As Houston was challenged by biblical flooding from Hurricane Harvey, water began spilling over the Addicks dam, one of the area’s two major flood-control reservoirs. It was an alarming development — one long feared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Texas officials.
The Addicks and Barker dams were built 70 years ago at a cost of $4 million to protect the city from dangerous floods. Several years ago, they were rated by the Corps as among the nation’s most compromised dams, according to a 2016 Houston Chronicle story. The Corps was spending $72 million to repair the dams, knowing that if they failed during a major storm, the consequences for downtown Houston would be catastrophic.
In fact, it was devastating flooding that led to the construction of the dams. Long before the record-setting rains from Hurricane Harvey, there were the deadly 1929 and 1935 Great Floods of Houston.
On May 30, 1929, seven people were killed after a foot of rain fell, the New York Times reported. “Heavy property damage” included an estimate “that fully a million acres of cultivated [cotton fields] had been virtually drowned out.”
The floodwaters rushed from streams to the east and subsequently swamped the Buffalo Bayou and other Houston tributaries. Almost every bridge in Houston was reported to be covered, and there was very little drinking water available as the central water pump had been rendered useless by the flooding. Instead, business houses with private wells volunteered their water to the city. Fire also was a danger, as the lowered water pressure meant that firefighters had little to draw on to put out fires.
In the end, several houses were swept downstream, and the communities of Lynchburg, Gaston and Clodine were declared to be “lakes” by an Associated Press report. Meanwhile, the Colorado River grew seven miles wide.
“The only damage sustained was to stocks of merchandise and power plant equipment located immediately on the banks of the bayou,” R.C. Kuldell, president of the Houston Chamber of Commerce, wrote in a telegraph sent to the New York Times on June 7, 1929. “Street and bridge damage was negligible.”
When the water receded, though, the extent of the damage became evident — $1.3 million in total, according to a retrospective report published by Houston officials in 1937.
Houston’s flood pattern repeated itself on Dec. 6, 1935. Rains began, and by the next day, men, women and children were being rowed to safety in boats. Even the Associated Press reported it as “a repetition of the disastrous 1929 flood.”
In Houston, the Houston Heights neighborhood and the Airline Farms community were quickly filled with water as the Buffalo Bayou and surrounding creeks overflowed. City employees once again desperately tried to save the central water plant from being inundated, shoring it up with floodgates and sandbags.
They failed. By Dec. 8, 1929, the water plant was unusable.
Around the city, 300 people were being aided by the Red Cross, with hundreds more having abandoned their homes but “able to care for themselves,” the Associated Press reported. Houston’s business district was underwater, and the flood had swamped more than 100,000 acres of land. It had only been raining five to 15 inches each day in the days before the flooding.
Buffalo Bayou rose two feet higher than the prior record of 34 feet set in 1879.
“Virtually every bridge over the bayou will need repairs,” the Associated Press reported. Arnold Holub, 26, in an attempt to cross the West Bernard bridge near East Bernard, Tex., would prove to be one of the first fatalities as he was swept into the river.
Low water pressure had again put Houston at risk of fire, and to fight a 3-alarm fire, Houston firefighters pulled from bayou water. The power lines also had to be cut because of the fire hazard.
Downtown stores were inundated. The Sears, Roebuck and Co. store was under five feet of water, and some were rescued from on top of store eaves. The stores had been fully stocked in preparation for the Christmas season. At one point, police were forced to close downtown to auto traffic because of the “crush of curious motorists,” The Washington Post reported. The flood had become a tourist attraction.
The 1935 flood killed five children and two adults, with many other city dwellers making “narrow escapes” from perishing in the rising waters, The Post reported.
The Port of Houston was shut down for eight months, and miles of railroad tracks were uprooted, according to the Texas State Archives, which features footage of the devastation captured by amateur filmmaker Orris D. Brown.
Houston officials later estimated a total of $2.5 million in property damage. Afterward, in an effort to protect Houston from more disastrous flooding, the construction of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs was approved by Congress as part of the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1938. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the measure into law.
Construction started on Barker Dam in 1942 and was completed in 1945. Construction on Addicks Dam started shortly thereafter and was completed in December 1948. The reservoirs were designed to control the flow of water along Buffalo Bayou, preventing floodwaters from rushing into downtown Houston.
At the time, the reservoirs were distant from Houston itself. Now the nation’s fourth-largest city has grown to meet them. Houses now surround Addicks Reservoir — houses that are flooded.
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