By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On that day in March, too much water tried to get into the collapsing culverts too quickly. At some point that afternoon, iron manhole covers began to blow, exploding up into the air by the force of the water below. Heavy four-square-foot iron grates floated up like twigs.
When that began to happen—when the culverts were overwhelmed, and the water began shooting up into the air—Peak Creek was reborn. It was above ground again and flexing its muscle, no longer constrained by the culverts, not about to flow where man told it to flow, seeking instead its ancient streambed.
In fact Peak Creek has come back to life every six years or so, probably from the time the culverts were first built. Betz had sued DART over earlier floods and lost. He credits his victory this time to having a better lawyer.
On March 19, 2006, when Peak Creek came raging back to life along the block on my old plat map, it tried to cross the block where nature had always told it to cross, in the original streambed. But a dam was in its way: the DART employee parking garage.
When I visited Betz and his wife in their East Dallas home last week, he pulled from carefully kept files a series of photographs he made the day after the flood: a tape measure shows debris and watermarks which prove that Peak Creek—which isn't even supposed to exist anymore according to DART—rose to a depth of 34 inches above the ground along the alley side of the DART parking garage. It was enough to flood the houses on the other side of the alley along Alcalde Street to a depth of eight inches above floor levels.
Betz owned rent houses on Alcalde, which he has since sold. But he still has friends and in-laws who live on Alcalde, some of whom joined him in his suit.
His mind and memory are sharp. He recalled a bit of testimony for me. He said a DART lawyer confronted him with a statement he had made at some point in the past about floods that had occurred along Alcalde before the garage was built.
"I had said the water was rushing across the property back then," he said, "and they thought that meant it was flooding."
DART wanted to show there had always been floods, even before the garage was built, so it wasn't the fault of the garage that the houses on Alcalde flooded.
Betz explained to the jury that rushing water is a relatively good thing, because it's rushing away. Fast-moving water is falling quickly across the land and therefore won't get deep. It's when something stops the water—dams it up and won't let it rush away—that water rises and creates a flood.
By the way, Betz has only good things to say about the lawyers who represented DART in terms of the way they treated him and spoke to him. He said Gene Gamez, an assistant general counsel for DART, was "a good guy."
Betz's lawyer, Jason Ankele, told me that much of the legal battle did not involve flooding. Ankele was more focused on DART's claim of "sovereign immunity," a principle that protects government agencies from lawsuits except under certain very narrow exceptions.
When I first started writing about Betz's suit two years ago, I said I didn't understand why DART didn't just settle with him and his fellow plaintiffs, who are mainly Hispanic families with modest incomes. But I also know that's easy to say. Some people think government agencies are easy targets for settlements, so there's something to be said for an agency that stoutly defends its coffers.
Morgan Lyons, spokesman for DART, confirmed last week that DART is going to pay Betz and the people on Alcalde the full settlement ordered by the judge after a jury found DART at fault.
I'm not neutral. I am thrilled that Betz won, and I think Ankele is one hell of a smart lawyer. But for me there's a bigger and deeper story—the water. And that one's not just about DART. It's about all of us.
We don't get water any more. We don't understand how water works. We think we have escaped Nature. But have we escaped rain?
City Hall is talking about abandoning major storm-water construction projects approved by the voters in 2006 and using the money instead to fix the levees along the Trinity River. But that will only exacerbate flood issues elsewhere in the city.
Betz, meanwhile, worries that DART is not correcting the flooding problem at its garage and that lives may be lost there in future floods.
I think Roscoe Betz understands flooding—gets it—in part because he's smart, but also because he's 91 years old. He grew up in a world where people could see the water around them.
We can't see it. For the most part we don't get it, even though Nature takes us back to school, again and again. But one way or another, we will learn the lesson. Eventually water goes where it wants to go. Every little chance we get, we need to get out of its way.