The federal government can be held financially liable to hundreds of Hurricane Harvey flood victims because officials knew two reservoirs could flood their Houston-area properties, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

The ruling, by Senior Judge Charles Lettow of the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington, allows the property owners to seek compensation from the US Army Corps of Engineers for their flooded homes and businesses, dealing a blow to the federal government. Hurricane Harvey dumped more than 33 inches of rain over four days in 2017, causing catastrophic flooding in more than 150,000 homes across the region.

The Addicks and Barker reservoirs, west of Houston, were constructed decades ago to protect downtown Houston by retaining floodwaters. But the reservoirs proved inadequate, with water overflowing from federal lands into neighboring properties.


In a 46-page opinion, Lettow said the flooding amounted to the government “taking” the private citizens’ land, since officials have known for decades that private lands would be flooded in a big enough storm. The government had argued during a 10-day trial in May that Harvey was an unprecedented storm, making flooding inevitable.

“Tropical Storm Harvey was a record-setting storm,” the judge wrote. “But the evidence markedly shows that pools of this size and the attendant flooding of private property were, at a minimum, objectively foreseeable. Thus, Harvey’s magnitude does not exculpate the government of liability for its actions.”

Taking the private property would require the government to compensate landowners under the Fifth Amendment. The May trial focused on 13 property owners, standing in for hundreds of other property owners who have sued the government.