Houston Chronicle: Lawmaker calls for probe of what Corps knew of Harvey flooding risks
Rep. John Culberson called on the U.S. Justice Department Friday to investigate whether the Army Corps of Engineers violated civil or criminal laws by failing to alert the public to its own forecasts showing that Hurricane Harvey could cause the Corps' two West Houston reservoirs to flood suburban neighborhoods.
"If it is accurate that (the Corps) knew in advance of this threat to lives and property yet failed to adequately warn, I believe those responsible for this failure need to be held civilly liable," Culberson, R-Houston, said in a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "I also ask that you investigate whether any criminal statutes were violated."
Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he would hold hearings on the matter, "so we can prevent future flood disasters."
A third Houston-area congressman, Rep. Ted Poe, R-Spring, called for action to compel the Corps to give residents warning of possible flooding ahead of future storms. "The Army Corps of Engineers should be required to convey information to elected officials and the public when there is a significant probability that reservoirs will overfill, causing flooding in affected communities," he said.
And a fourth - Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land - also called for more disclosure. "Any information regarding risks surrounding flooding of Barker and Addicks should have been disclosed by the Corps immediately to officials and homeowners."
The congressmen's districts include areas that were inundated when Barker and Addicks Reservoirs spilled beyond government-owned land during Harvey, flooding more than 9,000 homes and businesses.
All of the Congressmen were responding to a report in Houston Chronicle saying that in the days before Harvey hit the Houston region with full force, Army Corps forecasts showed that Barker and Addicks would engulf subdivisions upstream of the reservoirs. The Corps did not share these predictions with the public but did brief Harris and Fort Bend County authorities and Houston city official
Floods projected Aug. 24
The Corps forecasts, closely held internal documents, have emerged through discovery in a lawsuit in which thousands of homeowners are seeking compensation from the federal government. The Chronicle obtained copies of the documents.
Addicks and Barker Dams were built by the Corps in the 1940s to hold back storm runoff from vast prairies west of downtown Houston. During heavy storms, water builds up in the reservoirs. Engineers call this the "flood pool." The reservoirs are not bounded by walls or banks, so in an extreme storm, the flood pool can extend into the residential neighborhoods that grew up on the reservoirs' fringes in recent decades. Before Harvey, many of those homeowners did not know their neighborhoods were at risk of inundation, and many did not have flood insurance.
As the hurricane barreled toward Southeast Texas last August, Army Corps projections showed that those reservoir-adjacent areas were at high risk. The forecasts were generated by the Corps Water Management System, which crunches information about rainfall, weather forecasts, river conditions and other data.
A forecast generated Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, a day before Harvey made landfall, projected flooding upstream of Barker. The next day's forecast showed that neighborhoods upstream of Addicks would suffer the same fate.
It wasn't until Saturday, Aug. 26, that Fort Bend County authorities, acting on the latest forecast, issued a flooding advisory for areas adjacent to Barker. Harris County did not issue similar warnings until late Sunday, Aug. 27. By then, many neighborhoods were already under water. Many people were evacuated in boats or military vehicles or fled on foot.
The Army Corps, in a statement Friday, said it briefed local officials on its projections for reservoir flooding throughout the crisis. The statement, from Edmond Russo, a top official in the Corps' Galveston district, suggested that it was the responsibility of local officials to decide what to do with the information.
"In the lead-up to and during Hurricane Harvey and the ensuing record rainfalls, the Corps of Engineers released information to local officials and the public multiple times each day," the statement said. "Public records show Corps of Engineers liaison officers provided reservoir safety data through three daily briefings to local, county, state and federal officials."
The Corps is prohibited from issuing evacuation orders, the statement said.
Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert said that he was not informed of the Aug. 24 forecast, the first warning of flooding upstream of Barker, although the Corps briefed his staff in the days that followed.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said he was not told about any of the Corps' projections for reservoir flooding, even though part of West Houston was at risk. "Prior to or during Hurricane Harvey, I was not aware or told of any modeling. We were making decisions based on the information that was provided and alerting the public to any potential danger based on the information we had before us," he said.
Joe Stinebaker, a spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, said the Army Corps forecasts were "among numerous worst-case' and 'best-case' scenarios" presented to the judge as the crisis unfolded. He said Emmett had information coming at him "from a myriad of sources," including the National Weather Service and the Harris County Flood Control District as well as the Corps.
Up to 10,000 homes flooded
Stinebaker did not say why Emmett chose not to join Fort Bend officials Aug. 26 in issuing an advisory to residents near Barker, instead waiting until the following day. The area upstream of Baker lies in both Fort Bend and Harris County and was predicted to flood first.
"It should be noted," Stinebaker said, "that members of the Army Corps of Engineers were present at nearly all of the news conferences offered by Harris County during the floods - and were active, speaking participants in many. Corps officials were free to emphasize at any time any messages of which they felt the public needed to be aware."
At least 4,000 properties upstream of Barker and 5,000 to 6,000 upstream of Addicks were flooded by the reservoirs during Harvey, according to a Chronicle analysis of damage reports. Had the Corps' early forecasts been made public, flooded-out homeowners and their attorneys say they could have saved cars and property - and moved out children and the elderly more easily.