Deadly gumbo and Houton’s Katrina: Hurricane Harvey cuts close

August 30, 2017 GMT

Stretches of the city are beginning to emerge from the waters, but Houston remains bookended on east and west by two looming catastrophes - the San Jacinto waste pits and the Addicks and Barker Dams.

On the west side, two earthen berms have held back a wall of water that, if it breaks free, would create a deluge unseen since Hurricane Katrina submerged New Orleans.

A failure at Addicks alone would leave nearly 7,000 people dead and inflict $22.7??billion in property damage, Houston Chronicle reporter Lauren Caruba wrote last year.

So if you think the situation is bad enough, that is how things gets worse.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is acting to head off this unthinkably disastrous scenario. Part of that plan involves releasing water from the two overfilled reservoirs. Millions of gallons will be added to a swollen Buffalo Bayou that already claimed neighborhoods in the Memorial City area and along the Energy Corridor.


We’d like to tell you that these dams, located near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Texas 6, are up-to-date marvels of technology and that everything was under control. But we’d be lying.

The Corps branded both dams with the agency’s worst safety rating and labeled them as being at “extremely high risk of catastrophic failure” in 2009. Only four other dams in the nation earned that rock-bottom rating, and none are near a city as big as Houston.

Repairs totaling $73 million were well underway at Addicks and Barker before Harvey struck. Even if they survive this test of Mother Nature, the work planned to be completed in 2020 will still be insufficient to adequately handle our region’s flooding infrastructure needs.

And now, as rain keeps falling over Houston, the Corps confirms that water flowing around the Addicks Reservoir spillways for the first time in its history. More than 3,000 homes have already flooded. Some may remain underwater for more than a month.

A disaster of this scale may seem unthinkable, but environmental and engineering activists have been ringing the warning bell for years.

This page wrote an editorial last year urging local and federal officials to make the dams an immediate priority. “There’s always the chance, however small,” we wrote, “that the next storm will be ‘the perfect storm.’” We may be living through it. Harris County, though, has preferred to focus on development foremost, even allowing construction within the reservoirs themselves. And you have to look back decades to find an era when Congress prioritized such infrastructure work.

For the time being, our words of encouragement are all directed toward the Corps, and our prayers are with the families who have lost their homes.


But while we fear a dam failure to the west, disaster may have already struck in the east, where the San Jacinto waste pits form one of the most poisonous places in Texas. Lying underneath the San Jacinto River adjacent to the Interstate 10 bridge, the pits hold a toxic sludge of leftover dioxin and other carcinogens deposited by a paper mill in the 1960s.

Now we worry that rushing water and debris ruptured the pits and washed poison downriver.

Activist Jackie Young, a former Miss Rodeo and head of the San Jacinto River Coalition, has long worked to draw attention to this environmental hazard.

Swimmers for years have avoided the San Jacinto River for fear of exposure to pollution, and the fish and crab caught from the waters might as well be balls of poison. What happens if this contamination flows down river to Galveston Bay?

The waste pits are one of at least a dozen federal Superfund sites across the region, and any one of them could transform floodwaters into a deadly gumbo of chemicals and carcinogens.

Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency recommended a full cleanup at San Jac, and yet the waste pits remained in the river.

Why? The companies responsible wasted time by fighting a lawsuit from Harris County, and Congress has long failed to lend the attention and resources needed for a quick cleanup. Now it may be too late.

The waters will soon start to recede and the nation will start to ask how it can help. Any politician serious about our city must dedicate federal resources to dams on the west and pollution on the east. Our city cannot go another year hoping that we avoid a worst-case scenario. Hurricane Harvey has been destructive enough.