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Hurricane Katrina

We still have a lot of broken flood mitigation infrastructure

Did I mention that hurricane season is underway?

As the Atlantic hurricane season arrives Saturday, Harris County leaders say the region remains extremely vulnerable to major storms two years after Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented rains swamped the Houston area, forcing leaders to consider how flood protection projects can be sped up.

Ninety-five percent of the county’s flood control infrastructure damaged by Harvey has yet to be repaired, a testament to the scope of the monster storm and the laggard pace at which the federal government disburses funds. Though the county flood control district has begun projects supported by a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond passed by voters this past August, no major improvements have been completed.

The Harris County Flood Control District made $5 million in emergency fixes in the months following Harvey, such as clearing a dangerous silt build up in waterways leading into Addicks Reservoir. Engineers, however, had to wait for federal aid to begin the bulk of needed repairs.

“We literally could not start the construction before grants were in place because we would not have been reimbursed,” said Alan Black, the district’s director of operations.

[…]

The precarious state of Harris County’s flood control infrastructure leaves the region more vulnerable to storms like Harvey and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, where rainfall rather than high winds posed the greatest danger.

“If we have an exposed area where we’ve had erosion and slope failures, then yes, we’re susceptible to more damage,” Black said. “There’s no doubt about that.” The county has more than 200 sites across its 23 watersheds with eroded banks, collapsed slopes or submerged trees.

The flood control district is relying on three federal grants, totaling $86 million, to fund the repairs. The first appropriation arrived last August; the remaining two were delayed by the 35-day federal government shutdown beginning in December and were not approved until the spring. Now that Harris County has hired construction firms, the flood control district expects to complete the repairs by September 2020, three years after Harvey.

The good news is that we are expecting a modest hurricane season. The bad news, well, you already know what that is. We need some good luck this year, because our shields are down, and they’re going to be down for awhile.

Hurricane season again

As always, we hope for the best.

The National Hurricane Center predicted Thursday that a near-normal Atlantic hurricane season is most likely this year, meaning a likely range of nine to 15 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which four to eight could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including two to four major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher). Hurricane season begins June 1.

A near-normal season, of course, could still be hazardous for southeast Texas residents, who are two years removed from Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that dumped 51 inches of rain in some parts of Greater Houston. That storm damaged 100,000 homes and left around 80 people dead in Texas, most in the Houston-Galveston area.

Matt Lanza, a forecast meteorologist in Houston’s energy sector and the managing editor of the website Space City Weather, said National Hurricane Center predictions are careful not to forecast with certainty. While the likelihood of a “near-normal” hurricane season was assessed at 40 percent, the chance of a season slightly above or below normal was judged to be 30 percent.

“There’s a lot of hedging in there. That’s kind of the reality with these sort of things; hurricane forecasting is not a perfect science yet,” Lanza said. “It’s a good incentive for people to not let their guard down despite a normal to below-normal potential season.”

Experts generally agree that the ongoing El Niño event, in which surface temperatures become warmer than normal in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, portends a quieter hurricane season.

But Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist for Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project, said the intensity of El Niño is subject to debate, and the phenomenon might not suppress hurricane development as much as it did in 2018.

“What (El Niño) does is basically it changes the circulation of the tropics in such a way that you get strong westerly winds that shear and tear apart hurricanes in the Atlantic, and especially in the Caribbean,” Klotzbach said. “The magnitude of the El Niño definitely plays a role; it’s not just that you hit this magical threshold and nothing happens.”

Definitely better to have a “normal” season being forecast than a busy one. This is one of those situations where it’s not just about the quantity, since as we well know it only takes one storm to make it a very bad year. We’re still getting funds related to Harvey – the Lege put up $1.7 billion for flood control, while Congressional Republicans continue to screw around with a national disaster relief bill – so it would be very nice if we could avoid anything nasty this year. Keep your fingers crossed.

Another big flood would be bad

Breaking news, but this is worth paying attention to.

Housing sales would drop, gasoline prices would increase and Texas would lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output if a major storm struck an unprotected coastline, according to a new study.

The joint study by Texas A&M University at Galveston and the Texas General Land Office assesses the storm surge impacts on the three counties along Galveston Bay — Galveston, Harris, and Chambers — and explores how flooding from a severe storm would impact different sectors of the local and national economies.

The study finds that a 500-year storm would result in an 8 percent decrease in Gross State Product by 2066, an $853 billion loss. (A 500-year flood has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Hurricane Harvey was the third such event in the Houston area in three years.)

With a coastal barrier in place, the study found, economic losses would be significantly less harmful. Gross State Product would still decline after a 500-year storm, but only by 2 percent. Housing sales would decrease by 2 percent, while petroleum and chemical output would decline by 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

[…]

The economic outlook for an unprotected Houston-Galveston region ravaged by a storm surge is bleak, the report shows.

Housing sales would decline by nearly 8 percent, a $39.5 billion loss. Revenues in the petrochemical sector would decline by 19 percent, a $175.4 billion loss, while prices on petroleum products would increase by 13 percent.

Nationally, following an unprotected, 500-year surge event in Galveston Bay, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.1 percent lower by the end of the 50-year period, an estimated $863 billion dollar economic decline.

The GLO press release is here, and the website showing the result of various scenarios is here. The Army Corps has recommended a particular plan for a coastal barrier, though some people disagree with the option that was selected. Be that as it may, the point here is that however expensive an Ike Dike may be, the cost of doing nothing is potentially much greater, with long-lasting effects. We have seen very clearly that the “500 year” part of “500 year storm” doesn’t mean what it once did. How much are we willing to risk remaining unprotected when the next one hits?

We’re still figuring out how to do development in a floodplain

From the inbox:

The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium has released dual research reports that examine current standards in the area’s drainage, detention, and development regulations. The reports also include findings that encourage implementation of new and updated flood management infrastructure approaches and regulations to mitigate the risk of future flooding.

According to Consortium Project Manager Christof Spieler, “This research is intended to inform and unite our city and county leadership, development community and residents in planning for our region’s future. Some of the current regulations are not sufficient to address current flood risk and are further compounded by our region’s growth. Taking time to consider how we could benefit from updated regulations isn’t trying to limit that growth, but would set into motion the research and creative solutions required for growing in more resilient ways.”

Research Paper 1: Detention & Drainage Regulations:

According to researchers from Rice University’s SSPEED Center and report contributors Houston Advanced Research Center, as more and more land in and around Houston is developed, runoff and an inability for the land to absorb water from heavy rain events become contributing factors to flooding. The report goes on to identify areas where current detention regulations, which are in place to prevent those negative impacts, may in some situations be allowing new development to increase downstream flooding.

Specifically, the report findings state current regulations, with the biggest impact being from projects of 50 acres or less on greenfield sites:

  • Overestimate the runoff from some undeveloped sites and, as a result, underestimate detention required to maintain current conditions;
  • Use one-size-fits-all drainage formulas that do not reflect the variation in soils, vegetation and topography across the county; and
  • Only address maximum flow rate, not total runoff volume, meaning the cumulative effect of multiple developments can still increase flood levels. Further, downstream flooding can last longer while multi-day events can have a greater impact even if current requirements are met.

Suggestions to improve current regulations:

  • Increase the default minimum detention requirements set by the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District for development sites of all sizes to be a more conservative figure.
  • Allow developers / property owners with sites of any size to provide less than the default minimum detention requirements, provided there is an engineering study, based on field operations, that quantifies pre-development runoff.
  • Install gauges to collect measurable data on runoff in a variety of undeveloped watersheds.
  • Commission engineering studies for the undeveloped portions of Harris County’s major watersheds to understand cumulative effects and determine appropriate parameters.
  • Based on the studies, set specific criteria for the watershed, which could be coordinated across multiple jurisdictions in the watershed.
  • Require evaluation of cumulative effects across entire watersheds.
  • Require evaluation of multi-day events (three, five or seven days) as well as storms lasting a day or less.

Research Paper 2: Development Regulations:

According to the researchers from Kinder Institute for Urban Research Rice UniversityTexas Southern University, and Houston Advanced Research Center, the region can embrace a form of growth and innovation that sees opportunities in rules and systems that encourage resilient growth to avoid placing people and property in harm’s way.

Suggested approach for considering new regulations and policies:

  • Create regulations and policies to ensure both residents and officials understand that there is a range of flood risks both in and outside of current mapped floodplains.
  • Create systems that utilize both green and gray infrastructure elements for public and private infrastructure to maximize our ability to mitigate flooding.
  • Create land use and development policies that minimize future risk and address existing issues rather than relying too much on expensive infrastructure projects.

The report points out that these regulations are instituted and enforced by a variety of jurisdictions and operate within a legal framework set by the Texas Legislature. Changing the framework can require actions at many levels, and no one entity is solely responsible. Keeping the above points in mind and considering best practice research, key report takeaways include:

  • Tailor new developments to avoid at-risk areas in such a way as to keep people and structures from harm’s way and to reduce the number of existing vulnerable residents and structures.
  • Adopt regulations that inform residents about their flood risks and their options to mitigate those risks. This information should be proactively accessible to homeowners and renters both in and out of the mapped floodplains.
  • Provide public funding and programming to assist low-income residents in bringing their older, flood-prone homes up to new standards.
  • Require design standards and development permitting to incorporate broader resilience goals to help facilitate a more resilient region.
  • Implement regulations and design standards to encourage both green and gray infrastructure solutions to maximize our ability to reduce flooding. In order to see their use increased, green infrastructure efforts should be incentivized or even required, as the City of Houston is now studying.
  • Successful stormwater and floodplain management needs to be implemented at the regional level with the cooperation of city, county and regional institutions. Stormwater and floodplain management professionals within these institutions are best suited to put into place new and emerging best practices.
  • Balancing economic goals with regulatory reform can be a struggle. As new data and technology reveal a new picture of flood risks for the Houston region, this balance will likely shift, resulting in the need for a new set of regulatory practices. This report summarizes best practices that are potentially relevant for the Houston region.

A link to both reports can be found at  houstonconsortium.org.

flooding, harvey
See here and here for previous research, and here for the Chron story. I don’t have anything to add, I just hope Commissioners Court and the Lege are paying attention.

Still lots of houses at risk of flooding

This is going to take a long time to really mitigate.

A new study is raising concerns that restrictions on new construction put in place after Hurricane Harvey could leave low-income residents with fewer choices for affordable housing.

More than 475,000 people in Harris County live in multifamily units at risk of flooding, according to the study released Thursday by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. The group includes the University of Houston, the Kinder Institute and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, among others. Even without the flooding risk, units are becoming less and less affordable.

“The issue of flooding and the issue of affordable housing are very connected,” said Christof Spieler, the consortium’s project manager. “We have a lot of Houstonians who are in the difficult position where the housing they can afford is the housing that puts them at risk of flooding.”

In Harris County, 26 percent of all multifamily units — buildings with two or more units — are currently located within a flood-risk area. After Harvey, Houston leaders passed an ordinance known as Chapter 19 that requires elevation for rebuilding in the flood plain. The down side, according to the consortium, is that this requirement may lead to the loss of affordable multifamily units in the floodplain.

“Chapter 19 has the best interests of people in mind, but I just don’t think that we really thought through the potential impact on multifamily units,” said study co-author Susan Rogers, the director of the University of Houston’s Community Design Resource Center. “I don’t think any of us want to encourage apartment owners to continue to renovate and put people in (apartments) clueless of what could happen to them.”

While most of the multifamily units in Houston that are being rebuilt were permitted before the ordinance took effect, researchers heard through focus groups that property owners are worried about what will happen after the next storm.

“If you’re trying to keep affordable units, but safe and not-falling-apart units, you don’t want reputable property owners to either go bankrupt and abandon their properties to the kind of ‘owner of last resort’ who will potentially not bring things back up to where they should be,” said Kyle Shelton, director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute and another of the study’s lead authors.

The press release is here, the full report is here, and Mayor Turner’s response to this report is here. All of the Consortium’s research is here if you need to read more. I don’t have much to add to this, just that if we want to make good policy decisions to fix the mistakes of the past and prevent making more of them in the future, we really need to understand the full scope of the issues. I’m glad we have this group doing that work for it.

Senate presents disaster relief bills

Better late than never, though why they’re late remains a subject of interest.

More than a year and a half after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the state, Texas Senate leaders announced a $1.8 billion trio of disaster relief bills on Wednesday that they said would create “a roadmap to prepare our state for future hurricanes and natural disasters.”

The legislation — Senate Bill 6Senate Bill 7 and Senate Bill 8 — would require the Texas Department of Emergency Management to create a disaster response plan for local officials, direct the state’s water planning agency to devise a statewide flood plan and create a “resiliency fund” to support flood projects.

Flanked by senators who represent Harvey-impacted districts, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick acknowledged at a Capitol news conference that storm-ravaged communities have been waiting for a long time to see what the state might do to help them recover. But Patrick and the senators who authored the bills emphasized in their Wednesday remarks that the result was the product of “a lot of thought and input” and is the best possible outcome.

“We said at the time [of the storm] we would dedicate ourselves to helping people rebuild their homes, their businesses, their communities and do all we could to mitigate,” Patrick said.

[…]

Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican who authored SB 7, which would create the flood infrastructure fund, described the package as the “most comprehensive, forward-reaching approach that any state has offered following a disaster.”

His bill is the most expensive of the three. It would withdraw $900 million from the state’s historically flush Economic Stabilization Fund to help local officials put up the so-called “matching dollars” they’ll need to draw down billions more in federal recovery funds.

That’s far less than the $1.3 billion that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked for on behalf of all 55 Harvey-impacted counties to help with local matching funds. He has said that would draw down another $11 billion in federal dollars for debris removal, for repairs of storm-battered government facilities, and to harden public and private structures so they can better withstand future storms.

A similar bill Creighton filed in early February would allocate $3 billion from the state’s emergency savings account for the fund. But he said in an interview after the news conference that the total price tag of the projects local communities have told the state they want to complete is less than that.

Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who also spoke at Wednesday’s news conference, said about $200 million of the $900 million allocated under SB 7 would go to draw down federal funds for a multibillion-dollar project to construct nearly 27 miles of coastal levees in southern Orange County and to shore up nearly 30 miles of existing coastal levees in Port Arthur and Freeport. That project is a significant component of a larger coastal protection system that local officials and scientists have long envisioned to safeguard the state from deadly storm surges during hurricanes.

We can certainly debate whether or not there should have been a special session to get all this done. For now, this is what is on the table. I’m going to wait and see what the experts have to say about these bills before I draw any conclusions. Feel free to chime in if you have opinions already.

Flood tunnel study funds

Could be cool.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is set to receive a $320,000 federal grant to study the feasibility of constructing deep underground tunnels to move stormwater to the Houston Ship Channel without overburdening the area’s bayous.

The grant, from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, will fund a four-month investigation to determine whether such tunnels would be a practical and cost-effective addition to the county’s long-term flood protection strategy. The flood control district has begun work on scores of projects funded by the $2.5 billion flood bond approved last summer, though none to date include underground tunnels.

“The study is basically to look at our ground conditions, including our groundwater table, and compare that to existing technology in the tunnel industry to see if there’s a match,” said Russ Poppe, executive director of the flood control district. “If that’s true, then we can start looking at costs, routes and opportunities we can potentially pursue.”

[…]

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, raised no objection to studying the tunnel idea but said he worries that pursuing the proposal could become a boondoggle that siphons money from other, more urgent priorities.

“It’s one of those big dream projects that may take us away from much more reasonable short-term projects,” Blackburn said. “I doubt the feasibility of it.”

See here and here for the background. Looks like we were originally going to get that study last year, but for whatever the reason it didn’t happen. If it’s going to happen this time, it will be after the next Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, when they will vote on approving the study and ponying up $80K in matching funds. I’ll check back with it afterward.

Climate change and hurricanes

We’re living it now.

Photo: NOAA/NASA GOES-16

A group of top hurricane experts, including several federal researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, published striking new research Thursday, suggesting that hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean have grown considerably worse and that climate change is part of the reason why.

The study focused on rapid intensification, in which hurricanes may grow from a weak tropical storm or Category 1 status to Category 4 or 5 in a brief period. They found that the trend has been seen repeatedly in the Atlantic in recent years. It happened before Hurricane Harvey struck Texas and before Hurricane Michael pummeled the Gulf Coast with little warning last fall. Hurricane Michael, for example, transformed from a Category 1 into a raging Category 4 in the span of 24 hours.

The study, published in Nature Communications, describes its conclusion in blunt language, saying the Atlantic already has seen “highly unusual” changes in rapid hurricane intensification, compared to what models would predict from natural swings in the climate. That led researchers to conclude that climate change played a significant role.

“Natural variability cannot explain the magnitude of the observed upward trend,” they wrote. The research was led by Kieran Bhatia, who conducted the research as a graduate researcher at Princeton University and NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.

“There’s just a whole host of issues that come along with rapid intensification, and none of them are good,” said Jim Kossin, one of the study’s authors and a hurricane expert with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The increase in prevalence of rapidly intensifying storms, Kossin said, means both that there are more strong storms overall and that there are more risky situations near land.

“Rapid intensification is exceedingly dangerous because people, they’re not warned adequately, they’re not prepared, many of them don’t evacuate,” he said.

The findings come in the wake of two of the most damaging years for hurricanes and other extreme events. In 2017, according to NOAA figures, the United States saw $306 billion in disaster losses, largely driven by Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma. In 2018, Hurricanes Florence and Michael were major factors in a $91 billion damage total.

You can see the study here. People can believe whatever they want to believe about climate change. We’re going to experience the effects of it regardless.

Is there a better way to predict flooding?

This startup thinks so.

An artificial intelligence startup now says it can provide that warning. The company, One Concern, has announced that it can predict whether your block will flood — and if so, by how much — five days in advance of an incoming storm.

Founded by Stanford University graduates, the startup has launched a flood forecasting product called Flood Concern meant to give leaders hyperlocal predictions of where flooding will occur, allowing them to swiftly prepare and respond. High on its roster of potential clients is the Houston area, which lost over a hundred lives and suffered billions in damage last year during Hurricane Harvey.

The startup has begun approaching city officials and leaders in Houston’s private sector about bringing the technology to the region.

“They’re interested in multiple use cases, all the way from planning to responding,” One Concern CEO Ahmed Wani said of the discussions. Texas A&M University has already partnered with One Concern in anticipation of the potential benefits for the region.

“The use of artificial intelligence is potentially a game changer,” said Tony Knap, associate director of A&M’s Superfund Research Center. “It’s a different way of looking at things.”

Artificial intelligence allows computers to look for patterns from past events to predict what will happen in the future. Predictions become more accurate as the system collects more data — the Superfund Research Center is contributing data about hazardous chemicals so that a flood analysis can also understand potential health concerns.

“The aim is to get the prediction correct,” Knap said. “And artificial intelligence is something that we don’t use and they do. So if that can inform the model … it’s good for Houston.”

[…]

Eric Berger, a meteorologist whose forecasts on the Space City Weather website drew 1 million page views a day during Hurricane Harvey, said he could imagine artificial intelligence providing realistic worst-case scenarios for incoming storm systems. But he is skeptical of One Concern’s claim that it can predict flooding on a block-by-block basis.

To illustrate his point, he described a storm he was tracking that Tuesday afternoon that would hit Southeast Texas Friday night. Most of the region would likely see 2 to 4 inches of rain, but certain pockets could receive up to 8 — and those pockets would have a chance of flooding.

But where would they be?

“Three days before this heavy rainfall event, we can say this area is ripe for rain,” Berger said. “We could say that Harris County is at a greater risk than Galveston County. But to specify it even on a city-by-city basis is not possible. … There’s not the underlying meteorological data to support it.”

Here’s One Concern’s press release. As the story notes, Google is working in this space as well, though their claims aren’t as bold. I tend to agree with Berger that the data isn’t there for predictions this granular, but I like the direction they’re going, and I hope they can provide some value now, even if it’s not quite what they hope to achieve.

Of course we could have done more on flood mitigation before now

From the Chron: Harris County faces challenge, opportunity managing $2.5B flood bond program. I want to focus on this bit.

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, estimates the bond program will complete a third of the flood protection measures Harris County needs. He said leadership from the incoming Commissioners Court, which now will be dominated by Democrats and include a new county judge and Precinct 2 commissioner, will be essential to getting the county the rest of the way.

“We are in a good position, but it’s not an end position,” Blackburn said. “It’s the beginning for the conversation that needs to occur, which is, ‘where are we headed?’”

[…]

The flood control district has issued bonds several times to pay for improvements, including $425 million in the 1980s, but by the 1990s was spending half its revenue on debt service. The district downsized its workforce and opted to pay for future projects up front, which significantly decreased the county’s investment in flood protection to around $15 million per year.

In 2001, after Tropical Storm Allison flooded 73,000 county homes, Harris County significantly increased the district’s funding to $120 million, split evenly between operations and capital projects. That annual sum has remained the same since then, its purchasing power diminished each year by inflation.

Blackburn said Commissioners Court and local members of Congress during this period focused too narrowly on building transportation infrastructure to keep pace with rapid population growth, at the expense of flood control.

“We were, basically, more interested in building the Grand Parkway than we were in fixing Addicks and Barker,” Blackburn said, referring to the west Houston reservoirs the Army Corps listed in 2009 among the most dangerous in the country.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett acknowledged in September that the county could have done more on flood protection in the decade before Harvey, but said he doubted the public would have supported a bond to pay for it.

“Sure, you could say the leader is supposed to get out in front,” Emmett said. “But people were not writing me saying we’ve got to raise taxes and do more for flood control.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, the longest-serving member of the court, predicted a flood bond proposal during the dry years of the 2010s would have gone down in “sizzling defeat.” He rejected the idea that commissioners erred by neglecting to increase the district’s budget in the past.

“There are people who believe we’ve underfunded indigent health care, underfunded roads, underfunded basically every single thing,” he said. “You’ll never be able to make everyone happy.”

In the nine years between Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey, Commissioners Court kept the flood control district property tax rate at roughly 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, less than 5 percent of the overall county tax rate. That figure omits about 2 cents the county carries on its books in the form of debt service on old flood control bonds.

The rate devoted to flood control was two and a half times higher from 1995 through 2000; it took until this year for rising property values to let the district collect more in property taxes — its main revenue source — than it did in 2000.

It was not until Harvey, the wettest storm researchers have ever documented in the United States, that Commissioners Court members saw the urgency in funding the flood control district.

Would it have been difficult to sell a flood control bond ten or fifteen years ago, after Allison but before we started getting walloped on an annual basis? Probably, but you know, Commissioners Court could have tried. They could have engaged with the public about the need to take flood control seriously, and upgrade and improve our infrastructure to do it, and they could have done that even outside the context of a two-month political campaign for a bond. They could have supported other policies that would have boosted flood control efforts. And if they had done these things and encountered resistance, and maybe lost a flood bond referendum and even put their own political careers in jeopardy, well, that’s the nature of public service. As John Culberson can testify, there are downside risks to not taking that kind of action.

Also, too: People, such as Jim Blackburn, have been warning for decades that rampant sprawl into the western and northwestern parts of the county, and the paving over of the Katy Prairie that accommodated it, were bad for flood control. We could have made different choices, including choices that allowed for growth but prioritized growth in a more sustainable fashion. The fact that we’re getting the bill for it now doesn’t mean we couldn’t have taken action then.

Also, too, too: I’ve said this before, but maybe these stories should include reactions and quotes and whatnot from our incoming county executives? You know, the ones who are going to have to take the next steps in this process? Just a thought.

More floodplain buyouts

Gonna keep seeing more of these.

Fifteen months after Hurricane Harvey flooded more than 200,000 area homes and apartments, Harris County has begun purchasing homes in the floodplain using funds voters overwhelmingly approved in this summer’s $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

Using matching funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Harris County in the past month has purchased 12 homes. For this program, which combines local and federal dollars, the Harris County Flood Control District has used $53 million in bond funds to secure $159 million from FEMA. Another 512 homes are in the buyout process, and up to 400 more could be purchased using this funding source.

James Wade, director of the flood control district’s buyout program, said his staff aims to leverage local funding to secure federal dollars, which lessens the burden for Harris County taxpayers. Homes the county is targeting for buyouts are so susceptible to flooding that engineers have concluded the cost to protect them cannot be justified.

“There’s no practical flood control project that can save them,” Wade said.

Over the course of the decade-long bond program, the flood control district plans to use around $180 million in local funding, plus $550 million from federal partners, to purchase as many as 3,600 buildings in the floodplain. That total would more than double the number of homes the flood control district’s buyout program has purchased in its 33-year history.

Harris County plans to focus many of the buyouts on the San Jacinto River watershed, though the dozen homes purchased to date include properties on Vince Bayou, White Oak Bayou, Cypress Creek and Vogel Creek.

Not much to add to this. Buyouts are a necessary tool in the kit, but they’re also necessarily going to be limited in scope. I’m curious what our incoming County Judge thinks about the progress of this program, but it will remain a mystery to me, as she was not quoted in the story.

What to do with the county courthouse?

Seems like a problem.

More than 15 months after flooding from Hurricane Harvey shuttered Houston’s 20-story criminal courthouse, county leaders say they will begin in January on the first phase of a multi-part $86 million restoration project, which won’t be finished until 2020.

But there is no timetable for the most ambitious part of the project — not scheduled to begin until June 2019 – that would greatly expand the chronically-crowded lobby areas, add more elevators and move critical building machinery out of the basement.

The extensive flood damage to the downtown skyscraper at 1201 Franklin has forced the relocation of hundreds of attorneys and staffers from the courthouse offices of the district attorney, public defenders office and other county departments to far-flung buildings across the city. The closure also forced dozens of courts to locate in other county courthouses, generally doubling up with courts that weren’t damaged, which has disrupted trials and clogged dockets.

The damage has also reignited the debate over the wisdom of making repairs to the critical court complex on the banks of a flood-prone Buffalo Bayou.

“We can’t possibly ask tax payers to foot the bill for redesigning the Criminal Justice Center without knowing the exact cause of the repeated flooding, and what is being done to stop it from happening yet again,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said Friday. “We have to object.”

[…]

“Things are progressing far slower than they should and the direction the county is going is just patchwork, not a long-term solution,” said Chris Tritico, a prominent attorney who has proposed converting the courthouse into an office tower. “We need a long-term solution that will keep us from having to do this again in a few years.”

Tritico’s proposal would be to build a new criminal courthouse across the street where the outdated family law courthouse now stands. That courthouse, which has been deemed a fire hazard because it lacks a sprinkler system, was scheduled for demolition. After the storm, it was pressed into service and now hosts docket calls and jury trials because the main courthouse remains largely unusable.

Tritico said repeated catastrophic flooding, along with long-standing design problems including a small lobby and limited elevator capacity, makes the building unworkable for the hundreds of residents coming who use it every day. The courthouse, which opened in 2000, was closed for a year of repairs after it was damaged by floods during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

“The problem with the Harris County Criminal Courthouse, besides the flooding, is that it’s just not functional,” said the attorney, who is part of the county committee to study the courthouse repairs. “The population of Harris County is increasing, not decreasing, so the number of people coming in that building every morning is going to increase. Until somebody takes a look at that problem, it will always be a problem.”

The fact that no one can say why the building flooded during Harvey is a problem, since if you don’t know the cause you can’t say with any certainty that it won’t happen again. The building has to be downtown near the jails, so relocation options are limited. In the meantime, court is being held all over the place. Good luck getting your arms around this one, Lina Hidalgo.

Will we build the right Ike Dike?

Not everyone thinks the best design was chosen.

Jim Blackburn, a Rice professor and co-director of [Rice] university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, says the Corps’ initial Ike Dike study was incomplete because it did not account for the more powerful storms that have swept through the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean in recent years. The Corps’ coastal plan, called the Ike Dike, is named for the 2008 hurricane that caused more than $30 billion in damages to the Houston-Galveston region.

Hurricanes more powerful than Ike, including Harvey, Irma and Maria all in 2017, had unique characteristics rarely seen in major storms, Blackburn said.

“The storms that are being analyzed by the Corps are, in my opinion, too small,” Blackburn said. “They’re just not making landfall at the worst locations, with the type of wind fields and characteristics we’re seeing. I can’t remember if it was (Hurricanes) Irma or Maria, it was an Ike-like storm with Category 5 winds. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Larry Dunbar, a project manager at the SSPEED Center, added that the modeling system the Corps used to predict the effects of storms on its proposed barrier was outdated and that the study did not account for the worst possible storm tracts that could hit the Houston area.

“We said we’re using the updated information because that’s what we do, and (the Army Corps of Engineers) said, ‘That’s fine, we’re gonna use the old model because that’s what the flood insurance study work was based on and we want to be consistent with that,’” Dunbar said. “I can’t argue with that, but we at least now know what’s the difference between the two models, what effect it has, its effect on larger storms, you know it, I know it.”

Blackburn also believes the Corps’ proposed barrier leave parts of Harris County — most notably the Port of Houston and the sprawling industrial and petrochemical facilities along Galveston Bay — vulnerable.

“We think that there is too much remaining surge exposure, and it’s a valid concern, both with regard to the ship channel, to the Bayport Industrial Complex and with regard to the Clear Lake area,” Blackburn said.

The Corps’ alternative proposal includes a navigation gate placed along the Houston Ship Channel and smaller gates built near Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou, but does not go as far as the SSPEED Center’s proposal for a mid-bay gate to protect Galveston Bay.

The Galveston Bay Park plan, first proposed by the SSPEED Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the Corps proposal for protecting Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, but adds a vital component: a 25-foot, mid-bay barrier system that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Blackburn views the mid-bay gate as part of a bifurcated system — an internal barrier and a coastal barrier — that would not preclude the Ike Dike concept favored by the Corps and political leadership on the local, state and federal levels. He called the gate a “highly complementary” feature to the extensive barrier the Corps put forth, but one that could be built in half the time at a fraction of the cost — estimated from $3 billion to $5 billion.

“We think this alternative needs to be permitted,” Blackburn said. “We’re going to be urging Harris County to investigate filing a permit application. We are going to argue that to any governmental entity that is interested. I think we need options. If all of our eggs are in a $30 billion federal appropriation, that just sounds too risky to me.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the documents that are up for public review. There are a series of public meetings scheduled for this, and you can offer your own feedback at one of them, via email to CoastalTexas@usace.army.mil, or via good old fashioned snail mail to:

USACE, Galveston District, Attn: Ms. Jennifer Morgan, Environmental Compliance Branch, Regional Planning and Environmental Center, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston, TX 77553-1229

Deadline for snail mail is January 9. Whatever the best solution is, I hope everyone who wants to have a say does so, and that the Army Corps listens to Professors Blackburn and Dunbar.

We have an Ike Dike plan

Now we need a plan to pay for it.

A decade after Hurricane Ike devastated the Texas Gulf Coast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that a more ambitious version of the proposed “Ike Dike” — a 70-mile-long coastal barrier that could cost as much as $31 billion — is the preferred choice for protecting the state’s coastline from future storm surges.

The decision moves the project closer to ultimately being built, but leaves unanswered how to pay for it, especially with the estimated cost skyrocketing to between $23 billion and $31 billion — two to three times above original estimates.

The option backed by the Army Corps and the Texas General Land Office is similar to the original “Ike Dike” proposal developed by researchers at Texas A&M University in Galveston after Ike hammered southeast Texas in 2008, with some subtle differences.

“This study actually incorporates both coastal storm risk management features and ecosystem restoration features up and down the coast and some coastal storm risk management down on South Padre (Island),” said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project manager for the Army Corps’ study. “It’s a comprehensive study so it’s looking at the entire coast of Texas, much bigger than the Ike Dike per se.”

[…]

The coastal barrier would be a system of levees and sea gates beginning on high ground north of High Island and running the length of the Bolivar Peninsula. It would then cross the entrance of Galveston Bay and extend the length of Galveston Island, incorporating the existing seawall. It would end at San Luis Pass.

At the entrance to Galveston Bay, a system of storm surge gates would be constructed to protect the coastline during storm events but otherwise allow for navigation to the ports of Galveston, Texas City and Houston. A large navigation gate would also be placed along the ship channel. These gates are modeled after similar structures in London on the River Thames and on the coast of the Netherlands.

A “ring levee” would also be placed around Galveston to protect the bayside of the island, a densely populated area, from surge and flood waters. Gates and other barriers would be built near Clear Creek as well as Dickinson, Offatts and Highland bayous.

The plan also includes beach and dune restoration along the lower Texas coast, and nine ecosystem restoration projects to increase resilience.

Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University Galveston professor who proposed the Ike Dike concept more than nine years ago, noted some minor differences between his original plan and the one backed by the two agencies.

Merrell’s plan included a gate at San Luis Pass, which is south of Galveston, and a mix of gray and green infrastructure along the coast, most notably a series of 17-foot high dunes on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston in lieu of a seawall. Built after the catastrophic 1900 Galveston hurricane, the 17-foot-high seawall spared the island from many storms but was overtopped by Ike’s storm surge and waves.

He also did not include any protection for High Island, nor a ring levee around Galveston, which he called an “extreme” measure that would require a sophisticated pumping system in the event of heavy rains.

“It’s a fishbowl effect. You have to pump it, and if your pumps work, you’re happy, and if your pumps don’t work, you drown,” Merrell said. “You’d have to pour a lot of maintenance money into it.”

Burks-Copes said that dunes and beach nourishment are “still in play” as options for Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula as opposed to a more hardened barrier.

See here for the background, here for the four alternatives that were under consideration, here for the plan that was chosen, and here for the related documents for public review. I just want to stress that the federal government absolutely, 100%, no questions asked can afford this. We may need to chisel back a tiny portion of the massive giveaway to the rich known as the Trump tax cuts to make us feel like we can afford it, but we can afford it. What we can’t afford is to do nothing.

City seeks more Harvey recovery funds

Good. Seek all you can.

The City of Houston is preparing to ask Congress for $2 billion more to help residents whose homes were damaged by Hurricane Harvey — a request likely to coincide with lawmakers’ consideration of aid to victims of hurricanes Florence and Michael, which devastated sections of North Carolina and Florida.

The city is basing its request on a new study that departs from the traditional method of calculating need. The difference boils down to who gets counted.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development looks at recipients of individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to determine how much additional aid is needed. Houston’s study includes many more people affected by Harvey’s flooding, whether or not they applied for aid from FEMA.

“We’re chronically undercounting the most vulnerable populations,” said Tom McCasland, director of the Houston Housing and Community Development Department. “That’s why it’s important not to start with FEMA.”

[…]

Houston based its analysis on flood modeling that uses data points such as drone imagery of the storm and flooding. The city’s Housing and Community Development Department now has maps of every lot and building in the city with blue shading representing areas that were likely submerged.

Houston’s analysis also considered factors such as the building’s size and the lot’s surface permeability to calculate the likely damage caused to the home and its contents.

The conclusion: Harvey inflicted $16 billion of residential damage on the city, $3.1 billion of which the city believes meets HUD’s criteria for unmet need. That’s about $2 billion more than the amount HUD is already sending for unmet housing needs in Houston.

HUD may or may not buy the city’s calculations, but there’s no harm in trying. As McCasland says in the piece, the data the city will generate from putting the request together will be beneficial in itself.

Army Corps to present Ike Dike options

About time.

Later this month, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will recommend a multi-billion-dollar plan to help protect the Texas coast — the Houston area in particular — from hurricanes. When it will become a reality, however, is anyone’s guess.

The more than 200-year-old agency — in partnership with the Texas General Land Office — embarked on the largest study in its history in 2014 to determine how best to guard the Bayou City and other coastal communities from devastating storm surge.

Four years later, the agency has devised four proposals for the Houston area; it will announce which one it thinks is best on Oct. 26 and open a 75-day public comment period, according to Kelly Burks-Copes, a project manager at the Army Corps’ Galveston District.

The plans are distinctly different — one of them has an alternate variation — but all include a mixture of new levees, improvements to existing levees and seawalls and the installation of so-called “navigation” gates, which would be closed ahead of storms to protect densely populated areas southeast of Houston and the city’s port — home to the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the nation, which saw significant flooding during Hurricane Harvey — from the deadly swells generated by a hurricane’s strong winds. That storm surge can result in major flooding even before a storm makes landfall.

One of the plans calls for the construction of a 17-foot-high levee along the entirety of Galveston Island, which is about 27 miles long, and the barrier island to its north, Bolivar Peninsula — a concept that has been dubbed the “coastal spine.” Another includes a levee through most of Bolivar but not Galveston. Others call for the construction of new levees and floodwalls further inland. All the plans include the installation of navigation gates in various places and the construction of a so-called “ring levee” around the heart of the Galveston that would protect the island’s backside from retreating storm surge.

Here’s the study. The four proposals are:

Alternative A: Coastal Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Galveston Ring Levee
Alternative B: Coastal Barrier (Modified)
Alternative C: Mid Bay Barrier
Alternative D: Upper Bay Barrier/Nonstructural System, with or without a Bay Rim

Click over to read what they mean. There are also nine Ecosystem Restoration proposals to go along with this. As the story notes, both the original “Ike Dike” idea, proposed in 2008, and the more recent SSPEED Centennial Gate, or maybe the even more recent mid-bay gate, I’m honestly not sure, are in the running. Like I said, go see for yourself what’s on the table. One winner will emerge, and we’ll get a public comment period after that, and then we just need to solve the trivial problem of funding. No big deal, right?

Who’s ready for a new flood plain map?

It’s coming, but don’t hold your breath waiting for it.

More than a year after Hurricane Harvey showed the Houston area’s floodplain maps were outdated and inaccurate, Harris County is prepared to begin the years-long process of drawing new maps.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday agreed to accept $6.5 million in federal FEMA funds to complement $8 million in local dollars to create new maps, to be completed by 2023.

“We’re excited about that, and it’s going to be a big undertaking,” said Russ Poppe, executive director of the Harris County Flood Control District. He added the county has already begun the search for contractors.

[…]

[County Judge Ed Emmett] said the redefined floodplains will be essential to planning future development and assessing flood risk in communities. For years, he said government and private developers failed to keep track of where creeks and bayous drained, and where water flowed when waterways crested their banks.

The re-drawn maps also will allow the county to more fairly enforce its new floodplain building codes. In the year after Harvey, Houston and Harris County added new requirements for floodplain development.

The county’s flood control district hopes to hire contractors through the end of the year to begin work in January. Director of Operations Matt Zeve said engineers hope to complete the new maps, which will cover nearly 800 miles of waterways, by 2023.

As the story notes, a large number of properties that flooded during Harvey were outside the official flood plain. For obvious reasons, having an accurate map is a necessary thing. The last modification was begun in 2001 and took six years, so things have improved a bit since then.

Harvey and the Congressional races

This was from a couple of days ago.

Dayna Steele

A year ago this week, Dayna Steele was standing in 29 inches of water inside her Seabrook home. Her family had already made it through Hurricane Ike in 2008, when the water in her home had come up even higher. Nearly nine years later, Hurricane Harvey would once again force Steele to rebuild.

But this time around, Steele was also a candidate for Congress. She had filed months earlier as a Democrat to challenge U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, in a historically Republican district that stretches northwest from Houston across eight counties. In the days and weeks after the storm, as she heard about the worry and confusion from others in the region, Steele found it amplified her desire to represent her community in Congress.

“We still have entirely too many blue tarps, empty homes,” said Steele, who still sees local residents living in trailers parked in the driveways of their damaged homes. “It’s still a big issue.”

A year after one of the worst storms in the state’s history, Steele is one of several Texas congressional candidates emphasizing Harvey as a key issue heading into November, honing in on the details of its aftermath, the region’s long-term recovery and whether enough is being done to prepare for when the next major hurricane arrives.

Steele’s opponent, Babin, was also personally impacted by Harvey. For a few hours, he and his family were stuck in their Woodville home due to flooding in their neighborhood. Three months later, Babin was a part of a group of Texans in Congress who teamed up to secure more Harvey relief after an initial proposal put forth by the White House was criticized as too small by many Texans.

Steele said when she travels around the district, she hears from voters that they either don’t know who Babin is or say they never saw him in the aftermath of the storm.

Babin, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has tweeted multiple timesabout his push to send additional federal aid to Texas. Recently Babin, along with other Houston-area congressional members, met with Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, to discuss giving more money to the Army Corps for “future flood mitigation.” The congressman also tweeted that he toured disaster areas with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan in the storm’s immediate aftermath.

A similar back and forth — challengers accusing the incumbent of not being physically present after the storm or fighting hard enough for relief funding and the incumbent insisting otherwise — is emerging in multiple races in Harvey-impacted districts.

“The lack of response from our representative is visceral,” said Sri Kulkarni, a Democrat vying to unseat U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land. The prevailing sentiment from constituents in the Republican-leaning 22nd Congressional District, Kulkarni argued, is that “Pete Olson was absent on Harvey.”

That recent Atlantic story on CD07 covered this in the context of Lizzie Fletcher’s campaign. She and Todd Litton in CD02 have different challenges in their races; Fletcher is attacking John Culberson for basically doing nothing before Harvey to help with flood mitigation, while Litton has not incumbent to run against. As I said in that post, it makes sense to make Harvey response and recovery a campaign issue. The Republicans were in charge of the government when Harvey happened, so what happened after that is on them. How effective that will be is not clear. I’d love to see some polling data on that, but even if we never get to see such numbers, I’d bet that the candidates themselves have explored the question.

We ultimately may or may not ever know what if any effect the Harvey issue has. If an incumbent gets knocked off, there may be some followup reporting that sheds light on it, but if a race is just closer than one might have expected – Dayna Steele, running in a 70% Trump district, has a lot of room to gain ground without winning, for instance – we may never get an examination of why. Most likely the best we’ll be able to do is draw our own conclusions from the data that we get to see.

Galveston, ten years after Ike

Overall things are better now, but not for everyone, and nothing can ever truly be the same as before.

Galveston has a long and storied history dealing with epic storms, and the destruction Hurricane Ike wrought was no different — a Category 2 storm that battered the island and the Texas Gulf Coast with 100 mile-per-hour winds and 17-foot storm surges, killing 43 people across the state and causing nearly $30 billion worth of damage, the third-costliest storm in U.S. history.

A decade later, post-Ike Galveston looks a bit different. Island landmarks like the Flagship Hotel and Balinese Room, which sat perched on piers overlooking the Gulf of Mexico off of Seawall Boulevard, have been demolished, casualties of the storm surge that leveled parts of the island.

University of Texas Medical Branch, the island’s main hospital and a huge employer, underwent $1 billion worth of updgrades to make it more resilient to major storms, but also ceased providing indigent care.

Galveston’s beaches were restored with 500,000 cubic meters of sand, and tourism rebounded after a sluggish few years in Ike’s wake. In 2007, Galveston raked in $7.5 million dollars in hotel tax revenue from June through August. By 2012, the island exceeded that total with $8.3 million in hotel receipts.

Eighty percent of the city’s homes and much of its critical infrastructure were damaged by Ike’s high winds and devastating flooding, forcing building code changes that led many residents on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston’s West End to raise their homes on stilts. The city’s population has about 50,550 residents today, per 2016 U.S. Census estimates, still shy of the 57,000 from before the storm.

[…]

And yet a vast swath of vacant land dotted with palm trees on the north side of Galveston, where the Oleander Homes, a public housing complex, used to sit, serves to remind that the legacy of Ike did not reach its most vulnerable populations.

The 10 to 15-foot waves that laid waste to single-family and vacation homes also damaged the island’s four public housing developments — located in low-income neighborhoods with high percentages of people of color. Four months after the storm, the Galveston Housing Authority decided to demolish all four developments — 569 housing units — due to extensive damage to the buildings.

Under a state and federal government mandate, the city is required to rebuild every unit, but fewer than half of the units have been reconstructed — delayed by a toxic combination of bureaucratic red tape, racially-tinged public outcry, political inaction and the housing authority’s lack of financial capital to manage and maintain the new housing.

“It’s just tragic that a decade after the disaster when the money has been available for all of that time that most of the public housing has not yet been rebuilt,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service, a statewide housing advocacy group.

There were serious concerns about UTMB’s ability to exist after Ike. It’s a major employer for the city, so the fact that it’s still there is a big deal. I’d still be very concerned about Galveston’s future – not to mention the future of much of the rest of the Gulf Coast – until some form of the Ike Dike gets built. After Harvey and Maria and Irma and Florence I have to wonder what else needs to happen to get that approved, but here we are anyway. I’m rooting for Galveston, but in a very real sense we’re all in the same boat with them.

What’s a little toxic waste among friends?

No big deal, right?

On the plus side…

The criteria Texas uses to determine how much — and whether — to clean up abandoned industrial facilities, waste dumps and other polluted sites are so lax that they may allow residential homes to be built in areas that neighboring states wouldn’t even consider safe for factories or oil refineries.

That’s according to a report by the Texas Campaign for the Environment Fund set to be released on Tuesday that compares benchmarks for more than 80 different pollutants that Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi and Oklahoma use to determine whether a site is contaminated enough to warrant cleanup and how much pollution should be removed from the soil or water there before it can be re-developed.

The overarching conclusion of the report: Texas’ formulas are “substantially weaker” than those used by almost every nearby state, in part because it tolerates a greater risk of cancer. That means that some polluted Texas sites that would be eligible for cleanup in other states may not be eligible here — and if the state does decide to clean them up, it may not remove as much pollution as its neighbors.

While some neighboring states — namely Arkansas and Oklahoma — rely on federal criteria, Texas uses its own benchmarks. Overall, they are so weak that Texas allows “pollution concentrations on land designated for residential uses that Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Mississippi wouldn’t even restrict to industrial uses,” the report found.

For example, Texas’ cleanup rules say that the ground at residential properties should contain no more than 69 milligrams of the carcinogenic petrochemical benzene for every 1 kilogram of soil; Louisiana, meanwhile, only allows 3.1 milligrams of benzene per kilogram of soil — and that’s for sites intended for industrial use.

The report comes a year after heavy rains from Hurricane Harvey flooded many polluted sites in the Houston area, sparking concerns about contaminants leaching into homes and waterways. And statewide, rapid urban revitalization and population growth means many contaminated sites are being remediated and redeveloped for both commercial and residential use.

You can see that report here. This right here is the reason why uniform federal standards are needed for some things. I don’t know about you, but I would not want to find out some day that the house I bought in some spiffy new development in, say, 2019, turned out to be in the 21st century version of Love Canal. Maybe if we insist on keeping the feds at bay we could elect some state leaders who cared about this sort of thing? Just a suggestion.

Emmett speaks post-bond

With the flood bond referendum safely passed, we now turn to what comes next.

Land and housing preservation is key to the Houston region becoming more resilient, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday, on the heels of last weekend’s vote that approved a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

“We need to not fight with nature, we need to live with nature and allow those areas to be green that need to be green, and frankly, allow those areas to be wet that need to be wet and not try and change that,” Emmett said during a luncheon presentation to members of the local chapter of the Urban Land Institute.

Emmett specifically called for the Katy Prairie, a vast area encompassing much of western Harris and eastern Waller counties, to be maintained and expanded.

“I think that’s a very easy one for the federal government or the state to declare as a nature preserve and just set it aside and move on,” he told the crowd of several hundred developers and real estate professionals in the ballroom of the Junior League of Houston.

[…]

The challenges brought by Harvey will give city and county leaders the opportunity to make positive changes as it recovers, he said.

One such improvement: a better system of urban governance.

If unincorporated Harris County was a city it would be the fifth largest in the U.S.

“We cannot continue to do that,” Emmett said. “We have got to find a way for city for Houston and Harris County to come up with a new structure of urban governance. “I view Harvey as kick-starting a lot of these conversations.”

Preserving the Katy Prairie and other green space was one of the topics I covered with Judge Emmett when I interviewed him about the bond referendum. I agree this is a high priority and I’m glad to hear Emmett talk that way, but let’s be clear that there’s a lot less of it to preserve now than there was 20 or 30 years ago, before Katy Mills and the Grand Parkway were built. We can’t turn back the clock, but the fact that there’s far less of that open space to preserve now means that we have to take it that much more seriously. What’s left is so much more precious to us.

As for the governance issue, I welcome that conversation as well. If there’s going to be an obstacle to the kind of intra-governmental cooperation Emmett envisions, it may well be the Lege, as any new structure to urban governance will likely require new laws, and our Lege isn’t very interested in helping out cities these days. Let’s see what Emmett and the other powers that be in the region come up with, and then we’ll figure out how to make it happen.

In the meantime, the work has begun.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday gave the green light to 16 new flood control projects, three days after voters overwhelmingly approved a $2.5 billion bond aimed at boosting the region’s protections against future floods.

The projects include de-silting the Addicks and Barker reservoir watersheds, drainage improvements in the San Jacinto River, Cypress Creek, Luce Bayou and Cedar Bayou watersheds, a stormwater detention basin project along Greens Bayou and conveyance improvements on Willow Creek.

“It’s a matter of starting with the low-hanging fruit, the ones that are ready to go, and move forward,” County Judge Ed Emmett said.

As good a place to start as any. There’s a lot more where that came from.

STEAR-ing help to those who need it

Did you even know there was a state registry to help people with mobility challenges in the event of a natural disaster?

Texas has a system in place to identify people with disabilities who will need extra help during a natural disaster. But it’s unclear whether any of the people described in the emails signed up for or even knew about it. It’s also unclear how many people actually received help through the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry, or STEAR, during Harvey.

But as the recovery continues a year after Harvey’s Aug. 25, 2017, landfall, there’s tension and confusion in the disabled community about whether the registry will actually work when they really need it. As of November, 75,733 Texans were registered with STEAR, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The registry allows people with disabilities and special medical needs to sign up to receive priority status for evacuations, shelters, wellness checks, power and water shutdowns and information on support services.

More than half of STEAR registrants have physical, sensory, mental health, cognitive, or intellectual needs that affect their ability to function independently. Many don’t have a vehicle and have no way to evacuate without assistance.

In a disaster, disabled people are more at risk: wheelchairs or walkers may be left behind during an evacuation, a shelter may not be able to fully accommodate needs like accessible showers for people with mobility impairment, quiet areas for people with autism or space for someone who weighs 350 pounds or more. Some cannot afford multiple nights in a hotel.

While the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Management administers the registry, the agency does not provide direct services to STEAR registrants during emergencies. The agency’s webpage notes that there are no guarantees for help.

“Your information will be provided to participating local governments for their use in developing emergency management plans and to assist them in preparedness and response activities,” according to the website.

While local officials can use the registry to dispatch emergency personnel and plan ahead for who may need special assistance during an evacuation, there’s no requirement that they use the registry — and no protocols for how to use it.

Lex Frieden, a professor of biomedical informatics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and one of the authors of the American Disabilities Act, said “it’s just maddening, frankly” that the database was not used to its fullest potential during Harvey, which caused more than 90 deaths.

“It was a tacit contract that promised people who felt they might need help at some point and volunteered the information, they would be rescued if needed and checked upon after the disaster,” Frieden said.

Rick Flanagan, emergency manager for the City of Houston, said his office and emergency responders were fielding thousands and thousands of calls during the historic storm. Typically, the office uses STEAR five days or more in advance to tell registrants where to go and help them get out of the city. But with the magnitude of Harvey, Flanagan said they wound up not using the system. “We got really tied up with the different locations and multiple locations of events and the high call volumes,” Flanagan said. “We did not use the STEAR structure as it could’ve been used.”Asked if they hoped to use STEAR for future disasters he said: “Oh my god, do we want to use it? Yes we do.”

The STEAR website is here. Having a system like STEAR in place makes all kinds of sense. The city of Houston and the Houston Fire Department have something like this for high-rise office buildings so firefighters know going in who on a given floor might need help evacuating. We periodically remind people about it where I work, and it includes people with permanent disabilities as well as those whose mobility is temporarily compromised. But any system is only as good as its implementation, and if it’s not useful when it’s really needed, then it needs an overhaul. All I can say is that I hope the state and the local governments that use STEAR learned something from Harvey to make whatever improvements it requires.

One year out from Harvey

We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

One year after Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas coast, 8 percent of the people impacted by the disaster have not been able to return to their homes, according to a report from two nonprofits that surveyed Texans about how the storm affected their finances, health and living conditions.

Fifteen percent of the hundreds of thousands of homes damaged by the storm are still unlivable. And of the 1,651 people from 24 counties who answered the survey, 30 percent of those impacted by the storm said their lives are still “somewhat” or “very” disrupted by the devastating storm’s lingering damage.

Those survey results, released by The Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation on Thursday, may be the clearest picture of how many people are still struggling to put their lives back together after Harvey. Federal and state officials aren’t keeping track of how many people remain displaced.

[…]

While most survey respondents said their financial situations and quality of life are about the same as they were before Harvey, 23 percent said that Harvey worsened their financial situation and 17 percent said it lowered their quality of life. Twelve percent of respondents said their financial situation is better and 11 percent said their quality of life has improved.

But the results found that people of color, those with lower incomes and people living in certain geographic areas are not recovering as quickly as many Texans.

“This survey shows how much Harvey continues to haunt many across coastal Texas, with significant shares reporting ongoing challenges with their housing, finances and health,” Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said in a prepared statement.

Among black Texans impacted by the storm, 60 percent say they are not getting the help they need. That compares to 40 percent of Hispanic respondents and 33 percent of white respondents.

For example, Kashmere and Trinity Gardens One Year After Harvey: A Follow-Up Report by Lara Purser:

Rosa Randle, a senior, isn’t the only Kashmere Gardens resident wandering through this labyrinth without a map. She remains in limbo. Lacking critical assistance a year after Hurricane Harvey landed, Ms. Randle’s story is all too common. Mr. Keith Downey, Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood President, says he receives calls and texts like hers daily. Nearly one year after reporting on Kashmere Gardens after Harvey, I found residents and community leaders are engaged in short-term relief and recovery as well as long-term planning.

“Posting a flyer just won’t do,” Mr. Downey quips when asked how residents – many of whom lack internet access – successfully connect with Harvey relief services. Handshakes. Hugging. Hearing. That is the gospel Mr. Downey preaches. Human connection helps build trust, he says, and that personal touch encourages residents to advocate for their own needs. He estimates at least 40 percent of Harvey-affected residents in his community are living in homes still needing remediation, are in various stages of repair, or remain displaced altogether and faults his community’s lack of political and economic influence for delays in receiving assistance. FEMA data analysis by non-profit Texas Housers confirms that the highest concentration of residents with unmet housing needs a year after Harvey are in low-income, minority neighborhoods like Kashmere Gardens, where the median household income hovers around $23,000.

The Center for Disease Control ranks Kashmere Gardens among the nation’s most socially vulnerable neighborhoods, as determined by “degree to which a community exhibits… high poverty, low percentage of vehicle access, [and] crowded households.” In short: Hurricane Harvey continues to complicate lives that were complicated enough already.

The canyons of flooded waste are gone making ongoing struggles less visible. It’s hard to understate the extent of loss in this community of 10,000 residents. Based on City of Houston estimates, the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston found that a staggering 79 percent of all homes in the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Data from the United Way Community Profile for the 77028 zip code, which includes parts of Kashmere Gardens, show there were twice as many applicants with FEMA Verified Loss (FVL) as other Harris County zip codes. Just half of these FVL applicants received any level of FEMA assistance. Of those households “lucky” enough to get FEMA aid, four in ten still had thousands of dollars of unmet needs in that zip code. This substantial gap in assistance has been met in piecemeal fashion through an estimated 50 organizations and agencies servicing the area. But as Ms. Randle’s experience illustrates, securing help is a long and frustrating journey.

And it’s not just in Houston.

Nobody knows exactly how many of Rockport’s roughly 10,000 residents left after Harvey blasted through here as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 25, 2017, but a loose consensus among local officials is that population is down about 20 percent. According to the Aransas County Independent School District, student enrollment fell about 15 percent after the hurricane, and [Aransas County Judge Burt] Mills estimates the county lost about one-quarter of its taxable property.

A survey released this week by the Kaiser Family and Episcopal Health foundations found that 62 percent of people in coastal areas hit by Harvey, including Aransas County, suffered damage to their homes, while 27 percent said someone in their household experienced job or income loss. Eight percent of the respondents said they haven’t been able to return home.

But Mills is optimistic that the majority of the people who left won’t stay gone forever.

“They’re gonna come back,” he said. “This is home. This is my little piece of paradise, and I believe everybody that lives in Aransas County feels that way.”

But whether Rockport and the surrounding communities can make a complete rebound will depend on their ability to provide affordable housing for the lower-income workers displaced by the storm whose labor fuels the local tourism economy, and on their ability to withstand the rising tides and more extreme storms forecasted for a warming planet.

Go read the rest of both stories. Those of us who are lucky enough to not have been affected by Harvey, or who have been able to get back on our feet, need to remember and advocate for those of us who haven’t been so lucky. We are all in this together. ThinkProgress has more.

Flood bond election day is today

Here’s a Trib story about the bond.

Flood experts say the bond is a good start — and indicative of an unprecedented shift in the collective mindset of local leaders and residents — but that it won’t come close to fixing the region’s chronic flooding problems if it isn’t carried out as part of a holistic and thoughtful approach that accounts for future growth and a changing climate. Also, while the bond may be historic in size, it pales in comparison to the total cost of all the region’s identified flood control needs — a local advocacy group recently unveiled a $58 billion wish list of projects.

“It is encouraging to see that local officials are desiring to put serious resources into flood risk management,” said Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Association of State Floodplain Administrators. “Successful communities in the nation that manage flood risk put their own resources into the effort and do not just depend on federal funds.”

Berginnis said the list of bond projects “appears to be a good mix,” but he added that flood mitigation plans should account for “tomorrow’s flood risk,” which is by most accounts escalating in the region amid explosive and largely unmanaged growth and sea level rise. It’s also important to have complimentary land use and building standards — requiring homes to be elevated to a certain level, for example — in case flood control infrastructure fails, he said.

Local leaders already have made one significant change in that realm. Amid pushback from the development community, both the Harris County Commissioner’s Court and the Houston City Council approved policies that require structures to be elevated 2 feet above the 500-year floodplain rather than the 100-year floodplain. The building codes of most communities in the United States are based on the 100-year floodplain — an area that is supposed to have a 1 percent chance of flooding in any given year.

“Those new codes are going to be some of the most stringent in the country from an elevation standpoint, so I was amazed those were able to pass,” said Sam Brody, a flood risk researcher at Texas A&M University at Galveston.

But he said they’re not going to do anything for existing, flood-prone structures. And he said he doesn’t see local leaders sufficiently accounting for future conditions, specifically how future growth is going to impact where rainwater flow.

Brody said his modeling on future land use shows that development in the Houston area’s floodplain may double by 2055 — along with the metro population.

“There are some jurisdictions — not in Texas — that when they plan, they are planing around a fully built-out watershed, and that’s a way to be conservative and also realize that future growth is going to take place and the environment is changing and our precipitation patterns are changing,” he said, adding that “Galveston Bay has been rising for the past 100 years, and that will continue.”

And here’s the press release from the County Clerk:

Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart reminds registered voters that Saturday, August 25, 2018 is the last opportunity to vote in the Harris County Flood Control District Bond Election (HCFCD).

“On Saturday, polls will be open from 7 am to 7 pm,” said Stanart. “Voters should keep in mind that on Election Day they must vote at their designated polling location.” Voters can find their designated voting location for the precinct where they are registered to vote at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“Voters will be qualified using our new Electronic Poll Book at all of the 744 Election Day polling locations. The ePollBook matches the voter’s ID to the list of registered voters within seconds,” asserted Stanart, the Chief Elections Officer of the county. “We have received an overwhelming positive response from the Election Judges, Clerks, and voters who have used the new system in previous elections this year.”

To prepare to vote, voters can find information about the Bond Election, including a list of proposed projects to mitigate flooding, by visiting the Harris County Flood Control District website www.hcfcd.org/bond-program. “Study the Bond and then go vote,” concluded Stanart.

To obtain a sample ballot or a list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the polls, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

It’s fair to say that find your polling location. It looks like many of the usual places will be open, but as always check before you head out. Don’t make needless assumptions, and don’t shirk your duty.

A better match from FEMA

Good news.

Federal officials have agreed to count volunteer work hours and donated materials toward the local match required for disaster recovery grants to repair streets, buildings, utilities, parks and other public facilities — a national policy change, initiated in Houston, that could save local governments tens of millions of dollars.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to expand its acceptance of volunteer hours and donated supplies after months of discussions with leaders of Houston’s Hurricane Harvey recovery effort. The change is retroactive to Aug. 23, 2017 — two days before the official declaration of Harvey as a major disaster.

Typically, local governments must match 25 percent of the federal government’s contributions during a disaster and its aftermath, and only can count volunteer hours and donated materials toward that match in the removal of storm debris and immediate emergency response efforts, such as sheltering victims. For Harvey, the Trump administration agreed to drop the local match to 10 percent.

Even with the change, Mayor Sylvester Turner said, Houston will still be responsible for a projected local match of $250 million.

“For the first time in FEMA’s history, they are allowing this volunteer program on permanent repairs to be used as a part of that 10 percent local match, and they’re not only allowing it for the city of Houston — for our region — but it’s a national initiative that they would allow in all other disasters now going forward,” Turner said. “That’s a monumental shift, because most local governments are hard-pressed to come up with that 10 percent match.”

There are still a lot of details to work out about what kind of work would count, how to track it and tally it up, and how to ensure that federal procurement rules are obeyed, but the decision to go this way will be a big help to Houston and other communities rebuilding after disasters. Kudos to all for making this happen.

Arkema indictments

This will cause a stir.

A Harris County grand jury on Friday indicted the French chemical company Arkema and two executives for the “reckless” release of toxic chemicals during Hurricane Harvey last August, a move that alarmed industry leaders and surprised environmental advocates.

The company, CEO Richard Rowe and plant manager Leslie Comardelle put residents and first responders at risk when the Crosby plant caught fire as Harvey dumped record rainfall on the Houston area, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

“As the hurricane approached, Arkema was more concerned about production and profit than people,” said Alexander Forrest, chief of the District Attorney’s environmental crimes division.

The last time a chemical company faced criminal charges for a major incident in Texas was 2005, when an explosion at BP’s Texas City refinery killed 15 workers and injured almost 200. BP paid $50 million in fines for the incident but no one from the company served prison time.

Arkema called the criminal charges filed against it “astonishing” and pledged to fight them vigorously.

“There has never been an indictment like this in Texas or any other state,” Arkema attorney Rusty Hardin said. “It would set an ominous precedent if a company could be held criminally liable for impact suffered as a result of the historic flooding of Hurricane Harvey that no one, including Harris County itself, was prepared for.”

But federal documents showed Arkema wasn’t even prepared for a much smaller flood, despite being partially located in a floodplain.

[…]

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said she’d go after companies who pollute. Environmental advocates applauded her actions.

“I hope these kinds of criminal charges will really get the attention of not just Arkema but the industry more broadly,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of the advocacy group Environment Texas. “They can’t play fast and loose with safety standards and the protection of the public.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Arkema is also being sued by Harris County, which is usually how these things go when any action is taken. Going for indictments is a bold move, one that hasn’t been done before, but one that is at least worth considering, given the circumstances. Whether the indictments will survive the motions to quash them, and the appeals in those motions are denied, is the key question. I will keep an eye on this.

Lots of Harvey waivers out there

And good for the school districts that got them.

The vast majority of Houston-area school districts will be eligible for academic accountability waivers this year due to Hurricane Harvey, meaning they will be labeled “not rated” unless they score an “A” grade for excellence, the Texas Education Agency announced Wednesday.

The list of waiver-eligible districts includes 19 of the region’s 25 largest school districts. The six exceptions: Conroe, Klein, Pearland, Tomball, New Caney and Magnolia independent school districts. About 110 school districts were deemed eligible for waivers statewide, stretching from Port Aransas to Houston to Beaumont.

TEA officials on Wednesday also released the full list of roughly 1,200 Houston-area schools that will be eligible for campus-level accountability waivers, which will preclude them from receiving an “improvement required” label this year. The list, as expected, includes six Houston ISD campuses that would have triggered major state sanctions had any one received an “improvement required” rating this year. Four other HISD schools that could trigger sanctions this year are not among the waiver-eligible campuses.

[…]

Most Houston-area districts likely will not receive a letter grade for academic performance in 2018, the first year of the state’s new “A”-through-”F” accountability system, after qualifying for waivers. In previous years, districts were labeled “met standard” or “improvement required.” Campuses still will receive those two ratings in 2018, with the “A”-through-”F” system extending to schools in 2019.

In some districts, including those closed for 10 days or more due to Harvey, every campus also will be exempt from receiving an “improvement required” rating. Those districts include Alief, Fort Bend, Katy, Pasadena and Spring.

In other areas, the district and some — but not all — campuses will be eligible for accountability waivers. In Houston ISD, for example, 185 out of 285 campuses are waiver-eligible.

[…]

Klein ISD Superintendent Bret Champion said he believed any district that lost instructional time due to Harvey should receive an exemption. Klein ISD closed for seven days after Harvey, with one of its 53 campuses shuttered for the entire school year due to storm damage.

“There wasn’t a soul who wasn’t impacted by Harvey is some way, shape or form,” Champion said.

See here and here for some background. I personally agree with Bret Champion, but I wasn’t asked for my input. The stakes are higher for HISD than they are for other districts, but even without that I say the disruption was enough that a do-over for all was warranted. We’ll see what the effect of taking a less-broad approach will be.

Two views of the flood bond referendum

View One, from Joe B. Allen and Jim Blackburn: Vote for it because there’s no real alternative.

Proposition A — the proposal to allow Harris County to issue $2.5 billion in flood control bonds — will be on the ballot in Harris County on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. We agree that this bond issue is essential to the future of our community.

[…]

With the passage of $2.5 billion in bonds and an estimated $7.5 billion in matching federal funds, HCFCD would be able to spend $1 billion per year for the next 10 years on flood management. This will not solve all of our drainage problems, but it would represent a dramatic improvement.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has announced funding for four federally approved and permitted projects: Brays Bayou, Clear Creek, Hunting Bayou and White Oak Bayou. All four projects have a significant local match requirement. If the bonds are approved, these projects could start immediately.

[…]

There is no Plan B. Either this bond election passes or the current flooding conditions continue. The world watched as we came together to help one another in the aftermath of Harvey. Now is the time to come together to show the world that we are willing and able to solve major problems to ensure the long-term success of the place we proudly call home.

We plan to vote FOR Prop. A, and we urge you to do the same. Early voting begins Aug. 8.

Jim Blackburn is a well-respected and very outspoken authority on flooding and related environmental matters, so his endorsement of the referendum carries a lot of weight.

View Two, from Roger Gingell: More flood detention basins, please!

If voters approve Harris County’s proposed $2.5 billion flood control bonds, the County Flood Control District will have more than 41 times its annual budget to spend on flood mitigation. That’s great news if the money is used wisely.

A wise use of the bond money would include water detention basins in neighborhoods that flood, built on land already owned by the public.

Recently, myself and a few others had a private showing of the flood bond proposals for our older neighborhoods in Spring Branch. A friendly gentleman from Flood Control showed us a map with purple circles and green triangles representing projects. If you are lucky, your neighborhood is awarded a purple circle which represents a bigger project. A green triangle on the other hand could be just a tiny, micro-project like fixing some unspecified damage to a drain. None of the projects, however, are set in stone. That is how the bond is being sold — citizens can influence or even add projects.

During that hour intensely staring at a map of triangles and circles, it became clear that the biggest thing missing from the bond proposal was water detention basins actually being located inside the neighborhoods that have flooding problems. There wasn’t a single proposed water detention basin inside the neighborhoods surrounding Memorial City, which flood heavily.

[…]

Having a budget 41 times your existing yearly budget means that new responsibilities will follow. With a bond of this size, Flood Control can’t just be in charge of the bayou while a financially distressed city of Houston is in charge of drainage to the bayou. Thinking must be done outside the box. The institutional mindset of Flood Control must change and grow for the better.

To serve all tax payers who would potentially be paying for the $2.5 billion bond, county planners must take the innovative approach and look for publicly owned land inside neighborhoods that flood. These are the places that water detention basins must be built to save neighborhoods inside the city.

Gingell is the general counsel for Residents Against Flooding, a nonprofit that filed suit against the city in 2016 for approving commercial development in the Memorial City area without requiring adequate storm water mitigation. He doesn’t explicitly say he’s against the bond, but you can see he has reservations. I don’t have anything to add to these, I just wanted to flag them for those of you who still want to know more about this referendum. I’ll have a couple of interviews next week to add on.

On campaigning for the flood bond

This is good, but I don’t know if it will be enough.

The Harris County Flood Control District’s summer barnstorming tour of county watersheds to seek public input on its $2.5 billion flood bond proposal is getting officials exactly what they want: an earful.

Flood-weary residents throughout the county have mostly packed auditoriums and community centers to offer their thoughts, desires and frustrations to flood control engineers and county officials. They also have brought ideas.

To date, the flood control district has added 16 projects to its list of repairs, remediation and prevention strategies to be covered by the proposed bond that goes before voters on Aug. 25. Each of those 16 projects came out of the meetings with residents, district officials said.

Along the way, the county has gotten something else: an audience receptive to its pitch to undertake what would be the largest local investment in flood infrastructure after Hurricane Harvey swamped the region 11 months ago.

Of the more than 25 residents who spoke with the Chronicle at four meetings, few said they oppose the bond. Most said they understand Harris County badly needs to invest in better flood protection, even if that means an increase in property taxes.

[…]

To date, the flood control district has held 15 public meetings, with nine more scheduled through Aug. 1, one for each of the county’s 24 watersheds. The number of attendees has ranged from several dozen to more than 700. Instead of a lecture format, the flood control district opted to take an open house approach: Engineers manned charts and tables spread across the space, and residents also could examine projects on a bank of computers.

As a reminder, there’s an interactive map here and a full list of projects here. If you want to know what’s in this bond issue, the information is there, and you can attend one of the meetings if you have questions. All this is good and necessary, and anecdotally it appears to be working for the county, but let’s be honest: The number of people that will go to these meetings in total is probably measured in the hundreds, maybe a thousand or so if you’re lucky. There are over two million registered voters in Harris County, and even for an oddball election date you have to figure at least 100K show up to vote. Face to face interaction can only get you so far. Traditional voter outreach – advertising, direct mail, etc – is going to be needed as well. We’re a month out from election day, and two weeks or so away from the start of early voting. The clock is very much ticking.

Houston Flood Museum

Sounds like a good idea.

[Lacy] Johnson, a published author and Rice assistant professor, started writing to process the post-disaster “dissonance” she observed. The resulting essays published on Facebook quickly garnered hundreds of reactions and shares. It wasn’t long before the Houston Endowment approached her about harnessing that work for something greater.

Now, as the one-year anniversary of Harvey approaches, Johnson is part of a collaborative effort behind the Houston Flood Museum, an institution she says will “think about our collective relationship to land, one another, urban planning, the water, and see how we can move on together.” In cooperation with the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, FotoFest, Houston Public Library, the Trust for Public Land, and more, the museum seeks to process and memorialize the experience of flooding through stories and art.

The initial focus will be on flooding related to Harvey. This August, HFM will begin collecting submissions of audio and photos and poems and pretty much anything else that can be curated and archived. Houston Public Media will contribute a multipart video series of local leaders looking back on the storm, as well as an additional podcast series that puts Harvey in historical context. Rice will preserve much of the material as part of the ongoing Harvey Memories Project. And while there are plans for pop-up exhibitions across the city, Johnson says a permanent brick-and-mortar presence is not in the cards.

“We’re kind of nomadic and ephemeral,” Johnson says about the museum. “I like to think about it using the flood as a metaphor: We’re inundating spaces for a short time, and then we recede.”

The under-construction museum website is here. I think this is a fantastic idea, and I can’t wait to see what it looks like. I’m sure it will give us all a lot to think about, and just maybe inspire us to do something positive. Link via Swamplot.

More on flood tunnels

They’re a thing, I swear.

Japanese flood tunnel

While it’s far from clear whether it will ever happen, the concept almost immediately generated widespread response when it was announced earlier this spring. Local officials told the Houston Chronicle it’s outside-the-box thinking with benefits that could outweigh the heavy price tag. Residents reading about the project on social media have expressed fears of sinkholes from the underground construction. Even entrepreneur Elon Musk, who owns tunnel construction company The Boring Company, jumped into the conversation on Twitter.

So would such a tunnel system really be a logical solution for Houston’s flood woes?

Drilled 100 to 200 feet underground, the underground channels act as temporary storage for floodwater during intense rainstorms, said Larry Larson, a senior policy adviser at the Association of State Floodplain Managers. Once the rain has stopped, the stormwater can be used for a variety of purposes. It can be pumped back to the surface into a river or wetlands or even used to recharge aquifers.

If cities have a section of river that regularly overflows, a tunnel can convey extra water underground and help reduce the amount of water that flows onto land during storms, said Christof Spieler, project manager of the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. Large-scale tunnels can also act as an additional set of waterways, taking pressure off undersized drainage networks, he said.

But Larson and Spieler said it’s hard to tell if such a system would make sense for Houston — a low-lying coastal city that’s experienced three 500-year floods in the past three years.

[…]

Flood control tunnels are nothing new to Texas — San Antonio built the San Pedro Creek Tunnel in 1991 and completed the longer San Antonio River Tunnel in 1997. Austin continues to put the finishing touches on the Waller Creek Tunnel and a tunnel in East Dallas received the long-awaited go-ahead in February.

Should the district choose to pursue the project, tunnels could cost up to $100 million per mile, Steve Costello, the city’s chief resilience officer, told the Houston Chronicle.

See here for the background. There’s a longish and very wonky conversation with Larson and Spieler about flood control, which if you read it you will know is basically an oxymoron, so do read the full article. There wasn’t any mention of other Texas flood tunnels in the earlier article, so I appreciate the Trib bringing those examples. I have a hard time imagining that this will happen here, but as noted the cost of the study is negligible, so why not at least examine the possibility? The worst that can happen is you wind up crossing it off the list.

More on the latest Harvey funds

Here’s the full Chron story regarding that allocation of federal Harvey recovery money from Thursday. It wasn’t clear from the Trib story I quoted from, but that levee system is, at least in part, the Ike Dike.

Jim Blackburn of Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center said he looked forward to seeing how the $3.9 billion would be appropriated. He said the amount was not nearly enough to fund the “Ike Dike” project, the estimated cost of which runs upwards of $12 billion, but he said the money could be used to build levees on Galveston and Bolivar islands. The corps has not yet approved a design for the coastal spine. A preliminary proposal is expected in the coming months.

“It is irregular to appropriate funds before the internal Corps review is completed,” Blackburn said. “With the amount of money at about $4 billion, that is not enough to build the gates across Bolivar Roads, but you could build the levees with that amount of money. However, no one knows where the levee is to be placed — on the beach? Raising the roads? Behind the roads on Galveston and Bolivar? Usually there is not such uncertainty.”

There remained a lot of uncertainty about the Houston area’s preparedness for the next big storm after 7 inches of rain fell on parts of Harris County on Wednesday before tapering off in the early afternoon. The 6 inches recorded at Hobby airport set a record for the July 4th holiday, putting nerves on edge in a region still recovering from Harvey’s catastrophic flooding.

Those totals fell short of the rainfall during the Tax Day and Memorial Day floods of 2015 and 2016, which each dumped more than a dozen inches on the area, and well short of Harvey’s 30 to 50 inches. Still, the rain fell hard and quickly Wednesday morning, flooding streets, stranding motorists, spurring Harris County to open its emergency operations center and forcing Houston to cancel its Freedom Over Texas celebration for the first time ever. Skies did clear in time for an evening fireworks show near downtown Houston.

“This was a relatively minor storm that almost reached catastrophic proportions,” Blackburn said. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in that these types of storms will occur more and more often.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the July 4th flooding, from a mere 4 to 6 hours of rain, highlighted the need for a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond that will go before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Harvey making landfall. Some of the bond proceeds would go toward reducing street flooding in extreme rain events, according to the Harris County Flood Control District’s website.

Officials from Houston and Harris County said Wednesday that the preparedness level of first responders is the same or better than when Harvey hit, thanks to the addition of rescue boats and high-water vehicles to several agencies. But most of the flood infrastructure damaged by that historic storm has yet to be repaired, and it weakens each time a new system batters the region.

“I would expect to see that where there were previous damages, they probably start to get incrementally worse,” said Alan Black, director of engineering for the flood control district. “Anytime you’ve got exposed slopes, the erosion just keeps on going.”

Blackburn said just 5 percent of the $150 million in needed infrastructure repairs has been completed. He estimated that crews will need until the end of 2019 to complete the rest. The projects that the flood control district has completed so far, at a cost of $6 million, have focused on damaged infrastructure that posed the greatest risk to public safety.

See here for the background. I think of the Ike Dike as mostly protection for Galveston and the Port of Houston, but it is intended to extend down the coast. As Jim Blackburn notes, there are still many questions about the Ike Dike, which is why there are still bills to study it rattling around in Congress. We’ll see what happens with this. As for how the rest stacks up with the county bond referendum, I imagine they’re complementary, which is how it should be.

Feds approve $5 billion in Harvey aid

Good.

Photo by Yi-Chin Lee

Almost a year after Hurricane Harvey dumped historic rains on Texas, the state will receive more than $5 billion for a range of flood control projects, repairs and studies, the Trump administration announced Thursday.

[…]

[About $1 billion] will pay for the completion of flood control projects in the Houston area that were already underway — some of them for more than two decades because of the Harris County Flood Control District’s pay-as-you-go approach — and to repair damages that those projects suffered during Harvey.

A reworked flood control project on Clear Creek in southeast Harris County, the origins of which date back to the 1980s, will receive $295.2 million. Three major bayou-widening projects will receive a combined $185 million.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined how much to allocate to each project, factoring in guidance from members of the Texas congressional delegation.

Several flood- and disaster-related studies will also be funded; The Army Corps will receive $3 million to launch an unprecedented study of the Houston region’s watersheds. Another $6 million will go toward a study that will explore how to reduce flooding in Buffalo Bayou, including when the Army Corps releases water from Addicks and Barker dams. And the Port of Houston will get $30 million to dredge the perpetually-silty Houston Ship Channel. The Army Corps also will receive nearly $1.5 million to complete a safety project to shore up Addicks and Barker dams, which have been considered at risk of failure for years.

Most of the rest will be used to build coastal levees. I’m pretty sure this is a separate pot of money than the one the city will draw from for long term housing aid. Which is fine; we can use all the resources we can get, the more the better. If you want a reminder of what the priorities should be for Harvey recovery and future flood mitigation, I refer you back to the Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium report. The Chron has more.

Council approves initial Harvey housing aid

It’s a start.

Houston City Council has approved a plan to direct how the first long-term federal housing aid headed this way after Hurricane Harvey will be spent, targeting $600 million to repair or build single-family homes and $375 million to fix or construct apartments.

The action plan is a key step in the city’s effort to draw on $1.15 billion in federal housing aid, part of the $5 billion allocated to Texas from Congress’ first hurricane-related appropriation last fall. Harris County will get a similar amount.

The plan now awaits approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, after which it will be attached as an amendment to the Texas General Land Office’s plan that addresses recovery along the rest of the Gulf Coast.

HUD approved the state’s plan this week, though housing advocates have filed a complaint against it, aiming to ensure the recovery money will benefit low-income Texans and people of color.

At least 70 percent of the HUD funds must benefit families making no more than 80 percent of the area’s median household income, or about $60,000 for a family of four. The funds must address the city’s “unmet housing need” — families displaced by the storm whose lives and homes were not restored to normal with whatever aid they may have received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Small Business Administration.

The city’s action plan is here, and data from the community engagements is here. A Chron story about that housing discrimination complaint is here. There’s a lot going on with this, and a lot of people who are still in need as we are already in the next hurricane season. We need to get this right. ThinkProgress has more.