Tracey Gibbs, owner of Kingwood business Personalize It, called a community meeting of business owners on Friday, Sept. 8 at Strawbridge United Methodist Church. Gibbs tearfully explained the loss of her own business due to Hurricane Harvey, and urged local business owners to band together and help each other out.
The meeting forum allowed business owners to ask questions and share information.
The first lesson many businesses have learned is that comprehensive business coverage does not cover flood damage. Although the FEMA description says they provide aid for individuals and businesses, FEMA does not offer much help for business owners. Gibbs urged businesses to file with FEMA, then apply for a Small Business Administration loan. Gibbs said, “Even if you don’t need the loan, your application opens up other government services to you as a business owner.” Applicants who are turned down for loans can then apply for a FEMA grant that gives preferences to certain business types.
Business owners also discussed canceling utilities, as well as informing landlords whether the business would return to the same location. It was also suggested that emergent service accounts be backdated to Aug. 28, the day the Kingwood flooding began. Several business owners also recommended asking vendors for help, and said that their vendors had been quite glad to assist.
Gibbs’ personal friend Alexander Kuiper, an attorney with Kuiper, Wheat and Associates, also attended the meeting to discuss legal options with attendees. Kuiper said there is a strong case for a class action suit given the unique way in which Kingwood flooded.
Kuiper explained that the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) was sued after the 1994 flood for inverse condemnation, defined as the government taking private property for public use. SJRA won that case, which was upheld by an appellate court. A similar case involving inverse condemnation by the Army Corps of Engineers against Arkansas Fish and Game was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, with Arkansas winning after the federal government intentionally flooded their timberland. Inverse In effect, Kuiper contends the government-run SJRA took Kingwood homes and businesses without owner consent and without payment in compensation.
The inverse condemnation theme was echoed in another meeting of individuals and businesses at The Overlook on Sept. 10. Kimberly Spurlock with Spurlock and Associates was on hand to answer questions.
State Representative Dan Huberty spoke at the meeting and stated that the dredging of the San Jacinto River and Lake Houston has been a topic of discussion for years. Huberty requested the dredging from Mayor Annise Parker, who declined, citing costs. The City of Houston owns Lakes Conroe, Livingston and Houston.
Huberty has spoken with Texas legislators and urged an investigation. “There’s no question in my mind that there is malfeasance here,” Huberty said. Water released from the SJRA floodgates rushed in at an amazingly powerful 80,000 cubic feet-per-second, sweeping many homes off their foundations.
Houston City Councilman Dave Martin was also in attendance, and echoed Huberty’s call for an investigation. “The SJRA should not be allowed to investigate itself. We need an independent panel. The SJRA positions are appointed, and their CEO Jace Houston is not even an engineer, he’s a lawyer,” he said.
Martin said the city had removed 5,000 tons of debris at the time of the meeting. “We have ten times more than that to remove, but at least it’s a start,” he said. Martin also discussed the outdated policies of SJRA. Lake Houston is a water supply for the city of Houston. Martin stated that his sources tell him the dam would never break because it was sturdily built.
“This storm did exactly what meteorologists said it would do,” Martin said, and continued by stating that the SJRA could have held more water in Lake Houston on Monday night and Tuesday instead of releasing it. “We need to hold people accountable for their actions.”
Many residents agreed with Martin, stating the ineptness of the SJRA with not knowing what to do with all the water from the storm. One resident said he had timed aerial photos that show the water’s release.
Spurlock gave a history of similar lawsuits filed by flooded landowners. “The government has created laws to protect themselves from being sued. We can’t sue them for being stupid and negligent.” Spurlock echoed Kuiper’s inverse condemnation avenue for the lawsuit. She has been retained by several residents to sue the SJRA, and has taken the case on a contingency basis. “My brother lost his house, as did some close friends of mine. I’m doing this for them,” Spurlock said. She invited other residents to join in the lawsuit, and said she would be pursuing all avenues to hold responsible parties accountable, including the Coastal Water Authority that manages the Lake Houston dam, and possibly silt and sand mining companies as well. Spurlock says the goal of the lawsuit is accountability and to accomplish change. “We cannot continue the course that we are on and the way they are operating these dams,” she said.
The first class action lawsuit was filed Friday, Sept. 6 by Houston-based Potts Law Firm. The suit seeks to represent all individuals and businesses recently affected by the SJRA’s handling of “controlled release” of Lake Conroe water. Derek H. Potts, national managing partner in Houston, said, “This case is particularly important to us since it directly impacted so many friends, neighbors and family members.”
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