Built in the 1960s, River Plantation has a certain charm—with its red wooden bridge at the entry and golf course in the center—that has encouraged generations of families to remain in the community, said Jamie Goodman, president of the homeowners association for River Plantation.
The south Conroe neighborhood stands out because not one of its 1,400 houses was built the same way, Goodman said.
Yet, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey—as dilapidated homes with tilting mailboxes mark street corners and rubble piles collect in front lawns—it is hard to differentiate River Plantation’s homes along the West Fork of the San Jacinto River.
Some homes were swept off their foundations and others received 12-14 feet of water, Goodman said.
“Unfortunately, 100-137 homes [typically]flood when there is torrential rains, and some of these homes have flooded seven and eight times,” Goodman said. “But in Harvey, we had [hundreds of]homes that actually flooded, many of which had never flooded before. A lot of those homeowners had no flood insurance because they never had to worry about [flooding]before.”
For Conroe-area subdivisions along the West Fork of the San Jacinto River, like River Plantation, Harvey was not the first flooding event to tear through their communities. Now, local officials are considering projects and ordinances to address flooding concerns.
A history of flooding
A study conducted after Harvey by private consulting group Tetra Tech for the Montgomery County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management tracked the effects of four major rainfall events in Montgomery County’s history: Harvey, Memorial Day in May 2016, Tax Day in April 2016 and the October 1994 flood after Hurricane Rosa.
The report showed numerous homes in the River Plantation, Riverbrook Forest, Sherbrook, Magnolia Bend, Oakforest, Whispering Oaks and Hickory Ridge subdivisions have flooded repeatedly during various continuous rainfall events.
This has led county officials to discuss the need for home buyouts to demolish the homes that experience repetitive flooding damage as well as assessing county regulations to protect future developments from flooding. Montgomery County Engineer Mark Mooney said he does not believe flood mitigation projects alone would prevent future flooding in specific homes.
“The focus needs to be on eliminating those homes in the flood plain and getting those people into a safer area,” Mooney said. “The [roughly 300]houses we bought in ’94; that’s 330 houses that didn’t flood during Harvey or Tax Day or Memorial Day [floods]. To me, that is a solution.”
Subdivisions near the San Jacinto River, such as River Plantation, Riverbrook Forest, Sherbrook, Magnolia Bend, Oak Forest, Whispering Oaks and Hickory Ridge repeatedly flood because many homes are located directly in the floodway and 100-year flood plain of the West Fork of the San Jacinto River, Mooney said.
According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a floodway is the channel of a river and the adjacent land areas reserved for the overflow of water during a rainfall event; the 100-year flood plain refers to an area where a flooding event has a .1 percent chance of occuring annually.
However, homebuilders likely had no idea they were building homes in flood-prone areas, let alone a floodway, because Montgomery County did not have a flood insurance rate map—or flood plain map—until 1984 after it joined the National Flood Insurance Program, Mooney said.
Currently, residential developers in Montgomery County are required to build 1 foot above the base 100-year flood plain elevation, Mooney said.
“Homes built a foot above the 100-year flood plain are typically not problematic homes,” Mooney said. “It’s the homes that are repeatedly flooding that were built before there was a flood insurance rate map that are the concern.”
During the March 20 Commissioners Court meeting, Mooney recommended commissioners consider denying septic system variances that allow for homes to be built within the 100-year flood plain in light of Harvey. The county is also considering raising residential building requirements from 12 inches to 18 or 24 inches above the base elevation, Mooney said.
After the study is conducted, the county’s engineering office intends to make a proposal to Commissioners Court in the next year that will affect future residential developments, Mooney said.
Some homeowners whose homes repeatedly flood have chosen to put their homes on the market and buy homes elsewhere, said Jack Moseley, a realtor with RE/MAX Hometown who works in River Plantation.
Moseley said he has personally had six or seven transactions related to Harvey, which ranged from flood victims selling their homes to flood victims buying replacement homes—some of which are still in the flood plain.
“They know the house has flooded, but they want to buy it anyway because they want to buy a house and they are done renting,” he said. “The housing market is so competitive that there aren’t a lot of options.”
In the aftermath of Harvey, various local, regional, state and federal entities have allocated millions toward disaster relief and flood mitigation.
On March 15, Gov. Greg Abbott announced via news release that about $5 million in initial funding was authorized for flood control projects in Harris and Montgomery counties. It includes $3 million to dredge the San Jacinto River in areas south of River Plantation and $2 million for a regional study to identify possible projects that could address flooding concerns.
To address the issues with current county homes, officials are considering home buyouts for parts of River Plantation and other affected subdivisions.
Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal said it could cost significantly less to buy the homes than to construct flood mitigation projects to protect homes that flood repeatedly.
“I think there’s just a whole lot of those homes that—no matter what we do—they’re still going to flood,” Doyal said. “Until we move them out of there, we’ll be having this same conversation again at some point in the future.”
Before Harvey, the October 1994 flood was the record-breaking flood in Montgomery County; the river gauge located near River Plantation recorded a peak streamflow of 115,000 cubic feet of water per second from the San Jacinto River, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
After the flood damaged 2.6 percent of the county’s homes, $15 million of federal funds and $5 million from the county was spent to buy out and demolish roughly 365 homes countywide, said Darren Hess, director for the Montgomery County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.
The county implemented another home buyout program after the 2016 Tax Day and Memorial Day floods. Approximately 70-80 home buyouts were accepted, but the county is still waiting to receive the federal funds for the buyouts, Hess said.
Precinct 2 Commissioner Charlie Riley said there were roughly 15 homeowners in River Plantation who, while cleaning their flooded homes after Harvey, were notified their homes would be purchased in the 2016 buyout program. However, Riley said some homeowners have no interest in being bought out.
“I know there are some folks in River Plantation who have flooded six or eight times who do not want to even mention a buyout,” Riley said. “They want to rebuild right where they are and do it again.”
Hess said the process to apply for funding from FEMA for Harvey is ongoing, and the county will apply for grants for home buyouts and infrastructure projects. Once the county is approved for funding, it can take up to 12-24 months before the funds are acquired and letters are sent to homeowners, Hess said.
For someone to be considered a prospective candidate for a Harvey buyout, the house must be
owner-occupied, be located in the floodway or 100-year flood plain and have suffered severe repetitive losses to their homes and property, Hess said.
While the county has not dismissed mandatory buyouts, Doyal said the county wants to avoid it because rising property values in Montgomery County could make it unaffordable for some residents to rebuild in the county.
“If you [force a]buyout [of]someone’s home and pay them what it’s worth, they might not being able to buy another home in Montgomery County because property values have gone up so much,” Doyal said. “That’s why some people won’t leave—because their house may flood every time, but by God they own it and they’re there.”