The federal government can be held financially liable to hundreds of Hurricane Harvey flood victims because officials knew two reservoirs could flood their Houston-area properties, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday.
The ruling, by Senior Judge Charles Lettow of the United States Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., allows the property owners to seek compensation from the United States Army Corps of Engineers for their flooded homes and businesses, dealing a blow to the federal government. Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 33 inches of rain over four days in 2017, causing catastrophic flooding in more than 150,000 homes across the region.
The Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, west of Houston, were constructed decades ago to protect downtown Houston by retaining floodwaters. But the reservoirs proved inadequate, with water overflowing from federal lands into neighboring properties.
In a 46-page opinion, Mr. Lettow said the flooding amounted to the government “taking” the private citizens’ land, since officials have known for decades that private lands would be flooded in a big enough storm. The government had argued during a 10-day trial in May that Harvey was an unprecedented storm, making flooding inevitable.
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“Tropical Storm Harvey was a record-setting storm,” the judge wrote. “But the evidence markedly shows that pools of this size and the attendant flooding of private property were, at a minimum, objectively foreseeable. Thus, Harvey’s magnitude does not exculpate the government of liability for its actions.”
Taking the private property would require the government to compensate landowners under the Fifth Amendment. The May trial focused on 13 property owners, standing in for hundreds of other property owners who have sued the government.
The homeowners in the typically dry and green areas said they did not know their homes were at risk of flooding, and Mr. Lettow said they could not have reasonably been expected to know.
“The government was responsible for creating an emergency, and these citizens were the innocent victims of those calculated decisions,” Daniel Charest, a lawyer for the residents and business owners, told The Associated Press. “We look forward to pushing the case through the damages phase and achieving justice for the upstream flood victims.”
The government built the Barker Reservoir in the 1940s to protect downtown Houston after major flooding there. The land nearby remained untouched for decades, but was built up during a development boom in the 1980s. The reservoir includes a park with horse riding trails and baseball fields.
The government bought adjacent land that would be covered by a 100-year flood, but Harvey was powerful.