On December 6 1957, a 10 acre containment area of the Houston Ship Channel–an industrial and petrochemical thoroughfare–ruptured in two places, flooding much of Pleasantville with up to four feet of contaminated sludge that had been previously dredged from the bottom of the ship channel and stored in a settling basin.
The Houston Ship Channel has been dredged throughout its history to make way for ever larger commercial ships. In 1957, it was being dredged to a depth of 36 feet under the management of the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific Company. In the months leading up to the flood, community members had registered their concerns that the 10 acre containment area holding the dredged material was unsanitary and unsafe. Mr. E.D. Mackey, a city policeman and civic worker in the neighborhood had complained that the earthen works of the containment area seemed unsound. His complaint reached the Port of Houston, which responded that the dredging was a project of the Army Corps of Engineers, and therefore not the Port’s concern. Mr. Talmadge Sharp, a prominent community leader and chair of the Pleasantville Civic League at the time, took his concerns to the city councilman, Louis Welch. Sharp “told him I thought it was dangerous and that it was a health hazard, and he referred me to the Harris County Flood Control District.” While Sharp continued to pursue the community’s concerns, being bounced from office to office, jurisdiction to jurisdiction, the Army Corps of Engineers continued to pump contaminated sludge into the containment area.
At 7am on Friday December 6th, two 35 foot long spans of the containment area burst open, sending residents fleeing and forcing some to climb onto their roofs and wait for rescue. Even before the fire department arrived, community members had begun to rescue neighbors who were trapped in their homes. Mr. Talmadge Sharp helped coordinate the city’s response, which eventually included the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the volunteer Mercy Corps, the Harris County Emergency Corps, and the city and county civil defense units. His son, Mr. Cleophus Sharp, recalls: “I went with my father, because he went out into that area where the sludge was coming out of the dam, and it was very frightening for me, as I remember, as 4 or 5 years old, you looked out the car and all you see is sludge, and dirt, water and you didn’t know what else was in it. It was brown, it was a dark brown, and I had never seen anything like it before–it came up to the car door.” Dr. Fennoyee Thomas, then about 12 years old, lived just down the street from the containment area in the newest section of Pleasantville. Her home was inundated with three feet of sludge in the so-called “mud flood.” The lawn of her family’s corner lot had been a particular point of pride, a common feeling in this community often brought together by its Garden Club. Ms. Thomas remembers that even after the flood waters receded, “all these beautiful lawns, beautiful yards that we had were now just black with this tar-like substance. ”
Following the flood, residents immediately began to organize to recover their losses and rebuild their homes. Over 600 residents join together in a meeting convened by the Civic League to itemize their damages and be ready to make a claim once liability is determined. By four days after the flood, residents had secured assurances from the Atlantic, Gulf and Pacific Dredging Company that they would pay out, and the plans were made to shift the dredge site a half mile to the east, and to avoid locating containment areas so close to homes.
Damage to the hundred hardest hit homes was estimated at $500,000. In the end, around $300,000 in damages were claimed–close to $3,000,000 in today’s dollars–to restore the neighborhood.
Listen to Geneva Sharp, one of the neighborhood’s first residents, and her son Cleophus Sharp, recall the 1957 flood and the community response.
To watch this video with transcript, click here.