As Harvey’s rain continued to fill up Houston’s Addicks and Barker reservoirs, the Army Corps of Engineers made the difficult decision to release water from the dams, knowing that action would flood homes downstream. Officials say there was no better option, but the decision has sparked a wave of lawsuits from homeowners downstream.
Val Aldred points to a pile of mangled building materials on the front lawn the home in the Memorial neighborhood, where his family’s been for 20 years.
“We have a lot of debris. Garbage sacks, a lot of lumber and timber that’s stacked up on a big, big stack,” Aldred says.
Inside, furniture is piled up in the middle of the room. They’ve already knocked out moldy walls, revealing a skeleton of beams and pipes underneath. Aldred had hoped to avoid all this. And when Harvey’s powerful rains finally stopped, it looked like he had. The water hadn’t reached the house.
“But then, couple hours later, it was getting a little higher and I went, ‘something’s going on here!’ and I had no idea what it was,”Aldred says. “About three in the afternoon it was starting to get pretty high, to where my wife and my daughter were saying, you know, ‘we probably ought to get out of here.’”
What he didn’t know, was the Army Corps of Engineers had released water from the dams not far away, sending it rushing into Buffalo Bayou, which overflowed into their neighborhood. They managed to get out, and made it back to the house several days later. Linda Aldred pulls out her cell phone and plays a video of what they came home to.
“At the last minute we put some things up on paint cans, hoping that would help,” he says.
“We’re standing in front of the basin for Addicks Dam,” saysRichard Long, with the Army Corps of Engineers. “This is where the water passes through our water control structure. And is emptied into the tributaries of Buffalo Bayou downstream.”
“As the reservoirs rose, and we realized that we going to have water start flowing around the end of the dam in an uncontrolled fashion, we had to make the difficult decision to begin releasing the water from the reservoirs so we could achieve a balance that was necessary to continue operating, protecting as many homes as we could downstream, while protecting the integrity of the dams,” Long says
Long says the Army Corps of Engineers realized a few years back that they’re no longer in the flood control business.
“We are in the flood risk management business,” Long says. “Meaning that we can actually help reduce the impacts of floods, but we cannot stop a flood. Here, I have friends upstream and downstream that have water in their houses. And so it’s difficult.”
Derek Potts is an attorney representing the Aldreds and other families in a class action lawsuit against the Harris County Flood Control District and the City of Houston.
“We’re not saying that officials were negligent in releasing the water,” Potts says.
“We’re saying that they released the water, they made a decision to protect some homes but not others, and took my clients’ property rights in the process,” he says. “And just like if you’re building a highway and you take somebody’s property, you have to justly compensate them, per the constitution.”
But this was a flood, not a highway. Blake Hudson teaches property and water law at the University of Houston.
“Sure, this release caused the flooding of this house,” Hudson says. “Or do you characterize it as the storm necessitated the release, and that’s ultimate cause. And so it really depends on how the court takes these factors and looks at them and applies them to the facts of this case.”
Speaking last week on Houston Matters, Hudson said a previous case in which the state of Arkansas sued the Army Corps over a flooding issue left the door open for these kinds of suits, but determined they need to be considered on a case by case basis.
There are at least three federal lawsuits over the homes that were flooded as a result of the dam releases, and more lawsuits in state court. Rick Laminack is an attorney representing families who have filed one of the other suits.
“What I anticipate will eventually happen is that most of these claims, most of these lawsuits will be consolidated into one federal court in Houston,”Hudson said. “And one judge will kind of oversee the entire process for all the cases that have been filed.”
Getting to the bottom of all of that in court, he says, could take years.