Houston's History of Floods

August 30, 2017 by Daphne Thompson
Topics:   WeatherOps | Tropical | Hurricane | Flood |

Founded in 1836 where the Buffalo Bayou met White Oak Bayou, Houston has faced many floods. Not long after being established, the settlement flooded. Initially swamp land, people began to try and drain the area. Done with no planning, draining the land did not account for flooding rains. Flooding rains would come again and again over the next 180+ years.

Houston in 1873

In 1873, Houston had grown from a settlement of 12 residents to a town of over 9,000. In the map above, it is easy to see how this city grew up around the bayous. The Buffalo Bayou had been deepened in 1869 to improve the shipping port. In 1898, Houston asked Congress for permission to make this a deepwater port, and thus the Port of Houston was created.  

The timing of constructing a deepwater port could not have come at a better time for Houston. Up to that point, Galveston had been the main port for the Texas coast and was thriving. The 1900 hurricane changed all that and investors moved their money to Houston. The population was now almost 45,000. The discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901, near Beaumont, changed the history of Houston again. Oil turned this rapidly growing town into the thriving city it has become.

Houston Flood - 1929

In 1929, the Buffalo and White Oak Bayous both left their banks after a foot of rain fell. Downtown suffered massive damage. Property damage was estimated at $1.4 million. 

Houston flood- 1935Another flood in 1935 devastated downtown. Bayous had risen over 50 feet above normal levels leading to 40% of buildings and almost all bridges damaged beyond repair. Property damage doubled that of the 1929 flood and the Port of Houston was clogged with debris. With two-thirds of Harris County under water, citizens decided it was time for a flood control system. Houston's population was now over 290,000.

Houston Hurricanes in 20th Century

The Harris County Flood Control District was founded in 1937. The next year, Addicks and Barker dams and reservoirs were created to prevent the flooding of Buffalo Bayou into downtown. For over 60 years, the flood control worked to prevent major damage, even with multiple hurricanes such as Audrey (1957), Carla (1961), and Alicia (1983).

Houston Flooding - 21st Century

However, the 21st Century hasn't been as kind to Houston. Tropical Storm Allison (2001) devastated Houston causing damage to downtown businesses and hospitals. There were over 70,000 homes damaged, 95,000 vehicles damaged, and 23 fatalities. In 2008, Hurricane Ike struck the area with Galveston taking the full brunt of the storm. Flooding wasn't as severe as it might have been due to the rapid movement of the storm. However, winds from the eyewall caused damage to downtown buildings and left some without power for over a month.

Then came Hurricane Harvey...

In 2017, the population of Houston is over 2 million. It is the largest city in Texas and the 4th largest in the US. Harvey has dropped an entire year's worth of rain in the Houston area and set a record for a tropical storm producing the highest amount of rain in the continental US. An estimated 5 trillion gallons of rain fell across the greater Houston Metro. Flood Control isn't able to handle this amount of rain. The Addicks and Barker dams are releasing water for the first time in their history. Homes built within the reservoir area are filled with water. Tens of thousands of people are trapped in flooded homes and thousands more are in shelters. The fatalities are adding up, and the final number will be unknown until the waters recede. Property damage estimates may end up in the billions. This settlement built where two bayous meet has flooded again.  

If your business is in a city with a similar history, be prepared by working with a weather company that will do everything it can to make sure you are aware of impending weather in enough time to ensure you minimize risks for your employees, customers and inventory. We are here to help.

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Daphne Thompson

Daphne is the Content Marketing Manager. Her prior experience includes working at the National Weather Center, Norman Emergency Management, and National Weather Service. With a degree in Meteorology from OU and previous outreach experience, she is able to bridge the gap between science and the general public.