More than 20 years before Hurricane Harvey, officials in suburban Houston were aware that a heavy storm could cause a reservoir to overflow and inundate nearby homes with water. So they issued a warning to potential home buyers.
But they put the warning in an obscure place: deep in the same public land records that list street dimensions and the layout of utilities in a subdivision.
Now many of the 3,000 suburban Houston homeowners who were flooded during Harvey question whether local officials did enough to caution them about the dangers of flooding from big rainstorms.
“A disclosure like this shouldn’t have been buried in county records,” said Eli Magaña, who with his wife, Marcela, knew nothing of the warning or that his home was near the usually dry reservoir when they bought it less than a year ago.
Last week, the Maganas were tearing out and cleaning the inside of their home, which stood in four feet of water for more than a week. The couple wore thick gloves and dust masks as they sprayed disinfectant on exposed wooden beams. A huge pile of debris sat on their front lawn.
Fort Bend County’s top elected official said homeowners have a right to be upset, but information about the flooding risk around the Barker Reservoir was available if they had done research. Judge Robert Hebert acknowledged that he “wouldn’t have researched to that extent” either.
“Hindsight being 20/20, if I had known this was going to happen, I would have let everybody know a couple of months ago,” Hebert said.
The Barker Reservoir and a similar nearby basin, the Addicks Reservoir, were both built in the mid-1940s to collect excessive rainfall and release it downstream at a controlled rate. The lake beds are usually dry, with trees and tall grasses covering the low-lying terrain that also includes some parks. But when heavy rain arrives, the two reservoirs are designed to catch the deluge and prevent flooding in downtown Houston and other urban areas to the east.
Both dams sit mainly in Harris County, which includes Houston, but a portion of the Barker dam extends into neighboring Fort Bend County. The reservoirs are run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
When developers began to build subdivisions just west and upstream of the Barker Reservoir in the 1990s, Fort Bend County officials debated whether to include the flood warning in an obscure land record known as a plat. Developers balked at the warning, but county officials decided to include it for parts of at least six subdivisions, Hebert said.
The existence of the plat was first reported by The Dallas Morning News.
The language said simply that subdivisions near the Barker Reservoir could be “subject to extended controlled inundation” under the management of the Corps of Engineers.
“Whether or not the people were advised that statement existed, I don’t know,” said Hebert, adding that he understood that Texas does not require any such warning to be included in closing documents.
Magana said the warning was not mentioned in any of the documents he received when he bought his home in December. Many of his neighbors did not know about it either.
Because their houses are not considered to be in a 100-year floodplain, many of the affected homeowners, including Magana, did not have flood insurance. A home in such a floodplain has a 1 percent chance each year of being flooded.
“Either buy us out or fix the flood-management system,” said Binay Anand, an engineer whose home was filled with 21/2 feet of water.
But because they are not in the 100-year floodplain, the homeowners will probably be ineligible for any kind of government buyout, Hebert said.
The county judge is petitioning Congress and federal lawmakers to provide some sort of financial help because the county does not have the means to offer any kind of buyout program.
Several subdivisions adjacent to the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in Harris County were also flooded due to spillover from the back of the dams.
A spokeswoman for the Harris County Engineering Department said there’s no language in that county’s plat comparable to the warning listed in Fort Bend County records.
“Historically, the county has not included any floodplain information on the plat,” Dimetra Hamilton said.
Harris County officials said stringent floodplain management requirements resulted in fewer homes near the reservoirs getting flooded during Harvey.
The Corps of Engineers, which is being sued over its decision to release water from the reservoirs, declined to comment.
Magana, 33, who works in public relations, said he will rebuild his home in the Canyon Gate subdivision, but he worries about another heavy rainfall. Buying out the properties and making them part of the natural reservoir would help fix the flooding situation for a lot of people, he said.
“It’s not just about me and my home and this community,” Magana said. “This is about saving … the larger Houston metropolitan area” from flooding.
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