Skip to content

Harris County’s Flooding History

August 29, 2017
tags: ,

By Paul Homewood

 

The Harris County Flood Control District has an interesting account of Houston’s history of floods:

 

 

image

Harris County’s Flooding History

Flooded from the Beginning

When the Allen brothers founded Houston in 1836, they established the town at the confluence of Buffalo and White Oak Bayous. Shortly thereafter, every structure in the new settlement flooded. Early settlers documented that after heavy rains, their wagon trips west through the prairie involved days of walking through knee-deep water.

They Drained The Land

The new settlers didn’t like this natural flooding because it wasn’t conducive to building towns or farming the land. So, they set out to “drain” the land, and to clear it of much of its natural habitat for agriculture or timber for construction.

However, there is a big difference between drainage and flooding. The settlers wanted to “drain” the land, which meant they wanted to make the water go away. They did it without any purpose, other than to make the water go away in a reasonable time and to make the channels flow downhill. As the channels got deeper, they also got wider. The early residents didn’t plan with any particular rainfall amount in mind.

The Rains Kept Coming

Harris County suffered through 16 major floods from 1836 to 1936, some of which crested at more than 40 feet, turning downtown Houston streets into raging rivers. After the tremendously destructive floods of 1929 and 1935, however, citizens clamoured for solutions. Estimated property damage in 1929 was $1.4 million, a staggering sum at the time. Losses more than doubled in 1935, when seven people were killed and the Port of Houston was crippled for months – its docks submerged, its channel clogged with tons of mud and wreckage, its railroad tracks uprooted. Twenty-five blocks of the downtown business district were inundated, as well as 100 residential blocks. If ever there was a county in need of flood assistance, this was it.

Action Was Needed

Politically, the timing couldn’t have been better. All across America during the 1920s and ’30s, the federal government was financing huge water infrastructure projects, damming great rivers at a pace no previous civilization could have imagined – converting deserts to fertile farmland with irrigation in the West, submerging farmland in the East to create reservoirs for power. Major projects were funded through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which for years employed the nation’s only civil engineering experts. Houston’s commercial future hinged on its ability to tap into this federal machine, but it needed a local agency to serve as a sponsor.

Action Was Taken

On April 23,1937, after local leaders submitted a petition with dramatic photographs of past flood devastation, the 45th Texas Legislature unanimously passed the bill which created the Harris County Flood Control District.

Nature Always Prevails

Since the District’s creation, and despite a history of successful flood damage reduction projects and progress throughout Harris County, close to 30 damaging floods have occurred in the area, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in damages in just under 70 years. However, after the 1940’s, the Harris County area did not suffer what would be considered a widespread, regional flood, that is, until June 2001.

Allison: A Name We’ll Never Forget

Tropical Storm Allison suddenly formed 80 miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas, on Tuesday, June 5, 2001, no one expected that, five days later, it would go on record as one of the most devastating rain events in the history of the United States. Neither historical data nor weather forecasts could adequately predict this extraordinary storm that, before leaving the area, would dump as much as 80 percent of the area’s average annual rainfall over much of Harris County, simultaneously affecting more than 2 million people. When the rains finally eased, Allison had left Harris County, Texas, with 22 fatalities, 95,000 damaged automobiles and trucks, 73,000 damaged residences, 30,000 stranded residents in shelters, and over $5 billion in property damage in its wake. Leaving 31 counties with declared disasters in Texas, Allison went on to spread disaster declarations to Louisiana (25 parishes), Florida (nine counties), Mississippi (5 counties) and Pennsylvania (2 counties). Allison was the costliest tropical storm in the history of the United States.

Flooding is OUR Natural Disaster

Harris County doesn’t have earthquakes… doesn’t have blizzards… doesn’t have avalanches. We have flooding. A major flood still occurs somewhere in Harris County about every two years. Most of the flooding is in areas developed prior to the current understanding of flood potential and prior to regulations restricting construction in flood-prone areas. Fortunately, since the 1970’s, there has been flood insurance to ease the financial impact of flooding. Despite tremendous flood damage reduction projects that have indeed reduced the risk of flooding, more flood insurance funds have been paid here than in any other National Flood Insurance Program-participating community.

https://www.hcfcd.org/flooding-floodplains/harris-countys-flooding-history/

37 Comments
  1. August 29, 2017 1:15 pm

    There have been engineers proposing measures to protect Houston, and especially the port from storms like Harvey. But the projects have not gone forward.

    https://rclutz.wordpress.com/2017/08/26/partying-in-paris-instead-preparing-in-houston/

    • August 29, 2017 2:32 pm

      That is an interesting angle, Texans (and everybody else) should question why large amounts have been spent on wind farms in the state, money that would be better spent on flood resilience.

    • Jack Broughton permalink
      August 29, 2017 2:38 pm

      Our incredible BBC has tried desperately to claim that the only cause is climate change, history or mitigation do not appear in their thinking. Apparently anthropogenic climate change cannot be denied….. nice easy blame path to Trump.

  2. August 29, 2017 2:00 pm

    When you have this amount of rain which remains stationary for this length of time, there is not much which can be done other than to evacuate and rescue. My former pastor and his wife live ca. 45 miles NE of Houston. Shelia has been posting and texting as things progress. Prior to Harvey hitting Texas, President Trump had staged supplies and people around the likely areas to be ready as soon as they could get in.

    Like West Virginia, Texas has a history of taking care of their own during such times and not waiting for someone to knock on their door to say, “I’m from the government and here to help.” A call went out for people with boats. Arkansas Governor, Asa Hutchinson, has sent a unit of the Arkansas National Guard (that must be approved by Texas Governor, Greg Abbot and he did). There are West Virginians on their way and there to help with infrastructure.

    On Monday, the “Louisiana Cajun Navy” was on the way with some arrived. It is a loosely knit organization which now has an “App” on Zello for people needing rescues and help to contact. The Cajun Navy is Louisianians with pick-up trucks hauling their boats. One photo showed a line of them as far as you could see heading into Texas. They are pitching in to help with water rescues. In addition to their mostly flat-bottomed fishing boats for the bayous there are kayaks and canoes.

    Now that Harvey went into the Gulf, gathered more water and turned back to go north through Houston again, rain is expected through Friday.

    “God Bless Texas.”

    • duker permalink
      August 29, 2017 10:24 pm

      Taking care of themselves ? Pleeeeese. They will be taking the handouts from the Federal run and funded flood insurance program. Which is already something like $25 bill in the red.
      http://www.texasfloodinsurance.com/flood-rates.php

      • August 30, 2017 2:14 pm

        First of all, that comes AFTER the rescues. Secondly, there is a lot of clean up, etc. which will take place from the private sector. Churches are still coming into WV to help with rebuilding following the June 2016 floods. It is sad to see the dismissal of individual initiative.

      • duker permalink
        September 1, 2017 1:40 am

        Texas Senators and Congressmen voted against hurricane relief when it was NY and Sandy- we are talking many 10s of billions here.
        I bet they arent so against Federal Government help now ! Individual assistance is just a drop in a bucket on this scale of events, yes people pitch in with their neighbours but to get back on their feet it takes big money when it affects millions of people and large amounts of infrastructure

  3. August 29, 2017 2:16 pm

    This was just posted from your own UK Daily Mail. It took place near where my friends live. along the Trinity River NE of Houston.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3105272/Cowboys-lead-600-cattle-70-miles-safety-alligator-infested-floodwaters-Texas-close-herd.html

    • HotScot permalink
      August 29, 2017 7:11 pm

      Joan

      The UK has a tradition of ‘wading in’ and helping when things get tough for others.

      But MAN! The American version is just so much more spectacular!

      These are the communities recently painted as evil white supremacists by Antifa because they value their history. And they should, because their ancestors were courageous pioneers of an unknown land. They made mistakes like every other emerging community but no one can question their commitment to their friends, relatives, and strangers.

      Nor, do I suspect, does the Confederate flag represent anything more than a community spirit to 99% of it’s supporters. It was hijacked and brutalised by a small minority, who were in turn, brutalised by the ultra fascist Antifa. Neither is right, but that doesn’t mean a societal emblem should be abolished by knee jerk politics. It emphasises the progression towards rule by minority.

      Please send my heartfelt respect to your friends and their community. I would be proud to wear a Stetson amongst them, whilst wearing my Kilt!

      • August 30, 2017 2:31 pm

        Thank you so much. Shelia has been posting things and links. I just watched a video of the Cajun Navy arriving in the suburb of Humble, TX yesterday and rescuing about 50 people stranded in a local hotel. This morning she had a link to one boat in the same group just going through the neighborhood to check that people were not there. They stopped for a man and his friend rescuing the man’s family dogs. Another Cajun Navy boat came along and they helped retrieve dogs from the roof, broke a window and got others from inside the house. Another long video was of Kingswood, another suburb. People had jet-skis, air boats, other types of boats, high water trucks, you name it. High water trucks were coming back to the “dry” areas with water up to the front grills and plowing water ahead of them. The back of the truck would be full of men, women, children, pet carriers and belongings in duffel or garbage bags. They would be unloaded and the truck would turn around and go back down the river which was actually streets. The Coast Guard was there with a lot of equipment. Jet-skis would come back with passengers and air-boats with 3-4 people. One side street was the boat launch ramp. Pick-ups would back down into the water, people would float the boat off the trailer and the pick-up would go to park and then off they would go down the “river”. You saw anything which could float and amazing vehicles going down and back, down and back. All in the pouring rain. Houston has received 50″ from this storm. I will copy your message and post it to Shelia’s Timeline.

      • HotScot permalink
        August 30, 2017 7:03 pm

        Joan,

        although I was very young, I lived in Hong Kong and went through Hurricane Wendy, with 160+MPH winds. Frankly I was oblivious as we put the shutters up and played board games with the neighbours, whilst Wendy tried to rip the roof off the house.

        The people to suffer, of course, were the Chinese in their numerous corrugated iron shanty towns. Many were sorry wretches who had escaped Communist China.

        I remember being driven to the beach the next week and not recognising a thing on the journey. Entire shanty towns, large ones, just gone. Forests uprooted and smashed to matchwood. Lines of masonry buildings left with no roof’s, and some gone altogether. Fields of agriculture, as far as the eye could see with the crops ripped up and unceremoniously dumped where the winds took them, to become massive piles of rotting vegetation instead of food.

        That was in, I think, 1962. Wendy had nothing to do with climate change. Nor does Huston’s misfortune (and I believe Arkansas is getting it now).

        But the alarmists are doubtless getting their stories straight for their coming months tirade on man’s inhumanity to man, instead of rolling their sleeves up and demonstrating an iota of the courage and compassion the people of Texas and Arkansas have.

        And that’s the point of all of this. people taking control over what they can control, not wringing their pasty hands, which have never experienced a days graft in their lives, over the mythical demons of climate change.

        So, in yer face alarmist’s, and in yer face Antifa. The people of the South are good people. With fair weather and a following wind, someday I may be fortunate enough to visit. I can’t wait to get a real Stetson and a pair of proper boots. 🙂 🙂 It’s the only place in the US I have ever really wanted to visit.

      • HotScot permalink
        August 30, 2017 7:59 pm

        Joan,

        I found this. Scroll down to Wanda, and it was 1962 as I thought. It might not look as bad as I described but this was primitive journalism in that they didn’t have much more than a typewriter, a camera and the post.

        http://multimedia.scmp.com/typhoons/

  4. garyh845 permalink
    August 29, 2017 2:54 pm

    Op-ed in the LAT’s today – Katharine Hayhoe is the go to shrill: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-collier-satija-harvey-houston-prevent-20170829-story.html

    Naturally, they don’t mention that Houston has subsided as much as 7-10 feet since it was settled, and drained the swamp. That process will never end, as it’s all paved over now, and no new ground will ever be laid down on top of the old, ever again.

    • garyh845 permalink
      August 29, 2017 3:40 pm

      From that op-ed:

      “The exact same storm that comes along today has more rain associated with it than it would have 50 or 100 years ago,” renowned climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe told the Texas Tribune last year.

      Wonder if Hayhoe can actually substantiate that statement?

      • Gerry, England permalink
        August 30, 2017 12:42 pm

        Unlikely – she didn’t do too well with her previous warblings.

  5. Athelstan permalink
    August 29, 2017 3:19 pm

    If I was going to ‘build a town’ I’d do some serious homework first, the first thing I’d attend to is “how high are the flood points” ie where does the water reach up to? In a similar methodology, to what I do when camping in the Alps – say, find the stream bed and then ask yourself how high can it rise when the rain comes, for obvious reasons the streams fill quick in higland areas.

    Certainly, i am no expert but I always look at English towns and then for the ‘old quarter’ this always is to be found on a hill. I know one thing, I’d never settle in an area which is so prone to major flood events and which is so inadequately defended.
    I feel for deeply for the residents of Houston and surrounds but honestly you’ve all got to seriously consider moving elsewhere – there’s really nothing else for it because in the future it will happen again and again.

    • HotScot permalink
      August 29, 2017 7:42 pm

      Athelstan

      But when Houston was settled, they didn’t have the benefit of research, no white man had been there before. I guess they just thought themselves lucky to have found a port (the first priority of almost any settlement) with productive land and fair weather.

      No one knew it was the site of the largest meteor ever to strike the planet. They had no climate change analysts’s, no weathermen (other than an old lady with some seaweed) and very possibly, by the time the first hurricane hit, they were already an established community.

      When nothing happened for, say, the next 3 or 4 years, they probably thought themselves quite safe.

      Then the next one hit, but there was too much invested by then and they crossed their fingers and hoped it would never happen again.

      OK, simplistic, but this was horse and cart times. People accepted the bountiful good times as well as the miserable bad times. They swept up after the disasters and moved on.

      In the internet age we are all very knowledgeable. 20 years ago we would have watched live streams on TV about disasters across the globe, 30 years ago, recorded images, days or weeks late, 40 years ago, we would have largely relied on newspapers for updates. OK, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my drift.

      70 odd years ago, news media was largely WW2 propaganda, 100 years ago, the world was largely illeterate.

      150 years ago, parer itself was a valuable commodity, writing on it was an achievement, printing on it was a miracle.

      200 years ago, American pioneers were wiping their arses with leaves. News was a luxury confined to a very expensive letter a year from home, if it reached it’s destination.

      I lived in Hong Kong as a child in the mid 60’s. I still remember the annual, incredibly expensive, phone call we could make home to the UK. A flight home on a commercial jet was a luxury afforded only my sister, on a BOAC flight back to boarding school, a mere 60 years after the Wright Brothers launched their first glider and 3 years later their first piston powered aeroplane. The rest of our family sailed back once every five years.

      Whilst Huston residents, perhaps, mistakenly settled on a flood plain, they have made a pretty good fist of it ever since. We recognise nowadays it’s not the best tactic, but how many of those settlers could read, far less anticipate global weather events.

      Nor, notably, do too many of them leave following violent hurricanes. They stay and rebuild, perhaps with a bit more insight.

      Good luck to them all.

      • Athelstan permalink
        August 29, 2017 10:58 pm

        Interesting that, a previous and colonial power did not think it a good place to site a town.
        Houston sits on an alluvial fan, most of the lower end was reclaimed swamp and the whole area consists of soft silt and clays – imho indeed history will record that, it was a very poor choice of location, one not ideal at all for any sort of settlement let alone what is now a very big conurbation.
        None of the above will concern its citizenry now but in future times it should concentrate minds a bit more. Preserving a city and defending the greater area from Cyclones such as this will cost but then, moving 6.5 million people is not an option either.
        It’s going to take some massive civil engineering project, other than positing that, I don’t know what else they can do and as sure as you can say Gulf delta intermediate land, the rain will leave and come again – another day.

    • Gerry, England permalink
      August 30, 2017 12:59 pm

      Yes, I concur with you observations on old towns. The location of the church is often a big clue. I live on the edge of flat fields that are full of watercourses and therefore likely to flood. In my village and the nearby town, the churches are where there is the highest ground. The church in the town is surrounded by the oldest buildings. Houses have gradually spread further out but have just about kept off the flood plain.

      And most major cities are situated on a river or with access to the sea. It was simply that travelling around and transporting goods was easier by water.

  6. Broadlands permalink
    August 29, 2017 4:52 pm

    Texas weather 20th century…

    Click to access ewx-1900s.pdf

  7. Sunsettommy permalink
    August 29, 2017 6:14 pm

    Weather Research Center

    Significant Houston Area Floods

    http://www.wxresearch.com/almanac/houflood.html

    • Jack Broughton permalink
      August 29, 2017 7:32 pm

      Looks like a regular occurrence, but it is better doom news to say it is down to global warming. This also lets the local planners off the hook for their incompetent flood planning.

      • duker permalink
        August 29, 2017 10:29 pm

        Not incompetent flood planning . They arent miracle workers but Houston has had this major flood problem for a long time.
        Harris County Flood Control District
        https://www.hcfcd.org/flooding-floodplains/floodplain-management/

        Increased development makes the downstream problem even harder. It never ceases to amaze me that so many people dont see rivers or stream as flood risks. That extends back to overland flow paths and flood plains. For most people these things dont exist

      • duker permalink
        August 29, 2017 10:33 pm

        Local planners well know the extent of the flood problem in Houston. Most people just arent aware that they live within an overland flow path or flood plain.

  8. August 29, 2017 10:42 pm

    BTW we have seen time and time again
    that given ample warning of heavy rain, authorities have failed to lower dam and waterway levels to prepare, and then have got caught out by water coming over the top.

  9. August 29, 2017 10:46 pm

    I don’t how people can watch Newsfotainment; I just passed the opening of ITV News at 10 an Storm Harvey is their big narrative.
    Opening words of show :
    “Before Climate Change this was a one in 2,000 year event”
    …that’s freaking guess cos you don’t have 2,000 years of robust data

    Then they wheel on Richard Allen of the Met Office
    “Well we are not sure that these events are more common, but we are sure they are stronger ..cos with the air getting warmer it picks up more moisture so heavier rain”

    Em seems NO to me
    #1 The hurricane was not stronger than previous hurricanes
    #2 Five minutes ago they gave the reason for the heavy rain as ..’cos the wind is slower the rain clouds don’t move quickly, rather they dump all their rain over the same spot’.

    The report had a very long narrative about a stranded black man who was having an epileptic fit , and cops were too busy to move him to a hospital.
    ..Hmm people have epileptic fits every day ..mostly they don’t need medical intervention.

    • August 29, 2017 10:56 pm

      Intended to play your emotions

      • Gerry, England permalink
        August 30, 2017 1:05 pm

        Yes, that’s what passes for news in the UK. They can’t do facts and love a personality contest reminiscent of reality TV. The UK is on the brink of a massive economic crash due to a botched Brexit yet the press can only cope with ‘plucky Brits’ versus ‘evil EU’ who want to punish us with a big leaving bill. No attempt is ever made to explain what the payment is for, how it is accrued and why the exact figure won’t be known for a couple of years. Rester a liquide is well beyond them.

    • August 29, 2017 10:57 pm

      Meanwhile

    • nigel permalink
      August 30, 2017 6:41 am

      “…cos with the air getting warmer it picks up more moisture.”

      Completely and totally untrue. This is a Grade A scientific HOWLER. The vapour pressure above a plane liquid surface is entirely set by the conditions in the liquid.

      It makes me SHUDDER at the degradation of Academia that anyone so stupid was not thrown out of University in his first week.

      • dave permalink
        August 30, 2017 7:42 am

        “…set by the conditions in the liquid.”

        Indeed.

        If you took a pail of ice-and-water* into the Arctic (where the present ambient temperature in most places is about 0 C) it would evaporate at a certain rate. If you then took the same set-up into Death Valley at noon (protected from the direct rays of the Sun) it would evaporate AT THE SAME RATE.

        Any fule kno the foregoing…or does he?

        *Which will be constrained to be at 0 C.

      • dave permalink
        August 30, 2017 7:51 am

        Of course NET measurements would also involve the (absolute) humidity of the air. The details are left to the reader (surely the most annoying sentence in any technical book).

    • duker permalink
      September 1, 2017 1:46 am

      I agree with you generally about the hype, but if you dont have 2000 yrs of data, statistical methods can create a good approximation. But the difference between 2K and 5K events may not be that large.
      Technically you should use 0.05% instead of 2K year as its an ‘annual probability’ which can be likely more than once in 2000 yrs.

  10. markl permalink
    August 30, 2017 12:12 am

    Never let a good catastrophe go to waste.

  11. August 31, 2017 11:45 am

    The reason for the incredible rain event with Harvey was 2 stationary fronts which kept the hurricane boxed in. So it just churned in place gathering water to the Gulf side and dumping it on Houston.

    The remnants of Harvey are expected to reach West Virginia late Friday night into Saturday. We will get 1-3 inches in Morgantown, depending upon the actual track.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: