A tale of two developments: one devastated by floods, one spared
The sidewalks on Falling Briar Lane were coated with white powder — the residue of countless chunks of ruined Sheetrock ripped out of houses and dragged to the curb. Artifacts of disrupted lives — a backpack, a sodden pair of boots, a blue baby stroller — jutted from the debris piles.
Almost every house on this street, like many others in the Riverstone development in Fort Bend County, had been flooded by Hurricane Harvey. Most residents were still in cleanup mode when I stopped by this week, although the buzz of power saws and the thunk of nail guns demonstrated that some had progressed to the repair stage.
Teresa Swan was hosing down her car when I approached her. She said her home had minor damage, while some of her neighbors were wiped out. And as the online neighborhood grapevine kicked into gear after the storm, Swan said, attention turned to why Riverstone was hit so much harder than other developments along the Brazos River — particularly Sienna Plantation, a few miles southeast.
“We’re really feeling like they used us to dump water on, to protect other neighborhoods,” Swan told me before turning back to her chores.
She didn’t identify “they” — county officials, perhaps, or developers of newer subdivisions — but her remark reminded me of similar comments I had heard a week or so earlier from homeowners in Houston’s Memorial area, where water was rising even as it subsided in other parts of Greater Houston.
The cause of the flooded homes in the Memorial neighborhoods was known and acknowledged: Officials were releasing water from the Addicks
Snyder from page A3 and Barker reservoirs. Those who made this decision knew it would put water into houses downstream along Buffalo Bayou, but they said “controlled releases” were necessary to protect the overloaded reservoirs’ dams.
The reasons for the disparities in Fort Bend County are not so clear. Both examples, though, reinforce a physical principle that we take for granted until we don’t: Water has to go somewhere, and by keeping it out of my house, I might divert it into yours.
A record-breaking flood tends to focus attention on this idea. Jay Blazek Crossley’s essay titled “Stop building neighborhoods that make other neighborhoods flood,” first published on the Chronicle’s Gray Matters web page in May 2016, has enjoyed a resurgence in readership since Harvey.
Neighborhood leaders, for obvious reasons, don’t want their communities to acquire an undeserved reputation for being flood-prone. Rich Muller, an attorney for the Sienna Plantation Levee Improvement District, contacted the Chronicle through an intermediary this week to set the record straight about Harvey’s effects on the community he represents.
“There is this impression that during the event, the levees in Sienna Plantation failed and we had widespread flooding in Sienna Plantation, which is just simply wrong,” Muller said. According to Muller, the levees and pumps protecting the masterplanned community worked well, and only about 65 of its 7,700 houses flooded. Hundreds of houses flooded in Riverstone, according to published estimates.
“A lot of people don’t realize that in Fort Bend County on the Brazos River, there are a number of different levee districts that protect different communities, and they’re not connected in any way to each other,” said Muller.
Levee improvement districts are special-purpose taxing authorities, similar in structure to municipal utility districts. A map on the Fort Bend County website shows 14 levee improvement districts. Two of them cover Riverstone.
Mark Vogler, the chief engineer for the Fort Bend County Drainage District, said runoff from Steep Bank Creek, swollen with water draining off several area developments, was the chief reason for the severe flooding in Riverstone.
I doubt if that explanation will provide much comfort to Teresa Swan or her neighbors.
The recent catastrophic Houston area floods — Memorial Day, Tax Day, Memorial Day Redux, and now Harvey — have prompted bold statements from regional leaders: We’ll invest in new infrastructure, we’ll reexamine development practices, we’ll generally shake up the status quo. A review of Fort Bend County’s system of independent levee districts might also be appropriate.
After any event like Harvey, though, it’s inevitable that some people will be convinced that they suffered so that others could be spared. Floods, like life, simply aren’t fair.
Flooding from Hurricane Harvey damaged hundreds of homes in Fort Bend County’s Riverstone Development. Residents wonder why other developments along the Brazos River were spared.