Hundreds sue engineering firm over Harvey flooding in Fort Bend levee district
Source: https://www.houstonchronicle.com, April 5, 2018
By: Rebecca Elliott
Hundreds of Fort Bend County residents sued a local engineering firm Wednesday alleging the company acted negligently in designing a stormwater management system for a community that flooded during Hurricane Harvey.
The lawsuit filed against Costello, Inc. in state district court focuses on work the engineering firm performed for a Fort Bend Levee Improvement District created more than a decade ago.
The firm was founded by former Houston city councilman Steve Costello who now serves as Mayor Sylvester Turner’s so-called “flood czar.”
The district, known as LID 19, was designed to protect the Riverstone community from inundation from the Brazos River, but roughly a third of the 1,760 homes in the district flooded during Harvey’s assault on the region last August.
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“The stormwater management system was not designed to handle rainfall amounts that should have been reasonably anticipated,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote in the complaint. “As a result of defendant Costello’s acts and omissions, plaintiffs and their children have been displaced from their homes and have many months and years of costly repairs and rebuilding to come.”
The lawsuit, filed by attorneys in four law firms, seeks damages for repairs, lost property value, lost income and emotional distress, among other flood-related costs.
Costello, Inc. did not respond to requests for comment. The firm also did much of the engineering for Grand Lakes, a subdivision within the Barker Reservoir’s flood pool that was swamped during Harvey.
Costello, who has said he divested from the firm in 2015 when he ran for Houston mayor, said Thursday afternoon he was unaware of the lawsuit and declined comment.
Fort Bend, a rapidly growing county west of Houston, is home to 20 levee systems — or grassy hills with built-in drainage — designed to protect developments on low-lying land from flooding from the Brazos River. During Harvey, however, gates that normally would drain into the Brazos shut as the river level rose. Pumps that were supposed to move 80,000 gallons of water per minute out of the adjacent neighborhoods were unable to keep up with Harvey’s deluge, including stormwater that drained toward Riverstone from other levee districts.
Residents in 14 of those systems, including LID 19, faced evacuation orders during Harvey.
The lawsuit against Costello, Inc. comes roughly six months after dozens of residents sued LID 19, the levee operator, the Riverstone developer and others for negligence. They have denied the allegations, and LID 19 claimed governmental immunity. Costello, Inc. was not named in that lawsuit, which was filed in Fort Bend County.
This new complaint, filed in Harris County, zeroes in on Harvey’s disparate impact on neighboring levee districts — LIDs 15 and 19 — for which Costello, Inc. did engineering work.
The firm, plaintiffs allege, “failed to account for rainwater that would drain from LID 15 to LID 19 after a levee was removed along Hagerson Road,” which cuts between the two levee districts.
“If this was Harvey’s fault, then why would Levee No.15 stay dry?” attorney Michael Simpson said. “I don’t think God would pick and choose on levees. Do you?”
The lawsuit also claims that the 34 inches of rain Harvey dumped on Riverstone was not unprecedented, citing higher rainfall totals during three prior storms.
“The rainfall in and around the Riverstone development during Hurricane Harvey was not an unknowable or unforseen Act of God. Instead, it was an event that given the history of rainfall in the Texas Gulf Coast, was a foreseeable event,” the complaint states.
Amanda Junker, whose family has lived in the LID 19 portion of Riverstone for five years, remembered driving across front yards and medians last August to escape the floodwater.
“When we made it out of the neighborhood, driving on the median, it became very clear when we passed into LID 15 that something was not right,” Junker, 36, said during a press conference. “We were inundated with water in our neighborhood, and just on the other side of the street everything seemed to be perfectly fine.”