River Authority Facing Lawsuits from Texas, Louisiana Residents After March Flood

Suit alleges that river authority damaged homes with dam water releases.

by Eric Besson, Beaumont Enterprise, Texas / April 26, 2016
Trent Black sits on the roof of the home of Jamie Holden, Sr., surrounded by floodwaters from the Sabine River, Wednesday, March 16, 2016, in Deweyville, Texas. Swollen waterways have displaced thousands of people in flood-ravaged communities in Southeast Texas and floodwaters are forecast to rise even more. AP/Brett Coomer

(TNS) - Almost 240 Texas and Louisiana residents have filed a lawsuit against the Sabine River Authority, keepers of the Toledo Bend dam that released billions of gallons of water during the March flood.

The Beaumont firm Reaud, Morgan and Quinn, representing 105 Texas plaintiffs and 134 from Louisiana, filed the 15-page lawsuit in Orange County district court late last week.

The action, similar in spirit to a suit filed after river flooding in 1989, relies on Texas and Louisiana constitutional law prohibiting government entities from intentionally taking or damaging property without reasonable compensation.

The 1989 suit prevailed in a Newton County courtroom but was overturned by an appellate court in Beaumont 15 years after it was originally filed.

Adam Nichols, one of the attorneys working on the SRA suit, said the 1989 legal action failed because the plaintiff failed to prove the damages were intentional.

Meanwhile, the region continues to reel from tens of millions of dollars' worth of damages from the March flooding, which was designated a federal disaster.

From March 9 to March 11, the peak of the dam releases, the SRA let go of more than 260 billion gallons of water from the Toledo Bend reservoir.

Over one 31-hour period in that span, the flow of water was more than twice that of Niagara Falls' average rate.

"By opening the spillway gates in this manner, the defendants knew, or were substantially certain, that harm would result to the many thousands of homeowners, business owners, churches, and others who owned property downstream," the suit states.

The ensuing flood closed Interstate 10 at the Texas-Louisiana border for three days, prompted a mandatory evacuation in downtown Orange and devastated the small Newton County town of Deweyville.

A comprehensive number on flood damages was not available Monday, but between Newton and Orange counties, it will exceed $20 million to homes and the Deweyville school system, based on FEMA estimates relayed by local officials.

Nearly 500 homes in those two counties sustained at least $17,000 in damages, the local officials said.

The releases followed up to 20 inches of rainfall on the reservoir, which elevated the lake above safe levels, dam managers previously said.

"We're not making any (new) comments about litigation," SRA-Texas' assistant general manager Ann Galassi said Monday.

SRA officials, who hold a federal license to generate hydroelectricity, have previously said the dam was not built for flood control and that they complied with its operating guidelines when opening spillway gates.

In addition to generating power, the authority sells water to Northeast Texas public agencies and Southeast Texas industrial plants.

The federal government last reviewed the permit guidelines in 2000, at the request of residents north of the lake who want the reservoir maintained at a higher level and those south of the lake who want it lower, and again when the license was extended for 50 years in 2014.

The suit is not a class action because damages would vary by property. It does not specify how much the individual plaintiffs will seek.

EBesson@BeaumontEnterprise.com Twitter.com/EricBesson_news

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