Author’s Note: Unlike my typical posts, this post is not about ideas and policies (although I have snuck in a few). This post provides the explanation my readers deserve as to why there has been a hiatus in my blogging.
The hiatus is a result of me being preoccupied dealing with the havoc of “Hurricane Harvey.” (Of all the luck! As if having the name “Harvey” and getting hit hard by a hurricane weren’t bad enough, the hurricane further sullied the name! Then, while I was down, the Harvey Weinstein story broke.) Below is a summary of what happened as best I can remember, and an expression of my appreciation to those who helped us so much during this disaster.
I say, “as best I can remember” because I, like so many others who were significantly affected by the hurricane and flooding, got and still am suffering from something we Houstonians are calling “hurricane brain.” We are told that the effect is a natural human response to traumatic events. Its main effect on me has been a fuzziness as to exactly when certain things happened, difficulty focusing on the tasks at hand, and general fatigue. I’ve just recently recovered enough to focus on writing, but I could not swear to the complete accuracy of the timing of each detail.
Because there were so many events crammed into a short amount of time, and because I have so many people to thank, this post is long. If you come to this blog only for discussion of ideas and policies, I would suggest you skip this one.
The first major shock from Hurricane Harvey was learning that there was about 3” of water on the first floor of our daughter’s townhouse. The torrential rains over many hours on August 26 had swollen Buffalo Bayou, especially at a low spot where her townhome sits. (Her complex wound up on the news. The street in front of her complex, Memorial Drive, was impassable for over a week.) She and her family (husband and two boys ages 4.5 and 1.5 years) had slept peacefully that night to the silence of the civil defense sirens. They woke up with water in their home, and the rain was still coming down in bucket loads. Their two cars were trapped in their garage because the streets of the complex (purposely sunken to keep water out of the townhomes) were flooded.
Our home is only two blocks east of hers. After learning about their situation, I called to tell them that I was on my way (walking) to help them evacuate to our house. I asked them to pack up as much of what they would need as we could carry out. When I arrived I told them that, despite there being only a few inches of water in their house, I had had to wade through more than two feet of moving water to get to their doorstep. This news caused them to pare back on the few possessions they had thought they could carry. We spent several minutes moving a few of their more valuable things upstairs before we headed out. I put water wings on my youngest grandson, pulled him into my arms, and headed into the deep water toward our house. To my delight, when I got to the exit of the complex, our son (who also lives nearby) was waving for us to get in his truck. The water in the townhouse complex was too deep for his F150 to get closer and the water on Memorial was too deep for anything but trucks He chauffeured us safely to our house.
With everyone in a safe spot we breathed a little easier until it dawned on us we might not be safe in our house for long. Based on how the water in the yard was rising, the forecasts for more rain, and the rising water levels in the two detention reservoirs upstream of our location, we feared that our never-flooded, 66 year house that was our family home for the last 32 years would soon be flooded. (The picture below shows why we thought our days of above the water level were in extreme jeopardy.) We needed a place to stay but were concerned that all hotels would already be packed. To our amazement, we were able to get two rooms (one for my wife Mary Beth and me, and our two little dogs, and another for our daughter’s family) in a nearby Sheraton hotel.
Fearing the worst, we did what we could to elevate furniture and other items that we hoped to save (mostly lifted onto folding chairs and countertops). After that massive effort, we headed to the Sheraton.
The Sheraton was wonderful under the circumstances. It offered steep discounts and did a tremendous job under very difficult circumstances. Due to many impassible roads and hotel employees dealing with disasters at their own homes, the hotel was being operated with only five people for much of the week we were there. They worked in shifts to take care of an overflow of guests with great kindness we all appreciated.
The hotel was full of stir-crazy kids, and we, especially our daughter, did what we could to provide things for the kids to do, and give their parents a break. The Sheraton was sold out with a long waiting list the day after we arrived. Whew, we got in just under the wire!
As of the time we took shelter at the Sheraton, our house had survived the effects of Harvey’s record rainfall. (See picture above.) To understand what happened next, you need to know some things about Houston. It’s “Primary Metropolitan Statistical Areas” is huge, 6304 square miles (equivalent to 79 x 79 miles). Its topography is basically flat, “Houston, often popularly referred to as the Bayou City, is crossed by a number of slow-moving, swampy rivers, which are essential to draining the region’s broad floodplains. . . .”[i] Houston in general, and its west side in particular, is guarded from rivers that flow through the area from the north and west (where Harvey had been parked for days) by two originally large and deep reservoirs. These reservoirs are now shallower by 20’ of silt buildup[ii] and filled with a forest of large trees, which not only occupy a significant portion of the reservoirs’ capacities, they prevent dredging and silt removal.
On the map below, you can see the proximity of our house to the Buffalo Bayou which is beyond the end of our long cul-de-sac street. The elevation of our lot is about five feet above the elevation of the lot at the end of the street. Because of the slope of the land, the five foot “lake” between our lot and the lot at the end can hold a huge amount of water. Because of that, we had not come close to flooding during tropical storm Allison and hurricane Ike (although I believe houses at the end of the street did).
Almost 12” of rain fell on Houston on August 27th. By late in the day Harvey was moving to the east and the rain intensity was lessening. Our house was still dry and we felt we had a good chance of avoiding disaster. The next day, however, we learned that late on the 27th water had begun flowing through the spillway of the reservoir to our west as a result of high volumes of water flowing into the reservoir (raising the water level in the reservoir by a record amount to near capacity). Massive volumes of water downstream of the dam, however, continued to flow to the Gulf of Mexico. As of that evening, more water was leaving the system than was entering the system below the dams and our house was still dry, but we were very worried.
To our great joy, by the morning of August 28th, the rains were mostly showers and the water level on our street was falling—despite water continuing to flow through the spillways. Less than 2” of rain fell in Houston on the 28th. We believed the worst was over and we had made it.
During the day of August 28th, however, we heard this announcement, “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Galveston District is starting water releases immediately from Addicks and Barker dams because water levels in the reservoirs have increased dramatically in the last few hours [as a result of rain runoff flowing into them from the west and northwest].” The reasons given were vague and varied[iii], and, I believe was not the real reason for the releases.[iv] (Endnote iv contains my thoughts about the irresponsible and self-interested conduct of the Army Corps of Engineers before and during the hurricane.) It was to be a controlled release of water at a rate that they believed would keep current flood levels in place for a few days, i.e., anyone who was not yet flooded should not be flooded by the releases. That was somewhat comforting. We knew that we would have to tend to our daughter’s family’s housing, but at least our house shouldn’t be “underwater.”
1 Large green areas represent the reservoirs.
A Facebook friend messaged me asking, “Is the release from the reservoirs going to cause your house to flood?” My somewhat doubtful answer was, “Not unless the forecasters screw up. They are intending to release only what they can and not cause the Buffalo Bayou level to exceed the max level already achieved. If they know what they are doing and the rain does not surprise them, we should be home free.”
As it turned out, my doubts reflected in “If they know what they are doing” proved to be warranted.
On the morning of the August 29th the rain was intermittent and not heavy, i.e., the Corps engineers were not surprised by unanticipated rain. Massive quantities of water downstream of the dams were racing down the bayous toward the Gulf of Mexico. I went to check on our house and found the water level on our lot to be below our slab by several inches. To my surprise it appeared the Corps of Engineers both calculated safe release levels correctly and executed flawlessly. Then I went inside. Overnight about an inch of water had come into our house. That inch of water ruined the carpets and underlying wood floors, but most of the house had tile floors and the water did not get up to our many wood cabinets that had been installed as part of a complete renovation of the house in 2000.
Before the Corps started its controlled releases from the reservoirs the maximum water level had been about 4” below our slab. After the releases it was a about an inch above. We were disappointed the government had not been more competent. A miss of less than six inches (though monumentally consequential for many people) was more competent than could be reasonably expected of the government. (It may have been a high water mark of government competency.) In short, we didn’t believe we could complain too much because the damage to our house was relatively minor, many others in Houston were experiencing catastrophic consequences, and we figured we would be able to move back into our home fairly soon.
The realization that our daughter’s family was in dire straits weighed heavily on our hearts and minds, but we knew we could get through the disaster if nothing worse happened.
The carpet and pad needed to be removed from the house so it could dry out before mold took over its contents. My wife thought I should hire the work out, whenever that might be. I called several home restoration companies, but got only voicemail at every one of them. I suspected that if any called me back, I would wind up with a high number in a very long queue. So I decided to go back to the house to assess whether I could take on the job of removing the carpet and pads.
My wife let our son, Preston, know what I was up to. Preston and a close family friend, Subhi Khudairi who went to high school with Preston and married the daughter of Mary Beth’s best friend, showed up to encourage me not to take on the task. Preston reminded me of how big a job it was when we tore out carpet from his house after hurricane Ike flooded a house he previously owned. While I agreed that job was really hard (one I couldn’t handle on my own if the job at our house would be that difficult), I was doubtful that our carpet would be that hard to remove because our carpet wasn’t nearly as thick as his was.
I also told them that I feared that it would take so long to get a professional team to our house that mold would take it over, and that all I intended to do that day was take out enough carpet to see how hard it would be for me to get it out in case we could not get professionals out soon. I knew Preston and Subhi had plenty of other friends experiencing greater tragedies with which they could help, and I urged them to let me do the work at a slow pace whenever I could. Wanting me not to take on that big a job myself, and wanting to help me, Preston and Subhi looked into getting some help to take it on that afternoon.
While they were rustling up help, I went into our master closet and discovered that our carpet was much easier to remove than Preston’s had been. I had half the carpet and pad in the master closet removed before they got off their phones. Amazingly, Subhi was able to get two very strong guys who worked for his family’s business to get to our house within the hour. By early evening we had all the carpet and pad removed from the house and got a lot more furniture up onto folding chairs in case of additional flooding. We cannot thank enough Subhi, his employees and his family, especially his mother Sawsen who made things happen pronto, for all they did for us.
We were still feeling positive about our chances of not being flooded because the Corps surely could see that it had been releasing too much water to prevent the water levels downstream from rising and would take corrective action.
Disaster struck that evening. The next morning we had more than a foot of water in the house. That was enough to ruin the lower cabinets everywhere in the house and all the furniture that was too heavy to lift up onto chairs. At that point we knew that the home in which our children were raised would be razed. Most of the houses on our street that had been sold in recent years had been torn down and replaced by great big new homes. We had been building a new house in a nearby neighborhood for over a year, and knew we would sell our home when it was time to move into the new place. We were not sure, but were hopeful that our nice 2000 remodel would entice someone to buy it to live in. The property would not only be more valuable in that event, but the home that meant so much to us would not be torn down. After it flooded, it made no sense to pour a lot of money into fixing it up only to run the risk that it would be torn down anyway.
After dealing with (and reeling from) the new reality for a day, it dawned on us that we needed a place to live until construction of our new home is completed—which could be as much as a year if construction labor were to become scarce as a result of repair or replacement of all the flooded homes in the city.
On August 30th we began our search. Normally we are not spontaneous buyers, we consider our options. With 40,000 homes having flooded in Houston, we were not surprised to learn that apartments were being leased up like hotcakes, and very few were available. Leasing quickly was of the essence.
We discovered that several complexes near our house had one bedroom apartments available, and set out to see them. The first complex we visited was nice. Inasmuch as we both live and work out of our home, however, seeing a tiny one bedroom apartment caused us to worry that it would be uncomfortably small. We asked the agent if any two bedroom apartments would come available soon and learned one would be available on October 7. Uncharacteristically, rather than shop around, we signed leases for both apartments that afternoon.
While all this was going on we also rented additional air conditioned storage space at Life Storage so we could fully vacate the house. Shortly thereafter there was no air conditioned storage for let anywhere near our part of town. Thankfully two of our close friends offered parts of their garages for storage of things that did not need air conditioning.
Then we needed to figure out how to quickly move stuff from our flooded house. That involved a huge amount of sorting, culling, and packing. Moving companies were fully booked. The help we got from family and friends in this process was overwhelming and essential.
Our son, Preston, is an accomplished business consultant. He took charge of organizing our tasks and the tasks of all the people who had offered to help him and us. With our hurricane fried brains it would have taken us an extremely long time to do half as good a job of getting us out of the past and into our future life. Preston got the job done in two days. Our daughter Andrea (who took time out from dealing with her own flooding issues), our great friends, Toni Meason, Ed Peine, and Judy Stockton were amazingly helpful. Under Preston’s guidance we sorted through what needed to be kept and what we could leave behind. (A silver lining to this event is that our children who will someday have to sort through our stuff to decide what to keep and what to toss will be spared going through a massive amount of unimportant stuff as a result of us doing so much of it now.)
While we worked on staging our stuff to be moved, some friends of friends, who had lost nearly everything in the flood, came by and carried off furniture and other things we could give or loan to them. By the afternoon of the second day we had staged what needed to go to the new apartment, to the rented storage, and to friends’ garages. The next thing we knew six “Frostwood Dads” (Frostwood is the elementary school in our neighborhood) with three pickups, one of which had a large trailer attached to its hitch. A short time later everything was where it needed to be.
Speaking of friends: The road in front of our daughter’s townhouse complex was flooded for about a week. Almost every townhouse had been flooded (our daughter’s by about 4’). The 164 townhouse complex was evacuated in extreme emergency conditions, and people were doing without many necessities and worried about valuables left behind. The home owners association for the complex organized two boats to ferry people from the main street to their townhouses. People from 50 townhouses were in the que to get a boatlift. On the first salvo, one of the boats dinged its prop on something and was dead in the water. Other than the people near the front of the line, people in the que were in dire need and losing hope of getting to their homes. Our daughter Andrea called her brother and described the situation. Shortly thereafter the Frostwood Dads armada not only came to the rescue, they put out a call for help using a specially designed phone app. In short order, there were so many boats from the neighborhood and elsewhere on the scene that they started serving other neighborhoods near Andrea’s complex and everyone who wanted a lift got one. It was amazing!
BTW: FEMA never appeared in these neighborhoods, but, in addition to many helpful neighbors, many able bodied and skilled church goers, especially Mormons, and other organizations were on the scene for weeks helping people recover.
Our son’s house remained high and dry, but lost power for over a week. Preston stayed with the house most of the time, and spent much of his time managing and engaging in rescue and relief efforts for people in the area. The rest of his family got many breaks from the daytime heat and nighttime darkness by staying with friends.
With their house and two cars flooded, our daughter’s family was financially wiped out. We decided the best course of action was to find a house for her, negotiate a purchase, close, and get her moved in, plus we had to get a new roof installed on the house. In the midst of all that, our daughter had to make the final preparations to put on a theatrical musical that she wrote and produced earlier this year, Swing, Baby, Swing. As one of the sponsors, Mary Beth and I attended its dress rehearsal, preview, and its premier, which was on October 12.
As if that were not enough to tend to since Harvey hit, I have negotiated an agreement to have our flooded house demolished and a new house built on the lot; The Square Grooves, my Spicewood, Texas band, has had five gigs for which I had to prepare and perform (we have another gig this Friday); meetings about the house we are building had to be attended, issues resolved, and interior design selections had to be made; utilities, insurances, and other services had to be shut down for the flooded house, and new ones set up at both apartments; with a distracted hurricane brain I (for the first time in my life) I backed my car into something (a tree in my own driveway) and had to deal with the insurance company and the body shop; and during all of this the normal things in life continued apace. With five grandkids within a few miles of our house added to the mix, the normal things can be a lot. The grandkids, however, provided delightful comfort from the results of the storm when we had time to be with them.
With all that going on, some things had to be put on the back burner. Unfortunately, my blogging wound up on that list. I hope to get back in full swing with blogging soon.
We are now fairly settled in a nice apartment near our family and the construction site of our new home. Unlike many people who were exposed to the polluted flood waters (sewer lines became flooded and their contents mixed with the water above ground), we did not come down with infections, colds, skin irritations or other health problems (yes, we got tetanus shots) which were common after the hurricane. We also feel most fortunate to have enough resources to survive the storm financially. Sadly such is not the case for many thousands of people. While we did quite a bit for others during the height of the disaster, we still have some survivor’s guilt for faring well relative to others, and about not having been able to do more for others when they needed it most. Hopefully our donations will compensate for us not being available to help more people.
The storm’s physical, emotional, and economic damage on the very poor, is obvious and terrible. This is especially true between when they entered shelters (even though they were much less awful than the stays of the victims of Katrina in the lawless Superdome of New Orleans) and the time the government enables them to move to more comfortable living arrangements. The physical and emotional damage was and is every bit as real and devastating (if not more devastating) as it was and is for low, middle, and upper-middle income people. The impact of the disaster on the very poor is heart wrenching.
On the other hand, once ensconced in new quarters, for most people on government assistance, the fall in their standard of living on account of the storm will be less than that suffered by low, middle, upper-middle, and some high income people.
Many low income people got hit hard particularly hard. I heard that a country club in the Memorial area had to lay off 180 employees when its clubhouse and most of its other facilities were closed due to the flood. The club could choose either mass layoffs or bankruptcy—with all employees losing their jobs and the members losing their club. Many of those employees also suffered damage to or loss of their homes. Those great people were not on welfare, were good employees, were getting by financially, and had the dignity of taking care of themselves. Many are out of a job and a house. So the disaster not only caused emotional and/or physical trauma, their standard of living will surely take a huge hit.
Middle and upper-middle income people affected by flooding have also been devastated. We have a hard time imagining how most people will manage having lost so much, and our hearts are full of concern for them. For example, flood insurance for the structure of a primary residential house is available to homeowners only from FEMA. Maximum coverage is $250,000. There are few houses in the Memorial area along the bayou that are not worth multiples of that amount. Many of those homes were totaled by the floods.
Many families wound up with a house that was either destroyed or uninhabitable until it is dried out and repairs can be made. Many had mortgages on those houses that stretched their budgets (which were responsible unless an unlikely disaster strikes, which it did). Over many years they had built up equity in their houses. After the storm much of the equity was wiped out even if they had flood insurance, which many did not have for good reason. Most people did not expect a 1000 year flood[v] to occur just a few years after two 500 year floods.[vi] Real estate that was flooded is less valuable than real estate that had never flooded. After the storm they needed to keep paying the mortgage, pay for repairs, and pay for another place to live in the interim. That much cash outflow is not manageable for many families.
How devastating these losses are became clear to me audibly in one of my most memorable moments of this disaster. Although we resolved early on not to seek or accept any government help or participate in any lawsuits concerning the flooding, our daughter asked me to attend on her behalf a townhall meeting organized by a city councilman for the purpose of getting information out to the public. Presentation were made by local utilities, waste management, the city public works, FEMA, traffic officials, and politicians. A FEMA person was asked to tell the large crowd the maximum amount FEMA would pay to any one family. The answer was, if you qualify, the maximum amount was $30,000. I had never heard before, and expect never to hear again, such a loud and horrified collective gasp. That was a moment when all hope against hope in the souls of many came crashing down. At that moment they realized that they had been wiped out.
We often hear that the best of humanity reveals itself in emergencies. I have personally witnessed that Houston is packed with some of the finest humans imaginable. Their can do spirit and tireless desire to help others both physically and financially is amazing.
Houstonians are also civil, courteous, and good natured. While my example is from the Memorial area where we live, similar situations occurred all over town. Houston is a sprawling city whose major streets are typically busy, if not crowded. All of the major north/south streets in the Memorial area cross the Buffalo Bayou. For over a week the bayou was out of its banks and the bridges over the bayou were impassable for all but a few north/south streets. Even the four lane each way highway, the Sam Houston Tollway, just west of where we live was impassable at Memorial. Just west of our house, a major east/west street was also impassable. This meant two important things. First, the traffic that normally crowded all the north/south streets had to pass through many fewer north/south streets. That alone would have caused major delays. Second, however, all that diverted traffic to get to the open north/south streets had to travel on the east/west streets to get there, thereby vastly increasing traffic on the east/west streets that are crowded on a normal day. All major streets moved at a crawl most of the day every day. Of course, there were exceptions, but for the most part Houstonians remained courteous and soldiered through the shared experience.
It is a blessing to live among so many good people.
PS: I hope to post a new, ordinary blog soon.
- The Irresponsible Conduct of the Corps of Engineers Prior to Hurricane Harvey.
As discussed above, the Corps negligently allowed 20’ of silt to accumulate over the years in the bottom of the reservoirs, and it failed to keep the reservoirs clear of capacity consuming trees. In addition, the Corps did not repair/eliminate low spots along the top lips of the dams. That silt, those trees and low spots significantly reduced the reservoirs’ water retention capacity.
So what? Had the Corps done its job to maintain the capacities of the reservoirs, much more water could have been stored in the reservoirs, which would have meant that much less water would have needed to be released, i.e., much less flooding would have occurred.
It was surely much easier for bureaucrats to do nothing to maintain the reservoirs’ capacities rather than to deal with tree-huggers who would have objected if the Corps had tried to do what was necessary to allow the reservoirs to fulfil the purpose for which the taxpayers funded them, i.e., prevent or mitigate flood damage downstream. So the bureaucrats simply drew their salaries while doing nothing about the growing loss of reservoir capacity as the areas above and below the dams were progressively covered with more concrete—creating a need for more, not less capacity.
- The Stated and Unstated Reasons the Corps of Engineers Opened the Water Release Valves.
THE STATED REASONS:
The Army Corps of Engineers knew that opening the water release valves might do a great deal of damage downstream of the dams. The Corps did not, however, want to be blamed for that damage. It needed a story that might fly as an exoneration of the Corps’s actions. The need for such a story was great because the Corps’s reputation for competence took a huge hit during and after Katrina. Its failure to properly maintain the New Orleans levies prior to that hurricane and its mishandling of the situation during the hurricane was terribly embarrassing for everyone in the agency. The Corps was surely bound and determined not to suffer another such embarrassment. Unlike the Corp-induced disaster of Katrina that the Corps could not explain away, hurricane Harvey serendipitously provided the Corps an opportunity to spin a superficially plausible story that it was not culpable for the damage to be caused by its intentional releasing of so much water. Their story (and so far they are sticking to it) was the Corps was merely choosing between two bad alternatives: 1. flooding the homes and businesses upstream, or 2. flooding the homes and businesses downstream. Those were alternative consequences presented to Corps. The Corps pretending that it was free not to fulfill the intent of the taxpayer funded reservoir system (to protect lives, homes and businesses downstream of the reservoir dams) was bogus storytelling. That people later irresponsibly built homes and businesses in risky locations above the dam was not a valid excuse, and misrepresented the purposes of the reservoirs. In short, if the stated reason is the real reason the valves were opened, the Corps’s conduct was rough and highly irresponsible. The Corps also mentioned that “controlled releases” were better than “uncontrolled releases” of water, and if they intentionally released water it would reduce the risk of on uncontrolled release of water if the water flowed over the top of the dam.
THE UNSTATED REASON
Let’s first consider what the Corps and the Harris County Flood Control District (“HCFCD”) said about what was surely a big factor in the decision to release so much water from the reservoirs.
I believe I have heard and/or read all of the Corps’s statements on or about the time the release valves were opened. I’m aware of no discussion by the Corps as to what difference it made whether the releases were “controlled” or “uncontrolled” releases of water. To my knowledge the Corps never used “catastrophic failure” or anything similar in their statements about the water releases. A Texas Tribune article reported:
“In public statements, the Corps indicated that some of the “controlled releases” were done to relieve stress on the dams. But it mostly said it was concerned that water would spill around the sides of the dams and be harder to control.”
In an August 29 statement HCFCD did not mention avoiding catastrophic failure as a reason for the releases, but rather gave the following the reason for the existence of the outlet gates:
“Outlet gates were later added as a further safety measure so that controlled releases could minimize downstream flooding risks.”
Discussing a press conference by an HCFCD official, Salon reported:
“When someone asked him, via Twitter, whether the dams could break and trigger a Katrina-like disaster, Linder offered a one-word response: “No.”
According the Washington Post article cited above, the Corps described the danger of water coming over the top of the dam thus: “… It’s going to be better to release the water through the gates directly into Buffalo Bayou as opposed to letting it go around the end and through additional neighborhoods and ultimately into the bayou.”
Really? The Corps believed it would be better to flood thousands of additional downstream long established structures along both sides of the bayou than flood a few much more recently and more irresponsibly developed neighborhoods directly below the dam? Where in the Corps authorities was it given the right to pick and choose which structures to flood? This whole notion is not credible. (I will, however, cut the Corps some slack for this story rather than the unstated reasons for its actions discussed below.)
Reading between the lines of what the Corps and the HCFCD said during the disaster, the invalidity of the stated reasons, the fact that the Corps could not know for certain the true structural integrity/ability of the dams to hold back as much water as the Corps had been claiming they could, and considering other circumstantial evidence, it is fair to conclude that the Corps did not disclose the real reason the person who had her hand on the water release valve decided to open it.
Now let’s consider what went unstated.
Years ago the Corps had reported that catastrophic failure of the Addicks and Barker dams was a real possibility in a 25 year flood event. The risk of a catastrophic failure had to have been many times greater in a 1000 year event such as hurricane Harvey.
An unstated problem with which the Corps was dealing was the possibility that its shoddily maintained dams (holding back the water in their shoddily maintained reservoirs) would be topped (much like what happened in New Orleans during Katrina). As can be observed by peering into the Grand Canyon, flowing water is erosive. The Addicks and Barker reservoirs are formed by “rolled earthen dams,” i.e., they are made of dirt. Once water in large quantities start flowing over the top of a dam, especially an earthen dam, the risk of washing away ever larger parts of the dam rise. It is not possible to predict accurately the rate of the potential erosion. In other words, the Corps could not be sure that if the dams were topped that huge sections of the dam could be washed away. If that were to occur, it would result in a giant wave rolling through the heart of Houston suddenly destroying everything in its path. The destruction and loss of life would have been vastly greater than what actually happened.
For a vivid and haunting description of the effects of a catastrophic failure of the dams would be like see “If the Addicks and Barker Dams Fail.” The article is also a sad and sobering story about the disgusting lack of competence and candor of government.
Erring on the side of caution to avoid such a catastrophe is warranted. Unfortunately, lying to the citizens about the possible impending catastrophe was also warranted. The results of the hysterical mass exodus as a result of telling the truth might have been worse than the wave itself. In short, Hurricane Harvey was a predictable and disastrous on many dimensions.