Painting by Calida Rawles

Downstream

Houston's efforts to suppress its waters creates a culture of flooding

ON THE THIRD NIGHT of flooding, we learned that the reservoirs upstream had begun to fail. Water had started to flow around their edges, flooding streets, neighborhoods, empty schools. It had been raining for four days. More water is coming, the officials told us at a press conference. The floodgates would have to be opened to prevent “uncontrolled release.”

We put our children to sleep that night on an air mattress in our bedroom, next to the sliding glass door, thinking that if the dams did fail and a tidal wave of floodwater arrived in the middle of the night, we could open the door and push them outside, where, floating on the air mattress, they might survive. I kept one foot on the floor all night so the water would wake me when it arrived. My children are both excellent swimmers, I assured myself. They were only six and ten, but they competed on our neighborhood swim team. My husband can cross the pool in a single breath. All night I thought of a wall of water arriving, the split second I might have to push them outside on their little raft, the horrifying realization, as the hours ticked on, that I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t know how to swim.

When the Army Corps of Engineers opened the floodgates at the reservoirs upstream, water came down the spillway and into the bayou, which flooded homes and highways, churches, restaurants, hotels. It happened in the middle of the night, one parent from my children’s school told me. They woke up to water around their beds and swam out the front door still dressed in pajamas.

In the morning, the bayou had swelled into the neighborhood and filled the street in front of our house. It covered the sidewalks and the yards, came almost to our door. The military arrived on airboats to evacuate our neighbors. More water would come, they said—maybe inches, maybe feet. We decided to evacuate on foot, wading in fetid floodwater across a shallow cul-de-sac into yards and out of the neighborhood. I carried one child on my hip and held the other by the hand, grateful we didn’t have to swim.

The bayou kept rising. When the storm finally moved off to the east, sixty-one inches of rain had fallen in some places—nineteen trillion gallons, enough to compress the earth two centimeters under the entire metro region. I heard it called the greatest rainfall event in North America in recorded history. A third of the city had flooded—nearly 200,000 homes.

A week after we evacuated, the flood had receded just enough that we could drive back to our side of town, right to the water’s edge outside our neighborhood, where the bayou lapped at the little islands of each address. We waded through the yards and across the shallow cul-de-sac and found a line of debris surrounding our house like a ring of dirt around a bathtub—leaves, sticks, plastic bottles, a rubber flip-flop. Inside, there were dishes in the sink, laundry on the floor, our furniture up on blocks—everything dry and exactly as we’d left it, just an inch or two higher above sea level than the flooded homes down the street.

Some of those houses stayed underwater for weeks, and when the flood finally withdrew, we shoveled their buckled floors into wheelbarrows. We piled everything on the curb: the floorboards, furniture, Sheetrock, tile, insulation, ovens, even kitchen sinks. We gutted one home after another and piled the debris on both sides of the streets, almost to the roofs. Garbage trucks came, eventually, and, truckload by truckload, moved the debris to the landfills, where the piles got taller and taller, their peaks the only mountains on an otherwise flat landscape.

Water rushed out of the reservoirs upstream for months, and when it finally slowed to a trickle, workers began repairing the reservoirs and dug the parks out from under mountains of sand. People raised their homes off the ground, elevating them on stilts. Some abandoned their homes altogether. Some blamed the flooding on the bayous themselves. They’re too narrow, too muddy. They are insufficiently engineered. We need to control them. They need to be contained.

I kept one foot on the floor all night so the water would wake me when it arrived. 

 

THE BAYOUS HAVE always left their banks, but the first time they flooded Houston was in April 1837, eight months after the Allen brothers founded the town at the confluence of Buffalo and White Oak Bayous. The next month, in May, when John James Audubon visited, the town flooded again. “The Buffalo bayou had risen about six feet,” Audubon wrote in his journals, “and the neighboring prairies were partly covered with water; there was a wild and desolate look cast on the surrounding scenery.”

At that time the land was coastal prairie and the bayous were shallow streams, most only a few feet deep, surrounded by a dense thicket of trees. Buffalo Bayou was the widest and deepest, at least six feet deep from Galveston Bay all the way upstream to the confluence with White Oak Bayou—deep enough to carry cotton and sugar on barges and riverboats from plantations to Galveston and its deepwater port.

The bayous flooded the city again later that year, and in 1843, and 1854, and 1875. Houston had grown into a minor port for cotton, sugar, and lumber by then, boasting that it was the capital of each of those industries, and it might have continued on that way, as a self-aggrandizing regional port, drying up the way many cities did when resources eventually depleted. But two things happened: on September 8, 1900, a Category 4 hurricane leveled the nearby port city of Galveston, killing at least 6,000 people; and, four months after that storm, prospectors discovered a gusher at Spindletop so large that its reserves seemed bottomless. That discovery brought oil companies, and the companies built refineries, and the proliferation of the internal combustion engine produced a demand for gasoline.

Buffalo Bayou was one of the only things limiting the growth of their industry. It flooded in 1907, and again in 1908. Then in 1909, the mayor of Houston led a delegation to Washington, where he presented the “Houston Plan,” a ship channel carved out of Buffalo Bayou, twenty-six miles long, a hundred fifty feet wide, and twenty-five feet deep, a basin at the top large enough for deepwater ships to turn around. The entire facility would be publicly owned, the mayor assured Congress. They accepted his offer, local citizens approved a bond, and the dredging of the bayou began.

The Houston Ship Channel officially opened on November 10, 1914. Thousands of people gathered for the ceremony in what was known as the Turning Basin. From his office in Washington, President Wilson pushed a button and set off a remote cannon stationed at the port. A water parade of pleasure and racing boats chugged down the waterway, and a street parade proceeded downtown, where forty blocks were strung with incandescent lights. The daughter of the mayor christened the channel by dropping white rose petals into the water: “I christen thee Port Houston,” she said. “Hither shall come the ships of all nations and find a hearty welcome.” In photographs of that day, the vegetation has been cut back all along the bayou’s banks, which still show the dredging marks where the land has been carved off and hauled away.

Another hurricane struck Galveston in 1915, causing major flooding along Buffalo Bayou and throughout the city of Houston, damaging equipment and sinking boats along the ship channel. It didn’t stop businesses from coming—by 1919 thirty-eight oil companies had facilities in the industrial corridor of the flood-prone bayou, and by 1926 there were seventy.

Back-to-back floods in the spring of 1929 descended on the city: one in April dropped ten inches of rain in fourteen hours, and another arrived over Memorial Day weekend in May. During that storm, a foot of rain fell, inundating the bayous and tributaries, sweeping houses downstream, covering nearly every bridge in town, and rendering the city’s water pump useless. The flood deposited more than 2 million cubic yards of silt in the Houston Ship Channel, shutting it down for days.

Six years later, in December 1935, a two-day downpour flooded the entire downtown up to second-floor windows, flooded at least a hundred residential blocks, and clogged the Houston Ship Channel downstream with mud and debris, shutting it down for eight months. Images show bridges underwater, houses underwater, people standing on their roofs waiting for rescue. In one photo, muddy floodwater fills the bays of the Yellow Cab Company garage while smoke billows from the roof. Photos showed the post office destroyed, downtown buildings collapsed, the docks of the ship channel completely submerged. In footage of the damage taken by an amateur filmmaker, dockworkers pull debris—sticks, clothing, a door—out of the waterway. One, a sailor, retrieves a massive stalk of bananas covered in oil.

“This last flood definitely proved that Buffalo Bayou alone cannot handle the tremendous volume of water which a flood pours into it,” Port of Houston director J. Russell Wait told the Houston Chronicle in January 1936. By that time, half of all Texas oil moved through the Houston Ship Channel. One report to the Texas Legislature declared a public emergency due to the “constant menace” of the bayous overflowing with each heavy rain: “Millions of dollars in private, municipal and other governmental capital investments depend solely upon the vagaries of nature,” the authors complained. All traffic and commerce were in constant danger of disruption on “the great Houston Ship Channel.”

The Texas Legislature agreed, and in 1937 created a new Flood Control District empowered with the authority to take on large-scale flood mitigation projects with the Army Corps of Engineers. The following year, as part of the Rivers and Harbors Act, Congress approved construction of two reservoirs along Buffalo Bayou, on tens of thousands of acres far west of the extreme outer reaches of the city. The Corps completed construction on the reservoirs in 1945 and 1948, but in the interval, the city had flooded three more times. A world war and a petrochemical boom had ballooned the population of Houston to nearly 600,000; the city covered more than 189 square miles, spreading almost to the base of the new reservoirs. Nothing limited the city from expanding even further than this: land was flat; petroleum was cheap; automobiles made it easy to commute from farther and farther away. Nothing, that is, other than the bayous themselves.

When the flooding continued, even with the reservoirs—in 1949, 1950, 1957, 1959—the bayous were blamed. Water moved too slowly through the twisting, meandering bayous, the Flood Control District claimed. They sent engineers with backhoes and dredges to widen and straighten and deepen all the bayous, transforming their tight bends and oxbows into smooth, straight lines. They cleared all trees and shrubs and paved the banks in concrete, let nothing enter but water, let nothing grow above the concrete but grass. They called this process “channel rectification.”

One small section of Buffalo Bayou was left relatively undisturbed: a one-mile-long fragment that passes between mansions. Wealthy residents had seen what had happened with White Oak and Brays and didn’t want this same process of “rectification” to ruin the bayou in their backyards. Two residents—a congressman named George H. W. Bush and a young oilman named George Mitchell—fought against channelization and won. That short section of the bayou is one of the few natural places we have left.

 

Painting by Calida Rawles

 

HOW DO WE CHANGE when we realize we’ve made a mistake? I am standing at the top of the hill in Arthur Storey Park, on the west side of the city, about four miles south of my house. Down the hill from me, Brays Bayou runs past the park. The bayou is relatively straight here; its bends are clearly engineered. Both banks are paved, each topped with a corridor of tightly mown lawn. When we first moved to the city, these concrete ditches are what I understood “bayou” to mean: a conveyance channel—barely even a waterway.

It has become abundantly clear that this kind of engineering and rectification of the bayous doesn’t prevent flooding. A recent study in the Journal of Flood Risk Management compared flooding in that one small “wild” section of Buffalo Bayou with flooding in Brays Bayou, which has been straightened and paved, and found that decade after decade, flooding is far more severe along Brays. “Channel rectification” did make the water flow faster, but paving the bayou meant the water couldn’t be absorbed. A paved bayou is impervious to water, and the function of a bayou, people slowly began to realize, is to hold water in place, to expand and grow and spread the water evenly over a larger surface so it can evaporate or be absorbed into the ground and the water table, or until the water downstream can drain.

While these engineering measures were making the bayous less capable of handling large amounts of water, continued growth and development caused more water to be forced into them. By 1980, the city covered 556 square miles; all those new streets and homes and lawns create runoff that flows into streams and creeks and eventually into the bayous. In the year 2000, the city had spread to 618 square miles. In those two decades, Houston suffered at least nine catastrophic floods.

Today, more than 7 million people live in the Greater Houston metro region, which covers more than ten thousand square miles—almost as large as Massachusetts. In all that area, there are roughly twenty-five hundred miles of bayous, longer than the coast of California. In the last ten years, the city has flooded seven times, including five five-hundred-year floods over five consecutive years. It flooded twice more in the three years after that.

Buffalo Bayou is a mile from my home and, during Hurricane Harvey, flowed right past my front door. Here, at Brays, water filled the bayou, and the bayou left its banks, filling this park to the brim and a pond at the center that functions as a detention basin during heavy rains, and across the bayou on the other side. The capacity of this park to hold that water likely saved thousands of homes from flooding. In footage of the flood, all of what I see today is underwater: the concrete channel, the mown banks, the long sloping hill. It looks more like the tidal wetlands along the coast than a suburban park. And at the far edges of the park, on the highest ground, the streets, the houses, even the Home Depot parking lot are safely above the waterline.

Over the years, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department has bought up land along the bayous, and its strategy has been to add flood capacity into the parks. It’s not financially or politically possible, they think, to do large-scale buyouts to move people away from the water and restore the oxbows and meanders. Instead, they create detention capacity where they can. Beyond its engineered edge, the Parks Department has bought a piece of land that replicates the function that a natural oxbow would have—taking water out of the bayou and holding it on land until flooding can subside. They have used this same strategy at many parks around the city, such as where Halls Bayou goes through Keith-Wiess Park—a five-hundred-acre property with a beautiful sculpted detention basin that also functions, for all intents and purposes, as a recreational lake. There are fishing piers and running trails all around it.

When Halls Bayou floods, a low dam allows the water to spill into the detention basin. The water works its way, meandering along the path of the basin, and then reenters the bayou on the south side of the park. A natural oxbow would have done exactly this: diverted water off the main channel and taken it down another path, which would create more length, more capacity.

The other benefit of creating these kinds of places is the return of many different kinds of habitat. In Thomas Bell Foster Park, for instance, along Greens Bayou, the Parks Department created a tidal wetland, as well as an ephemeral wetland fed only by rain. The park has a section of prairie, and they’ve also planted trees along the bayou to re-create a naturally occurring riparian corridor. Greens Bayou, as compared to the more engineered bayous, has alligators and fish and waterfowl.

Part of what allows this ecosystem to thrive is the bayou’s capacity to flood. But convincing people to welcome flooding might be too much of a challenge. We tend to think of flooding as a threat to our homes and property and investments, to the cities we’ve built right along the water’s edges. But, in fact, flooding is a healthy and necessary process in a bayou. Flooding clears out invasive species and clears obstructions in the riverbed; it fertilizes floodplains and moves nutrients from the land toward the creatures who need them in the bay. Flooding helps to construct the land, depositing sediment in places where soil has been lost to erosion, and recharges groundwater. And restoring those healthy functions to the bayou means we need to learn a healthier relationship to water, in all its forms. It means we need to learn to make room for the river. It means we get out of its way.

Part of what allows this ecosystem to thrive is the bayou’s capacity to flood. 

 

AS A CHILD ON OUR farm in Missouri, I didn’t fear water at all. I would walk from the house down the hill to the place where two creeks met, where the water was deep enough to jump in and clean enough that I didn’t mind getting wet, clean enough (I thought) to drink. I did take a few swimming lessons, once, so I knew enough to float on my back for a few seconds and doggy-paddle from one side of the creek to the other. But I didn’t know how to move myself across water with purpose and urgency, how to swim against a current or in water that isn’t clean and still. Later, I saw how that creek could grow to monstrous size and fill the space between the hills so that our farm became an island we couldn’t leave. The rivers became monstrous too, growing so large they could break levees and consume farms, towns, entire landscapes.

In Houston, I saw how the bayous snaked through the middle of town and consumed it when it rained. This was decades ago now, when my husband was still my boyfriend and we lived in an apartment on the second floor of a duplex in a neighborhood where all the houses seemed to be caught in a cycle of being vacated, becoming neglected, being sold, bought, bulldozed, and replaced. Like so many others who move here, we thought of Houston as temporary, as a place to just pass through. In the evenings we walked down the hill to the park, along the trails beside a slow river the color of wet clay. From the bridge, we watched rafts of garbage floating on the current, heading out to sea. Bayou seemed like a word for a juvenile prank that isn’t funny: Look how destructive we can be.

I’ve since learned that the word is French, likely a Gallicized version of the Choctaw bayuk. As a word, it carries a history of all of those land and people relationships inside it, a history evident in what we call them: Brays, Sims, Hunters, Greens—white settlers who arrived and assigned their own names to this place. Even Buffalo Bayou carries a name from Stephen F. Austin, or so one story goes, who followed a Spanish map to settle his Anglo colony. The map showed a “Río Cíbolo”—cíbolo was the word Spanish colonizers used for “bison,” which are often called buffalo. Austin had the map redrawn and relabeled in English and renamed the river.

There were bison here, once, back before those settlers arrived, when the land was still coastal prairie, dimpled with prairie potholes and pimpled with mima mounds and bison wallows—ephemeral wetlands often saturated by hundreds of shallow waterways. Those settlers plowed the prairie and drained the wetlands and planted cotton and sugar in their place. I’ve heard that buffalofish inhabited the waterways back then. I’ve also heard that these fish are the true source of the bayou’s name.

Now Buffalo Bayou begins far outside the city, where water runs off agricultural fields into ditches, which feed into creeks, which twist and turn their way into suburbs, and then into subdivisions, and then into manicured parks, becoming wide and deep enough to swallow neighborhoods during heavy rainstorms and to contract to a trickle during droughts, bending around skyscrapers and parking garages, under highways and prisons, and even beyond that, where the bayou has been straightened, deepened, carved out time and again over nearly two centuries to become a massive industrial corridor of refineries, chemical plants, storage tanks, and pipeline terminals built along the bayou’s banks all the way to Galveston Bay. This is the Houston Ship Channel, which is also Buffalo Bayou—or was, once. Now it is the second largest petrochemical complex in the world.

Houston calls itself the Bayou City, but in truth bayous are a common geographic feature of the Gulf coastal plain—Bayou Country stretches from Texas all the way to Florida. All across these low places, bayous are how the water moves through the wetlands when frequent rainstorms make them even wetter. It isn’t a flood when these places fill with water. Water becomes a flood only when the wetland is drained and paved and when the prairie grass—which would have opened up the structure of the dense clay soils so that the ground acted less like a bowl and more like a sponge—has all been cleared away.

 

Painting by Calida Rawles

Even now, some people still think more infrastructure will save us from flooding: more channelizing the bayous, larger drainpipes, and possibly a third reservoir. Last year, work crews arrived in my neighborhood and opened massive holes in the streets. I am told they are building tunnels under the city, a drainage system of some kind, so that if the bayous come out of their banks again, the tunnels will carry the water away from the homes and all the way to the sea. Sometimes I walk by the tall fences that block them and try to look inside, down into the deep: I see a layer of concrete for the road, the dense clay underneath; water drips from the walls and collects below in some body of water I can’t see.

Some say a bayou is any muddy river; others will say it is a short coastal or tidal stream. In Houston, all the main bayous are tidal, meaning that at very high tides the flow can stop and turn around and flow back the other way. Buffalo Bayou is sometimes called the Mother Bayou, the oldest bayou in our region, born 18,000 years ago when all this land was a vast riverbed of glacial melt flowing to the sea.

Above all, a bayou is a living being. After the hurricane, the flood maps showed that the bayous flooded in all the places they had been made straight, as if they’d remembered their old channels and tried to stretch back into the old meanders that had been dredged and filled and paved. One geologist told me how, during Hurricane Harvey, Buffalo Bayou broke through the wall of a parking garage downtown that had been built right on top of one of its old bends. As if the bayou was taking back what it never intended to give.

 

THE SPRING AFTER the hurricane, when the pool reopened and my children returned to swim team, I watched them every afternoon from the shade on the pool deck: the confidence of each breath above water, the strength and grace of every stroke, how the water almost seemed to part for them.

After practice, when all the swimmers and their parents had gone home, I returned to the pool alone, lowered my body into the water, took a deep breath, and tried to remember what I had seen: first one arm and then the other, turning the head up over the shoulder to breathe. It wasn’t as easy as my children made it look. I hated putting my face in the water, and there was the trouble of managing it all: arms moving, legs kicking, struggling to breathe. The fear made learning to swim feel impossible, even in the clear, clean water of the neighborhood pool. But little by little, I did learn.

In fall, a year after the storm, I drove across town to one of those sometimes recreational detention lakes, parked my car, and walked over to what they were calling “the beach”: a grassy lawn with some picnic tables and a dock. I climbed down a ladder and let the water cover me. The sun was shining that day. A family fished at the other end of the lake. I took a breath and put my face in the water, moving one arm and then the other, kicking my legs and turning my head over my shoulder to breathe. As I got farther away from shore, I felt my confidence growing. And that confidence made room for trust. I kept my face in the water longer, let my eyes begin to focus. And somewhere out in the middle, I saw a school of buffalofish swimming in the deep.


This story was produced with generous funding from the Orion Fund for Women Writers.

Lacy M. Johnson is the author of several books, including the essay collection The Reckonings, and is coeditor of More City than Water: A Houston Flood Atlas. She teaches at Rice University and is the founding director of the Houston Flood Museum.