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flooding

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.

Endorsement watch: Chron for White

The Chron endorses Andrew White for Governor.

Andrew White

Democrats need to choose the candidate who, quite simply, will appeal to the most voters in a contest against Abbott. We believe that candidate is Andrew White.

White, 45, is a Houston entrepreneur who’s never before run for office, but he’s not exactly a political novice. He’s basically the Democratic George W. Bush of this race. Like Bush in 1994, he’s never won an election. And like Bush, his most valuable political asset is his father’s name. He’s the son of former Gov. Mark White, an education reformer who was respected by many Texas Democrats until the day he died last August.

White has cast himself as a common sense Democrat running for governor “to bring sanity and reason back to state government.” His top priority is improving public education, and he’s campaigning on a pledge to give every public school teacher a $5,000 a year raise. White proposes to fund his teacher pay hike by closing loopholes under which big businesses routinely dodge paying billions of dollars in commercial property taxes.

We’re not exactly fans of political dynasties, but White ultimately won our endorsement with his answer to one obvious question. He’s the only Democratic gubernatorial candidate who seems to have given serious thought to the state government’s role in protecting Gulf Coast residents from flooding. While the other candidates who spoke to our editorial board offered only vague thoughts about this critical issue, White specifically discussed the need for a third reservoir in west Harris County and the importance of leveraging federal funds to build a coastal barrier system.

After Hurricane Harvey, flood control should be the top concern voters in the Houston area consider when they cast their ballots. Maybe White has a grasp of the issue only because he lives here and he piloted his boat around inundated neighborhoods rescuing flood victims. But any serious candidate for governor speaking to people in Houston should have good answers for basic questions about this topic.

Yesterday was a pretty good day for the White campaign, as he garnered the Houston GLBT Political Caucus endorsement as well. (The AFL-CIO went for Lupe Valdez.) I prefer Valdez myself, but I can’t argue with the Chron’s reasoning. Frankly, flooding issues and the state’s lackadaisical response – it was worthwhile to call a special session on bathrooms, but not Harvey recovery? – as well as the uselessness of Congress ought to be a prime campaign issue for Dems up and down the ballot. If White has the best answers for these questions, that will undoubtedly make him a more appealing candidate.

Mayor proposes new floodplain development rules

Good idea.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday proposed tightening development rules to strengthen Houston’s defenses against flooding, the city’s first concrete step to change building practices since Hurricane Harvey inundated hundreds of thousands of homes last August.

Turner’s proposed changes would require all new buildings outside the floodplain to be elevated two feet above the ground, and all new construction within the 500-year floodplain to be lifted two feet above the projected flood level during a 500-year storm. Current rules stipulate that buildings be constructed one foot above the flood level in a 100-year storm.

The mayor also intends to make builders redeveloping large parcels of land provide more stormwater detention than city rules currently require.

“We have had floods in each of the last three years, with Harvey being the worst. There will be other epic rainstorms, and they probably will arrive a lot sooner than 100 years or 500 years from now,” Turner told City Council. “As we build back from the damage to existing homes, we have to build forward to prevent future homes from flooding.”

City officials expect to release proposed legal language in the coming weeks, then submit the new rules for City Council consideration by mid-February. If approved, there likely would be a months-long grace period before the laws take effect, Turner said.

Though not final, the city’s intended overhaul of development rules would be more extensive than those Harris County approved last month.

See here and here for the county’s development changes. As the owner of a pier-and-beam house, I have to say I don’t understand why more houses aren’t built that way, but maybe with this change more of them will be. This won’t be transformative – it only applies to new development – but you have to start somewhere, and given that we didn’t start this years ago, the next best time is now. I look forward to seeing the details.

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 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.

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.

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.

Thunderstorms are going to get worse

Just FYI.

Summer thunderstorms in North America will likely be larger, wetter and more frequent in a warmer world, dumping 80 percent more rain in some areas and worsening flooding, a new study says.

Future storms will also be wilder, soaking entire cities and huge portions of states, according to a federally-funded study released Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The U.S. in recent years has experienced prolonged drenchings that have doused Nashville in 2010, West Virginia and Louisiana in 2016 and Houston this year. The disasters cost about $20 billion a year in damage.

By the end of century if emissions aren’t curbed, these gully washers will be much worse because they will get bigger, said Andreas Prein, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, who led the study.

Prein and colleagues used high-resolution computer simulations to see how global warming will likely change the large thunderstorms that are already daily summer events in North America. Previous studies projected more frequent and wetter storms, but this is the first research to show they likely will be more widespread, covering an entire city instead of just half of it, Prein said.

“We see increases that are beyond our expectations … far beyond our expectations,” Prein said. “It looks everything that can go wrong does go wrong concerning flooding.”

Awesome, huh? We can build more reservoirs and update our development codes and all those other things, but if we’re not taking every action we can to curb climate change, we’re just spinning our wheels. Maybe elect more people who take that threat seriously? Just a thought.

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.

Organizing the guys with boats

Remember all those volunteer rescuers who got in their boats to get flood victims during Harvey? Harris County remembers, and they would like to formalize that a bit for the next time.

With emergency responders across the Houston area overwhelmed by the scope of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, the 911 system overburdened and outside help stymied by high water, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett went on television on Aug. 27 to make a public plea.

Wherever you are, if you have a boat, Emmett said, get out in the neighborhood and help evacuate people trapped by floodwaters.

Now, local officials are working up a plan that would better coordinate response – ahead of time – among volunteers during disasters such as Harvey.

Emmett and other county officials want to create a database of residents across the county who own boats, vehicles that can travel in high water, and other rescue equipment to efficiently target volunteer response, which studies show are critical lifelines during disasters.

“We have to get all that coordinated,” he said.

[…]

While volunteer response was “successful through the county,” a more organized force could help alleviate at least two problems, Emmett said.

In one case, volunteers with flat-bottom boats showed up to help flooded Kingwood residents, but more powerful boats with motors were needed to handle the currents.

In another case, volunteers from the Cajun Navy – a similar volunteer disaster response team based in Louisiana – had difficulties in finding specific addresses of homes that had residents who needed to be rescued during the storm.

“Clearly there were some issues,” Emmett said.

A database would allow emergency responders to summon volunteers with the proper equipment to areas most in need faster, even if the storm isn’t as severe or widespread as Harvey.

This makes sense. The county is never going to have the resources to handle all the rescue needs in another Harvey-like situation. There will be people who are willing and able to help. It’s in everyone’s interests for the county to have some idea who these people are, so they can let them know where their help is most needed and can be most effective. It’s a low-cost investment with a high upside. There’s no reason not to do this.

State of the County 2017: Ed Emmett versus state leadership

That sound you heard was a fight breaking out.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday used his annual State of the County speech to blast state leaders who he said attack local governments and seek to cut needed taxes but offer no real solutions to the myriad problems Texas’ large urban counties face.

Before a crowd of hundreds at NRG Center, Emmett called on state officials to invest roughly $500 million in a third reservoir and dam to boost area flood control efforts, fund a beleaguered indigent health care system, and revamp “broken” tax policies that force the county to rely on property taxes to serve an unincorporated area that, on its own, would be the fifth-largest city in the country.

In addition to helping with the county’s flood control efforts, Emmett called on the state to contribute more for mental health care and transportation improvements, citing the need for an Interstate 69 bypass on the east side of the county and renewed emphasis on railroads and technology to move freight from area ports.

He also reiterated his call for state leaders to accept increased Medicaid funding from Washington.

“The next time a state official makes a big deal about a fraction of a cent cut in the property tax rate, ask them why they won’t help Harris County property taxpayers fund indigent health care,” the judge said. “State leaders who are eager to seek for disaster relief should also be willing to accept federal dollars to provide health care for poor people. That would be real property tax relief.”

The state, he said, should treat the county more like a city, which by law can levy a sales tax and pass ordinances. The county is an arm of state government and relies on property taxes for most of its revenue.

“The whole point of today’s speech was to say ‘enough is enough,'” Emmett said afterward. “We need to be able to provide the services and the government that people expect in an unincorporated area.”

[…]

Emmett criticized the bills that would have forced the county to get voter approval on taxes and spending.

“Such a populist approach might sound reasonable, but the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who nobody ever accused of being a liberal, described direct referenda as ‘a device for dictators and demagogues'” he said.

He also lit into lawmakers’ attempts to limit property tax collections during the last legislative session, saying leaders “attacked counties and cities and other local governments, all the while offering no real solutions.”

“County government relies almost completely on property tax revenue, but the property tax is widely hated, and wholly inadequate as a means of financing the unique urban government that we have. Unfortunately, narrow-minded politics has pushed unfunded mandates from the state onto county government,” Emmett said.

“It is just pure ugly politics. And, by the way, the portion of county taxes paid by business is, I don’t need to tell the business community in this room, growing. We are reaching the point where tax policies are a drag on economic development.”

You can read the whole speech here. Most of the criticisms Emmett made about state leadership and recent political actions are in the story, but the whole thing is worth a read. Oh, and he was introduced by outgoing House Speaker Joe Straus, which was a further provocation. Like the useless demagogues they are, Dan Patrick and Paul Bettencourt responded petulantly in the story. This is another skirmish in the culture wars of the Republican Party, and Republicans who are in the Ed Emmett/Joe Straus camp – including Emmett himself – are going to have to decide next year if they really want the likes of Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick dictating to them. A vote for the status quo is a vote for four more years of the things that Emmett was railing against in his speech.

The 100-year-storm isn’t what it used to be

They’re bigger.

More than three months after Hurricane Harvey battered southeast Texas with unprecedented and costly flooding, an analysis of rainfall trends across Texas suggests the standards used to develop floodplain regulations, map flood zones and design flood control projects routinely underestimate the severity of the Houston area’s downpours.

That analysis by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which looked at rainfall data stretching back decades, up to and including Harvey, shows the amount of rain that defines a “100-year storm” – one that has a 1 percent chance of occurring in any given year – has risen by 3 to 5 inches in Harris County since the last estimates were put in place in 2002.

Instead of expecting 12 to 14 inches in a day during a 100-year storm, the data shows the county should expect 15 to 18 inches.

A higher rainfall estimate for a 100-year storm means developers would need to design subdivisions and strip malls to compensate for higher runoff, and more existing residential and business properties would be included in new floodplain maps that drive insurance costs and development regulations.

“We design our infrastructure and our society and homes to be resilient to a certain level of risk,” said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist and professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University. “Having updated, more accurate numbers means that we’re better able to do that, and the risk we’re undertaking matches the risk we’re designing for.”

[…]

The preliminary data released last week includes estimates across Texas. A broad swath of Texas, stretching from Beaumont and Port Arthur, across Austin and the middle of the state, and all the way to Del Rio, indicates rainfall greater than that modeled during the 1961 study. In some parts of west Texas, the data shows the amount of rainfall indicating a 100-year storm should actually be lower than current standards.

St. Laurent said the increase in the 100-year storm severity for the Houston area could be attributed in part to the several severe storms the region had experienced since 2002. NOAA included data from Harvey in its analysis.

“The additional decade or two of data have some significantly high rainfall events that definitely contribute to higher precipitation estimates,” he said.

Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist, said any time officials have more data with which to work, estimates change, particularly when including events like the Tax Day flood and Harvey. The new estimates, he added, also reflect a changing climate.

“You wouldn’t want to look at an individual location and say that all of the change there is due to climate change,” Nielsen-Gammon said. “But if you look at the state as a whole, it seems that the increases have outnumbered the decreases, at least in the current draft. So, that’s some combination of longer-term natural variability and climate change that’s doing that.”

I don’t have much to add to this. As a region, we seem to be internalizing the notion that we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done, with regard to development and flood mitigation. That’s good and necessary and long overdue. The much bigger question is whether we are internalizing the fact that climate change is a big part of the reason why we can’t keep doing what we’ve always done, and that means we can’t keep polluting and emitting carbon as before. That’s a question for more than just the region, or for the state. I think – I hope – our region is up to our part of the task. Whether our state and our country are remains to be seen, but the track record of the powers that are now in charge is not encouraging. That needs to be part of the discussion, not just in the 2018 campaign but in every campaign after 2018 as well.

Harris County to consider floodplain regulations change

Seems like a good idea to me.

Nearly three months after Hurricane Harvey, Harris County is proposing using 500-year floodplains instead of 100-year floodplains for new development, the first significant overhaul of county elevation requirements in nearly two decades.

The regulations, which still must be approved by Commissioners Court, would force developers to build new homes eight feet higher than previously required in some flood-prone areas.

They would also, for the first time, open up a broader geographic area to regulation by forcing developers building in 500-year floodplains to meet stricter elevation standards. Currently, there is little regulation outside the 100-year floodplains.

“Any time we can figure out how to make our regulations better and our infrastructure more resilient, we want to do it,” said county engineer John Blount. “We don’t want to be permitting houses that would flood. It’s not good for the county. It’s not good for people that are in the houses. You shouldn’t be building houses at an elevation you know they’re going to flood.”

[…]

The newly proposed regulations focus on the booming unincorporated region as opposed to areas within Houston city limits. Unincorporated Harris County has added nearly 1 million people since 2000, more than three-quarters of the growth in the county since 2000.

For some areas along the San Jacinto River, Spring Creek and Cypress Creek, the difference between the new and old regulations — 500-year versus 100-year flood levels — could be several feet of elevation required for new homes, which could increase the cost of development by thousands of dollars.

You can see the proposed new regulations here. This is in line with the larger vision County Judge Ed Emmett proposed in September. If this winds up making some new development more expensive, that’s fine. All that’s doing is more accurately pricing in the flood risk. As the story notes, though, the newest construction in the unincorporated county mostly escaped destruction during Harvey. It’s existing development that was the hardest hit, and that’s going to be a much more difficult and expensive problem to solve. And as Jim Blackburn says in the story, the 500 year zone may not be big enough to address this. Still, this is a positive step, and the Court will take up the proposal in early December.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, the proposed regulations would not govern development in the city of Houston. City regulations require new homes built in 100-year floodplains to be elevated one foot above the 100-year flood level — less than the 18 inches that the county currently requires.

Houston Chief Resilience Officer and “flood czar” Steve Costello said the city has not yet made any proposals regarding new floodplains, but has called a meeting in December among city staff to start the discussion. He said the city would consider the county’s changes.

“There’s no guarantee we will formally adopt everything that they have done,” he said. “Obviously we don’t want different criteria at the end of the day.”

I agree that the city should be in line with the county. I hope we have been involved in the discussion over these changes.

More Harveys

Thanks, climate change.

The extreme rains that inundated the Houston area during Hurricane Harvey were made more likely by climate change, a new study suggests, adding that such extreme flooding events will only become more frequent as the globe continues to warm.

“I guess what I was hoping to achieve was a little bit of a public service,” said MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel, who published the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday. “There are folks down in Texas who are having to rebuild infrastructure, and I think they need to have some idea of what kind of event they’re building for.”

In the wake of Harvey, many researchers pointed out that a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor and that, as a result, a warmer planet should see more extreme rains. But Emanuel’s study goes beyond this general statement to support the idea that the specific risk of such an extreme rain event is already rising because of how humans have changed the planet.

Via climate modeling, Emanuel generated 3,700 computerized storms for each of three separate models that situated the storms in the climates of the years from 1980 to 2016. All of the storms were in the vicinity of Houston or other Texas areas. He examined how often, in his models, there would be about 20 inches of rain in one of these events.

Harvey produced closer to 33 inches over Houston. But in the tests under the 1980 to 2016 conditions, getting 20 inches of rain was rare in the extreme.

“By the standards of the average climate during 1981-2000, Harvey’s rainfall in Houston was ‘biblical’ in the sense that it likely occurred around once since the Old Testament was written,” wrote Emanuel, adding that in the much larger area of Texas, such rains did occur once every 100 years.

Then Emanuel performed a similar analysis, this time in the projected climates of the years 2080 to 2100, assuming the climate changes in some of the more severe ways scientists suggest it could.

The odds, accordingly, shifted toward a much greater likelihood of such events by 2100. Harvey’s rains in Houston became a once-in-100-years event (rather than a once-in-2,000-years event), and for Texas as a whole, the odds increased from once in 100 years to once every 5½.

This also meant, Emanuel calculated, that Harvey was probably more likely in 2017 than in the era from 1981 to 2000. In 2017, Harvey would be a once-in-325-years event. For Texas as a whole, in 2017 it would be a once-in-16-years event.

You can see the study here. This is the first study of its kind, so more research is needed to better understand what this means, but this is the world we live in. We can take steps to try to mitigate the damage, or we can live with the consequences. The MIT press release is here, and Ars Technica, the Atlantic, and the Associated Press have more.

Is this development really necessary?

Boy, the optics of this sure are lousy.

CM Brenda Stardig

The Houston City Council has indefinitely postponed a proposal to build hundreds of homes in a west Houston floodplain amid questions about whether city leaders’ actions would match their rhetoric about mitigating the risk of flooding after Hurricane Harvey.

Mayor Sylvester Turner supported the move to refer the item back to his administration, a procedure that can be used to further study a controversial item or kill it.

Arizona-based Meritage Homes announced last May that it planned to build the single-family homes on the site of the recently closed Pine Crest Golf Club at Clay and Gessner in a master-planned community to be called Spring Brook Village. The finished project would include homes for up to 800 people, with properties priced between the high $200,000s and the mid-$500,000s.

The entire 151-acre site sits in a flood plain, Harris County Flood Control District maps show. Officials said the developers’ drainage plan, once built, will place most of the tract in the 500-year floodplain rather than in the riskier 100-year floodplain.

The builders have said they plan to build the homes at a higher elevation to remove the structures from the 500-year floodplain, and have noted their plan exceeds the city’s minimum requirements for detaining storm water.

Still, Turner acknowledged the optics of approving hundreds of new homes in a floodplain two months after a historic hurricane flooded thousands of homes across the Houston area.

“We are living in the post-Harvey world, and I want people to have the confidence that we’re thoroughly vetting these projects and that we’re asking the questions,” Turner said. “When I have said previously that we can’t do things the same way and expect a different result, I want to make sure this project has been thoroughly vetted, and all the council members agreed to that.”

[…]

City Council took up the item because the developers needed its consent to create a municipal utility district to pay for roads, water, sewer and drainage infrastructure on the site.

Council members Brenda Stardig and Mike Knox said the developers told them the inability to form a MUD could result in more homes and less storm water detention being built on the site, because the builders might then be required to finance part of the infrastructure costs themselves rather than repaying those costs through future homeowners’ property taxes.

The MUD is the crux of the issue and the reason why Council is involved – as the story notes, if it were simply a matter of permitting, it would not require a vote. The reason why a MUD is needed at all is not fully explained, though this Press story does add a few details.

According to correspondence between MetroNational and Council Member Brenda Stardig, who represents the district where the golf course is located, approval of the MUD would also allow for a detention pond 16 acre feet more than what the city requires and a linear detention pond with trails for walking around — but MetroNational seemed to indicate that if the MUD isn’t approved, these bonus items won’t be possible.

Still, Matt Zeve, director of operations at the Harris County Flood Control District, said that even with the building elevations and drainage plans, there’s still a risk of “overland sheetflow flooding during extreme rain events,” which is when drainage gets overwhelmed and street flooding gets serious.

“The off-site sheetflow could still cause flooding problems, but it isn’t considered in the analyses that have been completed,” Zeve said in an email.

Maybe building the retention pond and requiring the higher elevation for the houses will be enough to mitigate the risk, I don’t know. As the Chron editorial board notes, leaving a former golf course undeveloped is itself a pretty good flood mitigation strategy. What does seem clear is that this was a business-as-usual idea – the land was bought by the developer a year ago, and the project was announced in May – but we are not and cannot be in business-as-usual mode any more. Projects like this require a much higher level of scrutiny and skepticism now. Otherwise, we really haven’t learned anything from Harvey.

A big ask for hurricane recovery

Good luck with that. I mean that mostly sincerely.

Texas needs an additional $61 billion in federal disaster recovery money for infrastructure alone after Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, according to a report from the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas that was delivered to members of Congress Tuesday.

Compiled at Gov. Greg Abbott’s request, the report was released on the day the governor traveled to the U.S. Capitol to talk Hurricane Harvey relief with congressional leaders.

Speaking with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, Abbott said he’d had a “well-reasoned discussion” where he stressed that rebuilding the state’s Gulf coast was in the country’s best national security and economic interests.

“We are asking not for any handouts or for anything unusual, but we are asking for funding that will flood the entire region that was impacted so that the federal government, the state government, and the local government are not going to be facing these ongoing out-of-pocket costs,” Abbott said as he held a binder containing the 301-page report.

The $61 billion is in addition to money the state already anticipates receiving from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from the federal housing department, which distributes disaster recovery grants aimed at long-term rebuilding.

[…]

The requests include:

  • $12 billion for the Galveston County Coastal Spine, part of the larger “Ike Dike,” a barrier aimed at protecting coastal areas from hurricane storm surge.
  • $9 billion for housing assistance in the City of Houston, which would help rebuild 85,000 single and multi-family housing units damaged by Harvey.
  • $6 billion to buy land, easements, and rights-of-way around Buffalo Bayou and the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
  • $2 billion for “coast-wide critical infrastructure protection,” described as flood control and other mitigation projects around critical public infrastructure such as “power plants, communication networks, prison systems, etc.”
  • $466 million for the Port of Houston to “create resiliency” and harden the Houston Ship Channel.
  • $115 million to repair 113 county buildings in Harris County.

Abbott appointed [John] Sharp, who is the chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former legislator, railroad commissioner and state comptroller, to oversee the commission in early September.

So far, Congress has agreed to spend more than $51 billion on disaster relief in the past two months. But it is unclear what Texas’s share of that money will be, because it will be divided between the states and territories devastated by three deadly hurricanes and fatal wildfires.

It’s not that I disagree with any of this – in particular, I’m rooting for Ike Dike money to be appropriated – but that’s a lot of money, there are a lot of Republican Congressfolk who really don’t like spending money, there are even more Congressfolk who are still mad at some of their Texas colleagues for voting against Superstorm Sandy recovery money, and there’s a lot of money that will need to be spent in Puerto Rico, Florida, and California. Texas’ original ask for Harvey recovery money was a lot less than this, and even that caused some friction from within the Texas caucus when Greg Abbott got a little shirty with his fellow Republicans. Oh, and there’s also the Republican Congress’ track record of not being able to tie their own shoes. So, you know, don’t go using this as collateral just yet.

Speaking of the Texas caucus, their reaction to this was muted.

The initial reaction from Washington officials to the request: Surprise at its size and scope.

That could mean approval of the full amount will be a tough sell with Congress and the White House, coming at a time when hurricane damages to Puerto Rico and Florida, and losses in California to wildfires, are also in line for billions more in federal disaster funding.

But Rep. Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, was hopeful. “Just like the Astros, we’re going to get ‘er done,” Weber said in a reference to the World Series.

U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, whose district was hit hard by Harvey, agreed.

“Yeah, it’s a lot of money,” he said, “but it was a lot of storm.”

[…]

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, gave little indication of the prospects for the governor’s request. As for the $61 billion figure, Cornyn said, “We’re working on a number. We don’t have a number.”

Later, Cornyn said in a statement “it’s really important for us to remember that there’s a lot of work that we need to do in responding to some of the unmet disaster needs around the country, starting with Hurricane Harvey in my state.”

Added Cornyn: “The reason I bring that up today is because Governor Abbott of Texas is up meeting with the entire Texas delegation to make sure that we continue to make the case and make sure that Texans are not forgotten as we get to work on these other important matters as well.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was also circumspect about the prospects for Abbott’s request, though he emphasized that the Texas delegation will remain united with the governor in getting the Gulf region all the aid it can from Washington.

“Repeatedly, projections have shown that Harvey is likely to prove to be the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history,” he said. “The president has repeatedly made direct assurances to me that the administration will stand by the people of Texas.”

As to whether the government might raise or borrow the money, Cruz said, “those discussions will be ongoing.”

Like I said, there are some obstacles. And I have to wonder, how might this conversation be going if Hillary Clinton were President? Harvey or no Harvey, I have a hard time picturing Greg Abbott asking President Hillary Clinton for billions of dollars for our state. I’d make him sign a pledge to quit suing the feds over every damn thing now that he’s come to town with his hat in his hand. Not that any of this matters now, I just marvel at the capacity some of us have for cognitive dissonance. We’ll see how this goes.

Should we remove the concrete from White Oak Bayou?

That’s an interesting question, one worth considering, if there’s a way to pay for it.

A feasibility study conducted for the Harris County Flood Control District and released Friday offers three options to do just that.

What it does not offer is a way to pay for the three alternatives, which range from $30 million to simply remove the concrete to $60 million to re-contouring the channel to connect the bayou with publicly owned parks and open land above and below the waterway.

The question is particularly significant after Hurricane Harvey laid bare weaknesses in the local flood control system: nearly 180,000 buildings exist in floodplains, a handful of channel widening projects are halted with lack of federal funding and the flood control district struggles to stretch $60 million every year to service a county of more than 4 million people.

[…]

If the concrete removal is pursued, it would be the first such attempt to revert dozens of miles of concrete-lined channels that crisscross Houston to their natural aesthetic, building on recent widespread momentum to undo the utilitarian past. The concrete was laid as part of a massive flood control effort in the middle of the last century to straighten and channelize the bayous with an eye toward speeding stormwaters’ rush downstream, eventually to the Houston Ship Channel and Galveston Bay.

The idea of removing the concrete and restoring the bayou to a more natural state comes two years after a $58 million project created 160-acres of green space near downtown in Buffalo Bayou Park. That project was paid for largely through private donations, including a $30 million catalyst gift from Kinder Foundation in 2010. The flood control district contributed $5 million.

For White Oak, however, it’s unclear who would pay for a bayou project that would take several years to complete and cost at least $30 million without significantly reducing flood risks.

The feasibility study presents three alternatives for a portion of White Oak Bayou between Taylor Street and Hogan Street: simply removing the concrete and excavating the channel; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou with city park space north of the bayou; removing the concrete and connecting the bayou to both the city park land and land owned by the Texas Department of Transportation to the south.

The first and cheapest option would cost roughly $30 million, the middle about $42 million and the most expensive option around $60 million.

Sherry Weesner, administrator and president of the Memorial-Heights Redevelopment Authority, which paid for the feasibility study said the group wanted to make sure, if and when the flood control district considered replacing the concrete, that it examine the idea of removing the concrete, as well.

Weesner said the authority currently does not have funding to pay for even the cheapest of the three proposals.

“By funding this study, we were able to say ‘Look at the possible options,'” Weesner said. “That way, everyone can make the best decision as to what’s best for the region in the long term to decide what to do when you need to do it.”

You can read the full report here. I think there’s value in doing this, but it’s hard to argue that it should have priority over any flood mitigation work. Maybe if the MHRA can raise private funds to cover a portion of the cost, as was the case with the Bayou Greenway Initiative, or if it can be tied to a flood mitigation project, then this would make sense now. Otherwise, it’s probably something to file away for another time.

City buys out some flooded homes

Expect to see more of this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council on Wednesday approved funding nearly 60 home buyouts across three flood-prone neighborhoods, the first such step from City Hall in recent memory.

The city typically leaves buyouts to the Harris County Flood Control District and, in fact, the measure approved by the council would send $10.7 million to the district to pay for the purchases, estimated at about $175,000 per property.

Houston has not had any in-house staff devoted to the issue in recent memory, but Hurricane Harvey has spurred city officials to acknowledge the need to remove more flood-prone residences from harm’s way, leading to Wednesday’s vote to fund voluntary buyouts in three working-class neighborhoods. Harris County Commissioners Court approved the deal earlier this month.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he “absolutely” expects the city to fund additional buyouts in the months to come but that the strategy must be paired with channel improvements, new reservoirs or detention basins and other flood mitigation efforts.

“There are thousands more homes that are subject to buyouts,” he said. “We need to handle it in a very strategic fashion. We need to factor in all of the strategies that will be required to make the city more resilient.”

In fact, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Wednesday unveiled 15 recommendations to combat flooding on a regional basis, calling for, among other things, more buyouts, cooperation across city and county lines, an expansion of county floodplains, and the immediate funding needed to complete several flood control projects along area waterways.

The dollars approved by the council Wednesday are federal funds the city received after two floods in 2015, and are earmarked for areas that suffered in those storms, Turner said. City data show each area also suffered significant damage during Harvey.

As Mayor Turner says, this is one piece of a very large puzzle. Among other things, you want to avoid creating a smattering of abandoned properties in the middle of neighborhoods. Locations for buyouts are going to have to be chosen very carefully.

As for those recommendations from Judge Emmett, here’s a summary:

  • Creating a regional flood control organization that can coordinate water management across county lines. Releases from Lake Conroe in Montgomery County have been fiercely criticized by Harris County residents.
  • Increasing regulations on development in flood prone areas, including rethinking floodplains. The county is currently conducting a reevaluation.
  • Developing an improved flood control system and localized evacuation plan that could utilize volunteer organizations to help first responders, as well as how to coordinate high-water vehicles and private boats. Residents in the areas around Addicks and Barker dams have called for a better warning system, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the dams, considered such a system before dropping the idea two decades ago.
  • Installing automatic barriers at flood-prone underpasses and developing a plan for closing such underpasses. After the Tax Day floods, Emmett said he would lead such an effort.
  • Buying out all homes located in the 100-year floodplain or that have flooded repeatedly. The County has several disparate buyout efforts ongoing, but a larger scale program will probably cost billions of dollars.

The Press has the full list. I basically agree with most of it, but there are a couple of items I want to comment on:

9. Expanding the role of municipal utility districts. If your local MUD isn’t doing much about preventing flooding, Emmett thinks that needs to change, that their responsibilities should include both storm water management and flood control in cooperation with the flood control district.

15. Giving Harris County ordinance-making power. Even though if unincorporated Harris County were a city it would be the fifth-largest in the country, Harris County doesn’t have ordinance-making power. Also, Emmett said county government should receive some of the collected sales tax rather than just relying on property tax. “To continue to exclusively rely on the property tax is fundamentally unfair and unsustainable,” he said. This is much more of a long-term shift, however, Emmett said.

The governance of MUDs is definitely an issue, but I think this is the wrong approach. Especially since we need to get a handle on the kind of build-everywhere growth that MUDs promote, I say we should at the least encourage, if not outright coerce, existing and proposed MUDs to incorporate or be annexed. MUDs may have served a purpose in the past, but it’s a model we should not seek to perpetuate. It’s time for a different approach. Space City Weather has more.

The lost Harvey tax break

I have mixed feelings about this.

Rep. Sarah Davis

Owners of nearly 300,000 homes damaged by Hurricane Harvey in Texas won’t see any break in their property taxes because of political wrangling this year in the state Legislature over completely unrelated issues – including, one Houston Republican says, the bathroom bill.

A property tax reform bill that would have required all local governments to reappraise damaged homes and businesses and lower the tax bills came within a single round of votes on four different occasions. If the mandatory reappraisal proposal had become law, it would have all but assured that the tens of thousands of homes and businesses damaged or destroyed statewide because of Harvey would have received a reduction in property taxes this year.

But it never passed, and according to the state lawmaker who came up with the idea, it’s because of the bathroom bill. Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, lays the blame on Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who she contends was trying to blackball her bills.

“I have little doubt its slow death in the Senate is because of social issues like the bathroom bill,” said Davis, whose district flooded badly during the 2015 Memorial Day storms and the 2016 tax day storms.

Currently, reappraisals after natural disasters are optional for local governments and most are like Harris County and Aransas County in saying they won’t do it because they cannot afford it.

A home in Houston that was valued at $200,000 before the hurricane, but worth just $30,000 after, would have seen a $700 cut just in school taxes, according to the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association, which strongly backed the Davis proposal.

“It was really one of my No. 1 priorities,” said Davis, whose original bill would have taken effect Sept. 1.

But that is likely why the bill never cleared the Senate, she said. Davis was a vocal opponent of the so-called bathroom bill that was a top priority in the Texas Senate.

[…]

Texas law already allows counties, cities and other local governments to reappraise properties after a storm, but few ever do because of the lost revenues that it could result in and because of how expensive and time consuming the reappraisal process could be during a time governments are trying to finalize their budgets. If governments do the reappraisals, the full cost is on the local governments.

“It’s not a very workable solution,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican, said about why he has not voluntarily called for the reappraisals in Harris. “It’s not that I don’t have sympathy for people and what they’ve lost.”

He said the problem is the reappraisals would cost $10 million in a county as big and urban as Harris County. Plus the county would lose revenue from tax collections at a time it most needs the money to address the natural disaster recovery.

He added that property owners still will get the benefit of the Jan. 1 appraisals for the next year’s taxes. That almost certainly will result in lower tax bills for homeowners with damaged properties next year.

Similarly, in Aransas County – where Harvey made landfall as a Category 4 and demolished 36 percent of all homes and businesses – there will be no reappraisal. Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills Jr. said there isn’t time or money to get it done and said it would only hurt tax revenues at a time when every source of funding the county relies on is in jeopardy.

“All of our income is in the toilet,” Mills said of a county that relies heavily on tourists to generate sales taxes and fill rental properties.

Let’s start with the obvious. Of course the bathroom bill was the reason why this bill never got a vote in the Senate. This is how Dan Patrick operates. You can admire his hard-nosed tactical consistency, or you can bemoan his willingness to sacrifice the greater good in service of his narrow partisan interests, but you can’t deny the premise.

I certainly get the impetus for Rep. Davis’ bill. Though all the activity on this came before Harvey, Davis represents neighborhoods that were hard hit by the floods of 2015 and 2016. Giving people whose houses have been greatly damaged or destroyed a break on their property taxes has a lot of obvious appeal. That said, I agree with Judges Emmett and Mills. The counties – and cities and school districts – that these houses are in will be facing large extra expenses as a result of the disaster in question, and they’ve built their budgets for the year based in part on the original values of those houses. When the houses are reappraised for the next year, everyone can plan their budgets based on the expected lower values. Is the benefit of an extra year’s lower tax bill for affected homeowners worth the cost?

There is, of course, a simple enough way to resolve this: Have the state cover the difference. We agree that homeowners whose houses have been devastated deserve a break. We agree (I hope) that the cost of that break should not be a burden on counties and school districts that are themselves recovering from the damage of the natural disaster. The amount in question would be a relative pittance for the state. Why not let the state budget make the affected local government entities whole? Because that’s not what we do. Dan Patrick and his buddies take from the locals, they don’t give back. They’d be more than willing to take the credit for the cut, but it’ll be a cold day in August before they’d be willing to bear the cost. I appreciate what Rep. Davis was trying to do with her bill, but without this I can’t quite support it.

More on the courthouse shuffle

The Trib takes a look at how things are going at the flooded-out Harris County Criminal Justice Center.

Since Harvey hit Harris County in late August, one of the busiest criminal court systems in the country has suspended all jury trials. It’s just one of a slate of challenges facing the county’s justice system in the weeks since the storm, but defense attorneys argue that delayed trials — and in dozens of cases, prolonged detention — have the potential to infringe on their clients’ most fundamental rights.

Justice delayed, they argue, has begun to verge on justice denied.

The U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a “speedy” trial, but the law offers no specific guidance on what “speedy” means. And it’s not entirely clear how that right might change in the face of unprecedented natural disaster.

Jury trials could resume in Harris County as soon as Oct. 16, when jurors will be summoned again to a host of makeshift assembly rooms downtown. But at least at first, the county will not be able to assemble nearly the usual number of jurors, and courthouse workers will have to ration those jurors across 22 felony and 16 misdemeanor courts.

[…]

This time, the damage has left a 20-story hole in the county’s justice system, taking out 40 courtrooms, the district attorney’s office and enough holding cells to accommodate 900 inmates. Partial occupancy may be possible in six to eight months, but county engineers say it will likely a take a year and a half — and $30 million — for the building to return to full capacity.

The bigger problem, according to local officials, sits a block southwest of the courthouse. The three-floor jury assembly building at 1201 Congress Ave. saw just as much damage, but the bulk of its business takes place below ground, where on the county’s busiest days, about 800 potential jurors can be assembled.

The subterranean floor was so damaged that it may not even be repaired. That means there’s nowhere to assemble the jurors that the county needs to take cases like Deras’ to trial.

As a result, hundreds of trials have been delayed, and about 100 defendants sit in custody awaiting their turn.

See here and here for some background. As the story notes, while the DA’s office is prioritizing cases where the defendant is in custody and disposing of them as they can, there are still going to be a number of people who will spend significant time in jail before they ever get to a resolution of their case. Even though that includes a lot of felons, given the ongoing litigation over bail practices it would not be surprising if that’s an issue for future appeals. And given that there was flooding during Alison as well as Harvey, the county is going to have to give a lot of thought to how to be better prepared for these events going forward.

What the Harvey needs are from the state

It’s not just about recovery. The long term needs, including mitigation against future events like Harvey, is where the real money will need to be spent.

More than one month after Harvey’s deluge hit, local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, testified at a state House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing that more than $370 million worth of debris removal and repair work on more than 50 government buildings has strained local coffers, necessitating quick aid and reimbursement from the federal or state government.

They also emphasized what likely will greatly exceed the costs of immediate recovery: how to prepare for the next storm. That could include billions of dollars for large-scale buyouts, a third reservoir on Houston’s west side, a reservoir on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County and hundreds of millions of dollars to jump start bayou improvement projects that have slowed in recent years without federal funding.

“There’s going to come a time where we have taken all the money from the feds, we have gotten all the money we’re going to get from the state, and we’re going to have to decide: What kind of community do we want to be?” Emmett said at the hearing.

Harvey’s record-smashing rainfall and floods damaged more than 136,000 homes and other buildings in Harris County and killed nearly 80 people across the state.

The Texas House Appropriations Committee and Urban Affairs Committee met at the University of Houston on Monday to understand public costs and where reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. Congressional appropriations were being directed in the storm’s wake.

Emmett, Turner and Fort Bend County officials testified, as did Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, who is coordinating the state’s recovery efforts. The heads of several other state agencies also testified.

The hearing came just three days after Gov. Greg Abbott visited Houston and presented Turner with a check for $50 million. The check almost immediately was spoken for, Turner said, mostly for debris removal and insurance costs.

Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Houston, said Harvey, in theory, qualified as the “perfect reason” to use the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” a savings account comprised of billions in excess oil and gas taxes.

Abbott had indicated as much last week but said he would tap existing state emergency funds and reimburse them from the Rainy Day Fund when the Legislature next meets in 2019.

“Before the Legislature acts, we need to ensure what the expenses are that the state is responsible for,” Zerwas said.

Yes, that would be nice to know. There were other hearings this week as well.

The first order of business, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the House Natural Resources Committee, needs to be a flood control plan for the entire state — and the Gulf Coast in particular.

The Texas Water Development Board is already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan, with the help of $600,000 state lawmakers gave them earlier this year. Lawmakers haven’t yet promised to back any of the projects that end up in the plan.

Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said Harris County intends to put together its own flood control plan in the meantime, add up the costs of its recommended projects, then see how much the federal and state government want to contribute. He said he’ll be the first to push for a local bond package to make up the difference.

Property taxes are “the most miserable tax created,” Emmett said. “But it’s what we’ve been given to work with so we don’t have a choice.”

Emmett said Harris County’s plan likely will include another major dam to catch runoff during storms and relieve pressure on two existing reservoirs, Addicks and Barker. Those reservoirs, which filled to historic levels during Harvey, flooded thousands of homes that may not have been inundated with additional protections.

Emmett and the city of Houston’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, suggested the state tap its savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for such a project, estimated to cost at least $300 million. (Gov. Greg Abbott has said lawmakers can tap that fund in 2019 or sooner if they need it for Harvey relief; so far, he has written Houston a $50 million out of a state disaster relief fund.)

Costello said Texas should also consider creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support flood control projects similar to one the state’s voters approved in 2013 for water supply projects.

So far all of the talk is constructive, and even Dan Patrick is doing his part. The real test will be whether we follow up on any of this when the Lege reconvenes. Also, while this doesn’t directly answer my question about the SWIFT fund, but it does clearly suggest that it’s not intended for this kind of infrastructure. Which makes sense, given when it was created, but I had wondered if there was some flexibility built in. I would hope there would be plenty of support for a similar fund for flood mitigation.

MUDs and Harvey

City governments have their pros and cons, and their challenges getting things done. But at least their existence means residents of said cities have places to go when they need various services. Not everyone has that, and in times of crisis like what Harvey has wrought, that’s a big deal.

Cinco Ranch, a master-planned community 25 miles west of downtown Houston, is governed by a patchwork of municipal utility districts – MUDs for short – obscure entities that sell bonds and collect taxes to pay for water systems, sewage plants, roads and other infrastructure.

The closest thing to a mayor for Cinco Ranch is G. Timothy Lawrence, 74. He’s a semi-retired businessman and president of the board of the community’s main MUD. He and his four fellow board members set the property tax rate and hire lawyers, engineers and financial advisers. Yet he has never lived in Cinco Ranch and did not set foot there during the flooding. His home is a 20-mile drive away, in the Royal Oaks section of Houston.

Drawdy and many of his neighbors had never heard of him.

MUDs have proliferated in the Houston suburbs, helping to power the region’s runaway growth, because they offer developers an advantageous way to fund infrastructure. In unincorporated stretches of suburbia, they have evolved into permanent mini-governments largely invisible to the taxpayers they serve.

The devastation wrought by Harvey has stirred fresh questions about whether MUDs and similar special purpose districts are sufficiently transparent and accountable, and whether they’re capable of putting the public interest ahead of developers’ interests – particularly in protecting neighborhoods from flooding.

Typically, MUDs are created at the initiative of developers, who pick their initial board members, lawyers and other professional advisers. The districts sell bonds to reimburse developers for infrastructure costs. Residents pay off the debt through property taxes.

MUDs usually do not have websites, nor any physical presence in their communities. In Cinco Ranch, which is divided into 16 separate MUDs, there is no city hall and no civil servants. Water and sewage facilities are operated by contractors hired by the main MUD. That MUD’s board members usually hold their monthly meetings not in Cinco Ranch, but in the offices of the district’s law firm near downtown Houston.

“It’s the difference between paying your monthly bills to a nameless organization with an acronym and a number versus someone you know, who could be held responsible for what happens in a crisis,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

You know how I feel about MUDs. It should be abundantly clear that MUDs are no substitute for government, which will mean different things to different people. Is this a good deal for the people of Cinco Ranch, who are dealing with the effects of Harvey without having any of the services and information dissemination capability that people who live in Houston expect? Is it the sort of thing that would make them reconsider their situation, and maybe work towards incorporating? I suppose if there’s no urge to think about those things now, there never will be. I wish the residents of Cinco Ranch and other such developments the best in getting the assistance they need, and in assessing their options going forward.

HFD and disaster preparedness

There’s a lot here to think about, and to do something about.

The Houston Fire Department’s limitations quickly became clear as Harvey’s floodwaters rose.

Just one high-water rescue vehicle. Decades-old evacuation boats. Sparse training for swift-water rescues. And limited staffing after an 11th-hour decision not to call in major reinforcements to face the catastrophic storm.

The department had been warned. Lethal flooding two years ago exposed shortcomings and prompted sweeping recommendations to improve future responses.

And yet, when firefighters rushed fearlessly into Harvey’s currents in late August, they were again hobbled by a lack of resources, old equipment and a shortage of manpower ready to go when the storm hit, according to a Chronicle review of internal reports and emails, and dozens of interviews with firefighters and other officials.

The review found a department – and a city – that failed to follow the hard-earned lessons of previous storms, even as one of the worst in U.S. history descended on the region.

“Civilians had to step up – which was a great thing – but that’s not their job,” one high-ranking fire official said. “It’s our job to protect and serve the public. We couldn’t do that because we didn’t have what we needed.”

Fire Chief Samuel Peña, who stepped in to lead the department in December, defended the response and commended his firefighters, who performed 7,000 rescues and answered more than 15,000 calls for help during the first five days of the storm.

But he acknowledged that Harvey exposed shortcomings in the department’s fleet and training.

“Harvey punched us in the mouth,” Peña said. “No municipality is ever going to have the number of resources to be able to respond to a catastrophic incident the size of Harvey. But we know the anticipated risk in this community. We know that the 500-year flood is going to come again next year … We don’t have the adequate resources to address even the expected risk in this community.”

Critics, however, say the department’s response suffered from more than neglect.

“Anyone with common sense could see with relative certainty there was going to be an enormous rescue effort that was going to be required following the impact of Hurricane Harvey,” said Jim Brinkley, director of occupational health and safety for the International Association of Fire Fighters. “It’s expected a department would allocate enough resources – in terms of staffing alone – to make sure they’re capable of responding.”

There are a lot of reasons why HFD’s ability to deal with mass flooding events isn’t any more advanced now than it was a few years ago, before such things had become annual occurrences. You can come to your own conclusions about who shoulders how much of the responsibility for that. I would just point out that any effective solution to this is going to cost money. Equipment costs money. Training costs money. Firefighters who have better training can earn more money, if not here then elsewhere. We can and should review how HFD uses the resources it has now – as we know, most of the demands on the department are for emergency medical services and not for fire, and HFD has a track record of being profligate with overtime – but there’s only so far you can squeeze before you start displacing things you’d rather keep. If we want HFD to be better at responding to these events, we’re going to have to make an investment in them, and not just a one-time investment. That means we the voters are going to have to come to grips with the need to spend more money, or with the reality that we’re going to keep getting what we’re already paying for. If there are hard choices to be made by our leaders, we have to be prepared for what that means to us.

We’re going to need another jury building

Good luck with that.

Harris County is unlikely to repair Hurricane Harvey flood damage to the six-year-old, $13 million jury Assembly Building that sits beneath a park in downtown Houston’s courthouse square near Buffalo Bayou, County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday.

While no official action has been taken, the county will likely find a replacement facility that is not underground, Emmett said after Tuesday’s county commissioners meeting.

“We’ll build another one somewhere, and I doubt if we’ll put it underground next time,” Emmett said. “That’s not my decision yet, but we don’t have basements in Houston for a reason.”

He characterized it as a “complete replacement of the Jury Assembly Building.”

“I don’t think there will be a re-do of that building,” he said.

[…]

When it was built in 2011, the architect said they reviewed 2001’s Tropical Storm Allison, which flooded the tunnels. They built the new jury center’s above-ground portion well above the historic high-water mark.

The above-ground part of the building is a glass structure the size of a bus covering an atrium staircase leading down to the auditoriums. The almost completely glass structure meant natural light poured into the subterranean facility.

To protect from rising floodwaters, the lower level and related tunnels were equipped with flood doors the size of cars.

The floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey went well over the underground building, apparently crashing out windows along the ground and flooding the building from the roof. It is still unclear if the massive submarine doors worked. If they did, they created a giant watertight bowl next to the bayou.

If we learned from TS Allison, then what happened here? If the answer is, “we just never anticipated a storm as big as Harvey”, then I guess this was an expensive lesson. Good luck figuring out what to do next. In the meantime, jury service is suspended through October 16.

Can our dams handle the load?

Pretty important question, wouldn’t you say?

The state climatologist is warning that Texas dams will become less able to withstand extreme weather events like Hurricane Harvey, which are expected to occur more frequently as the earth’s atmosphere and oceans warm in coming years.

Dams are designed with a wide margin of safety and are meant to withstand extreme, worst-case scenarios that are never expected to happen. But what stunned state climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon and other weather experts was that Harvey exceeded or matched the preposterous amounts of rainfall that dams in Texas are built to hold back.

“The probable maximum precipitation amount should never be reached,” said Tye Parzybok, the chief meteorologist at MetStat, a Colorado-based company that helped Texas calculate the rainfall amounts. “It should never get close to it.”

After Harvey, dam regulators will have to recalculate the maximum amount of water that dams should be capable of holding back, said Nielsen-Gammon. Climate change means that powerful storms are bringing vastly more rain than they did a century ago, he said.

“I’m not saying they’re unsafe,” said Nielsen-Gammon of Texas’ dams. “They will be less safe than they were designed to be.”

On the one hand, Harvey was an extremely unlikely event; by some estimates, a one in 500,000 year event. Nobody plans for that, and for good reason. On the other hand, if it could happen once it could happen again, and the consequences of a dam failure would be catastrophic. Even before Harvey, it was the case that the capacity of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs was declining due to the buildup of dirt and sediment over the years. Surely this is something that can be addressed.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, is calling for the replacement of the aging Addicks and Barker dams that spilled over during Hurricane Harvey.

“As we recover and rebuild from the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey, it is crucial that we also learn from this catastrophic storm and prepare for the next one,” she said in a statement. “A critical takeaway is that our infrastructure is ill-prepared for the ferocity of thousand-year weather events and record-breaking rainfall.”

[…]

Jackson Lee, a senior member of the House Homeland Security Committee, is pushing provisions in the Energy and Water Appropriations Act that would provide $3 million to fund the Army Corps of Engineers’ Houston Regional Watershed Assessment Flood Risk Management Feasibility study, as well as $100 million for flood control infrastructure.

Seems like a reasonable approach to take. What do other members of Congress that represent the Houston area, as well as our two Senators, think of this? Before you answer that, consider this:

“Addicks and Barker were not designed to impound large pools behind them for an extended period of time,” an Army Corps official wrote in a 2011 email, which was made public through a lawsuit the Sierra Club filed against the Corps over a road project near the reservoirs. “These larger and longer lasting pools … [are] increasing the threat to both dams.”

Another Corps document, this one from 2010, shows that the agency was using terms like “risk of catastrophic failure” for the dams for flood events much smaller than what Houston experienced during Harvey.

That 2010 “interim reservoir control action plan” sets what it calls “maximum pool” levels for Addicks and Barker at elevations well under 100 feet, levels that could be expected during a 25-year storm — which has a 4 percent chance of occurring in any given year. Such a storm is about 30 times smaller than the rains generated by Harvey.

“The purpose of this … is to reduce the risk of catastrophic failure by [releasing water from the dams] quicker and increasing embankment surveillance,” the document says, adding that at 25-year levels, the dams “need to get additional attention.”

The document, which also became part of the 2011 Sierra Club lawsuit against the Army Corps, doesn’t specify what the true risk of dam failure might be at such levels. It also doesn’t say what exact actions the Army Corps would take when water reached that point.

[…]

“I think that the documents, and I think that the issues, are clear,” said Jim Blackburn, a Houston environmental lawyer who filed the Sierra Club lawsuit. “The consequences of failure are horrific, and it would be truly frightening to the public if they really knew what the worst-case scenario looked like.”

Blackburn said the failure of the Army Corps to make the 2010 document public is just one example of the agency’s hesitance to address the risk of a dam breach.

“I think they have not wanted to have an honest conversation about it, for some reason.”

Matthew Zeve, the Harris County Flood Control District’s director of operations, said he had not seen the 2010 document before the Tribune sent him a copy. But he said he didn’t think the document expressed concern about the dams actually failing at such low water levels but rather indicated a “trigger” for when the agency should be continuously monitoring the dams and doing whatever it can to diminish risk.

“It’s not, ‘Oh, we think it’s going to fail,’” he said, stressing that he was not speaking for the Corps but offering his personal interpretation of the document.

Yeah, that’s not very reassuring. Let’s start investing in better flood mitigation infrastructure, shall we?

Harris County considers its budget post-Harvey

They have some choices, and some constraints.

Harris County government departments could see their budgets reduced by up to 5 percent as property taxes take an expected dip due to Hurricane Harvey’s widespread destruction.

The estimate is preliminary, County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said Friday. The extent of an anticipated decrease in property tax revenues will be determined after properties are appraised Jan. 1.

Jackson said the county plans to keep budgets flat, if possible. Most departments have received increases every year since the 2008 recession.

[…]

It is not clear yet how much the storm has affected Harris County’s tax base as the extent of damage to property still is being determined.

Damaged homes will be worth less, and those owners can expect smaller property tax bills. In other cases, repairs to homes or other buildings could bring them back up to their original value. Properties unaffected by floodwaters could see a jump in value.

Jackson said the county’s public contingency fund – roughly $100 million – has helped pay for Harvey-related expenses, such as debris cleanup and overtime for county personnel who worked during and immediately after the storm. Jackson said Harvey-related overtime has totaled some $12 million, so far.

The county still is assessing what is likely to be hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to infrastructure, but most of that will be covered by insurance and some repairs can be reimbursed by the federal government.

Harvey’s impact on the county’s budget likely will come from a dip in property tax revenues, Jackson said. The county relies on property taxes for most of its revenue. Unlike the city, it does not collect a sales tax.

The possible property tax rate hike would come in the event the county does float bonds to rebuild and fortify its flood mitigation infrastructure. For now, the tax rate remains the same. The county also spent some money to buy out 200 homes in the more flood-prone areas. Needless to say, there would need to be a lot more of that to really make a difference, but it’s a start.

Abbott has no interest in helping Houston

So much for that.

If the state taps into the Rainy Day Fund to help with recovery following Hurricane Harvey, it won’t be until the next legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott said during a news conference Tuesday.

Abbott’s announcement comes after Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote to the governor asking the state to use the $10 billion fund. Turner said without significant state help, Houston will be forced to raise property taxes for one year to bring in $50 million for recovery efforts, which would cost the owner of an average Houston house $48.

Turner said he would not have proposed the tax hike had the governor called a special session to tap into the fund.

Abbott, who has said the state has enough resources to address Harvey-related needs between now and the next legislative session, added Tuesday that the state has already granted Houston almost $100 million for debris removal and established an “accelerated reimbursement program” for recovery efforts.

Abbott said he would pay any invoice the city submits to the state within 10 days.

Turner “has all the money that he needs,” Abbott said. “He just needs to tap into it,” referring to money in Tax Increment Reinvestment Zones.

In an emailed statement Tuesday, Turner spokesman Alan Bernstein said Houston “cannot raid funds that the state has indicated cannot be raided – and which are largely for drainage projects to prevent future flooding anyway.”

Remember when we were talking about how Harvey has changed things in the state? Boy, those were the days. I believe this should settle once and for all what the Rainy Day Fund is for: Absolutely nothing. It’s an illusion. We should take all the money in this fund, convert it to gold bullion, and bury it in Greg Abbott’s backyard, perhaps next to one of the wells he had drilled to water his lawn during droughts. That would do us as much good as the fund actually does now. Maybe this might inspire someone to run against Abbott. It’s as easy an issue as you’ll get to run on. In any event, we’re on our own, because special sessions are for potties but not hurricane recovery. Thanks, Abbott!

UPDATE: Also, too, other parts of the state are in really bad shape. Sure, there’s insurance and FEMA and charity and volunteers, and all of those things should be utilized to the maximum. But does that mean the state gets off the hook, or that it just gets to sit back and wait to see what’s left over, which it then may get around to helping out with if it feels like it and if it doesn’t feel “blackmailed” by local officials who are trying to do their jobs? The lack of leadership here is as deep and pervasive as the rainfall was a month ago.