Feds owe dam-flooded residents of Harvey $1 billion, while local governments owe none

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will have to fork over $1 billion to compensate residents of Harris and Fort Bend counties whose homes were flooded during Hurricane Harvey, a court has ruled, but local governments won’t have to pay a penny, the Houston Chronicle reported.

A federal court ruled that the retention of water above two massive dams operated by the Corps caused the flooding of more than 10,000 properties near reservoirs that are also operated by the Corps. The newspaper noted that local officials knew when they approved construction of those homes and businesses on the edge of the reservoirs that they were likely to flood during a major storm.

Evidence given in court revealed that the Corps declined to buy additional property above the reservoirs, even though they knew it could be flooded by a storm like Harvey.

The Chronicle also reported that flood insurance rate maps created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency revealed areas that would flood because of rain but didn’t factor in flooding caused by dams.

Melissa Spinks, an attorney who represented Harris County in three dismissed lawsuits related to Addicks and Barker reservoir flooding, said the county couldn’t control the flow of water and therefore shouldn’t be held liable.

“We don’t have keys to the car,” Spinks told the newspaper. “We don’t have control to make the decisions.” 

Larry Dunbar, a lawyer representing affected property owners in the suits, said local officials are not absolved of blame even if they aren’t legally liable. 

“It was the big, dirty secret around town that the developers and engineers and Harris County and the city of Houston politicians knew,” Dunbar, a flood engineer for 40 years, told the Chronicle. “It’s their job to know that stuff. They were approving plats for development. They knew the dams were there. They just didn’t want to lose their tax base. They didn’t want to upset developers.”

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