With its proximity to the Gulf Coast, the Houston region knows how to take a punch from a hurricane. But Hurricane Harvey was different—the scale and scope of the storm knocked the city down hard.
For Houston, Harvey was not a storm surge or wind event like a traditional hurricane but a devastating flood event—a 1,000-year flood event, according to some weather experts. Almost every part of the Houston region was impacted. More than 1 trillion gallons of rainwater fell just on Harris County, according to the Harris County Flood Control District. The county is Texas’ most populous, with nearly 4.6 million residents.
The flood control district reported that, over four days, most areas of the county received about a year’s worth of rainfall—between 40 and 50 inches. Over 70 percent of the county had at least 18 inches of flood water,1 and an estimated 120,000 of the county’s homes and businesses experienced some degree of flood damage.2
To prepare for the storm, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas’ Houston Branch employees worked closely with local authorities and colleagues across the Eleventh Federal Reserve District. Activities focused on three priorities: ensuring the safety and well-being of employees and their families, protecting the branch facility and its assets, and providing critical services to the Houston region.
In this effort, the branch partnered with organizations that included the Houston Police Department, Harris County Office of Emergency Management and U.S. Secret Service to monitor conditions and coordinate responses.
Fortifications for the flood at the Houston Branch began with the building itself, years before Harvey. The building sits just across the street from Buffalo Bayou, a major watershed in the region.
The Houston Branch before and after Harvey. | CLICK AND DRAG TO COMPARE
The facility was in the design phase during 2001 when flooding from Tropical Storm Allison devastated downtown Houston, and lessons learned were incorporated into the branch’s final plan. The overall building elevation stands above the 500-year floodplain at 50 feet above sea level, raising critical operations out of the most vulnerable flood zone.
During Hurricane Harvey, the design safeguards proved effective. Floodwaters from Buffalo Bayou rose up the outer perimeter wall but did not breach it. All facilities inside remained secure.
Throughout the five-day storm, the branch housed 18 employees on-site to provide security, monitor the building infrastructure and respond to emergency conditions around the clock. They included law enforcement, facilities and management staff. In addition, a cadre of Cash Department employees stayed at a nearby hotel to ensure staff were available to meet the region’s financial needs.
On-site staff worked 12 to 16 hours each day and slept in shifts. Several faced the additional challenge of remaining on duty even when their own families were forced to evacuate their homes. One employee recalls, “My wife, kids and two dogs had to leave due to a mandatory evacuation in our area. Like many, I was concerned for my family’s safety since they were evacuating during the storm. Bank leadership checked in with me often, and it was comforting knowing that they cared about my situation and not just the building.”
With its facility secure and fully operational, the Houston Branch also came to the aid of a neighbor in distress. That Sunday morning, with Buffalo Bayou rising rapidly, local CBS affiliate KHOU-TV contacted the branch to request emergency shelter for its news staff.
KHOU’s building down the street was taking on water at an alarming rate. With the station's parking garage flooded as well, 45 KHOU employees evacuated on foot, carrying their equipment and belongings through the driving rain.
Houston Branch staff met the employees with carts and pickup trucks to bring them inside and set them up with work space, electrical hookups, coffee, water and lunch. When KHOU’s emergency generators failed and the station lost the ability to broadcast over the air, reporters turned to social media—streaming live from the branch to ensure that storm updates still went out to the Houston community.
Staff from Houston CBS affiliate KHOU-TV take refuge in the Houston Branch building after their station is flooded during Hurricane Harvey.
In the months since Harvey, the Houston Branch has continued to support the region’s recovery, even as many of its staff members have been working to recover at home. One in five branch employees experienced some level of storm damage, with one in 10 suffering major property losses.
With generous support from colleagues throughout the Eleventh District and the Federal Reserve System, the branch has worked with employees affected by the storm to provide financial assistance and other resources. Staff have also volunteered their time to assist with community recovery efforts from a deluge that left no portion of the Houston region untouched.
- Harris County Flood Control District meteorologist Jeff Lindner, Aug. 31, 2017, twitter.com/JeffLindner1/status/903412604902760448.
- Harris County Flood Control District, www.hcfcd.org/hurricane-harvey/.