Houston area’s San Jacinto River Authority could be facing millions of dollars in lawsuits by residents whose homes were destroyed during Hurricane Harvey, thanks to a recent ruling by Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals.
The court ruled unanimously, in an opinion by Judge Michael Massengale, that flooding caused by the massive release of water by the SJRA could be considered a “taking,” requiring compensation under Texas law.
The SJRA has been widely criticized for its decision to release almost 80,000 cubic feet of water per minute out of Lake Conroe during Hurricane Harvey with little warning. The decision unleashed a torrent that swept away much of what was downstream, obliterating entire houses and leaving destruction in its wake. The Kingwood area was hit especially hard.
In the aftermath, SJRA General Manager Jace Houston, flanked by local government officials including Laura Fillault (then a director of The Woodlands Township) and County Judge Craig Doyal, shot a video in which he claimed, “We understand there will be devastating flooding downstream.” Houston maintained that the releases were necessary to avoid “catastrophic consequences.”
However, the SJRA could now be liable for the property damaged by its decision, since the agency knew the release would result in flooding downstream. That could be considered a taking, according to state law.
“Liberally construing the homeowners’ pleadings, as we must, we conclude that they included sufficient facts to allege the River Authority’s release of water from Lake Conroe was intended to, or was known to be substantially certain to, result in the flooding or exacerbated flooding of each of the homeowners’ specific properties,” wrote Massengale.
The court rejected the SJRA’s argument that the flooding was not a taking because it was due to a “confluence of particular circumstances.” According to Massengale, the plaintiffs’ homes would not have been destroyed or suffered as much damage without the SJRA’s decision.
The entire incident has also brought to attention the fact that the SJRA has largely failed to provide flood control, even though that is one of its responsibilities under the enabling legislation which created the agency in 1937.