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Harvey in retrospect

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visits Eagle’s Trace

Created date

June 14th, 2018
(From left) Bob Aldridge, Bob Burr, Betty Humphries, Natural Resource Specialist Richard Long, Park Ranger David Mackintosh, Rebecca Walker, Jerry Rollo, Ray Winburn, Rod Sovereign, John Bowser.

Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visited Eagle’s Trace to share lessons learned from Hurricane Harvey. They are pictured here with members of the community’s Government Affairs Committee. 

When Jerry Rollo extended an invitation to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to give a construction update for the Addicks and Barkers dams, he had no way of knowing how timely the message would be.

“We’d seen big machinery and construction just across Highway 6 and were curious what they were doing,” says Jerry, who lives at Eagle’s Trace in West Houston and serves on the community’s Government Affairs Committee.

Natural Resource Manager Richard Long and Park Ranger David Mackintosh visited Eagle’s Trace in spring 2017 to give an update about ongoing construction at Addicks and Barker dams. Barker Dam is located across Highway 6 from Eagle’s Trace.

“The purpose of the Government Affairs Committee is to inform and educate,” says Jerry. “We didn’t realize just how valuable the Army Corps’ presentation was until Hurricane Harvey hit in August. We were better informed about the dams [thanks to the presentation] than we would have been otherwise.”

Throughout Hurricane Harvey, Eagle’s Trace remained safe from flooding or significant damage. The campus was not located in a mandatory evacuation zone.

“There was widespread media coverage about the areas surrounding the dams during Harvey, and there were some reports that water could rush over the top of the dams,” says Jerry. “We knew that wasn’t the case because we’d had the benefit of information directly from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

Post-Harvey visit to Eagle’s Trace

Long and Mackintosh returned to Eagle’s Trace this spring, this time to speak about lessons learned from Harvey.

They addressed a packed house at the West Houston community, including residents who moved to Eagle’s Trace after Harvey flooded their homes.

“There are obviously some things we can’t address because of ongoing litigation,” said Mackintosh, referring to lawsuits filed by flooded Houston homeowners against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the aftermath of Harvey. “But we’ll do our best to answer any questions you might have.”

Many residents wanted to know if there was any danger of water spilling over the tops of the dams.

Mackintosh emphasized that at no time during Harvey was that a likely scenario.

“We had people patrolling the dams on foot 24/7 during the hurricane,” he explained. “At Addicks, the water was toe deep on our boots [while standing on the deck at the top of the dam]. At Barker, the water was just about two feet below deck. We also have auxiliary spillways that function like the overflow drain in a bathtub. You’d see the auxiliary spillways completely engage before water comes over the top of the dam, and that wasn’t the case.”

No signs of critical failure

Residents also wanted to know if there was any danger of the dams breaking during Harvey.

“There were no signs of progression toward critical failure of the earthen embankment of the dams at any time during Harvey,” Mackintosh assured the group. “But that’s not to say that we don’t have concerns we’re addressing.”

The Addicks and Barker reservoirs, which span a combined 26,000 acres, are most often dry wooded areas. When rains come, the reservoirs fill with water and then drain via conduits built into the dams.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina breached New Orleans’ levees, the U.S. Army Corps took a hard look at dams nationwide.

“There were some dam safety issues at Addicks and Barker,” said Long. “They’re built from Houston’s soil which contains lots of sand. When water moves through sand, it creates voids.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers took interim risk reduction measures while a more detailed study is ongoing. They awarded a contract in 2015 to replace outlet structures and decommission the old ones.

The Tax Day flood of 2016 set the work back, pushing the estimated completion date from 2019 to 2021.

Shattering records

“Prior to Harvey, the Tax Day flood was the pool of record, meaning we recorded the most water the reservoirs have ever held,” Long added. “To put it in perspective, the previous pool of record was in 1992, when the Addicks reservoir filled to 65,000 acre feet of water. During the Tax Day flood, the reservoir filled to 123,000 acre feet of water, double what we’d seen in the past.”

Of the top ten pools of record, nine have occurred since 1990. Harvey shattered the Tax Day record, filling the Addicks reservoir with 217,000 acre feet of water.

“We don’t have a wet season in Houston,” said Mackintosh. “When you look at the top ten pools of record, they’ve happened in March, April, May, August, October, and November. When you live here, it’s just a question of when the next rain event is coming.”

Now, the Army Corps is waiting to see what funds they’ll receive to improve flood control in the area.

“The federal disaster relief package is earmarked for several regions, not just Houston,” said Long. “We’re waiting to see what piece of the pie we’ll get.”

In the meantime, the Corps has commissioned a comprehensive regional watershed study to look at the overall picture.

When the Barker and Addicks dams were completed in 1945 and 1948 respectively, they were surrounded by prairie and rice fields west of Houston’s city center. As the city has grown, residential and commercial developments have sprung up all around the reservoirs.

“When there’s significant social, economic, and environmental development around a project, we need to take a hard look at how we’re operating,” said Mackintosh, posing the question, “Is the way we’re operating today the way it needs to operate based on our landscape?”