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Road flooding a reality in heavy Houston rains

Wednesday, June 3, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Annemarie Gasser
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on The Chronicle

http://blog.chron.com/thehighwayman/2015/06/road-flooding-a-reality-in-heavy-houston-rains/

 

Like a lot of residents of the Houston area, local highway officials just had to let water do its thing when it came to clearing some local highways during recent rains.

“With the detention ponds and bayous full, there was nowhere for the water to go,” said Karen Othon, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of Transportation Houston office.

After the waters receded, transportation officials said they believed that inlets and pumps that keep freeways from flooding worked, except in certain flood-prone spots that had not undergone significant repairs. However, the heavy rains were a little more than the systems could handle.

“Once the rains subsided and the bayous were draining, the pumps quickly moved the water from the roadway,” Othon said.

The freeway flooding, however, became emblematic of the havoc that major storms can create in the Houston area. Interstate 45 near North Main became treacherous in a matter of minutes because of rising waters. When it took hours for some flooding to clear, some of the region’s biggest thoroughfares were off-limits to anything that didn’t float.

Drivers complained of gridlock along major streets that were open. Washington Avenue, for example, became the de facto downtown route for many who usually use Interstate 10 or Memorial. Almeda became a popular option for those cut off from Texas 288.

Motorists are seen stranded along Interstate 45 along North Main after storms flooded the area on May 26. (Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle)

Motorists are seen stranded along Interstate 45 along North Main after storms flooded the area on May 26. (Cody Duty / Houston Chronicle)

Fixing freeways to withstand the worst of what Houston weather can throw at them, however, would be a complex and costly proposition.

“If everybody wanted us to be able to accommodate every rain event and keep everything open, it would cost every project we build a multiple of what we already spend,” said D. Wayne Klotz, president of Klotz and Associates, a Houston engineering firm, and former president of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Freeway design certainly makes a difference. After Tropical Storm Allison poured rain onto Houston, the depressed portion of U.S. 59 flooded so severely the bridges spanning it at Montrose and Graustark were just above the water.

“Before construction, there were two pumps,” Othon said. “Now there are 12 pumps between Main and Montrose that work to pump any standing water off the main lanes.”

Similar repairs relieved issues near Interstate 10 and the Sam Houston Tollway.

The top priority in regional flood management is keeping water out of homes, Klotz said, not keeping all roads clear. In the case of the storms that battered the area last week, water pooled on many local roads as bayous became filled to capacity when storms dumped 162 billion gallons of rain on the area.

That isn’t necessarily the intent, especially for freeways.  Contrary to what some believe, freeways are not designed to be de facto flood control channels. Though older segments do not meet the standard, she said current freeways are engineered so that the main lanes are capable of handling a 100-year flood. Frontage roads are designed for 10-year floods, she said.

Not all of the local highway system is up to standard, however, as the recent rains showed. Low-lying areas of FM 1462 near the Brazos River in Brazoria County remained flooded Monday.  Frontage roads along I-45 at the San Jacinto River south of Conroe also had standing water, blocking traffic, well after the rains stopped.

A tractor trailer is seen with the Houston Skyline in the background in the flood waters on Texas 288 and McGregor near the Texas Medical Center on May 26. (Photo: Thomas B. Shea/For the Chronicle)

A tractor trailer is seen with the Houston Skyline in the background in the flood waters on Texas 288 and McGregor near the Texas Medical Center on May 26. (Photo: Thomas B. Shea/For the Chronicle)

Some of the biggest problem spots that affected the most drivers are within Loop 610. Texas 288 near Brays Bayou and the Texas Medical Center and the spot downtown where Interstate 10 and Interstate 45 join are the two best examples, Klotz said.

Othon said TxDOT officials are assessing whether the Texas 288 flooding problems were the result of not enough pumping and drainage capacity on the road — partially depressed near the Texas Medical Center — or if debris on the road led to drainage failures.

She said I-45 flooding problems will be corrected as part of the massive redesign of the freeway TxDOT is planning. The comment period for the initial design ended Sunday, but it will be years before any work begins on the $6 billion freeway redesign.

The next challenge, as we’ll discuss Tuesday, is paying for the needed repairs as officials play catch-up with development that’s flooding roads because bayous are being asked to do too much, too fast.


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