Driver deaths on flooded Houston-area roads prompt review

The deaths of eight drivers whose bodies were pulled from vehicles inundated by this week’s torrential rains in the Houston area have prompted local leaders to push for improvements in how they warn people about the dangers of flooded roads.

Houston and nearby counties have been hit with more than a foot of rain since Sunday night. Six of thedriver deaths occurred in the city or suburbs of Houston, while two happened in surrounding counties. Three of the deaths were at the same Houston underpass.

The flooding also has forced thousands of people from their homes as creeks and bayous became overwhelmed.

“There’s no question that not enough has been done” to warn drivers, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Thursday. Emmett is leading an effort to ensure drivers are properly notified about flooded roads during heavy storms.

The deaths at the Houston underpass prompted Emmett to take action. While one woman drove around a barricade at one side of the underpass, Emmett said no barricades were placed on a different part of the underpass and two drivers unknowingly sent their vehicles into dark floodwaters.

“If it’s somebody who drives around a barricade and goes into the water, that’s problematic. I don’t know if any system can stop somebody like that,” he said. “But the other two deaths were completely preventable.”

Others have drowned in the same location, he said, most recently last May when heavy rains also floodedHouston.

He said in the short term, he will speak with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the offices of local constables to make sure deputies and other officers are stationed at underpasses and other flooded locations.

In the long term, Emmett said he’ll work with officials from the city and state to determine what other solutions — possibly some type of barrier — are needed at the underpass where the deaths occurred and other places prone to flooding.

Texas Department of Transportation spokeswoman Raquelle Lewis said her agency is committed to working with city and county officials to find solutions to the problem.

“There is always going to be the potential that people will make decisions that are not necessarily in their best interests or life-preserving,” Lewis said. “What we will do is to look at what can we feasibly do to minimize the potential for those instances.”

Before this week’s flooding, the city of Houston had already begun installing an early warning system at 27 locations where high water sensors and flashing lights are used to let drivers know that a road in front of them is flooded. The city has put the sensors and lights in place at 19 locations so far.

The system had also included wooden gates, similar to those at railroad crossings, that would have dropped down to block flooded roads. But the city decided not to install the gates after drivers drove around and crashed into the first one that had been set up. Gary Norman, executive staff analyst with the Houston Public Works and Engineering Department, said in an email that “we are constantly evaluating how best to protect and inform the public.”

Skies were bright Thursday afternoon after a heavy rainstorm earlier in the day. But residents living in a subdivision near the Addicks Reservoir, one of two aging reservoirs in west Houston that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers considered “extremely high risk,” were warned of possible flooding.

The Harris County Flood Control District said the streets near the reservoir may be impassable over the next few days and reservoir water levels may remain high for days or weeks.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water Thursday evening from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs into Buffalo Bayou at the rate of about 2,000 cubic feet per second, enough to lower the water level by an inch per hour, Corps spokeswoman Sandra Arnold said. The amount of water to be released will increase over the next two to three days, weather permitting, and gradually ease the surrounding streetflooding, Arnold said.

Meanwhile, officials in Wharton, a community of about 8,700 residents about 50 miles southwest of Houston, ordered residents to leave their homes in some low-lying neighborhoods along the rain-swollen Colorado River. The river’s flood stage is 39 feet but the river level there exceeded 47 feet Thursday and some streets were underwater.

Mayor Domingo Montalvo Jr. expanded his order later Thursday to include about a square mile of town, affecting some 350 homes.

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