Yesterday a federal claims court began to hear arguments in a novel case in which private homeowners in Houston are arguing that the Army Corps of Engineers is liable for intentionally flooding their homes during Hurricane Harvey. Ordinarily private citizens cannot sue the federal government for damages caused by the government doing its job. In this case, the homeowners claim that the Corps’ actions during the Hurricane amounted to a government “taking” of their private property without compensation because the operation of two federal dams built to control flooding in the city caused homes to flood both up and downstream of the dams due to water releases that took place after the storm had passed. According to the Wall Street Journal:
- The Corps built the Addicks and Barker dams west of Houston in the 1940’s at a time when downtown Houston had flooded during a storm and the Congress was tasking the Corps to build lots of flood control projects like large reservoirs to control the flow of water during and after flooding events.
- The Houston dams rarely held back large quantities of water — which meant that large “dry” reservoir areas were used for parks and recreation and residential areas sprouted up adjacent to the “dry” reservoir areas in what had been farms when the dams were built.
- Residents of these adjacent neighborhoods never knew that their subdivisions were an extension of a reservoir intended to hold water during severe storms.
- When Hurricane Harvey hit, the Corps closed the gates at the two dams to hold back the rising stormwater, but that stormwater got so high behind the dams that it was released by the Corps back into the neighborhoods, flooding some 10,000 properties.
Now the government claims the flooding was an “isolated event” and that this land would have flooded during the Hurricane if the dams had not been there. If the plaintiffs win, this could get very expensive for the government.
Why This Matters: Corps of Engineers failing flood control projects can be found all over the country — just ask the people of Davenport. It is not as if the Corps planned for these projects to fail — but they certainly did not anticipate the problem of what would happen when they needed the extra space for water storage and deal with it in advance. With climate change causing increasingly soaking rains, these sort of lawsuits against the government will likely happen more and more frequently. More flooding rains will mean more unsuspecting residents are harmed when Corps flood control projects go awry. The government should examine where else they have this sort of vulnerability and take action to move people out of harm’s way. In this case, the Corps was just making a choice as to whom to flood. And one thing we know for certain, if this lawsuit against the Corps succeeds — there will be more in Houston and everywhere where a Corps flood control project is operated in a way that intentionally harms people.