Coping with Natural Diasters - The "Blame Game" In Full Swing

By James Old posted 01-15-2018 13:54

​Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas Gulf Coast last August with a vengeance, and stuck around for a couple of weeks, causing havoc for coastal residents.  The winds of the storm had a devastating effect along the lower coast, but perhaps the most severe long-term damage (in terms of dollars and cents) resulted from historic rains that the storm dumped further up the Texas Gulf Coast and into Louisiana.  The storm resulted in large scale flooding across the Houston area, into Beaumont and Southeast Texas.  Millions of people were impacted, many of whom were devastated by the flooding.  Perhaps atypical of most storms of this sort, however, is the fact that many areas completely escaped unscathed from the storm itself, but were later flooded as various governmental authorities released flood waters to prevent dams from bursting or to protect various sensitive areas from flooding.

Predictably, in the wake - pardon the pun - of the flooding come the lawsuits.  One such suit blames the flooding and resulting damage on the very governmental entities that manage the waterways, such as the San Jacinto River Basin, which supplies water to Harris County.  Included in that suit are the contractors who operate gravel pits along the watershed, and who have, allegedly, been cited in the past for wrongful discharge of wastewater, sediment, silt, concrete or other materials into the watershed.  The theory of liability being that over many years, the contractors reduced the reservoir capacity of the San Jacinto River Basin, and its major reservoir, Lake Houston, foreseeably setting up the scenario seen here: catastrophic flooding as a result of an historic weather event. 

Other litigation involves similar releases - but the "real" culprits these situations are the political subdivisions that have granted construction permits to builders in the prairies West and Southwest of Houston, which were essentially the flood relief mechanisms for Houston and Harris County.  Of course, the prospect of sprawling growth lead leaders to clamor for tax base revenue, while they failed to address the need to replace the wetlands with some other means of draining water from urban areas in and around Houston.  Not surprisingly, builders built homes where permitted, in areas outside of known flood zones, but the floods came anyway.  Many residents have been without the "usual" remedies - they were not required to carry flood insurance and flood damage is excluded in most homeowner's policies.  Builders were challenged as well, and at the very least, they have been left with condemned properties in various stages of completion.  The ripple effect of these losses will be felt for years to come.

The problems faced in the wake of Hurricane Harvey are not unique to Texas, nor are they unique to this weather event.  Instead, they are a siren call to all of us going forward.  Given this backdrop, I have some questions, and hope you can help me find the answers:  In situations like this, how should responsibility be allocated, and what is the construction industry's role in that process as the politicians and courts seek solutions?  How do we prepare our construction clients on the front end to help them avoid situations like this in future storm events?  And, of course, what can we do to assist our clients in the aftermath of this type of disaster to minimize the risk to them, and to avoid the specter of total meltdowns within the construction industry?