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HISTORICAL – Houston’s Flooded History: A Normal Crisis

Photos courtesy the Harris County Flood Control District showing the 1929 flood at City Hall (Congress at Milam)

The flooding in 1935 of Buffalo Bayou at Franklin

Houstonians are rightly concerned when severe rain threatens the area. With each deluge, residents have gotten better at following the now infamous catchphrase, “turn around don’t drown.” This slogan is important for public safety, but its very existence is an admission by emergency officials that rising water is the norm rather than the exception in Houston.

Houston’s flooding is rooted in geography and aggravated by urban development. The city is only about 50 feet above sea level in an area that receives over 40 inches of rain per year. Buildings, pavement, and other urban landscapes increase the speed that water flows into the ditches and bayous causing those channels to quickly become overwhelmed. This problem worsens as the city grows.

The sometimes dramatic inundations by floodwaters is well documented in Houston’s history. The Allen brothers, founders of Houston, saw major flooding throughout the new city in 1836. By 1868, the paving of the city’s downtown thoroughfare led to those roads becoming rivers during major rain events, a refrain that continuously repeated into the early 1900s. Flooding in 1929 and 1935 caused enough damage and public concern that the city began to invest more aggressively in flood-control infrastructure, ultimately leading to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) in 1937.

HCFCD focuses on regional flood control. Its plans for the area after 1937 took advantage of storm sewers linked to existing bayous and ditches for drainage. The region continued to experience major flooding until the 1950s despite the agency’s efforts. Between the 1940s and 1970s, HCFCD lined bayous with concrete to allow the water to more quickly flow downstream. The result of these efforts was that major flooding was limited until Tropical Strom Allison in 2001. The city still tries to grapple with flooding, but there will always be limits to how a region can conquer its geography, especially when the continued “success” of the city results in flood waters rising ever higher and faster.


Author Dr. Joseph Stromberg is a professor of history at San Jacinto College Central. His academic interests are regional, energy and environmental history. Contact him at joseph.stromberg@sjcd.edu.


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