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Flood risksHouston officials let developers build homes inside reservoirs. But no one warned buyers.

By Neena Satija, Kiah Collier, and Al Shaw

Published 13 October 2017

Hurricane Harvey forced many Houston-area residents to realize that their homes were built inside the two massive reservoirs which had been built west of Houston decades ago to protect the city from catastrophic flooding. These homeowners are now coming to terms with the fact that in big enough rainstorms, their neighborhoods are actually designed to flood. Trouble is, nobody told them about it. Today, about 14,000 homes are located inside the reservoirs, or “flood pools,” as city planners call them.

When Jeremy Boutor moved to a master-planned community in Houston’s booming energy corridor, he saw it as idyllic.

Lakes on Eldridge boasted waterfalls, jogging trails and a clubhouse. It was upscale, secure and close to the office. A bus even picked up his two young sons in front of their house and took them to a nearby international school.

“This neighborhood was a paradise,” said Boutor, who moved to Houston from Paris two years ago after his employer, a French-based energy company, asked him to relocate.

Then, Hurricane Harvey changed everything.

As the downpours began and Boutor studied maps flashing on his TV screen, he realized that his home wasn’t at risk of flooding just because of record rainfall; it was also located inside one of two massive reservoirs that had been built west of Houston decades ago to protect the city from catastrophic flooding.

Boutor ended up with more than a foot of water in his house and was forced to wade out of his home in knee-deep water with his 10-year-old son clinging to his back.

He and his neighbors are now coming to terms with the fact that in big enough rainstorms, their neighborhoods are actually designed to flood. And nobody told them about it.

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the two reservoirs known as Addicks and Barker on what was then mostly empty prairie, their chief goal was to protect the center of the city, 20 miles downstream.

The vast basins are dry most of the time, dotted with wooded parks and sports fields, and are contained on their eastern boundaries by large, earthen dams. During rainstorms, floodwater accumulates behind those dams in areas known as “flood pools” and backs up to the west; how far it goes depends on how big the rainstorm is and where it hits.

That system worked well when the reservoirs were surrounded by prairie and rice fields. But in recent decades, development has encroached from all sides. Today, about 14,000 homes are located inside them. During Harvey, when more floodwater accumulated behind the dams than ever before, 5,138 of those homes flooded.

Some local government officials, like Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, say they’ve warned residents for years during town halls and other public events about the risks of living in or around the reservoirs.

“It is very difficult to make people believe the unbelievable,” Radack said. “No one ever believed the reservoirs would fill.”