In the months following Hurricane Harvey, the city’s Solid Waste Management Department employees and contractors worked countless hours to clear more than 2 million cubic yards of debris.
Their efforts yielded enough waste to fill 622 Olympic-sized pools and 14,234 busses, according to recovery data as of April 2018.
But that was just surface debris.
Fifteen miles northeast of the city is Lake Houston, an 11,854-acre lake that serves as a primary drinking water source for the City of Houston. Harvey’s record-breaking rains caused severe regional and structural flooding in the Lake Houston area communities including Kingwood, Huffman and Atascocita.
The city estimates that 75,000 to 150,000 cubic yards of logs, vegetation and building materials from flood-damaged homes continue to clog Lake Houston, compromising the lake’s capacity, complicating navigation and giving flood flashbacks to leaders and residents every time it rains.
In May, the city began a long-term flood mitigation project that is estimated to last up to six more months. DRC, the city’s contractor, took Mayor Sylvester Turner, city council members Dave Martin and David Robinson and State Rep. Dan Huberty on a lake tour to watch cleanup efforts in action on July 7.
Mayor Sylvester Turner said the project is the next phase of the city’s ongoing flood recovery and prevention efforts. The project’s estimated $20 million price tag is contingent upon the amount of debris recovered. FEMA will fund 90 percent of the cleanup and the city will cover 10 percent.
Labor will be provided by contractor DRC, so SWMD employee hours will not be allocated to the project.
“When Harvey came, it tore up apartments, condominiums and houses and swept them out into the water. Now that debris is sitting at the bottom of the lake,” Turner said. “We removed debris from the streets in front of people’s homes in record time, but what we haven’t done is remove the debris that is now in Lake Houston.”
At its current pace, the massive operation requires at least nine barges a day to haul 1,000-2,000 cubic yards of storm debris from the lake. That’s the equivalent of 50 dumpsters per day. As of early July, 50,000 cubic yards of material had been collected, which equates to more than 28,000 pickup truck loads of material.
“Harvey was a huge wakeup call, so we have to take a look at the lessons we have learned. We are going to be here three-to-six months,” Turner said. “But that is just one step.
When you combine what FEMA is doing with what the city and the county are proposing to do, I think we can significantly improve the situation for people in the Kingwood area. We have to operate with the greatest degree of urgency.”
“As we go forward, I think it is very important to maintain a systematic schedule of maintenance,” Turner said of storm debris. “We are mitigating the risk of future flooding, but we have to keep it up.”
The excess debris reduced the lake’s capacity by at least 25 percent, Turner said. Areas that were once 30 feet deep are now only about 18 feet deep. The trash and vegetation cluttering the bottom of the lake also make it difficult for watercraft like emergency and recreational boats to navigate the lake.
City Council Member Dave Martin, who serves the Lake Houston area, said the city has lowered the lake level three times during heavy rains to prevent Lake Houston waters from flooding beyond the banks.
“This directly impacts the normalcy of their lives,” Turner said of Lake Houston area residents. “You cannot lose 25-30 percent of the capacity of the lake, because when a major rain comes, the water has to go someplace. You are going to have structural flooding.”
Harry Hayes, City of Houston Chief Operating Officer and Solid Waste Management Department director, said the project should provide more peace of mind for residents in the lake’s flood path.
“We’ve got about 300,000 people who live in this area, and all Houstonians benefit from Lake Houston, but our hearts go out to folks in this part of the city have been through,” Hayes said.
“We worked out in this area hauling away surface debris, now we have to get on to the next line of business. We hear you, we know what you’ve been through and we want to do everything we can for the area to be more resilient,” Hayes said.
“When it rains, I get nervous, and I’m sure the folks around here get nervous. This administration is doing everything we can to move us to the next level of safety as it relates to our waterways.”