Early on Friday morning, July 6, City of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and several other area leaders took a boat tour in Huffman to observe Lake Houston debris removal progress. The debris removal project is a part of the overall Hurricane Harvey debris mitigation from last year’s 51-inch rainfall.
Galveston-based DRC Emergency Services was awarded the City of Houston contract for the debris removal project. The company has over 30 years of experience in extensive disaster recovery projects and has worked with the City of Houston on six large debris projects since 2007. The company has moved its new debris removal hub to the site of B. J.’s Marina in Huffman. DRC needed to move to the new location to be closer to a launch site for boats, debris barges and heavy trucks. Marina owners Tony May, Jr. and Tony May, Sr. say they are impressed at the DRC’s work efficiency.
“They came to us a couple of weeks ago, asking if they could move their base of operations to our marina. Before we knew it, we had a contract in hand, and they were up and running in no time,” May, Sr. said. “We’ve been impressed with their progress,” the Mays said.
Turner said that the debris removal operations began in May and will likely continue for three to five more months. “Since May, we’ve been removing about 1,000 to 2,000 cubic yards of debris -- daily,” said Turner. To put that into perspective, each daily load is about 50 dumpsters’ worth of debris.
DRC Vice President of Operations Joe Newman said that so far, his company has removed about 50,000 cubic yards of debris -- the equivalent of 28,000 truckloads. Newman traveled to the site Friday morning after returning from Puerto Rico, where he was working on disaster recovery there after Hurricane Irma. Turner and Newman said the debris operation in Lake Houston is an extensive operation, since Harvey brought logs, trees, trash, vegetation and even parts of homes into this section of the lake.
Turner explained that Lake Houston has lost 25-30 percent of its capacity. “Parts of the lake where we traveled today are 18 feet deep but used to be 30 feet deep,” Turner said.
Turner told the crowd attending that Houston must do everything possible to mitigate the risk of flooding, explaining that this regional infrastructure issue must be remedied.
State Rep. Dan Huberty said, “Every time it rains, people in this area are worried that our homes will flood again.” Turner echoed Huberty, discussing the recent Independence Day area downpour, saying, “We got a reminder on July 4 about just how nervous everyone is.”
Huberty said that Lake Houston area residents see the action taking place and know good things are happening. Huberty commended the city for doing a fine job and said that Harris County is working on their plan and their bond proposal. At the state level, Huberty explained that there are still ongoing discussions about taking money out of the rainy day fund. Huberty is also preparing for the next Texas legislative session by looking at what resources everyone needs, so that these issues will be addressed early in 2019.
Steve Costello, known as the City of Houston’s “flood czar,” said that the Army Corps of Engineers has received several bids for the San Jacinto West Fork dredging project. The Army Corps was anticipating an official announcement on July 5, but the date has been delayed due to issues with bids. They are considering the second lowest bidder, Great Lakes Dredge and Dock, which bid $69 million for the 3-mile dredge project. “We will keep everyone informed as we move forward,” Costello said.
City of Houston Director of Solid Waste Management Harry J. Hayes said, “About 300,000 people live in the Lake Houston area and our hearts go out to these folks for what they’ve been through.” Hayes explained that Turner’s administration is doing everything it can to make sure the project is being done safely and correctly.
At-large City Councilman David Robinson echoed Hayes, saying, “It was great to be out on the boat today to see the challenges we face on the lake. Hats off to the mayor and Dave Martin for the work he’s done in the Kingwood area -- there is not a community better prepared to bring some of the federal dollars down for meaningful projects to prevent this in the future.”
The officials stated that many years of debris has accumulated over time in the lake. Huberty said that dredging has been needed since at least 2011. The current city effort is focused on removal of Harvey-related debris to mitigate the risk.
However, Turner explained that mitigation is not enough -- there must also be a systematic schedule of maintenance. “This cannot be a one and done. The reality is that every time it floods we will run the risk of losing capacity, so we need the systematic maintenance,” Turner said.
Turner said that the Lake Houston area is an important area and community. “Have we done what we should have been doing all along? No! But going forward, let’s do the job right,” Turner said, explaining that the city is doing everything it can to restore the lake’s capacity.
Martin said that Lake Houston levels have been reduced three times in the last 60 days, with the first reduction coming Easter week in April, ahead of the torrential downpours in the area. “We reduced the lake from 42.5 feet down to 39 feet, and everyone was panicking about dry land, but within 24 hours, lake levels went back up to 42 feet, then 47, then 49,” Martin said. He went on to explain that had they not released the water, houses in Atascocita, Kingwood and Huffman would surely have flooded. Martin said the third reduction was just last week, in anticipation of the heavy July 4 rains the area experienced.
Martin explained that until the larger projects are done, the city must manage water storm by storm. “We will flood until these larger debris and dredge projects are done. The extra 10 floodgates on the Lake Houston Dam are needed. If Lake Conroe is going to release 72,000 feet per second down the San Jacinto, we must then have the ability to release the same amount; otherwise, water has nowhere to go except into our homes,” Martin said.
In the aftermath of Harvey, meteorologists have determined that the hurricane dumped more than 19 trillion gallons of rainwater on multiple Texas counties, leaving FEMA to designate 41 Texas counties as federal disaster areas.