HOUSTON, TX — Louisiana residents know all too well how powerful storms can damage property and change lives forever. But what happens when victims of a flood say that actions taken by the government caused flooding to damage or destroy their property?
In a previous article, we discussed the August 5, 2017 New Orleans flooding which may have been aggravated by actions taken or neglected by the previous mayor’s administration. Today, Houston-area victims of flooding related to Hurricane Harvey are preparing to put the United States government on trial over allegations that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers caused their homes to flood.
These claims focus on the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs. The plaintiffs allege that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers knew that the reservoir capacities would exceed federally owned land, impacting private property. Furthermore, they state that water intentionally released from the reservoirs’ dams caused homes downstream to flood. According to attorney Daniel Charest, victims are seeking “just compensation for the taking of their property.”
Attorneys with the U.S. Department of Justice respond that Harvey was a “historically large rainfall event” and state that flooding was inevitable. Officials state that they opened the dams because of concerns that the dams would fail.
The trial, with a focus on just thirteen properties, will serve as a test for whether or not the federal government can be held liable for damage to reservoir-flooded homes. Similar cases indicate that the government can be held liable, and, perhaps even more significant to us all, argue such damages caused by the government are a Constitutional matter addressed by the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The Takings Clause provides that Americans are protected from a government that seizes their property for public use without just compensation, and there is precedent for considering government-caused flooding a taking of property which merits just compensation.
In Arkansas Game and Fish Commission v. United States, 568 U.S. 23 (2012), the United States Supreme Court, citing Pumpelly v. Green Bay Co., 13 Wall. 166 (1872), held that “where real estate is actually invaded by superinduced additions of water, earth, sand, or other material . . . so as to effectually destroy or impair its usefulness, it is a taking, within the meaning of the Constitution.”
The government has argued that the Fifth Amendment only prevents permanent takings, and does not provide that citizens should be protected from or compensated for temporary takings, but in Arkansas and other cases, the law demonstrates clearly that this is a poor interpretation of the Constitution. However, past decisions of the Court can be seen as weakening the protection of the takings clause, such as the Court’s controversial decision in Kelo v New London, 545 U.S. 469 (2005) While Kelo involved the government transferring private property from the original owner to a private development company connected with New London’s government, and not the government temporarily taking property to hold flood water in attempts to manage the effects of a weather disaster, Kelo does demonstrate that courts can interpret the law to offer broader license to the government and less protection to American citizens.
The thirteen plaintiffs in Houston serve as a test not only of whether or not Harvey-affected families will be compensated for property damaged by floods connected to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but as yet another measure of what the government may and may not do, without just compensation, to citizens and their property. We should all pay close attention.