A large crowd gathered outside the Kingwood Community Center Thursday, March 15, in anticipation of catching a glimpse of Texas Governor Greg Abbott.
They wanted to show the governor the community's stamina and plea for his continued help to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey. Many held posters that said “Save Our Community” or “End Sand Mining” or “Dredge The River.”
The governor visited Kingwood at the urging of the new “Plea To See” effort. The original effort, Plea For Three – remediation, reduction and representation on the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) – turned into the Plea To See after rainfall during the last weekend of February quickly produced widespread area flooding. For example, River Grove Park was flooded in all the same areas as when Harvey hit – the playing fields, disk golf course, proposed dog park area, the infield behind the rest rooms, and about half the parking lot. The only difference was that in February, Kingwood received less than two inches of rain – a far cry from the deluge of rain produced by Harvey.
The late February rains kicked off the rainy season in the Lake Houston area. These minimal rains once again had the San Jacinto River over its banks. With the 2018 hurricane season rapidly approaching, local officials and community groups decided to make a stronger appeal to the state government. Plea to See began in late February, urging Abbott to come tour the area to see firsthand the sand, silt and debris clogging the river forks and Lake Houston, as well as the still uninhabitable homes and businesses.
The governor did just that, starting with a helicopter tour of the area, and followed that tour with a press briefing and then a private meeting with local elected city and state officials.
Abbott began by describing the resiliency of Texans affected by the flood as “unmatched in the history of our country. Without the bold spirit of responding to the catastrophe, we would not be where we are today. Texans are different and respond robustly.”
Abbott pointed out that this robust spirit meant that “we had a much different situation on our hands than Louisiana did after Katrina.”
Abbott also thanked public officials such as Dave Martin and Dan Huberty for being there every day working to help their constituents. The governor thanked Martin for arranging the aerial tour which stretched south of Lake Houston to north of Lake Conroe and included both river forks.
Abbott remarked on the destruction of homes he saw, particularly on his drive through Forest Cove on the way to the community center meeting. “So many residential areas are still a disaster zone,” Abbott said.
The governor also commented on the “stunning number of sand mining operations” lining the banks of the San Jacinto River. The governor said that these operations are dumping sand and silt into the river which could be contributing to both past and future floods.
“More important than what I’ve seen is what I’ve heard from my constituents in this area,” Abbott said.
One of the most immediate needs in the area was the debris removal needed in September. Abbott reiterated that the state had provided $50 million to jump start the debris removal process.
“I did not see neighborhood debris today on my tour, but if you have any remaining debris issues, please let my office know,” the governor said.
The next immediate need Abbott described was the desire to have Kingwood representation on SJRA board. He recently appointed Karen Cambio and Mark Micheletti to be the voice of the Lake Houston area on the SJRA board.
Abbott said the SJRA has the responsibility “for prevention of devastation of lands from overflows and uncontrolled floodwaters” in the region. Abbott directed the board to do three things: determine immediate flood prevention measures for the river’s west fork; work with state and local authorities on both immediate and long-term flood prevention measures; and inform the governor of the funding that will be needed to prevent flooding downstream of Lake Conroe.
Abbott also said that the sand mines must be addressed. “From the air, the number of mining operations is profound, as is the devastation.”
The governor said that months ago, he had already directed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to investigate every single sand mining operation up and down the San Jacinto River. Abbott said those investigations have already led to two enforcement actions which are currently underway.
Abbott spoke emphatically. “We will find out if they’re operating legally or illegally; for those that are not fully permitted and operating within the law, we will shut them down,” he said. The governor also said that the state will impose stiff fines as well as require immediate remediation from some of the companies.
Abbott then mentioned three additional areas where the state is providing help. First, it is important to rebuild in ways to reduce the type of past flooding experienced in the area. The governor has already authorized 900 voluntary home buyouts in Harris County – 134 of them in the Kingwood area. The governor said those buyouts wee pre-approved by FEMA.
Abbott said that dredging needs to be begin immediately, but engineering permits are first required. The governor has authorized the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) to allocate $3 million to expedite the permitting process.
“We must respond swiftly. I want those to start immediately. I want these expedited,” Abbott said. “Tell the people in Kingwood that dredging will happen; I just allocated millions of dollars for it.”
The governor has also asked TDEM to set aside $2 million for a regional watershed study to guard against future flooding.
Abbott stressed that the money for all three efforts is available “today;” the state is awaiting the proper applications from Harris County.
Although the meeting was not open to the public, Kingwood resident Joey Barnes slipped into the press briefing to speak with the governor. Barnes moved to Kingwood a year ago to retire; she lives in Trailwood Village in the very first home ever built in Kingwood. Her home did not flood, but many neighbors’ homes did.
“We have a huge issue with the way we treat – and don’t treat – floodwater,” Barnes explained. She stated that the sand companies have had a devastating impact on the area; she was astonished to see the flooding brought by so little late February rain, and water that covered the newly completed River Grove Park boardwalk.
“I’m not a scientist – I am just a retiree, but I just see a huge issue and I want to be involved. We’re not taking care of our natural resources,” she said.
Barnes said she appreciates the governor being here, but talk is cheap, and she, like so many residents, wants to see action.