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Hurricane Katrina

County officially puts flood bond referendum on the ballot

Here we go.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed to place a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond before voters on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. If passed, the bond would be the largest local investment in flood mitigation since the storm flooded 154,000 homes across the county.

“I think the whole nation is going to be watching us,” County Judge Ed Emmett said of the region’s approach to flooding post-Harvey. “Everyone is saying Houston, Harris County, the whole region — we have the chance to do it right.”

[…]

Emmett last month said the number of projects to be included in the bond issue would be in the hundreds. He has said he hoped to publish a complete list of projects to be funded with bond proceeds by the first week of August, when early voting begins.

Three residents spoke in favor of the bond proposal Tuesday. Belinda Taylor of the Texas Organizing Project said the nonprofit would support the bond only if it includes projects that benefit northeast Houston, around Mesa and Tidwell, in the Greens Bayou watershed.

Taylor also said residents who volunteer their homes for buyouts should be able to move to comparable housing in drier areas.

“Any buyouts … must leave people with the same kind of housing, no additional debt and in non-flooding neighborhoods,” Taylor said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said that a priority for bond funds must be communities that are less likely to benefit from federal assistance. He said that the federal government uses a formula for dispersing disaster recovery money that places a premium on increasing property value rather than assisting the most people, which Ellis says skews unfairly toward wealthy neighborhoods.

See here and here for the background. The 2018 Harris County Flood Control District Bond Program webpage is here, the proposed project list is here, and the schedule and locations for the remaining public engagement meetings is here. Don’t worry, I plan to do some interviews to help you make sense of this. I’ll need to for myself, too. I agree with Judge Emmett that the country will be watching as we vote. I’m sure the first thing they’ll say if this fails to pass will be “What the heck were you thinking, having this in August?” There doesn’t appear to be any organized opposition to this yet, but as we’ve discussed before, that doesn’t matter. Unless there’s a strong pro-referendum campaign, it’s at best a tossup. We’ll see how that goes.

Final county report on Harvey

It was what we thought it was.

In the weeks and months after Hurricane Harvey, the evidence of its historic scope and intensity trickled out bit by bit: Record rainfall totals. Record reservoir levels. Record destruction.

Now, nine months after the storm, a report by the Harris County Flood Control District combines and analyzes all the available data about Harvey and its aftermath, distilling the numbers into a single message: By every conceivable measure and in every imaginable context, Harvey caused the most disastrous flooding in the nation’s history. And it could have been worse.

“All 4.7 million people in Harris County were impacted directly or indirectly during the flood and after the flood waters receded,” states the 32-page memorandum by two flood control district officials, Jeff Lindner and Steve Fitzgerald.

The compilation of all the data into one document provides a useful backdrop for ongoing policy discussions about recovering from Harvey and strengthening the region’s resilience to future floods. On Tuesday night, county officials were scheduled to host the first of 23 planned public meetings on a $2.5 billion August bond issue for flood control projects.

[…]

In Harris County, the highest total recorded over four days was 47.4 inches at Clear Creek and Interstate 45. (Totals exceeding 51 inches were recorded in Liberty County east of Houston.) The lowest four-day total in Harris County was 26 inches.

According to the report, the Texas state climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, examined the largest rainfall events in U.S. history and compared them with Harvey for durations of 48, 72 and 120 hours, and covering areas ranging from 1,000, to 50,000 square miles.

“Harvey exceeded the previous records in all of the 18 different combinations except one,” the report states. “The most astounding statistic is that for the 120-hour duration over 10,000 square miles, Harvey exceeded the previous record from June 1899 by 13.33 inches or 62 percent. The rainfall amounts and spatial coverage of those amounts have never been experienced across the United States since reliable records have been kept.”

The Flood Control district puts out a report like this one, which you can find here, after every major flood. For the most part, this is data we’ve seen before, but not all in one place, and not with all of the comparisons this report includes. It’s pretty sobering to read and think about, so by all means go do so. Swamplot has more.

Who’s willing to tell Trump he’s all wet?

Not Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick.

During a visit to Pinkerton’s Barbecue on Friday afternoon, gubernatorial candidate Lupe Valdez said Gov. Greg Abbott failed to forcefully refute the president, who said on Wednesday that some Texans “went out in their boats to watch the hurricane” and that it “didn’t work out too well.”

Abbott told the Chronicle that he had “no information one way or another about that,” comments Valdez said were intended to avoid confronting the president.

“The heck with Trump… what are you doing taking care of somebody else?” Valdez said of Abbott. “Take care of your own people.”

[…]

[Lt. Governor candidate Mike] Collier said Trump’s comments were “one of the more offensive things I’ve ever heard.” He said that Texas’ elected Republican leaders have refrained from criticizing Trump’s comments because they want to protect the president.

See here for the background. Look, this is a layup, even for a craven Republican like Abbott or Patrick. “I’m not sure what the President saw, but the rest of us saw many people going out into the storm to help their neighbors, because that’s what we do in Texas”. Joe Straus got it right. It ain’t rocket science. Now, I do appreciate Abbott and Patrick giving Valdez and Collier a chance to dunk on them, but don’t these guys have advisers? Whatever, keep up the good work, fellas.

If I had a boat…

I wouldn’t have used it to go Harvey-watching. Where does he get this crap?

President Donald Trump praised the Coast Guard for its heroics during Hurricane Harvey Wednesday, but credited the high number of water rescues to people taking their boats out to watch the storm roll in, baffling first responders.

Trump was on a conference call with state and federal leaders in preparation for another dreadful hurricane season. During the call, Trump thanked the Coast Guard for their service in helping save 16,000 people after Harvey, Hurricane Maria and other storms. The Coast Guard doesn’t “get enough credit,” Trump said.

“Sixteen thousand people, many of them in Texas, for whatever reason that is. People went out in their boats to watch the hurricane,” Trump said. “That didn’t work out too well.”

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez took umbrage with the president’s remarks, crediting civilians with making an “extraordinary effort” with their own boats to rescue neighbors, relatives and pets as Hurricane Harvey flooded the Texas coast with 52 inches of rain last year.

“I didn’t see anyone taking the approach that would reflect his comments,” Gonzalez said. “I’ll be sure to invite the president to ride out the next hurricane in a jon boat in Galveston Bay the next time one approaches,” he added.

No one could explain the president’s comment.

When asked by the Houston Chronicle to confirm if Texans were out on boats gawking at the storm, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he had “no information one way or another about that.”

Coast Guard Petty Officer Edward Wargo said: “I don’t know how we would go about confirming that,” when asked for evidence.

“I don’t even know how to respond to that,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.

In another reality, I’d just assume Donald Trump is stoned. In this world, there’s no point in trying to explain anything he says or does. He lies and he makes shit up, and that’s all there is to it. The Associated Press has more, but I can’t leave it like this. I need something to cleanse my palate.

There. Much better now.

The criteria for Harvey accountability waivers

Here they are.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath on Wednesday released the criteria he will use to decide how to waive state ratings for schools affected by Hurricane Harvey, more than nine months after it made landfall.

Schools impacted by Harvey that are set to receive failing state ratings this year, based largely on standardized tests, will instead get a waiver or a “not rated” label — if they meet Morath’s criteria. But school administrators have repeatedly asked Morath to waive state ratings for all schools in the disaster area, instead of just the percentage that meet his criteria, arguing the mental health and academic impacts of the storm apply to all students and teachers in the region.

According to the released rules, schools must meet at least one of the following criteria to be considered for a waiver:

  • The school reported 10 percent or more of its enrolled students were displaced or homeless due to Hurricane Harvey.
  • The school reported 10 percent or more of its teachers were homeless due to the hurricane.
  • The school was closed for 10 or more class days post-Harvey.
  • The school had to hold classes in a different location or share a campus, at least through winter break, due to hurricane-related damages.

If all schools in a district qualify for a waiver, the entire district will also get a waiver from state ratings this year unless they receive the top rating. Districts will also receive waivers if 10 percent or more of their student body is enrolled in a school that received a waiver.

So what does that mean for HISD?

About 1,200 Texas schools affected by Hurricane Harvey, including hundreds throughout the Houston area, won’t be punished for low academic performance this year as a result of the storm’s devastation, Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday.

The list of campuses, however, does not include four of the 10 Houston ISD schools that could trigger major state sanctions this year. If all four of those campuses — Mading and Wesley elementary schools, Woodson PK-8 and Worthing High School — do not meet state academic standards in August, the Texas Education Agency must replace HISD’s locally elected school board or close failing campuses. Woodson and Worthing are considered among the least likely of the 10 to meet state standards.

[…]

In an interview, Morath said the 10-day cutoff mirrored the threshold set for accountability waivers after Hurricane Ike in 2008. This time, however, Morath added the three additional criteria based on feedback from education leaders and availability of data.

“I think that given the totality of the impact of the storm, we had to set a threshold that was fairly low in terms of the degree of impact,” Morath said.

Seven of the region’s 20 largest school districts were closed for at least 10 instructional days, ensuring district-wide waivers. However, most districts were closed for seven to nine instructional days.

A few districts staggered their return dates. As a result, some campuses in a district will meet the 10-day threshold, while others will not.

In Houston ISD, for example, about 240 campuses missed nine instructional days, while 40 others missed 10 or more. Morath said he expects nearly 150 of those 240 campuses will still receive waivers because they meet other criteria.

Morath said some campuses in hard-hit districts “were just not affected by the storm” and “did not warrant getting any special storm-related adjusted accountability.”

Regarding the long-struggling HISD schools subject to sanctions, Morath said: “The attention that’s given to these 10 campuses in HISD has little to do with activities specific to this year. Each of those campuses has failed to meet academic standards for four years in a row, and at least one of them eight years in a row. We’re talking about, in some cases, a generation of students.”

HISD leaders, who have lobbied for district-wide accountability waivers, were magnanimous in comments Wednesday about Morath’s decision, even as most of the district’s schools fell just a single instructional day short of receiving an automatic break.

Using a ten-missed-days criterion instead of nine seems a bit arbitrary to me – as I recall, one of the weeks in which schools were closed included Labor Day, so there would have been a tenth day of cancellations were it not for that. What happens next, I don’t know. Rep. Garnet Coleman released a statement expressing surprise at the announcement and a promise to “vigorously analyze” it. He also encouraged the four schools to apply for waivers individually. So who knows, there’s still some doubt about where we go from here. And if the TEA does take action, I agree with Mayor Turner, who said they will own the results. Whatever they choose, I hope they know what they’re doing.

The Cornyn Ike Dike bill

Credit where credit is due.

With hurricane season right around the corner, Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said Wednesday he is introducing legislation to expedite a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study on a coastal barrier to mitigate storm damage along the Texas coast.

The measure, the Coastal Texas Protection Act, is directed at advancing the construction of a long-awaited “Ike Dike” or Coastal Spine – proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008 – to better protect the Gulf Coast from storm damage.

“We’ve been working with local stakeholders as well as state officials to try to encourage this process to move along quickly,” Cornyn said. “The Corps of Engineers is an instrumental part of this, and we want them to finish these studies and come up with a plan that the stakeholders and the state can agree upon, and then we will work hard to make sure that coastal protection plan is funded.”

[…]

In 2016, Cornyn advanced legislation signed by then President Barack Obama to streamline the Army Corps engineering studies.

According to a Cornyn aide, the 2016 bill prevented the Corps from duplicating efforts by requiring them to take into account studies that had already been conducted by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District (GCCPRD).

The new bill would direct the Corps to expedite the completion of the Coastal Texas Study. It also provides a necessary exception for the project under the Coastal Barrier Resources Act (CBRA). Currently, the CBRA restricts the expenditure of federal funds associated with coastal barriers to avoid encouraging development of such barriers.

Kudos to Cornyn, who is capable of getting stuff done when he wants to. Of course, introducing a bill is not the same as passing it, and the Republican Congress has a crappy track record by any measure. You have to start somewhere, and this is it. Check again in a couple months and see if it’s gone anywhere.

Abbott versus Houston on Harvey funds

I have three things to say about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott blasted the city of Houston for its response to Hurricane Harvey Wednesday, critiquing what he described as a lack of sound financial planning and sluggish progress repairing flooded homes.

The governor’s assessment, which he delivered in two terse letters Wednesday, was prompted by a request Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and 55 other Gulf Coast mayors and county judges sent Abbott on Tuesday, requesting state help meeting the local match for a key federal disaster mitigation program.

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is a standard aid process triggered after every federally declared disaster. In the case of Harvey, Texas will receive about $1.1 billion in mitigation funds, $500 million of which is available to local governments now. Local leaders must compete for the dollars and provide a 25 percent match to fund selected projects; FEMA covers the other 75 percent.

“The states of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Georgia and Colorado have provided for local matches in situations utilizing HMGP,” the 57 Gulf Coast leaders wrote to Abbott. “We ask that the state of Texas make a similar effort in joining local jurisdictions as a partner in flood mitigation.”

Abbott, in his response to Turner, said he had worked to ensure local governments could use federal block grants to provide that match.

“Texas Department of Emergency Management has received zero applications from the city of Houston to access this funding, meaning there is hundreds of millions of dollars sitting on the table for your use,” Abbott added. “It is perplexing that you are seeking more funding when you have shown no ability to spend what you already have access to.”

This response confused and angered some local officials. Not only are the mitigation funds subject to a competitive application process, they said, but the hundreds of millions of dollars Abbott referenced are the exact funds they are seeking the governor’s help in matching to be able to use.

[…]

Emmett added that using federal block grants for the mitigation program — something Abbott mentioned in another recent letter to county officials — would cannibalize dollars needed for home repairs and additional infrastructure projects.

“It defies logic as to why you’d take federal dollars and, instead of using them for the purpose of relief and prevention, you’d use them as your local match for other federal dollars,” Emmett said.

Emmett said he was taken aback by Abbott’s letter to Turner.

“The tone of the governor’s letter is troublesome, and I don’t think it recognizes reality. All of us are merely seeking to speed up recovery and to take the burden off local taxpayers,” Emmett said. “Why that deserves a lecture I don’t know.”

In addition, Emmett and Turner said, the governor only selectively referenced the federal notice that authorizes the use of block grants as matching funds. The same filing also stresses the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s efforts to “promote policies that require state and local financial participation to ensure their shared commitment and responsibility for long-term recovery and future disaster risk reduction” and states “HUD expects grantees to financially contribute to their recovery through the use of reserve or ‘rainy day’ funds, borrowing authority, or retargeting of existing financial resources.”

“’Rainy day fund.’ That was an interesting choice of words that HUD used,” Emmett said.

1. As we know, the state’s “rainy day fund” is more properly known as the Economic Stabilization Fund, and it was originally intended as a way to stretch revenues during lean economic times, so that the budget didn’t have to be cut in drastic or harmful ways. That purpose more or less went out the window in 2011 when Rick Perry unilaterally declared that the fund could not be used to help with budge shortfalls because we needed to make sure it was sufficiently flush in the event that emergency funds were needed to recover from a natural disaster. You know, like Hurricane Harvey. As much as I decry the Perry decree about the rainy day fund and grind my teeth when I hear people on my side buy into that framing, I have to say that it does make for a very easy to grasp criticism of Greg Abbott. We have a rainy day fund, and it doesn’t get any rainier than Harvey, so why aren’t we using it?

2. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Abbott is completely right in his criticism of Mayor Turner and all the other local officials who reached out to him for help. Which do you think makes for better politics, writing a bitchy, scolding letter that airs a bunch of grievances about how these local officials failed to follow bureaucratic processes correctly, or swooping in like a rich uncle and making a show of cutting red tape, providing cash, getting things done, and aiming your criticism at the feds for dragging their feet? I think you can guess which option I’d choose. Maybe that’s only something a guy like Abbott (or Perry) does when there’s a Democrat in the White House to serve as the bad guy, I don’t know.

3. Like Campos, I’d like to know more about what not only Judge Emmett thinks about all this, but also the Republican officeholders on the ballot here whose electoral fortunes will be at least somewhat connected to Abbott’s in Harris County. As you know, I already think Dems here are poised to do well this fall. If I’m right, then the main hope for survival may be to put a little distance between oneself and the less-helpful-than-he-could-be Republican Governor.

We’ll be voting on flood control bonds in August

Not my first choice, but it is what it is.

Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to seek a special election on Aug. 25 for what likely will be a multi-billion-dollar bond package that, if approved by voters, would be the largest local investment in the region’s flood control system after Hurricane Harvey.

The move comes a month before the start of the 2018 hurricane season and more than seven months after Hurricane Harvey, with the election timed to coincide with the storm’s one-year anniversary. County officials have spent months wrangling over when best to schedule the election, lest the measure fail and scuttle efforts to overhaul the area’s flood control efforts after one of the biggest rain storms in United States history.

“Why August 25?” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “It’s the one year anniversary of Harvey. I don’t think we want to go a year and not be able to say we’re doing something. People who care about mitigation, resilience, flood control, they’ll be energized and they’ll want to go out. Will there be somebody who wants to stand in the face of what we went through during Harvey and say ‘I want to be against it’? I kind of dare them to do it.”

It is not clear yet what the bond referendum will include. The court on Tuesday floated a $2.5 billion price tag — a number that could change as a priority list of flood control projects emerges. Emmett said the number of projects would be in the “hundreds” and likely would include the buy-out of all of the county’s high-priority areas at highest-risk of flooding, approximately 5,500 properties.

A huge chunk of funds, between $500 and $700 million officials estimate, could go toward local matches for federal grants and projects. A match could be required for the completion of four bayou widening and straightening projects underway with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers along Hunting, White Oak, Brays Bayou and Clear Creek. Bayou engineering projects on Halls and Greens Bayou — some of the areas in the county most vulnerable to flooding — also likely would be targeted.

Emmett said all of the county’s 22 watersheds would see some sort of investment.

The bond funds also could help finance the construction of an oft-discussed third reservoir northwest of the city to contain storm water from Cypress Creek.

See here for the background. I would have preferred to have this on the November ballot, and from the article most of the Commissioners at least started out with that same preference. County Judge Ed Emmett pushed for the August date, and convinced them to go along. Again, I get the reasoning, but the county is really going to have to sell this. Recent history has shown that even non-controversial bond issues with no organized opposition don’t pass by much. This one will have a big price tag, a (minor) property tax increase, and no obvious benefit for anyone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey, all wrapped up in a weird election date. This should pass – it’s easy to scratch your head and say “how could it not?” – but do not take it for granted. The county still has to get approval from Greg Abbott, which should be straightforward, then formally call the election. I hope they start gearing up the campaign for this in the meantime.

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will consider calling a special election for August 25 — the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey — to ask voters to OK a massive bond referendum for flood control projects.

The amount of the referendum has yet to be determined as the county continues to assess its needs and as other funds, including as federal grants, become available. At least three members of Commissioners Court said Friday they envision a measure that could reach $2.5 billion.

[…]

The referendum could help finance property buyouts, as well as a range of infrastructure projects, such as the widening and deepening of bayous or the construction of a much-discussed third reservoir in northwest Harris County.

Tuesday’s vote follows months of wrangling over the logistics of holding the bond election, including the cost of holding a special election and the ideal date to ensure voters turn out to support the measure.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Friday said he supports presenting the bond referendum to voters during the November general election, when turnout is expected to be considerable as voters weigh in on mid-term congressional elections.

“Without evidence of a clear path to victory for a summer-time bond election, which is likely to have low turnout, I have serious reservations about the proposed August date,” Ellis said. “The future of Harris County hinges on the success of this flood bond.”

It also is not yet clear what the bond referendum will include. Harris County Flood Control District Director of Operations Matt Zeve said that would be determined after Tuesday’s discussion at Commissioners Court.

County officials have said the necessity for bond money grows as federal grants pour in to prepare the Houston area for future floods or to recover from Harvey, many of which require a sometimes hefty financial match from local governments.

“The risk is that they may allocate the funds elsewhere and, thus, become unavailable for our region,” Emmett states in the proposed letter to Abbott.

See here, here, and here for the background. I get the reason for wanting to do this as quickly as possible, as grant money may get grabbed up by other places before we could approve a November referendum. August is a weird time for an election – looking at the County Clerk election result archives, the only August date I see is in 2014, for a special election runoff in SD04, which is only part of the county.

The last election that wasn’t in March or May or November that included the entire county was the 2003 Constitutional Amendment special election, which included the infamous tort “reform” measure and which was done in September specifically to reduce turnout from the Houston area, since we had an open seat Mayoral race that November. Turnout for that, which was a state election and not a county election, was 238,334, or 13.38% of registered voters. We have more registered voters now, but that percentage would still put us south of 300K. Compare that to the November 2014 general election, which had 688,018 voters, which was still only 33.65% turnout. I’d bet on November this year being closer to 800K voters, and likely a lot more Democratic than either of those other two contexts.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a need to get this done, and the one year anniversary of Harvey as a rallying cry, but a smaller electorate that may be more likely to not support any kind of spending measure. You also need Greg Abbott’s approval to hold this election, which you’ll probably get but is still an unknown factor. On the other hand, you could have a November vote with a bigger and likely friendlier electorate, but you risk losing out on some grant money, and maybe that much farther away from Harvey people will feel less of a sense of urgency to do something, or at least something that may be historically big. All things considered, my preference is still November, but we’ll see what Commissioners Court decides.

There will never be a hurricane named Harvey again

Or Irma or Maria or Nate.

Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate were so destructive and deadly during the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season that the World Meteorological Organization’s Hurricane Committee decided this week to retire those names from future Atlantic Basin tropical cyclone name lists.

Just as no New York Yankee will ever again wear number 3 (Babe Ruth), nor will a Green Bay Packer ever claim 15 (Bart Starr), no future Atlantic hurricane will ever be named Harvey, Irma, Maria or Nate.

Unlike an athlete’s number, however, there is no celebration when an Atlantic name is retired from future use.

Contrary to popular opinion, a committee of the World Meteorological Organization – not the U.S. National Hurricane Center – is responsible for the tropical cyclone name lists.

Atlantic hurricane and tropical storm name lists repeat every six years, unless one is so destructive and/or deadly that the committee votes to retire that name from future lists. This avoids the use of, say, Katrina, Sandy or Maria to describe a future weak, open-ocean tropical storm.

The names Harold, Idalia, Margot and Nigel will replace Harvey, Irma, Maria and Nate when the list is reused again in the year 2023.

I think I knew that hurricane names get retired – five names were discontinued after 2005, the year of Katrina, which is the record for one year – but I hadn’t thought about it till I saw this story. It makes sense, for the reason given. Let’s hope that this year no storms give the WMO a reason to take this action.

Harvey-affected schools may get a break on the STAAR test

Good.

Texas school districts hit hard by Hurricane Harvey may not have to worry as much about how well their students fare in this year’s standardized tests, Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath announced Wednesday at a meeting of the State Board of Education.

Morath said at the meeting that he understood the impact of the storm on schools and students, possibly signaling that he would consider not applying this year’s scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, to the agency’s assessment of Harvey-affected school districts.

Students across the state began taking STAAR exams this week.

Agency spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said agency officials will “look at the STAAR scores, and [Morath] will make determinations on districts or campuses based on some kind of Harvey-related waiver.” Based on that determination, STAAR scores may not be included in Harvey-impacted schools’ ratings, Culbertson said.

“I’m anticipating that a relatively large number of campuses, from Corpus to the Louisiana border, would be eligible for that,” Morath told the State Board of Education on Wednesday. He cited the devastating effects on schools of student and staff displacement, as well as school facility closures and disruptions, as reasons behind the decision.

This has always been the sensible thing to do. It may be that scores are not affected, and it may be that there’s a big difference. Whatever the case, there is nothing to be gained from penalizing the districts that were affected by Harvey. This was a traumatic event, and many people are still hurting. Don’t make a bad situation worse. Kudos to Mike Morath for keeping that in mind.

Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium report

From the inbox:

“Strategies for Flood Mitigation in Greater Houston, Edition 1”, a report released today by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, calls for accelerating the paradigm shift underway in how the Houston area plans for and recovers from flooding and its consequences. While eliminating flooding in Houston is not possible, there are practical opportunities for reducing the effect flooding has on people’s lives. This initial report, which is based on current information from multiple local agencies and experts, draws a number of key conclusions on Addicks and Barker reservoirs, including the important considerations about the proposed “third reservoir,” and flood mitigation tactics such as regulations, local drainage, and buyouts.

According to Consortium Project Manager Christof Spieler, “When the consortium was formed, its philanthropic funders intended to make Houston a more resilient city and ensure that all communities benefit from flood mitigation efforts. We’ve brought together experts on flooding, the environment, and urban planning, and, together, we are presenting our conclusions thus far. We hope they are useful to decision-makers as the region figures out how to respond through funding, policies, and projects.”

The philanthropic funders include Houston EndowmentKinder Foundation, and the Cynthia & George Mitchell Foundation with additional support from the Walton Family FoundationCullen Foundation, and Harte Charitable Foundation.

 

Among the key conclusions within the report:

Flood Mitigation Infrastructure:

 

v  There is no publicly available information that clearly proves or disproves the structural integrity of Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Rather than continue to subjectively debate this topic, there is a call for a clear report on the condition of the dams, including public transparency on risks and any required structural improvements that may be needed.

v  The “third reservoir” as currently proposed is primarily intended to mitigate new development. It is not designed to reduce flooding in Buffalo Bayou nor does it solve issues with the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. The “Plan 5” reservoir defined by the Cypress Creek Overflow Study creates a scenario that allows future development of the Katy Prairie, land that currently absorbs a considerable amount of stormwater.

v  A new reservoir in northwest Harris County, specifically designed to address the Cypress Creek watershed, could significantly help mitigate repeated flooding of Cypress. A “third reservoir” in the same general area studied in the Cypress Creek Overflow Study, that targets reducing flooding in the badly damaged Cypress Creek watershed, could be very effective in addressing repeated flooding in the downstream areas of that watershed.

v  Where watersheds remain undeveloped, acquisition of land along the bayous and creeks is a cost-effective flood mitigation tool. Whether in the upper undeveloped watershed or downstream along the channel and its tributaries, undeveloped land gives the water room to spread out in a flood event, to prevent the impacts that new development on that land would have, and to preserve these green spaces for flood mitigation.

Regulations:

 

v  Under current detention regulations, new development, especially in previously undeveloped areas, still increases downstream flooding. Natural ecosystems and agricultural areas absorb some water, hold some water through ponding, and release the rest slowly. While current detention regulations limit the rate of water, the assumed conditions in these calculations overestimate pre-development runoff rate and thus underestimate the increase in runoff. The regulations also do not limit total runoff volume, which is critical in multi-day storms.

 

v  The existing regulatory system overseen by multiple jurisdictions is confusing at best and possibly counter-productive. The current patchwork approach, with platting, detention, floodplain management, infrastructure requirements, and building regulations handled by multiple entities, makes it difficult to address watersheds, and as a whole, can allow harmful projects to slip through the gaps.

Buyouts:

 

v  Buyouts studied alongside flood control infrastructure allow for determining the most effective and least expensive solutions. This proactive approach is a departure from a system that is currently reactive, only buying homes that are hopelessly deep in a floodplain.Benefits can include preventing future flood damage, providing land for better flood control infrastructure, new parks and open space, and improved housing stock.

v  Extensive buyouts without a coordinated housing plan will worsen the affordable housing shortage already confronting the region. A countywide housing plan could anticipate future housing needs, particularly after a flood event and identify locations with access to work, schools, and social services.

v  Flexible funding from non-federal sources allows more properties to be included in buyout programs and encourages property owners to participate, avoiding the “checkerboard effect.” Federal funding comes with limitations while local funding can be flexible, addressing properties within a buyout area that don’t meet federal requirements and offering compensation and relocation assistance that makes moving feasible for residents.

Public Engagement:

v  An educated public is fundamental to building and sustaining support for the long work of mitigating flood impacts. Robust engagement through the decision-making process will not only improve results but ensure equitable outcomes.

General:

 

v  The level of flood protection across watersheds is not equitable. Addicks and Barker reservoirs are already able to handle the current 1 percent design storm. Even with the federal projects, Brays Bayou, Clear Creek, Hunting Bayou, White Oak Bayou and Greens Bayou will not be able to handle the 1 percent storm, and tributaries of those bayous, and well as several other major bayous like Cypress Creek and Vince Bayou have not been studied in detail or had projects identified.

v  Most flood control assessments, including the federal government’s cost-benefit ratio, calculate benefits through economic value, not impact on human lives. We can measure projects by the number of people who benefit or use more sophisticated tools like Social Impact Assessment.

A link to the full report can be found houstonconsortium.org.

In the coming months, watershed analyses will be completed, which will allow for more detailed conclusions and Edition II will include these findings.

See here for a bit of background, and here to find the report. It’s one thing to come up with good and constructive ideas, it’s another to get them implemented. You can start out with the support of political leaders, you can persuade them to adopt your ideas, and you can elect people who campaign on the promise of pursuing those ideas. I look forward to the next step in this process, because we’re going to need one. The Trib has more.

The Harvey effect on fire ants

Possibly another reason to curse that storm.

Rice University ecologists are checking to see if Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented floods gave a competitive boost to fire ants and crazy ants, two of southeast Texas’ least favorite uninvited guests.

Extreme weather events like Harvey are expected to become more likely as Earth’s climate changes due to greenhouse gas emissions, and scientists don’t understand how extreme weather will impact invasive pests, pollinators and other species that affect human well-being.

With support from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research (RAPID) program, Rice ecologists Tom Miller, Sarah Bengston and Scott Solomon, along with their students, are evaluating whether Harvey increased opportunities for invasion by exotic ants.

“Hurricane Harvey was, among other things, a grand ecological experiment,” said Miller, the principal investigator on the grant and the Godwin Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in Rice’s Department of BioSciences. “It offers a unique opportunity to explore whether a single extreme-weather event can re-shuffle an entire community of organisms.”

[…]

“We’re conducting monthly pitfall sampling at 19 established sites in the Big Thicket, a national preserve near Beaumont,” said [Sarah] Bengston, an ant expert, co-principal investigator on grant and Huxley Research Instructor of BioSciences. “Rice’s team has been working at these same sites for three years, and we know fire ants and tawny crazy ants, which are each invasive species, had begun to penetrate the intact native ecosystems in the park before the hurricane. We now want to know whether Harvey accelerated this invasion process.”

The RAPID funding will allow the team to document changes in ant communities and test whether changes in response to the hurricane are transient or represent new stable states.

I found the press release after seeing this Chron story based on it. All I can say is I hope the finding is negative.

Council approves new floodplain regulations

We’ve been waiting for this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Starting this fall, all new homes built in Houston’s floodplains must be elevated higher off the ground after a contentious debate and narrow vote by City Council on Wednesday to adopt the Bayou City’s first major regulatory response to the widespread flooding Hurricane Harvey unleashed last August.

The vote marks a shift away from Houston’s longtime aversion to constraining development, and means all new construction in the city’s floodplains will have to be built two feet above the projected water level in a 500-year storm.

The unusually tight 9-7 vote, which fell largely along party lines, came at the end of more than three hours of sometimes combative debate.

“This is a defining moment,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in his final pitch to the council. “Can we undo what was done with Harvey? No. But can we build looking forward? Yes. Does it mean it may cost more financially? Yes. But if it has the probability of saving lives, and if it has the probability of letting people know in our city and those who are looking to come to our city that we are taking measures to be stronger, to be more resilient, then that’s positive for the city of Houston.”

Democratic council members Karla Cisneros, David Robinson, Dwight Boykins, Ellen Cohen, Jerry Davis, Robert Gallegos and Amanda Edwards — along with Republican Dave Martin — joined Turner in backing the changes. Republicans Mike Knox, Jack Christie, Brenda Stardig, Michael Kubosh, Steve Le and Greg Travis, and Democrat Mike Laster opposed the regulations.

The new rules take effect Sept. 1 and apply to all new buildings within the 500-year floodplain, which is deemed to have a 0.2 percent chance of being inundated in any given year. Additions larger than a third of the home’s original footprint also will need to be elevated.

Current regulations mandate that buildings be constructed one foot above the flood level in a less severe 100-year storm and apply only within the 100-year floodplain, where properties are considered to have a 1 percent chance of being inundated in a given year. Wednesday’s vote marks the first time Houston is imposing minimum elevation requirements within the 500-year floodplain.

The new rules are similar to, but more stringent than those Harris County put into effect Jan. 1. There, new homes built in neighborhoods developed before 2009 must be built one foot above either the ground or the crown of the adjacent street, whichever is higher. The county’s regulations change little for homes to be built in subdivisions developed more recently.

See here and here for more on the county’s new floodplain regulations, here for a bit of background on the proposal that was passed, and here for an earlier Chron story that gets into some of the No-voting members’ resistance. No regulation is ever perfect, and I’m sure there’s debate to be had about what approach would have been best, but it sure seems a bit odd to me that at this point in Houston’s history that this kind of regulation wouldn’t be more broadly supported by Council. For those members who will be on the ballot next year – Knox, Kubosh, Le, and Travis – I’ll be very interested to see how this vote is received on the campaign trail.

Flood tunnels

It’s so crazy, it just might work.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is exploring the possibility of building several massive, deep tunnels aimed at keeping storm water out of flood-prone neighborhoods and carry it underground for miles to the Houston Ship Channel during major storms.

Never before tried around Houston, the project likely would cost several billion dollars and it is not clear where the money would come from, officials said. Specialized machines methodically digging 100 to 200 feet underground would take several years to complete the tunnels, which would seek to drain floodwaters from bayous across the county.

Officials with the flood control district said the idea could be a bold answer to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, and dramatically improve Houston’s defenses against deadly floods where other strategies have fallen short.

“What the flood control district has been doing for decades doesn’t occur fast enough or it doesn’t have the benefits that the public really wants,” said Matthew Zeve, director of operations at the flood control district. “We’ve been challenged to try to think of new ideas and new strategies and this is an answer to that challenge.”

[…]

A feasibility study is expected to cost around $400,000 and be completed by October.

News of the proposal fueled optimism and skepticism Friday — optimism that Harvey finally could force radical changes to Houston’s flood control strategy, and skepticism that such a monumental project could be accomplished when much less ambitious ideas have languished for decades.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, said in a statement he is “encouraged” the flood control district “is thinking outside the box and plans to conduct a feasibility study on this proposal. It certainly seems like this type of project could be partially funded by FEMA hazard mitigation grants and, perhaps, through other federal sources, as well.”

Houston’s flood czar, drainage engineer and former city councilman Steve Costello, said the project could be a potential paradigm shift for the region’s flood risk.

“We’re trying to lower the risk; we’re never going to be able to totally eliminate the risk,” Costello said, referencing efforts to improve drainage through local projects. “Well, a tunnel system, quite possibly, could eliminate the risk.”

As expensive and complex as it would be – Costello said he was told it could cost perhaps $100 million per mile, in Houston’s soils – he said tunnels may be the most cost-effective way to achieve the gold standard of 100-year storm protection in every major channel.

Jim Thompson, regional CEO for engineering Giant AECOM, said the tunnels are “worthy projects” that warrant further study, but said officials ought to prioritize long-identified projects along bayous and city streets first.

“Would it provide the cure-all relief that everybody is seeking? No,” Thompson said. “Would it provide a noticeable decrease in flood levels and risk of flooding? The answer is possibly yes.”

There’s a connection to Elon Musk in all this, because of course there is. Other cities, like Tokyo, have similar tunnels, so the idea is neither crazy nor unprecedented. But like all things, until and unless there’s a budget and an appropriation, it’s just an idea. Commissioners Court has approved the feasibility study, so we’ll see what they come up with.

Houston’s flood mitigation priorities

The sooner the better with this.

Stephen Costello

Converting a defunct golf course and dormant landfills into detention basins, digging new channels and buying out or elevating scores of homes are among Houston leaders’ key priorities as Hurricane Harvey recovery funds begin flowing to the Texas Gulf coast.

Houston flood czar Steve Costello on Wednesday presented to city council a list of 13 projects Houston plans to submit to state officials in competition for the first $500 million of an expected $1 billion in FEMA mitigation aid released after Harvey.

The projects would cover a handful of watersheds and would cost a combined $723 million, according to preliminary estimates.

“There’s a lot of variables here. We, first of all, need to see if the state is willing to support them,” Costello said. “These projects all collectively are about $700 million and there’s only $1 billion for the entire state, so some of these projects won’t make the list.”

Costello said he expects to submit initial paperwork to the state on the first group of projects within days. As state officials agree the submitted items are worthwhile, he said, the city will return to drafting the more detailed grant applications — including cost-benefit analyses required by FEMA — that are due in June.

[…]

Costello said he selected projects based on their potential impact, the opportunity for the city to partner with other governments to complete them, and the extent to which the projects were ready to be built quickly. Many of the ideas, he added, existed before Harvey but have gotten renewed focus since the storm.

Click over to see the list. The priorities make sense, as does the idea of partnering with other entities where possible. Not everything will get funded, but you have to assume we’ll get a lot of what we’re asking for. And what we don’t get, the state will need to step up and fill in. We can’t afford not to take this very seriously.

How about we excavate those reservoirs?

Okay by me.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is quietly exploring the possibility of excavating dirt from Addicks and Barker reservoirs, reviving an oft-discussed proposal that would allow the reservoirs to hold more storm water and keep it out of nearby Houston neighborhoods.

Depending on the scope of the project, removing silt and dirt could increase the reservoirs’ capacity significantly, perhaps even doubling it, by one Corps official’s rough estimate. Whether the agency moves forward could depend in part on whether it can find someone to take all the dirt.

[…]

The idea of excavating the reservoirs has been a fixture of official reports and politicians’ to-do lists for more than 20 years. Thanks to Harvey, its time may finally have arrived.

In a notice posted on the Internet, the Army Corps said it “is evaluating the level of interest from government, industry, and others parties for the excavation and removal of alluvial soils deposited within” the reservoirs.

“The concept of the potential project is to allow for the beneficial use of material by interested parties while increasing capacity” at Addicks and Barker, the notice said.

It appeared Jan. 24, with no public announcement, on a website that advertises business opportunities with the federal government.

Corps officials won’t say anything further about their plans, including how much soil would be excavated, how much it would cost or who would pay.

Read on to learn more about the dirt, which is actually kind of interesting. The question of how much this would cost and who would pay for it seems to me to be the more fundamental issue. A third reservoir is still a good idea, but increasing the capacity of the existing reservoirs would be wise as well. Probably cheaper, and faster to accomplish, too. I doubt anyone is opposed to this, so what do we need to do to get this started?

Will we ever get an Ike Dike?

We will when it gets funded. When might it get funded? Ummm…

If the Houston-Galveston region continues to boom for the next 60 years and sea level rises as scientists predict, a direct hit to Galveston from a massive hurricane could destroy an estimated $31.8 billion worth of homes, a new study says.

But Texas A&M researchers found that if the government builds a 17-foot barrier about 60 miles long from Galveston Island to Bolivar Peninsula, the potential residential destruction from a storm surge would drop to about $6 billion – a reduction of more than 80 percent.

The only problem: So far, Texas can’t get congressional funding to build the coastal barrier, a proposal that has been floated since Hurricane Ike threatened to make a run for Galveston in 2008.

“The numbers make sense,” said state Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who has tried for years to get federal funding for a coastal barrier, estimated to cost up to $12 billion. “This investment is going to pay for itself time and time again.”

The cost-benefit numbers could change with additional data: The A&M study only looked at damages to homes and apartments from a storm surge – not flooding caused by rainfall – and excludes the potential harm to the region’s commercial buildings and its bustling ports.

[…]

U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, a Friendswood Republican, said some Republican lawmakers have pushed back against funding infrastructure as part of disaster relief, warning it sets a bad precedent.

Weber said he hopes to get the coastal barrier included in an infrastructure package if efforts to include it in disaster relief ultimately fail.

“This is foolish for us to just keep paying for these disasters over and over and over again,” Weber said. “How about something to prevent this from happening on the next go around?”

That story was from January, before the budget agreement that included disaster relief, but still no Ike Dike. I should note that the state has been officially asking for Ike Dike money since April, well before Harvey. But you know, there was Obamacare to repeal and tax cuts for millionaires to push and collusion investigations to obstruct. The Republicans have just had their hands full, you know? I’m sure they’ll get to it eventually. Hurricane season doesn’t begin for another four months, right? So there’s no rush.

So where are we on Harvey response?

Stuff is happening.

Local and state leaders are moving toward a major, lengthy and costly overhaul of the region’s flood defenses that includes regulating developmentmassive buyouts of flood-prone properties and flood-prevention projects that have been discussed for decades but never built.

Few of the initiatives will be complete before hurricane season starts in June, but nearly six months after Hurricane Harvey ripped through the Texas Gulf Coast and devastated the nation’s fourth-largest city, leaders are seeking to address long-ignored shortcomings laid bare by one of the most intense rainstorms in U.S. history.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he can write a check for a third reservoir to better protect areas west of Houston from inundation as well as attempt to avoid the types of releases from Addicks and Barker dams that swamped Houston downstream during Harvey.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to join Harris County in strengthening regulation on the region’s rapid development to protect the city’s population from floodwaters and alleviate the burden on taxpayers to repair and rebuild flood-prone properties.

Harris County leaders want a major bond issue – and a corresponding increase in property taxes – this year to pay for bayou drainage projects and, possibly, broad buyouts in flood-prone areas.

There’s also broad support for legislation that would require buyers of property in reservoir flood pools, which are dry much of the time, to be notified of flooding risks; 30,000 homes have been built in the flood pools of Addicks and Barker, and many owners say they had no idea they were living in an area designed to hold water during times of heavy rain. More than 9,000 of those homes flooded during Harvey.

Some of the local response has been slowed as officials waited to see what Congress will be willing to fund, a logjam that started to break late in the week with the approval of nearly $90 billion for victims of this year’s storms and natural disasters – much of it for recovery, not prevention. But state and local officials tell the Houston Chronicle they remain committed to broader improvements.

That was written before the Congressional budget deal was reached, so that obstacle should be removed, though it’s still not totally clear what that will mean. County Commissioners will need to figure that out for the bond referendum they’re planning. There are now more FEMA funds available for recovery, which is nice but makes you wonder why it took so long.

It’s a little hard for me as someone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey to judge if “enough” progress has been made. My friends who were flooded out are still dealing with it; one family is about to move back into their repaired home, which was damaged by the dam releases, another has made the decision to sell and live elsewhere, others are in similar places. I can’t speak for them, but we will all have the opportunity to listen to them as the elections approach. I have to assume that every elected official is going to have to answer for his or her actions and decisions during and after Harvey. I feel like this could be a point of weakness for Greg Abbott, and I think that Andrew White’s campaign ad touting his actions during Harvey is a smart move. It’s too soon to say how much of an effect Harvey will have on November – I don’t get the sense that it’s a difference maker in the primaries, but at least on the Democratic side that may be because no one disagrees with the notion that more can and should have been done to aid the recovery and mitigate against future floods – but it will be there. The time to take action to shield oneself against charges that one’s response was inadequate is rapidly running out, if it hasn’t already.

Will we or won’t we get a county bond election for flood control?

Answer unclear, try again later.

Judge Ed Emmett

In an interview with the Chronicle, [Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett described the various factors that are at play as the county grapples with the possible bond referendum, which would be one of the biggest ever proposed by the county.

There isn’t a clear picture yet of what would be part of the bond referendum. At a recent Commissioners Court meeting, officials emphasize the need to keep the language vague enough to give them flexibility in how to spend the money, but specific enough to make sure the voters know what they are buying.

Emmett said the construction of a highly-anticipated third dam and reservoir northwest of the city would not be part of the measure.

County officials previously have described buyouts and improvements to Houston-area bayous as things that could be paid for with the bonds.

What is included depends, in part, on what happens in Congress, and whether the state is willing to pay for any projects.

The timing and content of what will be included in the referendum have, thus far, hinged on knowing what the federal government is willing to pay for. That will not become clear until Congress passes legislation that could fund at least some flood control projects, such as improvements to Brays, White Oak, Hunting bayous or Clear Creek.

[…]

“You have some in Washington who say if the local government calls a bond election before they act, that will send a signal that ‘Well they don’t necessarily need as much money because they’re doing it locally,'” he said. “There’s another group up there that says if a local government calls a bond election, that shows they are real partners.”

See here for the background. This week’s Congressional budget deal includes the long-awaited disaster relief funds, so perhaps that will clarify things a bit for Commissioners Court. I can’t really imagine them not putting something on the ballot, it’s just a matter of what. We’ll see if they can figure it out now.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for Harvey aid

Your Republican Congress, ladies and gentlemen.

Republican lawmakers were hammering out a stop-gap deal Wednesday to avert a weekend government shutdown of the federal government this weekend, setting aside a long-sought disaster aid package for the victims of Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters.

Frustrations are rising among officials in Houston and Austin over the inaction. As Texas officials feared, an $81 billion storm relief bill passed by the House in December continues to languish amid congressional brinkmanship over a wider budget agreement, with Republicans insisting on funding President Donald Trump’s border wall and Democrats holding out for a deal to protect young immigrants from deportation.

A spokeswoman for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the standoff a disappointment.

“The governor has been in frequent contact with leaders in Congress and the administration advocating the necessity for funding to rebuild Texas,” said the spokeswoman, Ciara Matthews. “He has received assurance after assurance. Yet every day that goes by without funding is another day that Texans who have been upended by Hurricane Harvey go without the resources needed to rebuild their lives.”

With time running out on a midnight Friday deadline to keep the lights on in Washington — the third since last September — GOP leaders unveiled a plan Tuesday night to pass another stop-gap funding measure until February 16.

With most Democrats expected to reject the plan, GOP leaders were whipping up support Wednesday to pass the funding extension with Republican votes alone. It remained uncertain, though, whether the plan could win the support of conservative Freedom Caucus members and defense hawks pushing for a full year of military spending.

Freedom Caucus Leader Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, sounded a skeptical note Tuesday night, telling Capitol Hill reporters, “There’s not enough support to pass it with GOP-only votes in the House.”

The Republicans don’t need any Democratic help to pass a bill to keep the government funded, as they have the majority in both houses of Congress. Except they do need Democratic help because they’re a bunch of dysfunctional lunatics who can’t tie their own shoes without help. Enough members of their caucus won’t vote for anything non-destructive to prevent them from being able to get stuff done. You know what you’d get with a Democratic Congress? Not this. Being functional and keeping the lights on is what Democrats do. Oh, and providing disaster aid in a timely fashion, they do that too. It’s something they believe in, you know? Just something to keep in mind.

County will try to repair criminal court building

Good luck with that.

After twice closing the 20-story downtown criminal courthouse due to flood damage since it was completed in 2000, Harris County leaders are planning to repair the shuttered building so the next time it floods it can be reopened within days – not months – of the water receding.

The retrofitting is a bitter disappointment to some of the building’s most frequent users, mostly defense lawyers and prosecutors, who hoped the year-long closing – the second in the building’s 17 years of operation – would convince county leaders to build a new courthouse on higher ground nearby.

The towering building, a block from Buffalo Bayou and home to county offices and more than 40 courtrooms, is completely unusable after Hurricane Harvey. It will remain closed for at least the next six to seven months, with some courts and offices not being able to return to operation until as late as July 2019, officials confirmed.

The delay means criminal court judges will likely spend a year presiding over dockets in the concrete basement of the county jail and almost all Harris County judges, civil and criminal, will stay doubled up in packed courtrooms in three other courthouses. Grand jurors meet in the historic 1910 courthouse, a blocks away.

Four months after the Hurricane Harvey flooded the lower floors, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he does not know yet what is in store for the iconic downtown criminal courts facility. Emmett said he waiting for a recommendation from the county engineer, and the county engineer noted that a squad consultants hired by the county are just beginning their analysis.

The decision to spend what could be another $20 million to fix a $100 million building has critics asking whether the county is throwing good money after bad at the long-troubled skyscraper at 1201 Franklin.

“It’s time to scrap it and start over,” attorney Chris Tritico said in a widely circulated proposal in October. “There were errors in planning, design and execution. Our Commissioners Court should stop spending money on a building that will never work for the purpose it was intended and spend our money on a permanent fix.”

[…]

County officials say they want to fix up the courthouse then dive deep into what criminal justice, and county population, might look like in 20 to 50 years.

“With the population growing so fast, if we build a building today, are they going to see the same inefficiencies in 20 years,” asked County Budget Officer Bill Jackson. “When you build these buildings, you don’t build for what you need today, you build for what you’re going to need in 20 years.”

He noted that the internet has fundamentally changed the way we do business in the past 20 years, and the internet will undoubtedly change criminal justice in ways that should be studied before proposing any major construction. He cited Amazon.com as an example of an innovation that fundamentally changed the way Americans shop.

Jackson estimated that a new courthouse would cost at least $140 to $210 million. In 2016, Los Angeles built a 25 courtroom facility for $340 million. A 22-story courthouse in San Diego opened earlier this year with 70 courts and a jury assembly room at a cost of $555 million.

“Half a billion dollar courthouse and I bet they look at in 20 years and say, ‘What were we thinking?’ simply because of all the electronics and the way the younger people will do business,” he said.

See here, here, and here for some background. Seems to me that we’re still going to have arraignments and jury trials twenty years from now, so I’m not sure what lessons from Amazon Bill Jackson thinks we can learn. We’re probably going to have a Harris County bond issue on the ballot this year. Why not at least consider the possibility of starting over with the courthouse? It’s a big commitment and would mean a longer time frame for getting things back to normal, but the track record of the current building is not encouraging. How many times will it have to flood out before we think about other options?

The Harvey effect on marine research

It’s tough being on the coast sometimes.

Jagged splinters of wood stick out of the shoreline – all that’s left of a pier that once stretched 100 yards into the Gulf of Mexico.

White plastic tarps flap in the whipping December wind atop dozens of roofs that failed to withstand the brutal force of a hurricane. Small buildings nearby are caved in, while sturdier ones are stripped to the studs to prevent the spread of mold.

The 72-acre plot looks like an abandoned town from the 1970s.

Only it’s not an abandoned town. It’s the University of Texas at Austin’s once-thriving Marine Science Institute, the first of its kind on the Gulf. It’s been four months since Hurricane Harvey decimated the coastal town of Port Aransas – where the institute calls home – and officials still are months from bringing research efforts back online.

Faculty and students have been displaced, many to Texas A&M University’s Corpus Christi campus, millions of dollars of equipment has been destroyed and decades of research that cannot be replicated has been lost.

Institute leaders still are assessing the damage, which already has filled a 3,500-line spreadsheet, but the cost to rebuild will be in the “many tens of millions of dollars,” said Robert Dickey, institute director.

But they will rebuild, Dickey said. And they will be better prepared for the next hurricane.

“We want it done as quickly as possible, but it has to be done right,” Dickey said. “We’ll apply what we learned from this storm to our redesign.”

[…]

Dickey plans to use Harvey’s destruction on the institute as an opportunity to rebuild stronger and safer.

When all the damage is assessed and the insurance money rolls in, Dickey plans to “harden” the buildings against hurricanes by installing polycarbonate windows, bitumen roofs – rated against wind, fire and hail – and resistant materials for doors.

“We need to make everything more resilient,” he said.

The structures need to withstand a Category 4 storm. They need to fare as well as the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium’s center on Summerland Key did during Hurricane Irma.

You can click over and read the rest. In the grand scheme of things, there are higher priority items than a marine research facility, and with UT’s fundraising muscle behind it the institute should be back and more prepared for big storms in the future. I post this mostly because there can’t be too many illustrations of the damage that Harvey caused or how high the stakes are as we try to prepare for when – not if – another storm like it strikes.

The Harvey effect on the Waugh Street Bridge bat colony

It was bad, but we hope they will recover.

Tens of thousands of bats perished or were displaced from their home at the Waugh Bat Colony when Hurricane Harvey swept through the city this summer, according to bat experts.

“Pre-Harvey, we had at least 300,000 bats in the bridge,” said Diana Foss, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and coordinator of the Houston area bat team.

“But watching the emergence at Waugh right now is kind of depressingly lower than that,” she continued, describing the daily flood of bats from beneath the bridge at Allen Parkway and Waugh Drive, during which bats emerge en masse at twilight to hunt for food. “What I’m seeing is, about half the bats are emerging.”

When the hurricane dropped more than 50 inches of rain on the city, the bayou’s water downtown surged to record levels. For the first time since the bats took up residence in the cracks beneath the Waugh overpass, the elevated highway was submerged. Bats lacked the 15 feet of clearance they need to drop down from their roosts and take to the sky. Their plight didn’t go unnoticed. Residents tried to save the bats, hanging off the bridge and scooping them from the water as they rushed by. But it wasn’t a perfect science.

[…]

In the days and weeks after the storm, residents noticed a new pattern in the sky during the bats’ evening emergence: In addition to a swarm of winged mammals flying out from beneath the bridge, smaller populations exit from nearby buildings. They join up with the bats from the bridge during their hunt, then return to their new homes for the night, before repeating the same cycle the next day.

Whether these displaced bats will return to their former home under the bridge isn’t yet known, said Cullen Geiselman, a member of the local bat team, who earned her doctorate studying bats.

“I guess they could have moved on,” she said. “We’ve played with some ideas and haven’t gotten very far.”

Houstonia wrote about this in the immediate aftermath. As noted, some number of bats managed to move to other dens, and some others have returned to Waugh. The overall population is definitely smaller, and bats don’t have high reproduction rates, but the hope is that over time the colony under the bridge will get back to its previous side. I’m rooting for them.

The climate change effect on storms like Harvey

More likely and more extreme is the tl;dr version of this.

The research presented Wednesday began soon after Harvey dumped feet of rain on the Houston area. World Weather Attribution — an international effort to analyze the potential influence of climate change on extreme weather events — decided to look at how greenhouse gases might have contributed to that extreme rainfall.

Studies have consistently shown that greenhouse gas-induced warming should increase the amount of rain that falls during a tropical cyclone, according to the paper.

“In general, the maximum moisture content of air increases with 6% to 8.5% per degree warming,” the paper states. “If relative humidity stays the same, which is the norm near oceans, the actual amount of water vapour in the air increases by the same amount.”

To examine this idea, scientists used multiple climate models to analyze the amount of rain that fell over a three day period (Aug. 26-28) in Baytown, compared to other three-day rain events dating back to 1880.

For the purposes of the paper, they focused on extreme rainfall as the main cause of the flooding and did not take into account the impact of other factors such as Galveston Bay’s sea level rise or the effect of Houston’s urban development on flood plains.

Those models showed that global warming over the past century has increased the severity of three-day rain events on the Gulf Coast, according to the paper.

The intensity of rainfall increased 15 percent during that time, the paper states, while the likelihood that this much rain would fall was increased three fold.

The paper itself is here. We’ve seen other research in recent weeks with similar conclusions, so this should come as no surprise. If you don’t believe the world is changing after what happened this summer, I honestly don’t know what might convince you. The Trib has more.

One small piece of relief for Harvey-affected school districts

It’s not much, but it’s something.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is not changing state standardized test dates for students affected by Hurricane Harvey, but he is waiving some requirements for certain students, his agency said Thursday.

Students across the state will be still required to take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, as scheduled in March and May. But after pressure from Gov. Greg Abbott, Morath sent a letter to Harvey-affected school districts today saying students who fail required standardized state tests in fifth and eighth grade twice can graduate, as long as their local districts officials agree they are ready.

Normally, fifth- and eighth-grade students, who must pass the STAAR reading and math tests to graduate, must take the tests up to three times if they fail. If a student doesn’t pass on the third try, he or she cannot graduate unless a committee of his or her educators and parents unanimously agrees to promote the student.

With Morath’s announcement, Harvey-affected districts will have more leeway to decide whether to require students to take the test a third time and to decide locally whether students who fail the tests can graduate.

Rescheduling the STAAR tests was never really an option, as it would have been disruptive to many school districts. Indeed, a large majority of superintendents were opposed to rescheduling the STAAR. This at least gives some kids who have been traumatized in one way or another by Harvey a chance to stay on track, with their classmates. Morath may still make further adjustments to the accountability system later, which if it does happen will probably be after the tests are taken and we get some idea of how the scores were affected. At least the TEA is being open to suggestion.

Thinking big about fighting flooding

Christof Spieler, on behalf of the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium, comments on a proposal to move forward post-Harvey.

On Oct. 25, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett released 15 recommendations for mitigating damages from future flood events. The researchers collaborating through the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium appreciate his willingness to release his priorities for public review and discussion.

The consortium was established by the Houston Endowment, Kinder Foundation and Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation to provide the public and decision-makers with important information so that Harris County and related watersheds can be rebuilt as a stronger, more resilient, more equitable and more livable region.

We found Judge Emmett’s list to have many merits. The consortium is thoroughly assessing the implications of the 15 recommendations and plans to share our conclusions soon. In advance of detailed conclusions, we have organized the issues into six broad themes.

See here for the background. You should read the whole thing, but I’ll give you those six broad themes: Structural projects, green infrastructure, risk education, development and buildings, planning, and governance. There’s a lot to do, but there’s a lot to talk about first, and the conversation is just beginning. Read and see what you think.

HISD proposes to rebuild four schools damaged by Harvey

Seems reasonable.

Students at four storm-damaged Houston ISD elementary schools wouldn’t return to their home campuses until at least 2020 under a district proposal for replacing the structures announced Monday.

The $126-million plan calls for the four campuses — Braeburn, Kolter, Mitchell and Scarborough elementary schools — to be demolished and rebuilt at their current locations. The properties would be elevated to prevent the type of flooding that occurred after Hurricane Harvey, district officials said.

Houston ISD’s Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on the plan Thursday.

“Based on the catastrophic flood damage and the elevation increase each campus would need to prevent future flooding, we’ve decided that the best use of HISD resources is to rebuild these four buildings,” the district’s chief operating officer, Brian Busby, said in a statement.

Students attending the four schools have been in temporary locations since September, traveling distances ranging from four to 11 miles away from their home campus. It’s not immediately known whether students would remain at the same temporary campuses until the new buildings are constructed.

[…]

District officials expect that virtually all storm-related costs will be covered through insurance, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and state aid. As the district awaits reimbursement for costs, the $126 million for reconstruction would be paid out of the district’s “rainy day” reserves and Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone funds.

Trustee Mike Lunceford, whose district includes Braeburn and Kolter elementary schools, said decisions about rebuilding schools should be made now, rather than waiting for payments from FEMA and the state. He said he’s supportive of the district’s plan, though he has a few questions about the cost and a separate proposal to change the district’s policies for maintaining reserve funds.

“A lot of people are talking to me, asking if we’re going to rebuild the schools,” Lunceford said. “They definitely need to be rebuilt. Both schools (in my district) have more than adequate population.”

Not using these schools is not an option, and not doing something to mitigate against future flooding, however unlikely another Harvey may be, is irresponsible. The funding should be there, but if in the end HISD has to float some bonds for this, it’s worth it. The Press has more.

The dolphins in the bay

Dolphins in Galveston Bay are having health issues.

Kristi Fazioli first spotted the pair of dolphins swimming behind a shrimp trawler near Morgan’s Point, eager to get a mouthful of breakfast.

They appeared healthy as they popped in and out of the choppy waters typical for a November day on Galveston Bay. But a second glance showed the truth: Their skin was mottled and blotchy, covered in a patchwork of white lesions that stood in stark contrast to the gray coloring characteristic of bottlenose dolphins.

Where some might have winced at the dolphins’ sickly appearance, Fazioli, a research associate at the University of Houston-Clear Lake’s Environmental Institute of Houston, calmly snapped photos of the lesions, documenting the time, date and place of the sighting.

This is the post-Hurricane Harvey reality for the popular bay dolphins, known to swim alongside boats and ferries throughout Galveston Bay. Nearly three months after the storm’s destruction, the more than 500 dolphins she’s documented in Upper Galveston Bay still are struggling to recover.

After the storm, some dolphins turned up with excessive skin lesions. Others were skinny and malnourished. Still others vacated the bay and have not returned for the season.

These changes in dolphin health and behavior have been observed in other areas after hurricanes, but Fazioli said little is known about the short- and long-term impacts of such an event.

Excess amounts of freshwater, and higher levels of pollution, are considered possible causes. Both resulted from the rain and runoff in Hurricane Harvey. Researchers are trying to get a better handle on it now, and they should have a lot of data to work with. I wish them the best.

The Harvey effect on the state budget

You know what the solution to this is, right?

Senate leaders warned Tuesday that Hurricane Harvey could put a billion-dollar hole in Texas’ budget, an ever-growing number that could affect how much money is available for other state programs.

Only $20 million remains in the state disaster-assistance fund, Senate Finance Committee Chair Jane Nelson said at a public hearing Tuesday on the status of hurricane recovery efforts.

“Our state costs are escalating,” said Nelson, R-Flower Mound. “We need to be judicious. … If we, God forbid, had another disaster in the next 18 months, where would we get the money?”

The Legislature will not convene in a regular session until January 2019.

The state has spent more than $1.7 billion so far in state funds, along with billions in federal assistance, according to updated numbers provided to the committee on Tuesday. Legislative Budget Board officials said as much as $2 billion in additional state funds may be needed in 2019 to cover hurricane-related school costs.

[…]

[Land Commissioner George P.] Bush said that $1 billion in immediate state funding would allow temporary housing assistance to be speeded up. Those funds could be fully reimbursed later by the federal government, he said.

State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, suggested those funds could be borrowed quickly from the state’s Rainy Day Fund – a savings account – to expedite the housing recovery for thousands of Texans, some of whom are living in tents.

“We’d need to have a special session” to approve that borrowing, West said, drawing silence from other committee members.

Yes, that is what the Rainy Day fund is for. Not specifically for disaster recovery – that was the bogus justification invented by Rick Perry in 2011 as an excuse for not alleviating cuts to the public education budget – but to help cover budget shortfalls in bad times. The choice is pretty simple, either we draw money from the Rainy Day fund to help the thousands of people who remain displaced by Harvey, or we decide they’re not worth our time and compassion. No wonder Sen. West got no response when he brought it up.

Harvey’s lingering health effects

It’s going to be a long time before we can really say we have put Hurricane Harvey behind us.

Three months after Hurricane Harvey, local health officials now are beginning to see the storm after the storm.

In Harris County and the other hardest-hit regions of Texas, 17 percent of those who had houses damaged or suffered income loss report that someone in their household has a new or worsening health condition. A sweeping new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation shows a similar proportion feels their own mental health has worsened.

“We’re not anywhere near the end yet,” cautioned Dr. Cindy Rispin, a family physician with the Memorial Hermann Medical Group in League City.

Researchers surveyed more than 1,600 Texans in 24 affected counties to gauge their personal recovery. The report released Tuesday found a region still reeling in ways obvious and hidden.

[…]

More than four in 10 residents surveyed for the “Early Assessment of Hurricane Harvey’s Impact on Vulnerable Texans in the Gulf Coast Region” report said their homes had hurricane damage. Three percent reported their homes were destroyed.

Among those whose homes were damaged, nearly half said they had homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, but only 23 percent had flood insurance.

“We’re going to see foreclosures hit. It will probably be people that financially were in a tight spot already,” real estate agent Matthew Guzman said in a recent interview.

Perhaps most ominous is the quiet toll Harvey is still taking, months later, on people’s physical and mental health.

Worse, many storm victims were already uninsured in a state that leads the nation in those without coverage. Even those with coverage complained they cannot afford health care, especially as longtime doctors are no longer nearby when people become displaced. About six in 10 say they have skipped or postponed needed treatment, cut back on medication or struggled to get mental health care.

An executive summary of the poll, with links to all the poll data, is here. Some sobering facts from the summary:

About half of those who have applied for disaster assistance from FEMA or the SBA say their application is still pending or has been denied, and many of those who were denied say they were not told the reason for the denial and were not given information on how to resubmit their application. About a quarter of those whose homes were damaged say they had any flood insurance. Four in ten of those who were affected say they expect none of their financial losses to be covered by insurance or other assistance.

The financial situations of most people affected by Harvey are tenuous. About half of affected residents say they have no savings whatsoever, and another quarter say that if they lost their job or other source of income, their savings would be exhausted in less than 6 months.

Nearly half of affected residents say they are not getting the help they need to recover from the hurricane. Particular areas that stand out where residents say they need more help include applying for disaster assistance and repairing damage to their homes.

Local, county, and state governments receive high marks from residents for their response to Hurricane Harvey so far. Residents are more mixed in their views of how the U.S. Congress has responded, and responses tilt negative when it comes to President Trump’s response. Four in ten affected residents are not confident relief funds will benefit those most in need.

I wish I could say people are being needlessly pessimistic, but I can’t. ThinkProgress and the Trib have more.

County approves floodplain regulation change

Five hundred is the new one hundred.

The Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously on Tuesday to make significant changes to the way the county regulates new development, including a slew of new restrictions in Hurricane Harvey’s wake that officials say are necessary to prepare the Houston area for future flooding events.

The regulations will, for the first time in two decades, increase the amount new homes must be elevated to avoid floodwaters, up to 8 feet higher than previously required in some flood-prone parts of the county.

The new rules also would, for the first time, impose regulations in a 500-year floodplain instead of a 100-year floodplain.

See here for the background. This would take effect on January 1, and the idea has support from developers’ groups. A lot more than this will be needed, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Cleaning up Buffalo Bayou

This is a big job, and it’s going to take a long time.

Three months after flood torrents from Hurricane Harvey submerged Buffalo Bayou Park under almost 39 feet of water, scars left by the storm are still evident.

Mounds of sand still sit waist-high in some parts of the 160-acre park, branches and stripped trees still hang from the underside of bridges spanning the bayou and waterlogged plant matter still chokes tributaries that feed into Houston’s central waterway.

“The silt levels that resulted from Harvey were beyond anything that we have ever seen with any flooding event,” Buffalo Bayou Partnership president Anne Olson said.

The complete recovery effort, estimated to take another four to six months, involves clearing the over 70,000 cubic yards of sediments the bayou deposited along its banks as floodwaters made their way to Galveston Bay.

“Initially, the sand was higher than my head,” the Buffalo Bayou Partnership’s volunteer coordinator Leticia Sierras said. “The trails here were all buried.”

Here’s an update from the Buffalo Bayou Partnership detailing the work they’ve been doing to clean things up. The bayou is both functional and one of the city’s best features, so getting it fixed up, and giving some thought as to how to mitigate against this kind of damage in the future, is a priority.

Golf courses against flooding

The Washington Post looks at how Clear Lake made it through Harvey.

Like many parts of Houston, Clear Lake City has a history of flooding. The area got an unexpected break when Hurricane Harvey dumped record rainfall, thanks to its decision years ago to sacrifice one of its golf courses to flood control.

After 12 years of planning, crews in November completed the first of five construction phases of Exploration Green. Three months ago Harvey gave the budding project its first trial, and planners say it saved 150 homes from inundation.

“It held the water like a champ,” said Doug Peterson, a retired NASA employee and 30-year Clear Lake City resident who helps lead the community effort to turn the 178-acre former golf course into a combination wetland park and floodwater reservoir. “This project is a model for other areas where we’ve had these massive rains.”

When Exploration Green is completed in 2021, it will drain up to half a billion gallons of storm water and protect up to 3,000 homes, officials say.

While Houston struggles to develop a more robust regional drainage system, Exploration Green shows how a local community can claim land for local flood control. Planners have turned from the concrete basins of the past and look instead to existing green space to drain floods.

“Its being a golf course made construction really easy,” said Kelly Shipley, project manager for Exploration Green and an engineer with LAN, Inc. “You can just dig a hole, essentially.”

The greater Houston area has its share of golf courses as well, and this idea has been suggested as one tool in the box of flood mitigation. I’m not sure who gets to decide which golf courses would be better used as detention ponds, but to the extent that it makes sense to do, I’m fine with it.