When, on Monday, October 17, the first drops of rain fell on the city of Houston, little did its citizens suspect they were in for a five-day-long siege of nonstop downpours, the likes of which they had not experienced in years. A storm that dumped a record total of water on the city, brought businesses to a grinding halt, turned streets into rivers, washed out bridges, overpasses and highways, destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes — and left 20 people dead before it finally moved on.
“It rained all day Monday, then heavily that night,” says Dan Pruitt of the Department of Public Works & Engineering, City of Houston. By Tuesday morning, when the rain still continued and forecasters warned of no letup in sight, we knew we had a major problem on our hands.”
The first indication of trouble came with reports of motorists stranded in flooded underpasses and cut off from the ribbon of freeways that weave around and through Houston. “As early as Tuesday we began assisting local authorities in barricading impassable roads and rescuing people stranded, either in their cars or homes,” says Pruitt. “Our airboats, flatbottomed boats propelled by large propellers at their backs and designed to travel in shallow water, were pressed into use, first on the south side of the city where we got nearly 400 people out of the Sims Bayou area, a place where the water began to come up quickly.”
The flooding was of a magnitude not seen before in Houston. The water rose so fast because there was simply no place for it to go. In the Belleau Woods subdivision — an area of expensive homes — we transported 275 people out as homes became quickly submerged under as much as 16 feet of water. Even in homes with two stories, water was two feet deep on the second floor.
The city’s airboats, designed to reach the city’s water wells, water production plants and other facilities in the event of high water, proved invaluable during the storm. “The boats made it possible for us to quickly reach people and get them out of their cars and homes to dry land or to relief shelters. We even pressed our department’s dump trucks into operation because, with their high wheelbases, the vehicles could navigate water as deep as three to five feet.”
Of extreme concern during the first days of the flooding was the safety of the city’s water supply. “Naturally, with a storm of this severity — overflowing rivers, lakes, reservoir and the huge amount of debris, garbage and waste floating free — overflowing rivers, lakes, reservoirs and the huge amount of debris, garbage and waste floating free which maintains the purity of the city’s drinking water was critical.
“Throughout the storm, the water system was continually tested and, fortunately, we never had to discontinue service and the system continued to produce safe drinking water,” says Pruitt. “The system was designed to withstand severe flooding and proved its worth.”
Following the storm, cleanup efforts were begun immediately. “We had 75 pieces of heavy equipment and 175 employees cleaning streets, digging out ditches to free up drainage, emptying culverts of debris and clearing storm drains,” says Pruitt.
“It was imperative that roads and highways be made passable for both emergency vehicles and residents. The cleanup operation continued for a week. Our personnel worked from sunrise to sunset, removing limbs, branches and volumes of carpeting, sheetrock and ruined belongings put out on the street.”
Pruitt says that, while the flood waters did begin receding on Friday of that week, many areas remained submerged for two to three days after that. “We established mobile home locations in two subdivisions on the heavily-hit north side where homeowners could get information on qualifying for assistance.”
Developing damage assessment information was important, both in qualifying for government assistance and in documentation for insurance claims. Pruitt says instant photography was used extensively in documenting damage.
“Our building inspectors took instant photos of flood damaged homes, both interior and exterior photos, to use as an aid in assembling information. We also took instant photos, for example, of the water levels at Lake Houston Dam, the water supply for the city of Houston. At the dam, where the water level is normally one foot below crest, at the height of the storm, 250,000 cubic feet of muddy water was flowing over the roof of the spillway every second — a storm phenomenon we needed to capture, as it was happening, in photos.
“The instant photos provided us the opportunity to secure critical, on-the-spot documentation. Since the flood waters were receding, there was no second-chance to get the storm photos we needed. We needed to know we got the photo that moment. We couldn’t afford to count on waiting until it was processed.”
A date and time stamp on the actual photo is important in generating photo documentation for damage assessment and insurance purposes. Pruitt says more than 300 inspections of flood-damaged homes have been conducted by the City of Houston Department of Public Works & Engineering Building Inspection Division.
“Currently, a mitigation plan is being developed to qualify substantially damaged properties for possible federal acquisition. In addition, we have been present at numerous community meetings in an effort to assist flood victims with the recovery process.”
The Houston Department of Public Works & Engineering has an annual operating budget of more than $700 million and a work force of over 5,000 people.
The Department’s Public Utilities Group produces about 350 million gallons a day of drinking water utilizing 185 wells and 200 pumping stations. Wastewater treatment plants turn raw sewage into clear, environmentally safe water which then enters Houston’s streams and bayous.
The Department’s Maintenance and Right-of-Way Group oversees streets, bridges, drainage ditches, storm sewers, street lighting and right-of-way mowing. “The storm sewers, designed only for emptying storm water into major ditches and bayous, were taxed to capacity and then some during the flood,” says Pruitt. “Following the storm and the conclusion of rescue efforts, all available personnel were put to work clearing drainage systems — an activity which continued throughout the following week.”
Even as thousands of weary Houston and Southeast Texas residents began the task of repairing or rebuilding flood-ravaged homes and businesses, and as city officials, county engineers, police and fire officials, utility experts started the bleak effort of repairing or rebuilding their flood-ravaged homes and businesses — and officials began tallying up the dollar amount of the damage, including $12 million for the Red Cross relief effort alone — the “can do” Texas spirit continued to shine.
Just a week after the flood hit — and with memories of one of Houston’s worst disasters in years still intact — thousands of people turned out for the Trinity Valley Exposition, an annual local fair which started with a parade and rodeo.
Richard W. Cooke is the president of Cooke & Co., a public relations and marketing communications company in New York, New York.