By Vanesa Brashier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Plum Grove – arguably one of the communities in Liberty County hit hardest during Hurricane Harvey in 2017 – is slowing rebounding with two major projects expected to wrap up this summer, according to Mayor Lee Ann Penton-Walker.
“We just got permission to bid out the demolition of the old city hall. We are so thankful to be at this point in the process,” the mayor said. “We are going to elevate the next city hall building, pretty much raising it to the level FEMA says we must for a 500-year flood plan.”
The new city hall will be a modest building suitable for a city of Plum Grove’s size, comparable to the current city hall building, but it will be equipped with ramps and bathrooms for people with disabilities. In years past, the city had to rent a port-a-potty that was compliant with the standards set by the American Disabilities Act for elections and public meetings.
“We are going to add a covered porch to the new building, so when people are standing outside for meetings and elections, they will have some protection from the weather,” Penton-Walker said.
Currently, city council is meeting in the Plum Grove VFD building..
The second of the two major projects for summer is a culvert that was washed out on Plum Grove Road during Harvey, forcing traffic to be detoured through the Colony Ridge developments.
“It will save some response time for our firefighters to have the bridge fixed,” the mayor said. “The goal is to have it ready by the end of summer before school starts.”
Funding for the repairs will come from FEMA. Though Liberty County has an interlocal agreement with Plum Grove for some road and bridge work, FEMA guidelines prevent the county from making repairs to the culvert, said Liberty County Judge Jay Knight.
“FEMA, even when dealing with the county, prefers that we use outside contractors for these types of repairs. The paperwork is so involved that it is almost like they prefer you use outside contractors instead of allowing the precinct commissioners to oversee the work themselves with their crews,” Knight said.
In the upcoming election on May 4, the residents of Plum Grove proper will be asked to approve a half-cent sales tax increase, which will bring the total sales tax portion for the city to $0.01.
“The last increase in sales tax was about 20 years ago, so it’s time. We are guessing that this would give the city an additional $15,000 to $20,000 in revenue per year,” Penton-Walker said. “That might not seem like a lot, but it will allow us to make some repairs to our roads.”
The sales tax increase will get the city ahead of the light commercial development that Plum Grove should see in the next few years as the Grand Parkway (I-99) is built.
“We are so close to 99 that it is serendipity that we will see some new businesses in the area,” she said.
In order to have attractive growth, the city is developing a comprehensive plan, which could include zoning for residential and commercial.
“Everyone keeps asking why we are doing this? Because we want to have a uniform look to the town,” she said. “We also hope to have police officers out here at some point. There are other little cities that aren’t much bigger than Plum Grove that have police officers. We need to work toward that as well.”
HARVEY FOREVER CHANGED COMMUNITY
In August 2017, when Harvey blew through Southeast Texas, dropping an estimated 55 inches of rain in Liberty County during a five-day span, the rising water of the East Fork of the San Jacinto River flooded roughly 75 percent of the homes in Plum Grove, according to Penton-Walker.
“About 50 percent of those folks came back and rebuilt. Another 50 percent gave up and moved,” she said. “If it was up to FEMA, they would have taken all this land through eminent domain and put retention ponds everywhere and called it the Lakes of Plum Grove. We flooded in 1994 but Harvey really showed us our vulnerable areas.”
Penton-Walker’s home on Paul Campbell Loop was spared as were the homes of some of her neighbors and most of the properties in the Colony Ridge development, which is just outside of city limits.
“For a lot of other people though, particularly the landowners in their 70s, they said, ‘You know what? We just can’t do it.’ They tore down their homes and moved,” she said. “We have people who are just never going to get back into their homes. They didn’t have insurance or didn’t do what they needed to do with their FEMA money, so now we have some abandoned homes to deal with.”
She compares Harvey’s flooding rains and the aftermath to a biblical plague that has not yet ended.
“We went through things that were similar to the plagues in the Bible. The water came up, drowned all our animals and then we had dead animals everywhere in places we couldn’t get to very often, like in bogs. The water went down and left fish to rot in our pasture. Then there was the smell, then the flies, then the buzzards and then the frogs showed up to eat all the insects,” Penton-Walker said. “We still haven’t gotten over all the flies. They are much better than they were but that whole series of events created problems that still exist today.”
After the storm, the city laid out three priorities – get homes gutted, get debris collected from alongside the roads and get the bridge on FM 2090 between Splendora and Plum Grove repaired. Like Plum Grove Road’s washed-out culvert, the storm caused significant damage to the FM 2090 bridge, forcing a road closure for several months.
“That was our nightmare – having a 42-mile round trip to get from Splendora to Plum Grove. When I was growing up, every time it rained the old-timers would go check the bridge. They had grown up in a time when there was no bridge and they were very proud to have it,” she said. “Thankfully the state of Texas made the $200,000 in repairs. There was no way the city could have paid for that. We just didn’t have it.”
The mayor believes that Harvey gave Southeast Texans a new outlook and helped communities work together more closely.
“The City of Dayton let us borrow some concrete barriers they had because people were continuing to drive over the washed-out culvert on Plum Grove Road. I thought that was very kind of Dayton to help us out. I felt like everyone was pitching in to help Plum Grove,” she said. “Harvey gave us all a new perspective. When you are all drowning together, you don’t really care who reaches out to save you.”