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The death of a subdivision

by Wanda Orton
Wanda Orton

In the aftermath of a hurricane, people usually pick up the pieces, repair, rebuild and go on with their lives.

Such was not the case in Baytown's Brownwood subdivision where residents, reeling from Hurricane Alicia's destruction on Aug. 18, 1983, could not go home again.

Some tried. A few homesick residents balked at the city's subsequent ban on future habitation in their neighborhood, but authorities forced all to leave. Homes were bought and bulldozed.

A decade later the subdivision would be re-invented as a recreational, educational haven for bird-watching and fishing, a tourist attraction to be envied by other coastal cities. Turning tragedy into triumph, the Baytown Nature Center emerged from the water-logged ruins of Brownwood.

Once the pride of Baytown with spacious homes fronting Scott, Crystal and Burnet bays, Brownwood in its last days resembled a war zone.

It had been a valiant fight for survival, beginning with Hurricane Carla in September 1961 when residents had the first inkling that something strange was going on. High tides invaded homes that had never flooded before. The bays that had provided so much pleasure with sunset views and hours of fishing, boating and water skiing suddenly had turned on them, making their fishing piers disappear, inundating yards, roads and personal property.

Brownwood is a historic place, settled by early colonists with Mexican land grants, and they had hurricanes back then, and some were monstrous.

What the 19th century locals did not have, however, was the added burden of land subsidence.

In the war against weather in the 20th century, this was the enemy below, the insidious loss of elevation - an estimated 10 feet in Brownwood.

After Hurricane Carla's wake-up call, subsidence would become a household word in the Houston-Galveston area, with the media focusing often on Brownwood and especially on a three-story, colonial home on Bayshore Drive. Appearing to be standing in the middle of Crystal Bay, it became the symbol of subsidence, featured on TV and in newspapers and magazines around the world.

Brownwood Civic Association's outspoken president Jean Shepherd -- the "unsinkable Molly Brownwood" - led an unrelenting fight to save their subdivision. She organized scores of volunteers to monitor tide markers and man a communication system for high-tide warnings and evacuation procedures. Residents participated in city, county and federal hearings and worked closely with the city's office of emergency management, the National Weather Service and the U.S. Corps of Engineers. They pushed for levees to protect their land and sought funding for such projects through proposed bond projects.

And it was not unusual to see network TV cameras rolling in their neighborhood as a number of Brownwood residents pled their case on talk shows and the evening news.

For the sake of the entire region, the civic association led in the charge to halt subsidence. Their crusade to control groundwater pumping - said to be the chief cause of subsidence -- played a key role in the creation of the subsidence district for Harris and Galveston counties, and in the establishment of the Bay Area Water Authority to convert the city's water supply from wells to surface water.

In a project to facilitate evacuation during storm threats, the city raised the streets around the bay front to a level of 7 feet. The so-called perimeter roads would ensure a way out to higher ground when the tides rushed in.

"We're going up - not out!" became a mantra for residents looking forward to the new evacuation project, but their optimism was short-lived. The perimeter roads, like their property, began to sink.

Meanwhile, the rains came, the tides surged and hurricane-force winds ripped houses apart, often with the help from tornados spawned by the storms.

The regulation of groundwater withdrawal and the conversion to surface water would control subsidence for the rest of the region but that help was coming too late for Brownwood. Too much elevation already had been lost. And once it's gone - it's gone.

Weather watchers figured that one day the big one would come, that a horrendous hurricane would spell the end for Brownwood, but no one expected Alicia to be that one. In fact, the first word out on the street was that Alicia would be a minor storm.

Alicia was major.

Delivering a 10.7-foot tide and wind gusts up to 127 mph, Alicia developed into a Category 3 hurricane and, frankly, Brownwood couldn't take it anymore.

At day's end on Aug. 18, the subdivision was history.

Hurricane Alicia forever changed Baytown, and Brownwood, the home of more than 300 families, never would look the same -- except through the lens of fond memories.

Wanda Orton Baytown Sun Columnist, December 8, 2014 column
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