Shared from the 2017-09-28 Houston Chronicle eEdition

Flooded homeowners sue Corps for compensation

Lawsuit: Residents never were warned about risks nor told to buy insurance

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Residents of the Cinco Ranch and Canyon Gate subdivisions evacuate from their homes that are near the west side of the Barker Reservoir in Fort Bend County on Aug. 29.

Craig Moseley / Houston Chronicle

Government officials knew for years that water impounded behind Ad-dicks and Barker dams would flood thousands of suburban homes during an extreme storm — and yet did nothing to warn or compensate property owners, according to a civil lawsuit that seeks monetary damages for affected homeowners.

The lawsuit was filed against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on behalf of Christina Micu, 37, a real estate investor who bought her own home in the Canyon Gate neighborhood of Cinco Ranch in February 2012. During Hurricane Harvey, the house was swamped by about 2 feet of water, she said. She said she didn’t have flood insurance and was advised she didn’t need it because her home was not in the 100-year flood plain.

Canyon Gate, with 721 homes, was one of the neighborhoods most heavily damaged when the Army Corps allowed the land area submerged behind the dams, called the “flood pool,” to reach record size as more than 50 inches of rain fell between Aug. 25 and 29. Many residents of the gated community had to be evacuated by boat from deep floodwaters.

The suit was filed in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., as a class action on behalf of everyone who owns property that flooded behind the two dams.

Other lawsuits have been brought on behalf of property owners downstream of Addicks and Barker dams, whose homes were flooded by water released through the dams’ gates. The latest suit is the first to focus on damage caused by the reservoirs’ flood pools.

Unaware of threat

More than 30,000 people own property and more than 140,000 live in areas Harris and Fort Bend county officials have identified as subject to inundation from the flood pools, according to a Chronicle analysis of evacuation orders issued during Harvey.

Many of those homeowners had no idea the pools posed a threat to their properties, and many did not have flood insurance. The Army Corps doesn’t require home buyers to be notified of the risk from flood pools. Nor does Texas law. Nor do mortgage lenders’ disclosure practices. Lenders typically require flood insurance for homes in the 100-year flood plain. There is no such requirement regarding flood pools.

In public meetings and in news releases, Corps officials defended their actions during Harvey as necessary to protect the city of Houston from catastrophic flooding. The Corps has subsequently referred all questions about its activities during Harvey to the U.S. Department of Justice. A DOJ spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Addicks and Barker dams, located 17 miles west of downtown Houston, were built in the 1940s to protect downtown Houston after catastrophic flooding in 1935 caused eight deaths and vast property damage. The dams hold back floodwaters from Buffalo Bayou, which forms the Houston Ship Channel downstream, and from creeks that enter the city from the northwest.

Unlike traditional “lake-forming” dams, Addicks and Barker do not have clearly defined reservoirs and are dry much of the year. The water they impound stretches west into what used to be prairie. The extent of the flood pool varies, depending on rainfall and on Army Corps decisions about how much water to release from the reservoirs.

During Harvey, the Corps deliberately allowed the flood pool to build up to a record 350,000 acre feet, the lawsuit said.

In the process, thousands of homes were damaged in Houston and in Fort Bend and Harris counties, though a full tally has not been released. At least 4,000 properties — including single-family homes, apartment complexes and businesses — were damaged by water from Barker reservoir alone, both counties said.

Corps: Releases necessary

Downstream, homes and buildings in the center of Houston were also flooded by releases from the dams the Corps deemed necessary to manage the massive storm.

Micu, the plaintiff in the class action, has become an activist post-Harvey, using social media to draw attention to flood-pool damage and her lawsuit. In an interview, she said she’s taking a stand for herself and other homeowners who are struggling to make their mortgage payments, pay for emergency lodging and repair their homes, all without insurance.

“I’m suing the Army Corps of Engineers for taking a flood easement on my property and not compensating me or any of the previous owners,” she said in a Facebook post. “I’m going to do what I believe is the right thing to do. Ultimately, I’m the one taking care of my family and no one else is.”

Elsewhere in the United States, the Army Corps has blocked development around its reservoirs — at times purchasing land for “flood storage easements” around dams or levees in areas where it expects to divert or store floodwater, said Charles Irvine, the Houston-based lead attorney in the lawsuit.

That never happened here, and homeowners are owed compensation, Irvine argues.

“The Corps has been discussing this but no one took it beyond that — not in terms of disclosing it to the neighborhoods and certainly took no steps to offer to purchase a federal flood easement in exchange for some money,” Irvine said. ing about the case drew more than 100 homeowners from Canyon Gate and from other subdivisions that flooded during Hurricane Harvey, attorneys said. Irvine said that only five raised their hands when he asked who had flood insurance.

In Mississippi and Louisiana, the Corps has taken steps to inform people and compensate those whose property could be subject to inundation in areas near levees and rivers, Irvine said. That was not done with the West Houston dams.

Over the years, public officials continued to approve developments around both reservoirs even after the Corps’ measurements recorded record flood pools time after time. Ten of the 11 largest pools in the reservoirs’ history have been measured since 1990. Harvey generated the largest.

Small-print warnings

Fort Bend County officials added small-print warnings about the flood pools to subdivision maps beginning in 1994: “This subdivision is adjacent to Barker Reservoir and is subject to extended controlled inundation under the management of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

But few home buyers consult the maps, known as plats. Harris County, which has far more homes threatened by the flood pool, never included advisories about the reservoirs on its plats.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said he didn’t believe warnings were necessary. He said all Harris County homeowners should be aware of risks of flooding posed by the area’s many creeks and bayous — and by the reservoirs. Radack said that for 20 years he had been warning constituents about the flood pool, but most paid little attention.

“We knew the water would leave the federally controlled land and would flood neighborhoods in Fort Bend and Harris counties,” he said. “The reservoir had never been tested to capacity.” lise.olsen@chron.com

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