Alice Bohlae knew her property had flooded when she purchased it in 2011, and it flooded again four years later. Her Oak Grove home was spared during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, however, and she thought a nearby storm drainage project that was in the works at the time might have been a contributing factor.
Now, though, it doesn’t seem to have helped at all.
Less than a year after the City of Houston completed the first phase of the Garden Oaks and Shepherd Park Drainage and Paving project, a $23 million infrastructure update designed to improve drainage and mitigate structural flooding in the area, Bohlae’s property in the 900 block of Judiway Street flooded more severely than it ever had before. The front house where her 94-year-old mother lives took on a few feet of water Sept. 19, when Tropical Storm Imelda dumped several inches of rain on Greater Houston in the span of a few hours.
“They put in giant (concrete culverts) down there, and I thought maybe that helped,” Bohlae said. “Clearly I was incorrect.”
Imelda caused flooding all over Southeast Texas and in local neighborhoods such as Mangum Manor, Oak Forest and even the Heights, which has the highest elevation in Houston. The hardest-hit part of the area was immediately west of Alba Road on Judiway and Wakefield Drive – the southwestern edge of the drainage project that was completed in December 2018.
Homes on Wakefield that did not flood during Harvey, the most significant rain event in Houston’s history, took on water during Imelda. So did businesses such as Great Heights Brewing Company and upcoming coffee roaster Ship Channel Trading Co., which are on Wakefield between Alba and Golf Drive.
One of the flood victims said the recent drainage project seems to have caused storm water to collect near the intersection of Alba and Wakefield, a low point that had water rushing in from all directions on Sept. 19.
“We just became a retention pond,” said the Wakefield occupant, who asked to remain anonymous.
The new drainage system starts near the intersection of Brinkman Street and Janisch Road in Shepherd Park Plaza, turns west on Chamboard Lane and then continues south on Alba until just past Judiway, with drains and culverts also positioned on both sides of Alba and Brinkman.
Whether the project functioned properly during Imelda, or created more problems than it solved, is unclear. There could have been other culprits such as continued development in the area or an unusually large amount of rain in an especially short time – roughly 7 inches in a 24-hour span, according to the Harris County Flood Warning System.
A spokesperson for Houston Public Works, which engineered the project, and Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Cohen, whose Houston City Council District C funded the capital improvement project, both said it’s too early to know for sure. There are two more phases to come, with additional storm drainage systems to be installed to the west and east. Public Works spokesperson Erin Jones said the three phases “will interconnect to reduce the risk of flooding for the entire area.”
Cohen said in an emailed statement that she was “deeply concerned” about reports of flooding in the 900 block of Wakefield. She also said it’s important for flooded homeowners and business owners to relay their experiences to the city so thorough information can be compiled and assessed.
“With that data we can then work with Public Works to see whether there is something wrong with the localized drainage system, or if this was simply a case of the storm being particularly heavy over that spot,” Cohen said. “In either case, I will be advocating with the department to see what solutions are available to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”
Some flood victims in the vicinity, along with two Shepherd Park Plaza residents who nearly flooded, said the amount of rainfall in a short period of time was the most significant contributor to unusually high water levels. Multiple residents and business owners also said that when the rain stopped, the water appeared to recede more quickly than during previous flooding events in the area, indicating the drainage project had a beneficial impact.
Bohlae, who has a storm drain near the front of her property, challenged that notion and said she didn’t notice any differences in how quickly the water receded. She also wondered whether the nearby drainage project had any impact to the positive or negative. She said she suspects an under-construction preschool next to her property, which has added dirt fill to increase its elevation, caused more water than usual to flow into her front yard.
Increased development in the neighborhood in recent years also could have exacerbated flooding, according to Super Neighborhood 12 president Mark Klein.
“Water that used to spread out and pond over lots with less impervious cover now speeds toward the streets,” Klein said. “Also, the debris clogging the intakes along Alba was severe, which had to stifle the flow of water into the storm drains. Everything from tons of pine needles, branches and even lumber from construction sites was impeding flow at the grates.”
Sean Bednarz, co-owner of the Great Heights brewery, is hesitant to point to one cause over another. He said a combination of factors likely contributed to the increased flooding on Wakefield.
Preventing similar events in the future could require a multi-faceted solution that’s implemented expeditiously, with Houston having endured multiple heavy rain events during the last few years.
Jones said construction of Phase 2 of the Garden Oaks and Shepherd Park project, which will install drainage under Chamboard, Golf, Brian Haven Drive, Park Plaza Drive and Thornton Road, is scheduled to begin next summer. She said 60 percent of the funding is in place for Phase 3, which will add drainage underneath Sue Barnett Drive, Wakefield and West 43rd Street, and no construction date has been set.
As part of the $2.5 billion flood bond approved by Harris County voters in 2018, the Harris County Flood Control District has more than 40 storm repair projects slated for the area along White Oak Bayou. But none of those projects has reached the construction phase.
“It’s very disappointing, because I pay my (city) fee for drainage and I voted for the bonds,” Bohlae said. “I’ve done everything in my power, and nothing seems to be getting any better.”