BAYTOWN, Texas — Man may win individual battles against it, but nature always has the upper hand.
As a lifelong Gulf Coast region resident and current Houstonian, believe me. Houston, with its network of lazy bayous and lack of elevation, is a city that really shouldn’t exist where it does and certainly not with as many people as it has. We’ve had more than our share of losses this year and about two centuries of reminders why that’s the case.
East of Houston, the San Jacinto River vanishes into a string of tidal lakes and small bays that are lined with petrochemical terminals. Where those water bodies feed into the larger Galveston Bay estuary system, there’s a peninsula where man gave in after years of battles and finally capitulated to natural forces.
Google Maps still calls the area by its given name, Brownwood. It was a subdivision first platted in the 1930s and 1940s for oil company employees. Homes were built and a neighborhood took shape. The city of Baytown annexed it in the 1960s. It was exclusive, idyllic. The kind of place coastal Texans covet: likely close to work for many residents with backyard gateways to weekend recreation the rest of us travel miles to reach. City historical records show more than 350 homes filled the peninsula by the 1970s, fronting streets with Anytown USA names like Maplewood, Katherine, Crow and Ridgeway.
But there was a problem underfoot, not really unique to Brownwood, coastal Texas or other parts of the world. It was sinking. Some may debate the causes — was it natural or was it a consequence of the groundwater growing metro Houston slurped from underground to satisfy its increasing thirst? Probably, it was a case of one exacerbated by the other.
Whatever it was, the results were becoming frequently apparent. According to the city of Baytown, parts of Brownwood were as much as 15 feet lower than when it was first settled. Water invaded the peninsular neighborhood more than 20 times between the late 1960s and early 1980s. “Repetitive loss” is the term often used today by insurance companies and agencies like FEMA.
Aug. 18, 1983, marked the beginning of the end. Hurricane Alicia, a Category 3 storm, scored a direct hit on Galveston, Houston and surrounding bays. It was a small storm, but its path funneled storm surge into the bay, socking Brownwood with 10 feet of water. It was enough to wash away the will of most residents to rebuild. (Click here for a video taken of the neighborhood more than a year after the hurricane.) That’s when Brownwood’s second chapter began.
Brownwood was officially uninhabitable. By people, that is.
About 20 years ago, the city worked along with area industry to develop the site as a park. That park now is the Baytown Nature Center, a shoreline wetland habitat that has become a pit stop for migrating birds and has attracted other wildlife. There are nature paths, fishing piers and picnic areas — all are minimal disruptions for Brownwood’s new residents.
There are plenty of reminders of Brownwood’s former glory as a neighborhood. Many of its former streets, slowly being taken over by brush, serve as walking paths and some of them have kept their street names. Looking closely, it’s possible to make out what could have been driveway entrances crossing roadside culverts. At the rear of the park, not far from the shoreline, is a manmade hill topped by a pavilion that gives a 360-degree view of the peninsula.
On the walk up the hill, a small marker embedded in the sidewalk shows how much the area has changed. “ORIGINAL ELEVATION” is engraved in the marker, at a point overlooking flowers and marsh grasses that border winding canals that have overtaken former streets and yards, full of leaping fish several feet below.
Nature has taken over. The park has been flooded since it was created, most notably during Hurricane Ike in 2008. The access roads, piers, the kids’ play area were all rebuilt the way man always regroups and rebuilds after disaster. Nature also mended the peninsula on its own timetable, in its own way and definitely without the red tape.
If you go: Baytown Nature Center is open from sunrise to sunset. Admission is $4 for adults, $1 for children and seniors. With admission, you get a daily pass to put on your dashboard and it’s good for re-entry all day.