As Hurricane Harvey floodwaters linger in portions of Texas, assessments and some rebuilding have begun as residents and officials alike try to figure out how and whether to rebuild.

“The cleanup has started, the rebuilding has started,” says Thomas B. Neild Jr., of H.B. Neild & Sons, a Beaumont, Texas-based commercial and industrial construction company. “It’s breathtaking, the amount of damage. There are neighborhoods where families lost literally everything. It’s like the most grotesque garage sale. House after house is lined with all their earthly possessions,” he says.

More than two weeks after the storm hit on Aug. 25, Neild’s company and contractors of all stripes are focused on getting homes livable, says Jennifer Gordy, executive director of Associated General Contractors of Southeast Texas. “The scope and magnitude is not realized yet,” she says. The Federal Emergency Management Agency on Sept. 11 said the assessment of damages is ongoing in Texas, but Harris County says at least 136,000 homes were damaged. Analysis by real estate information group CoStar shows 27% of Houston’s commercial buildings may have flooded. Even as engineering and construction firms are bringing people to the state to assess and repair the damages, the Harris County Flood Control District, FEMA and the city of Houston are preparing a home buyout program to move people out of floodplains. The district says it will release more information on the program Sept. 18.

Some of those buyouts may occur in the neighborhoods inundated by floodwaters after the Army Corps of Engineers began releasing water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs two days after Harvey passed. The Corps says it is moving ahead with planned studies on how best to manage the water around Houston.

Along with getting people back in their homes, firms are working to get critical systems functioning and roads and schools open, says Craig B. Thompson, president of the Texas section of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a municipal engineer. Thompson says he has been consulting with local municipalities. He says structural engineers will start assessing homes and buildings in the next tranche of activity.

Beaumont, which had its water system knocked out by the flooded Neches River, is back on line, but on Sept. 11 the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said 35 water systems are still shut down, 136 have “boil water” notices, and 35 wastewater treatment plants are inoperable.

The Texas Dept. of Transportation notes that, as of Sept. 11, 26 roads remain closed because of floodwaters. The agency continues to take inventory of damages to roads and bridges. High, swift-moving water is blamed for most of the damage found so far, a DOT spokesman said.

After a portion of the Sam Houston Tollway was severely damaged after sitting in about 15 ft of water, crews restored it to better-than-new condition, working 24/7 for five days straight.

Industrial and commercial assessments have begun, as well; in at least a handful of cases, projects planned in lower-lying areas are on hold “till further notice,” says Neild. But many others are moving ahead, chalking up the flooding to an event that likely won’t occur again. 

The number of assessments is daunting. The damage is similar to that experienced in Superstorm Sandy, “except Sandy was very compact,” says Bruce Arita, senior vice president of Thornton Tomasetti and head of the Property Loss Consulting Practice, which is completing insurance assessments near Corpus Christi and plans to be in Houston later this month. “Texas is immense. The area is very big, so just getting around is tough,” he said.

Corps Under Fire

The Corps is steadily decreasing water releases from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and expects to hit 4,000 cfs by Sept. 15. “Things are getting better, but we still want to caution everybody: We’re still not out of the woods,” says Randy Cephus, deputy public affairs officer.

As it continues to manage water releases, the Corps’ decision to release the water is being scrutinized. At least three lawsuits have been filed seeking compensation from the flooding. Filed against the Corps, one suit claims the flooding is a “taking” under the Fifth Amendment.

Residents of West Houston thought they had dodged a bullet after Hurricane Harvey passed. Their homes were still dry after record rainfall. But three days later, early on Aug. 28 after water levels increased dramatically in the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, the Army Corps of Engineers began to release water from the reservoirs to prevent further flooding and catastrophic failures.

“The water rose very quickly—two and a half feet. It was very fast. It went back down for a minute and then suddenly back up,” says Russ Hyde, a mechanical engineer who lives near Buffalo Bayou, the tributary that drains the reservoirs.

Had the water not been released, the Corps says, between 30,000 to 40,000 cfs of upstream water would have inundated a wider area. “It was a tough decision what we did, but it was one we had [make to] to ensure the integrity of the project,” says Richard Long, supervisory natural-resource manager for the Corps’ Galveston district. “I’ve lived in this community for 35 years now, and these are my friends and neighbors. I know people upstream and downstream that have been impacted by our operations, so it’s not an easy job.”