While Hurricane Harvey left an enormous amount of damage in its wake, some regions – like West Houston – were flooded and heavily damaged after Harvey when the U.S. Amy Corps of Engineers (Corps) decided to release the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs.
This controlled release was intended to limit the damage that could be caused by an unpredictable, uncontrolled release, which could impact about 1 million residents and exact about $60 billion in damage, according to the Corps.
Many, including those in West Houston who were harmed by the controlled releases, do agree that the Corps made the right decision – sacrifice few to save many.
However, many are also questioning the failures and lack of communication regarding the controlled release, wondering why more was not done ahead of time to limit the damage and save lives.
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Could the Damage from the Controlled Releases Have Been Minimized or Prevented?
This is central question West Houstonians and others are now asking as they continue to pick up the pieces and deal with the horrific aftermath of the controlled releases. Answers to this question – and the following ones – have been elusive:
- Why were residents not notified of the release ahead of time? – Though the City had been in regular contact with the Corps in the day leading up to the release, communication broke down that evening when the controlled releases occurred. In fact, the Corps reportedly did not notify the City of the Reservoir releases until the next day, after the flooding had already occurred.
- Why were evacuation orders only issued after the release had caused major flooding, seriously endangering residents in the Buffalo Bayou and Memorial area? – Mandatory evacuation orders were not issued until a few days after the release. The communication breakdown between the Corps and the City is likely to blame for this failure.
- Will this or other neighborhoods be sacrificed without warning in the future? How could a crisis like this be prevented in the future? – This is unclear. What is clear, however, is the fact that various reports have revealed about 70 years of breakdowns and failures at the hands of officials who are responsible for maintaining the Reservoirs.In fact, while there was originally supposed to be three reservoirs built when Addicks and Barker were erected (in the 1940s), funding problems caused the third reservoir (which would have been the “White Oak Reservoir”) to never be constructed. Additionally, reports indicate that, currently, both the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs are about two decades past their life expectancy.
- Why did it take so long for aid to get the Memorial area? – Homes in the area remained flooded for more than a week, with massive amounts of debris and potentially toxic sludge littering streets while a near-constant threat of looters compounding the devastation. The day after the mandatory evacuation order was issued, however, Mayor Turner said on “Face the Nation” that Houston was “open for business” and that only 26 homes in West Houston were still underwater.That was not the case, however. In fact, at that point, about 2,600 homes in Memorial remained underwater, raising questions about whether the Mayor was aware of the impacts and/or why there was an effort to minimize the scope of the damage.
- How long will it take to restore the area – and public confidence in the local infrastructure, as well as the City and the Corps? – There is no quick or easy answer to this question, and the actions that the City and Corps do (or don’t take) moving forward will play a significant role in the restoration process, both in terms of restoring property and restoring public faith.
The Mayor, the City and the Corps have been quick to shift blame, and no single party has yet taken responsibility for the damage resulting from the controlled releases.
The slew of lawsuits filed against the City of Houston, the Harris County Flood Control District, Harris County, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may yield some important answers and, hopefully, justice for those homes have been destroyed – and whose lives have been turned upside down – by the Reservoir releases.
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