Hurricane Harvey and the Houston Buffalo Bayou Flood

Last week when we were looking over the Armature projects, I brought up an aspect about the flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey a few years back that may have been misunderstood. I guess in my life experience, the most disasters I’ve seen are from floods in either Houston or Austin. What stood out to me about the flooding of the Buffalo Bayou of Houston, (which is only one area of the bayou, and a portion of areas that were majorly affected by the water), was that (a) the water in the Addicks Reservoir was released upstream to cause the flooding as a measure to protect the levees, (b) the water affected some of the wealthiest neighborhoods. This was a conscious decision that was made by the Army Corps of Engineers for the greater good of the city, and the effects were foreseen. This is a big deal to me because in many places the powerful and wealthy intimidate officials from taking responsible action like this. I think it’s a necessary and noble thing that this measure was taken, and I think the Buffalo Bayou is a really interesting case study in how rebuilding occurs when the wealthy are in flood-prone areas. (There was a federal trial to try to find the government responsible for flooded properties because of this measure, but it was thrown out because flooding for a storm of this size was deemed “inevitable.”)

Addicks Reservoir in Houston.

I am not speaking so much to the other bayous in Houston that I am less familiar with, and that I know are a completely different story.

I can say that in Austin there have been at least three 100-year floods in seven years, and Lake Austin (upstream from “Town Lake”) is where all the millionaires live with properties that roll right up to the water level. I don’t fully understand how the dams operate, but the Tom Miller Dam downstream tops off at the max water level for this area, and the upstream Mansfield Dam releases water from Lake Travis into Lake Austin to keep its level constant, even in a drought. If you ever tour the Lake by motorboat, there is a ridiculous amount of money and power situated here, and for me it puts into perspective some of the difficulty that public entities might have in managing vital resources like water and mitigating disasters for the good of everyone when dealing with extreme wealth.

This photo is from a KUT (radio) story about how around 400 multi-million-dollar houses on Lake Austin are exempt from property taxes from some loophole clause in the city ordinances involving a nearby water intake plant.
Multi million-dollar houses right at lake level around Lake Austin.

In years past, there have been floods that put the public hike and bike trail on Town Lake three to six feet underwater, while this upstream private property is largely kept at a constant level. This downtown flooding rarely affects homes (within the city limits that I know of), but it does wash through public areas that are familiar and important to the larger community of Austin.

Beloved Stevie Ray Vaughn statue still standing above downtown flood waters in 2015.

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