Residents’ frustrations flood city council’s drainage plans

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When it rains outside, Diane Wuthrich feels drained. She doesn’t need a water gauge or a hydrology report to know something isn’t right in the waterway that runs behind her home — all she needs to grow worried is a watch.

For three years, Wuthrich and other Sealy residents affected by flooded drainage ways have grown concerned about the city’s response, but they are joining together to call for a clear, planned solution to an inundated infrastructure.

“They haven’t done a damn thing,” Wuthrich said about the Sealy City Council’s response to flooding concerns. “They’ve done absolutely nothing.”

During a June 2 city council meeting, Sealy Mayor Janice Whitehead addressed concerns about drainage and said Sealy was “working on a comprehensive flooding plan” for the city with a $500,000 price tag. However, she made it clear that the city has been working steadfastly on drainage obstructions and takes the issue seriously.

The city council pointed to beaver dams as one cause for flooding in the area and mentioned efforts to remove them from the water flow.

“Over one dozen beaver dams were identified and removed,” Whitehead said. “This natural occurrence is something we will continue to monitor in upcoming years.”

Wuthrich said the issues are not recent occurrences but have been with Sealy for several years. She pointed to current construction and development in the area as a likely cause.

Roxanna Saldana said her problems with drainage started after construction broke ground along South Circle St. for a new apartment complex.

“There were already major drainage issues in the back of the neighborhood, and this would just contribute to it more,” Saldana said.

Assistant City Manager Warren Escovy said during a June 16 city council meeting the original retention pond for the Reach apartment complex site failed to keep up with a “zero net increase” stormwater flow in the Sealy City Code. The city requested the developer build a drainage pipe to accommodate the overflow.

“This is one of those things where we have to go in and try to fix sins of the past and basically have the developer help us with that,” Escovy said.

Escovy said the plan calls for a firm to use two previous studies of Allens Creek and Little Bernard Creek to plan for future improvements in the system. The City Manager’s office anticipates this to happen in the next budget year but will continue operations for clearing obstructions.

The disputes between local governments and residents over drainage and flooding are spilling out in many communities across the U.S., Melissa Roberts said. Roberts founded the American Flood Coalition, a non-profit organization funded through philanthropy, to help communities to adapt to flooding and rising sea levels.

“This is something we see across the country,” Roberts said. “It’s a real issue and point of contention for many communities.”

Roberts encouraged citizens to work together and make “informal groups to communicate, learn, and be clear about what they want.” She warned against local leaders shying away from transparency and community input as reasons for contention.

Regulatory agencies are a hodgepodge of different concerns with no overriding authority from state and federal authorities, Roberts said. Non-profits like hers are at the forefront of fighting for institutional change and better resources for local communities.

The organization offers educational resources on its website for citizens and community leaders. Cities and municipalities can also participate in the coalition’s member services to educate leaders on stormwater and flooding issues, federal and state grants, and developing better drainage plans and smarter policies for community growth.

Concerns over booming growth are nothing new to Sealy, Whitehead said. Progress in the city and the associated headaches are part of its history.

“Sealy is a railroad town and when the railroad came through, the city experienced a boom,” Whitehead said in a June 22 email. “When the I-10 project is complete, additional growth will follow.”

The city administration offers an “open-door policy” for Sealy residents to discuss problems or get more information. Still, the primary concern is to keep residents and businesses safe, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, the mayor said.

Saldana and Wuthrich said they are excited to see new projects in the area and are thankful for new employment opportunities that come along with it — but not at the expense of protecting Sealy residents. For Wuthrich, her home stands as a living history of Sealy’s troubled drainage ways.

On three different weather events in 2017, including Hurricane Harvey and the Memorial Day flood, water from Allens Creek seeped into the foundation of Wuthrich’s home. However, the home’s flood insurance carrier refused to pay for $30,000 in damages and listed the home as unflooded.

A flooded foundation is the least of the problems at the Willow Street home, as water has given way to mold that is affecting Wuthrich’s health, she said.

“It did not cover one penny,” Wuthrich said about the home’s insurance plan. “And it’s getting worse, I’ve been getting sick.”

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