Durham Elementary School became infamous last fall, when its flooding problem was seen all over the United States and likely beyond.
Tropical Storm Imelda’s sudden surge in September caused rainwater to collect all across the Shepherd Park Plaza campus, which utilizes covered, outdoor walkways between buildings. A video of students walking across benches to avoid floodwaters – which appeared to be taken indoors – was shared on social media and picked up by national news outlets such as NPR and Yahoo.
If Durham goes viral again, it likely will be for a different reason.
Houston ISD has fortified the drainage system at the school, which is more than 50 years old, by adding more storm drains, larger underground pipes, new downspouts from the rooftops of its buildings and new chunks of sod that help absorb water. Two detention ponds on opposite ends of campus also have been constructed as part of the flood mitigation project, which started in December and should be completed within the next month, according to HISD.
“I think it solves (the problem),” Durham principal Carrie Flores said. “Now, it hasn’t rained like it did with Imelda, but it has been raining, and I can tell you that I don’t see ponding water anymore on my campus.”
Brian Busby, the chief operating officer for HISD, said the work was not in direct response to September’s bad publicity but as part of an ongoing, districtwide initiative to improve drainage on HISD campuses. Busby said flood mitigation work was done at 10 schools after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and on three campuses – Durham, Hogg Middle School in the Heights and Wesley Elementary School in Acres Homes – since Imelda.
Busby said the projects were funded by HISD’s general fund, with the work at Durham costing more than $500,000. The slow-release detention ponds still need to be connected to the City of Houston’s drainage infrastructure, which Busby said should happen within the next 30 days.
“It was several schools that have a history of flooding,” Busby said. “We decided we needed to do something to not only mitigate the flooding that was occurring, but also create drainage relief for those schools.”
Two members of Durham’s parent-teacher association said they are glad the flooding problem is being addressed. But PTA president Jane Schiffer said she wishes that campus stakeholders would have been clued in about the work beforehand and given the opportunity to provide input.
Flores said she did not know about the project until construction workers began digging up the schoolyard. Schiffer and PTA member Megan Rasmussen did not know about the plan to connect the detention ponds to the city’s storm drains until informed by a reporter on Tuesday.
Both Durham parents said the detention ponds, which are near playgrounds and roughly 40 feet long, 15 feet wide and 5 feet deep, contained standing water and were surrounded by temporary, flimsy fencing for multiple weeks. After the PTA sent a letter to HISD last Friday, expressing its concerns about the ponds, water was pumped out of them and sturdier, permanent fencing was installed.
“That was one of the big concerns,” Rasmussen said of fencing around the ponds.
Busby said the detention ponds couldn’t immediately be connected to the city’s drainage infrastructure because it first needed to be determined that the other mitigation work had the desired impact. HISD and Durham officials might not know for sure until the next major flooding event in Houston, but the early indications have been encouraging.
The new sod has been laid in large patches throughout the school grounds, and the downspouts from the rooftops now extend beneath the ground level. Flores said the drainage pipes in the courtyard at the center of campus, which had been partially clogged by debris such as twigs and leaves, were replaced and appear to be performing more efficiently.
“When you walk the exteriors (of the campus), they’re way drier,” Flores said. “We would have problems with ponding water, even up close to the building where kids would go from the sidewalks to play areas.
“We don’t have that issue anymore. It has improved.”