The U.S. government may be on the hook for as much as $1 billion after a federal judge found it responsible for the flooding of thousands of homes and businesses in Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
U.S. District Judge Charles F. Lettow in Washington ruled Monday that the government failed to buy enough land to hold water that engineers knew could accumulate in a pair of reservoirs during a record-breaking storm, making it liable for the flood-related damage.
Harvey was the strongest hurricane to hit the U.S. since 2005, killing at least 103 people and causing an estimated $125 billion in damage. That made it the second-costliest hurricane after Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers knew that homes and businesses built upstream of the Addick and Barker reservoirs would be prone to flooding during an extreme storm, lawyers for flood victims said.
But the government claimed Harvey put federal engineers managing the two reservoirs between a rock and hard place: They had to follow protocols designed to protect downtown Houston from catastrophic flooding, even though they knew that doing so risked over-filling the reservoirs and flooding homes that were upstream.
More than $7 billion in downstream losses were avoided by operating Addicks and Barker dams the way federal engineers did during Harvey, government lawyers said. The judge ruled, however, that public benefit came directly at the expense of upstream property owners who were unaware of their risks.
“The government intentionally flooded these private homes and businesses to save downtown Houston,” Daniel Charest, co-lead class counsel for the property owners, said after the ruling. “The government was responsible for creating an emergency, and these citizens were the innocent victims of those calculated decisions.”
Wyn Hornbuckle, a Justice Department spokesman, said the ruling is being reviewed. The government is expected to appeal.
The government had claimed the more than 60 inches of rain that over-filled the two reservoirs was an unforeseeable act of God.
But Lettow rejected the government’s claim that upstream properties would’ve flooded anyway, with more than 150,000 structures damaged in the Greater Houston area during Harvey.
“The flooding on plaintiffs’ properties did differ from that experienced by others because it was directly caused not by the storm itself but by the impoundment of water behind the dams,” Lettow said in the 46-page ruling.
Federal engineers were forced to release water from the overflowing reservoirs to prevent failure of their earthen dams as the storm lingered, pounding the area with a year’s worth of rain in less than a week.
Those late-night releases came with little warning to property owners downstream from the reservoirs and flooded some of Houston’s most affluent neighborhoods, killing two residents who failed to evacuate in time. Those claims are being heard separately.
The case is: In Re Upstream Addicks and Barker Reservoir (Texas) Flood-Control Reservoirs, 1:17-cv-09001, U.S. Court of Federal Claims (Washington).