In-Depth

‘We’re Going To Flood Again’: This Houston Neighborhood Got Hit Twice In 2019

Now a lawsuit is raising questions about how the region handles new development in a changing climate.

A partially filled flood detention pond under construction at the Woodridge Village construction site.

As it always does, Christmas is coming to Kingwood. But this year, for some residents who’ve been flooded, it won't be the same.

When Nancy Vera's home in Kingwood’s Elm Grove subdivision flooded for the first time in May, the family carefully saved all their holiday decorations. But those boxes didn't survive when Tropical Storm Imelda hit in September, just four months later.

"I don't have any Christmas decorations. I lost everything," Vera said. "That's one of my big heartbreaks."

Vera said she was at work during the first flood.

"And I'm seeing that Kingwood is flooding. My area is flooding. And I'm like, that doesn't make sense. We don't flood," Vera said.

But they did flood — two feet of muddy water damaged her home. Vera said they used to be surrounded by woods until a year ago, when a developer, Perry Homes, cleared the trees to make room for Woodridge Village, a 260-acre residential development under construction next door to her house. Vera's home is right on the county line — she lives in Harris County, while the development is in Montgomery County.

She and other Elm Grove residents decided to sue. They argue they're flooding because the developers violated state law by causing more runoff, while the developers say this year's storms were simply more intense. The lawsuit raises questions about how the expanding Houston area is grappling with new development in a changing climate.

A Montgomery County official told Houston Public Media the flooding was caused by the rainfall intensity, not the new development. Vera disagreed.

"He's an idiot," Vera said. "Because there were trees there, and for 30 years we never flooded."

In May, she and her husband decided not to rebuild their house right away. That's because, a few days after that first flood, it rained again.

"I stayed home and I saw the retention pond fill up, with less than an inch or two of rain. And I said, well that doesn't make sense. How are we not going to flood again, if it's barely any rain at all? So we said we're going to wait and see," Vera said.

Houston City Councilmember Dave Martin, whose district includes Elm Grove, said something needs to be done quickly to address the problem.

"When you have a two-inch rainfall that you're scared to death about," Martin said, "what's going to happen over these next months and years?"

A construction site for flood detention near Elm Grove in Kingwood.

The lawsuit

In May, neighbors in Elm Grove banded together to sue the companies responsible for the development, including Perry Homes’ subsidiary Figure Four Partners Ltd., PSWA, Inc. and Rebel Contractors, Inc. They allege the project violated the Texas Water Code. In court documents, they said "we're going to flood again" — which turned out to be true, just a few months later.

Jim Blackburn, a law professor with Rice University, has seen cases like this for decades, where residents blame new development for creating flooding.

"We don't really have time to fool with simple issues like getting runoff right from new developments," Blackburn said. "That's a problem that simply should not occur. We know enough to keep that from happening, and if it takes litigation to stop it, so be it. We have strong laws — we should use them."

With suburbs continuing to expand all around the edges of Harris County, and climate change producing more intense storms more often, the legal arguments in this case matter to many neighborhoods, not just Elm Grove.

"Perhaps the more unusual thing is that in this case it appears that the problem has been discovered in a more timely manner," Blackburn said. "But there's a long history in Texas of suing over what one neighbor does to another neighbor with regard to flooding."

Many homes are still recovering from the damage.

The storms

The Elm Grove case hinges partly on one big question — was the rainfall in May actually worse than in Hurricane Harvey, when the homes didn't flood?

In the defendants' motion to dismiss the lawsuit, the attorneys said rainfall in Elm Grove on May 7 was unprecedented: "Early reports show rain fell at a rate of up to 6 inches per hour, with a total of 16 inches within a 24-hour period. This massive rainfall was of historical significance; the rate of rainfall in and around the Elm Grove area over such a short time period surpassed even that of Hurricane Harvey."

Space City Weather meteorologist Eric Berger said, based on data from the Harris County Flood Control District, rainfall in the area on May 7 was very intense, but does not necessarily match that claim.

"That is not in the Harris County data, but they may have some more localized information they're using from some other source," Berger said. "Some of the closest [rain gauges] did show rainfall rates above three inches per hour, which suggests that near Elm Grove or just upstream of Elm Grove it certainly could have been higher."

According to the Harris County Flood Control District, the Kingwood area received a four-day total of around 30 inches during Harvey in 2017. In this year's storms, the Kingwood area received 6-7 inches total during the May 7 rain event, and a four-day total of around 17 inches during Tropical Storm Imelda in September.

"It would be really interesting to know the source of the data behind the claims for total rainfall and rainfall intensity that the defendants are basing their defense on," Berger said. "And I think that will be pretty important to deciding the outcome of the case. There could have been localized storm totals not reflected in the government observation sites."

In response, a Perry Homes spokesperson said, "That portion of Montgomery County has few, if any, publicly reported rain gauges as far as we know. Because the rainfall information in this portion of Montgomery County is sparse, Figure Four retained a nationally recognized expert to determine accurate rainfall amounts for the 2019 flood events."

An Elm Grove resident’s homemade Christmas decoration adorns the garbage dumpster that contains their flood debris.

What's next

After the flooding during Tropical Storm Imelda, Martin was outraged. The city of Houston filed cease and desist orders, which Martin hoped would keep that land undeveloped. Martin reached out to Kathy Perry Britton, the CEO of Perry Homes, to talk about incentives to turn the land back into green space.

"I wanted to sit down and have coffee with her to discuss some of the things that I think would work well, and they didn't think that was a necessary step,” Martin said. “Let's have a conversation and see if we can protect the neighborhood, maybe do something unique Perry Homes could be proud of, instead of building a development they're not going to be proud of, and that the neighbors aren't going to want."

Beth Guide, the Elm Grove Homeowners Association Director, said she would like to see the development stopped, too.

"I'm hoping that human decency wins out in the end and they walk away," Guide said.

A spokesperson with Perry Homes said Montgomery County signed off on the Woodridge Village drainage plan after an engineering firm found that the development wouldn't negatively impact nearby homes. That plan includes detention basins to hold water, which are under construction now.

Houston Councilmember Martin said he's concerned about the region, not just Elm Grove.

"What we really need to do," Martin said, "is look at our policies and do we continue to build in the floodplains? To put people's homes and lives at risk?"

As for Nancy Vera, she's working on putting her home back together.

"I don't know what I'm hoping for," Nancy Vera said. "It's hard to say. I'm just taking one day at a time. I'm going through the motions. Because what else are you supposed to do?"

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