May 2012  

Devastating Floods and Public Support Paved the Way for the Flood Control District’s Creation

On May 15 The Harris County Flood Control District celebrated its 75th anniversary. During those 75 years, great strides have been made to help reduce flooding and damage in Harris County.

Long before the Flood Control District was created, pioneers who settled in Harris County accepted flood damage as one of the risks associated with life in an otherwise abundant and economically promising land.  Not surprisingly, the county’s history is peppered with tales of great floods and rainstorms that have wreaked havoc on residents’ lives and properties.   However, one flood in particular brought about a call for action that resulted in the District’s creation in 1937.

In December 1935, a massive rainfall event inundated Houston and Harris County causing widespread damage.
In December 1935, a massive rainfall event inundated Houston and
Harris County, causing widespread damage. Seven people died,
downtown Houston (pictured here at the corner of Congress and Milam)
and surrounding residential areas were flooded, and the Port of
Houston was crippled for months. (HCFCD photo)

The torrential downpour started on Dec. 6, 1935, and by the time the skies cleared two days later, approximately 100 blocks of Houston’s business and residential districts were inundated with floodwaters from Buffalo and White Oak bayous.  Seven residents died, and property damage was estimated at $2.5 million (approximately $42 million today).  The Houston Ship Channel was crippled for eight months.


The Great Flood of 1935 caused devastation, but spurred Houston and Harris County public officials, business leaders and residents to take action.  Many were grappling with still-vivid memories of the Great Flood of 1929, which also overwhelmed the city and county.  A groundswell of support emerged for improvements to the open channel drainage infrastructure that would protect lives, property and the economy.

Houstonians’ voices combined with others across the United States to urge the federal government to finance and implement flood damage reduction projects.  In response, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1936 – the bill that assigned oversight for flood damage reduction measures to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) and authorized funding for more than 200 flood damage reduction projects and surveys (studies).  A survey of Harris County’s Buffalo Bayou was on that initial list.

Houston Mayor R. H. Fonville and Harris County Judge Roy M. Hofheinz led a campaign to persuade the Texas legislature to pass a statute that created a single local entity having authority to partner with the federal government on flood damage reduction projects qualifying for federal financial assistance.  Five days after the Texas House and Senate approved the bill creating the Harris County Flood Control District, Governor James Allred signed the new law on May 15, 1937.

The ensuing 75 years have been marked by rapid development in Houston and Harris County, changes in engineering practices, the growth of environmental concerns and policy, and advancements in technology.  One thing that has remained constant is that our region’s relatively flat terrain, impermeable clay soils, and average annual rainfall of 48 inches have, and always will, make us vulnerable to flooding.

The District implemented key flood damage reduction projects in partnership with the Corps in its first 30 years of existence.  Projects included construction of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in the 1940s and the channelization of White Oak Bayou and Brays Bayou in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.  Proposed plans for channelization of Buffalo Bayou were canceled because environmental activists lobbied against the project.

In 1979, Houston and Harris County suffered seven separate flooding events that prompted changes in the District’s flood damage reduction strategies and policies.  Harris County Commissioners Court approved changes to allow the construction of stormwater detention basins, a departure from the previous focus on channel improvements to reduce flooding risks.  

The work on Brays Bayou (pictured here) was completed in the 1960s.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Harris County Flood Control
District and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched
construction on the Brays and White Oak bayou projects,
which included straightening, enlarging and partially
lining those channels with concrete. The work on
Brays Bayou (pictured here) was completed in
the 1960s. (HCFCD photo)

In the 1980s, the Corps and the Flood Control District launched comprehensive flood damage reduction projects on Sims Bayou and Brays Bayou that combined an effective mix of channel improvements, stormwater detention basins and environmental enhancements.  In 1984, Commissioners Court approved the White Oak Bayou Regional Flood Control Plan, which included the excavation of 10 stormwater detention basins along White Oak Bayou, widening the bayou from Tidwell Road to Beltway 8 and constructing the Jersey Village Channel, which carries 30 percent of the flow of White Oak Bayou around flood-prone Jersey Village during times of heavy rain.

In 2001, just before Tropical Storm Allison unleashed 35 inches of rain over parts of Houston and Harris County, the Flood Control District entered into a financial partnership with Harris County to increase its funding from roughly $20 million a year to $150-$200 million a year.  With increased funding levels, the District has been able to build more flood damage reduction projects at a faster pace.  These include widening and deepening bayous and tributaries, excavating large stormwater detention basins that safely store millions of gallons of stormwater, and maintaining more than 2,500 miles of open channel infrastructure.

Several significant milestones have been achieved in the aftermath of Allison.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Flood Control District took advantage of brand new technology developed by NASA to produce a new Flood Insurance Rate Map for all 22 watersheds of Harris County.  The multi-year effort was called the Tropical Storm Allison Recovery Project.   FEMA and the District also implemented the Tropical Storm Allison Voluntary Home Buyout Program.  The program enabled residents whose homes were substantially damaged during the storm or that have flooded repeatedly to move to higher ground.  The Flood Control District continues similar voluntary home buyout programs today, and has purchased close to 3,000 flood-prone homes in partnership with FEMA for a total cost of approximately $240 million.  The homes are demolished, and the remaining land serves as a natural floodplain.

 Barker and Addicks reservoirs
Pictured here today, the Barker and Addicks reservoirs in west Houston were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part
of the first “flood control” plan for Houston and Harris County. Constructed first as earthen dams with open outlets to
Buffalo Bayou, the reservoirs were later fitted with gates
to reduce the flow. (HCFCD photo)

As the Flood Control District celebrates its 75 years of progress, the agency is pursuing 191 capital projects in 17 watersheds, mowing about 18,000 acres of land three times a year, and mowing nearly 8,000 miles of bayou banks a year.  The District’s web of infrastructure, built with local and federal funds, includes 61 regional detention sites either existing or in development, totaling nearly 8,400 acres.  Along with reducing flooding risks and damages, many of these sites provide wetlands mitigation, habitat for wildlife, and green space for all to enjoy.  And as the District builds, it also looks ahead through its Frontier Program at areas like the Cypress Creek watershed that are poised for major development.  By acquiring land for conservation, flood storage and other multi-use projects, the District is ensuring an effective blueprint for flood damage reduction, now and in the future.

Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences
Expands its Forensic Genetics Laboratory

Since 2005 the Forensic Genetics Laboratory of the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences (HCIFS) has grown considerably and is one of the most productive labs in the nation.  The staff has grown from 11 to 41 employees, while the number of incoming cases has increased from fewer than 1,500 per year to nearly 4,000, including nearly 2,000 from property crimes.  Yet, the average turnaround time for DNA testing decreased from more than a year to less than 60 days, and the backlog of untested cases was eliminated – an achievement that goes unmatched in the State of Texas.

This dramatic increase in workload requires space carefully designed for the detailed and complex work of conducting DNA tests to solve crimes.  The testing process begins with a careful and thorough examination of the evidence.  The new facility will have 20 large exam areas, more than doubling the number of stations available now.  In all, the new 15,000-square-foot area will double the current work space for genetic testing.

The lab’s primary function will stay the same – comparing DNA samples taken from crime scenes and from sexual assault victims with those from suspects.  Forensic DNA testing is already recognized for helping to solve crimes against persons, such as sexual assault and homicide.  DNA testing can also be a reliable and effective tool to assist law enforcement in solving burglary, theft and other property crimes.  The Forensic Genetics Lab has already achieved remarkable success in using DNA testing to solve property crimes, and expansion of the Specialized Crime Scene DNA Collection Unit will allow scientists to better assist law enforcement agencies in solving crimes against persons and property.  This valuable method is becoming increasingly important to the criminal justice system because in many cases DNA testing of property crime evidence provides the only definitive way to identify a suspect, and solving these cases can help to prevent future thefts and violent personal crimes by repeat offenders. 

Collecting body fluid and “touch” samples for DNA testing
Collecting body fluid and “touch” samples for DNA testing: (L) An analyst swabs a bloodstained cloth for a DNA test. (R) A scalpel cuts a portion of a swab for testing DNA collected from an object touched at a crime scene.

Although only a limited number of crime labs are equipped to handle DNA testing of property crimes, the HCIFS Forensic Genetics Laboratory has been testing large numbers of these cases for many years – with approximately half of the cases processed by its DNA lab coming from property crimes.  Surpassing all other Texas labs, since January 2008 the Forensic Genetics Lab has made 3,299 matches with the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), of which 2,469 originated from property crimes. DNA samples from property crimes identify a possible suspect or person of interest 50-60% of the time, an impressive record of helping to solve property crimes through DNA testing.

Moving from the HCIFS main campus into the new state-of-the-art facility at the McGovern campus will strengthen the lab’s partnership with other members of the Texas Medical Center, many located adjacent to the new lab – such as Baylor College of Medicine Human Genome Sequencing Center and the Baylor Molecular Genetics, Cancer Genetics and Whole Genome Laboratories.  This may make it possible to add new services to assist the medical examiner with DNA tests to uncover genetic factors that lead to sudden cardiac death in children and athletes whose cause of death is not apparent from an autopsy.

The new layout, new technology and new location will be used by more than 40 dedicated scientists and support staff directed by Dr. Roger Kahn, who holds a Ph.D. in Molecular Genetics from Yale University and will be moving to the new campus.  The group is highly qualified with impressive educational backgrounds and credentials: 70% earned master’s degrees, 14% hold Ph.D.s, and many are certified in molecular genetics by the American Board of Criminalistics.  These professionals are the real foundation of the program.

The new expansion is critical to the continuing scientific advances that keep the Harris County Forensic Genetics Lab at the forefront of technology, creating unique learning opportunities for members of the criminal justice system and the medical and scientific community of the Texas Medical Center and advancing HCIFS’ mission of serving the citizens of Harris County.

The HCIFS Forensic Genetics Laboratory
The HCIFS Forensic Genetics Laboratory looks forward to moving into
the expanded laboratory by the end of 2012.