A tale of two de­vel­op­ments: one dev­as­tated by floods, one spared

Houston Chronicle - - CITY | STATE - mike.sny­der@chron.com twit­ter.com/chron­sny­der

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.

Cold com­fort

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.


Mike Sny­der / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

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.

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