Shared from the 2017-09-24 Houston Chronicle eEdition
Robert Haines apparently didn’t have a chance. Neither did Cathy Montgomery.
They were neighbors who may never have met, but they had much in common. Both of them were 71-year-old residents of the Memorial area who lived near Buffalo Bayou. Both of them apparently thought they were safe staying home on the fateful night of Aug. 27, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from the Barker and Addicks reservoirs. As a result, both of them drowned inside their homes.
Tragic stories like theirs were all too common in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. So were the questions raised by grieving families and outraged neighbors driven from deluged homes, many of whom believe that, as one flood survivor put it, “the government really screwed up.” We need to answer those questions with a definitive study of the events leading up to this catastrophe and the decisions made by local, state and federal officials. That’s why we need nothing less than a congressional investigation into the disaster that befell the Houston area during and after Hurricane Harvey.
The chain of events that contributed to this calamity began decades before the storm blew ashore, when developers were allowed to build subdivisions the Corps of Engineers knew it might have to flood during a major storm. But that’s just one of the many issues that merits the spotlight of a congressional investigation. Among the most important questions Congress needs to ask are the following:
• Are the dams protecting Houston safe? Corps officials were clearly worried about a catastrophic failure of the dams that protect Houston, but exactly what that means and how close we came to such a disaster has never been defined. “Was there really a risk of failure?” asks environmental attorney Jim Blackburn. “And if there was, why in hell didn’t we hear about it before?”
• Was releasing water from the reservoirs justified? The Corps said it released floodwaters that inundated countless homes to prevent the reservoirs from overflowing amid unprecedented rainfall. That may well have been the right decision, but given the catastrophic consequences this matter deserves a thorough review under the spotlight of a congressional inquiry.
• Why were so many people near reservoirs caught by surprise? The decision to open the reservoirs was made late at night, when many of the people living downstream were asleep. The releases started hours earlier than expected, prompted by heavy rainfall and runoff. Angry residents thought they deserved more notice, and some city officials candidly admit an early warning system should have been in place.
• Did Harris County’s flood control measures contribute to the disaster? Detention pond requirements designed to mitigate the threat of flooding have gone largely unchanged since the mid 1980s. Nonetheless, a Houston Chronicle investigation following last year’s Tax Day floods found that developers routinely undercut detention rules and other flood control regulations. The Corps is currently reviewing the county’s regulations to determine whether they’re tough enough to neutralize the flood risk in a booming area.
• How should FEMA redefine floodplains? Houston has seen so many “100- year floods” in the last few years, the term has become a punchline. The metrics used to determine where floodplains lie have repeatedly proven meaningless. Thus the regulations and insurance rates built on faulty floodplain maps are inherently flawed. Small wonder so many homeowners who thought their homes were safe now face financial ruin because they didn’t carry flood insurance. It’s become abundantly clear the federal government needs to overhaul the way it determines which areas lie in floodplains.
We owe something to storm victims like Robert Haines and Cathy Montgomery, who drowned in the floodwaters of Buffalo Bayou, as well as to our countless neighbors whose homes were damaged or destroyed during this catastrophe. We need a definitive and comprehensive report on what happened in the Houston area as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Congress, too, must shine a light on itself as the institution responsible for oversight of the Corps. We urge our lawmakers in Washington to launch a congressional investigation into not only what went wrong during Hurricane Harvey but also what we must do to minimize the damage and loss of life before the next disaster strikes.