Energy & Environment

A Century Ago, How Houston Home Developers Reduced Flood Risk

With thousands of homes in Greater Houston damaged again by flooding, there’s a lot of talk about what could be done to reduce the risk. What can be learned from a neighborhood developed in 1911?

John Jacob's house in Houston's East End is elevated by a pier and beam foundation
John Jacob’s house in Houston’s East End is elevated by a pier and beam foundation

The East End is one of Houston's older neighborhoods, an area bordered by Buffalo Bayou downstream from where White Oak Bayou dumps into it.

John Jacob lives here. He heads Texas A&M's Coastal Watershed Program. So was he worried earlier this week as those two bayous surged with so much runoff?

"No we are far from the floodplain," Jacob says.

As he stood in his front yard, Jacob explained that a century ago, dirt dredged as they built the Ship Channel was put here to build the neighborhood where he now lives. So the homes are higher and out of the flood plain.

"On top of that (the homes are) built pier and beam. I have a crawl space underneath here," Jacob says, pointing to his porch that is a couple feet higher than the yard.

Apparently, a hundred years ago, developers knew Houston flooded and went to great lengths to reduce the risk.

But then there is what John Jacob saw this week: news video of people wading out of their much newer homes and apartments in places like the Greenspoint area, homes Jacob said were constructed right in the floodway of Greens Bayou, an area that he says is sure to flood.

"How would you not think it's going to flood there? It's distressing, it's heartbreaking. And we're putting people in harm's way because it's not the same across the whole area. Yes it's flat, yes it floods. But some places flood a whole lot more than others," Jacob told News 88.7.

Jacob says add to that how much faster rain runoff can add up, now that we've paved over so much and built atop what had been prairies and wetlands west of the city.

"Just in Harris County we have lost 30 to 40 percent of the wetlands that we're there in 1992," says Jacob.

He says policymakers should be talking about reforming how land is used.

"The problem is we just have this conversation for a few days after each flood. It's a conversation we have to start having now."

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Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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