooding during such storms."

Downstream residents caught in the dams' releases have initiated a series of lawsuits against the Corps for "inverse condemnation," claiming that their property was taken for use by the government without due compensation. Upstream residents have filed suit as well, citing surprising backflow from reservoirs.

Manchester, the Bottom of the Stream

Adjacent to the Houston Ship Channel and surrounded by petrochemical processing is Manchester, a heavily Hispanic neighborhood that environmental justice activist Yvette Arellano of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) described as "the most polluted community in the entire nation." And that, she said, is because "there's no zoning. We have homes and hospitals, clinics, daycares, sitting right next to refineries and chemical plants. That's just what Houston is."

The Manchester neighborhood sits adjacent to the Valero refinery where chemicals including benzene were released during Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

The Manchester neighborhood sits adjacent to the Valero refinery where chemicals including benzene were released during Hurricane Harvey. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

During Harvey, floodwaters swirled through those plants on their way into Manchester. The Valero refinery that abuts the neighborhood leaked benzene into the air when a storage tank's roof failed. Power was out and the air sweltering, so many residents kept their windows and doors open, increasing their exposure. A week after the storm, the air still showed elevated levels of the carcinogen.

A mural in Manchester shows children playing in a park next to petrochemical plants that border the community. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

A mural in Manchester shows children playing in a park next to petrochemical plants that border the community. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

Marccus Hendricks, a University of Maryland professor who has studied environmental preparedness and resiliency in Houston, explained that "systematic, structural and invisible social processes take place every day," isolating lower-income communities and communities of color.

Much of Manchester's drainage is simply open-air ditches, which after heavy rains or flooding breed mosquitoes. "Disaster is providing a unique opportunity where these things are illuminated," Hendricks said.

"The markets have always looked down for the bottom line," Arellano told me. "And when you look at the bottom line, and you try to make it as cost-efficient as possible, the most cost-efficient way to approach anything is by inundating all the bad stuff on poor communities. It's always been that way."

Climate Change and Concrete

"Flooding has been a hot button issue since basically the 1920s in Houston-Harris County," said Matt Zeve, director of operations at the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD). The district, created in 1937 in response to widespread flooding—1929 and 1935 saw particularly damaging deluges—is charged specifically with preventing riverine flooding from bayous and reservoirs.

"I don't know what else to tell you—it's always flooded here, it always will flood here. But the thing is if you happen to be that group of people that has been negatively affected by a flood, then it gets in your head," Zeve said.

The HCFCD relies on historical data, using records of rainfalls past to estimate future events. Accordingly, water mitigation systems are put in place to retain rainfalls that might be expected every x number of years.

Hundred-year floodplains are an especially important benchmark. These are areas prone to flood in a rainfall predicted only once every hundred years, with a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year. Their contours help define where flood mitigation is most urgent and what should be built where; building codes become more restrictive inside, and lenders within often require federal flood insurance, subsidized by FEMA.

The Tax Day Flood of 2016 killed at least five people and flooded streets and neighborhoods across the Houston area. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The Tax Day flood of 2016 killed eight people and flooded streets and neighborhoods across the Houston area. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Houston-Harris County has experienced a run of 100-year floods—last year's Tax Day flood was a 10,000-year event in some places, and Harvey was the largest rainstorm event on record in the continental U.S. "In terms of heavy rainfall, you take any threshold you want—6 inches in a day, 8 inches in a day, whatever—the likelihood of surpassing that threshold sometime in a given year has increased by about 30 percent over the past century," said Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon.

The city and the district do not attribute recent rainfall patterns to a changing climate, though. Mike Talbott, the HCFCD's last director, who retired last year, outright dismissed climate change as an explanation for the frequent storms in an interview with ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.

Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer, disagrees. "Of course climate change is involved! I bet we've had 10 100-year-plus storms in the last 40 years. Statistically that's not supposed to happen. But with climate change, your statistical base is by definition changing. We don't keep up with that. That's where the denial really undercuts everything you're trying to do," he said.

An increase in impervious surfaces is also widely cited as worsening runoff. Texas A&M-Galveston marine scientist Sam Brody has calculated that each additional square meter of paved surface causes about $4,000 of increased damage per flood event in the pavement's watershed.

More runoff means more "sheet flow," water skirting across the ground on its way to channels and ponds; this flow is to blame for many newly flooding residences of late—even outside of Harvey—some half of which, flood czar Costello notes, "are nowhere near floodplains."

City Fixes and City Money

Houston is chaotic in places, pragmatic and more concerned with functionality than style, its impressive McMansions aside. It has an abundance of engineers, but urban planning and funding for flood protection have often been thin.

Costello ran an engineering business in Houston for decades before joining the City Council in 2009. "The biggest challenge that we have here, particularly with the drainage issues, is public trust," he said. 

Stephen Costello. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

Stephen Costello, Houston's flood czar. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

To rebuild that trust, Costello points to things like an adopt-a-drain initiative that invites residents to clear debris from storm drains, or maintenance of plants and trees.

Chris Bell, a former city councilman and U.S. congressman who ran for mayor against Turner and Costello, tried to secure more funding for flood protection while in Congress but found it a difficult political sell. "We live in a very immediate-gratification society. And infrastructure: those are long-term projects, usually looking out for what's going to happen in the future. We just kind of turned our back, because it doesn't bring any immediate gratification and it's expensive," he said.

While there is more money and more political will in Harvey's wake, funding public works can be tough in Texas, where politicians like to attribute the state's economic success to its limited taxes and regulation.

Neely, whose house flooded in Memorial City, predicts that Houston "may not be on the map much longer. We have a horrific, catastrophic event waiting in the wings. And I don't think that if they started today they could move fast enough to prevent it from happening, unless we just get lucky." But when Mayor Turner tried to hike property taxes to pay for storm cleanup, Neely found it "morally reprehensible"—had Houstonians not suffered enough?

Some of the highways through Houston were designed to channel floodwater away from other infrastructure. Credit: Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

Highways around Houston filled with flood water during Hurricane Harvey, helping to channel it away from downtown and other infrastructure. Credit: Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

The city of Houston voted on a bond referendum in 2010 to authorize a property tax hike to fund flooding-resilience projects. It has put this money to use updating drainage systems as part of its ReBuild Houston initiative, and flood czar Costello expects the fund to keep growing, from $250 million this year to $600 million by 2030.

The budget will evaporate, though, if a lawsuit filed by what Costello calls "no-new-taxes people" is successful. In 2015, a group of Houstonians challenged the wording of the referendum as misleading. The lawsuit could mean the bond's repeal, and the funding from the tax would dry up, leaving the city with fewer options to keep the water at bay.

But during boom times in a city built on oil wealth, it's easy as gravity to let development run its natural course, downstream neighbors be damned. In that regard, flooding in Houston looks quite a bit like climate change globally, which in turn feeds Houston's flooding. The necessary steps to battle both problems clash with the dictates of deregulated capitalism. Water just makes tangible the logic that otherwise proceeds out of sight.

For now, the city is rich and growing, diverse, humming with work and cultural capital. Harvey was yesterday. Today's forecast calls for sun. Tomorrow may never come.

Top photo: Street flooding is becoming a frequent problem in Houston. Credit: Sammy Feldblum/Scalawag Magazine

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