HOUSTON (AP) – Houston-area officials said Monday during a congressional hearing that they weren’t aware of forecasts by federal authorities regarding flooding risks from local reservoirs that ended up inundating thousands of homes during Hurricane Harvey.
However, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said concerted efforts were made to ensure all information was shared with both local officials and the public.
U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas and chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said after the hearing that the possibility local officials and residents weren’t given sufficient warning about potential flooding from the reservoirs could be "the most disturbing" thing that comes out in the wake of Harvey. McCaul said he plans to begin a congressional investigation to "get to the bottom of this."
"I know a lot of these residents are very angry about what happened and they want answers and Congress through an investigation can provide those answers as to who knew what, when and where," McCaul said.
Harvey dumped up to 50 inches (127 centimeters) of rain in some parts of Houston last August, filling the area’s two reservoirs – Addicks and Barker – to capacity and forcing the Corps, which operates the dams, to release water from the structures to preserve their integrity. The water releases ended up flooding thousands of homes downstream of the reservoirs. But upstream of the reservoirs, homes which had been built in areas known as flood pools also flooded during Harvey.
During a hearing of the committee Monday, lawmakers discussed whether local officials had been given sufficient warning about the flooding risks from the reservoirs, referencing a Houston Chronicle report from February that stated the Corps had failed to share with the public a forecast ahead of Harvey’s arrival predicting that Barker and Addicks would flood adjacent neighborhoods.
Mark Sloan, emergency management coordinator with Harris County, where Houston is located, told the committee he never saw two forecasts made by the Corps ahead of Harvey’s arrival that predicted flooding in neighborhoods around the reservoirs.
Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle said if he and other officials had been given information of what would occur in these areas, "we would have gone in there with our trucks, horns blaring, telling everybody, ‘Get out.’"
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner testified he had been informed about the Corps’ plan to start releasing water from the reservoirs but told the committee he was not informed the Corps had decided to increase the rate at which it would release water.
Col. Lars Zetterstrom, commanding officer of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Galveston District, told the committee that prediction models for the reservoirs were shared with Houston-area officials on Aug. 25 – the day Harvey made landfall in South Texas but a day before its rains started inundating the city – and that information was shared throughout the storm.
The Corps’ first forecast about flooding from the reservoirs was made Aug. 24, the day before Harvey made landfall, according to documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle.
"No risk communication program is ever perfect," Zetterstrom said. "But we did make appropriate notifications and we did provide the information necessary."
Zetterstrom added that the public was also informed through social media, news releases and press conferences.
U.S. Rep. John Culberson, a Texas Republican who represents part of the Houston area, said there "was inadequate warning to people" and the storm highlighted the need for an alert system that can notify residents about impending flooding dangers.
Flooding associated with the reservoirs has resulted in federal lawsuits in which thousands of homeowners are seeking compensation from the Corps.
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