Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Hurricane Harvey

Climate change and hurricanes

We’re living it now.

Photo: NOAA/NASA GOES-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

The state of the state 2019

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that gets noticed.

Gov. Greg Abbott, in his biennial State of the State address Tuesday, stayed on message about schools and taxes, continuing state leaders’ so far unified focus on bread-and-butter policy reforms in a forum where he has in the past served up red meat.

Speaking in the Texas House to both chambers of the Legislature, Abbott named as emergency items the consensus priorities of school finance reform, teacher pay raises and property tax relief, the issues he and the state’s other top two Republican leaders have trumpeted almost single-mindedly in the months since the midterm elections. In doing so, he carefully avoided controversial social issues like the ones that headlined last session’s speech.

Also topping the governor’s priority list: school safety, disaster response and mental health programs. Abbott’s designation of those priorities allows lawmakers to take up such measures sooner, lifting the usual constitutional limitation that prevents the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session.

“Our mission begins with our students,” Abbott said as he began to lay out his legislative priorities. To improve lackluster student outcomes — only 40 percent of third-graders are reading at grade level by the end of their third-grade year, he said, and less than 40 percent of students who take the ACT or SAT are prepared for college — “we must target education funding.”

[…]

Unlike in his first two State of the State addresses, Abbott did not deem ethics reform an emergency item. He tagged that issue with top priority status in 2015 and 2017, but didn’t mention it this year. Nor did he raise any proposals related to abortion. And there was hardly any other mention of health care, an expense that takes up nearly as large a share of the state’s budget as does education.

House and Senate Democrats called it “disappointing” that the governor didn’t propose expanding access to pre-K or lowering the costs of teachers’ health care.

And state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, who serves as the caucus’ second vice-chair, said that Abbott, for all his bragging on the state of Texas during his speech, failed to mention the state’s high uninsured rate for health care.

“Texas needs to expand Medicaid,” Rose said during the conference, “and we need to expand it today.”

Still, Democrats were optimistic about some of the notable absences. Two years ago, Abbott’s address was headlined by his call for an anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that Democrats would staunchly oppose. This year, the governor mostly stayed away from hot-button social issues.

“It certainly was a different speech than we heard two years ago,” state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democrat who heads his party’s caucus in the House, said after the speech. “It seems as though election results have consequences.”

Another conspicuous absence from the speech was the voter rolls debacle that has dogged state leaders in recent weeks. Last month, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley flagged for citizenship review nearly 100,000 Texas voters; in the weeks since, the list has been revealed to be deeply flawed, and civil rights groups have sued the state three times.

There’s still plenty of reason to be wary of the property tax proposals Abbott has made, and one reason why there are fewer red meat items on his agenda is that a lot of them – voter ID, “sanctuary cities”, campus carry – have already been passed. I will agree that this was much more temperate than the address from two years ago – there’s no way Abbott would admit this, but I think Rep. Turner is right in his assessment – and there are issues on Abbott’s list that will get broad bipartisan support. Let’s be glad for the small victories, and work to make them bigger. Ross Ramsey, Texas Monthly, and the Observer have more.

Port Arthur

The Harvey-damaged industrial town is trying to draw new residents while holding onto the ones it has now.

Port Arthur may be surrounded by prosperous oil refineries, but the city itself faces challenges. The refineries employ fewer workers than they once did, and those they do hire come from all over. The city’s unemployment rate stood near 8 percent in November, more than twice that of the state, and the median household income is $33,000 a year, well below the average for Texas.

Some residents worry about the air they breathe in the shadow of so much industry. On top of it all, the city is reeling from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which affected an estimated 80 percent of its households.

The mayor worries people are not sticking around. Between 2000 and 2010, Port Arthur’s population fell by 4,000, to a total of 54,000. And though 2017 estimates show a slight uptick, some think the number will dip below 50,000 in next year’s census — a change that would make the city ineligible for certain federal grants.

While some residents have come back to try and turn around Port Arthur, drawn by family and a sense of community pride, some seem discouraged by the state of things.

[…]

On a Tuesday in November, Mayor Derrick Freeman sits on the dais. He is African American, as are the other six city council members. The major topic of discussion is fixing the city’s roads. By Freeman’s count, 340 miles of roadway need repair, at a cost of $1 million per mile. The city this year plans to spend $14 million, nearly a quarter of its $65 million operating budget, he said.

About one-third of that budget comes from industry agreements. The refineries in Port Arthur sit outside city limits. They have deals with the city to pay certain amounts in lieu of annexation, which could potentially bring Port Arthur more revenue but, as Freeman said, would also require taking on more responsibility, liability and staff.

Port Arthur still has a tax base that other local governments would envy, said Steven Craig, professor of economics at the University of Houston. Valero and Total overall reported adjusted net incomes of $2.2 and $10.6 billion, respectively, in 2017. What matters is how the local governments spend what they get.

“The question is: can you change your town or do you have to embrace what you have?” Craig said. “In some sense, I think the industrial towns that do the best they can to help the people they have are the ones that actually do sort of change.”

It’s a good story, and I’m rooting for them to meet their challenges. The main thing I wish I knew that I still don’t after reading this is what the overall quality of life is in Port Arthur. It’s big enough to have some city amenities like restaurants and an arts scene, but with less traffic and lower housing costs. That ought to be the draw of a town this size, which is also on the coast and not too far from Houston and the Louisiana casinos. What’s the elevator pitch for Port Arthur, and what’s the vision for its future? That’s what I would want to know.

Will we address the unincorporated problem?

The Chron proposes an agenda item for the Lege.

Unincorporated Harris County

The challenges of unincorporated Harris County are nothing new. For decades neighborhoods have sprouted up in the vast prairie west of Houston without any formal municipal governmental structure. Special districts have provided basic needs, such as neighborhood streets and water. The county government picked up the rest — notably law enforcement and roads. No mayors. No city halls. No local sales taxes.

This model is becoming unsustainable. If grouped into a single city, the total population of unincorporated Harris County would be the fifth largest in the United States. Issues like infrastructure costs and upkeep, law enforcement and the basic duties of government are piling up, and commissioners court lacks both the funds and the statutory authority to deal with it all.

Meanwhile, obscure rules written in Austin prohibit these neighborhoods from forming their own cities, which could levy sales taxes and pass ordinances. Already existing cities are hesitant to annex special districts, which often have long-term debt.

So why would the Legislature finally address this big-picture issue after ignoring it for so long?

Hurricane Harvey revealed the weaknesses of these special districts to meet residents’ needs and the ongoing fight over property taxes has the county looking for another way to pay for services.

Formal studies, notably from the Kinder Institute, are being published about the problems in these areas — and potential solutions.

The status quo in the unincorporated county can’t go on forever, and only Austin can change it.

I basically agree with the premise, but I seriously doubt anything will happen this session. This wasn’t a theme that Judge Lina Hidalgo campaigned on, and I expect she’s got her hands (and the county’s lobbyists’ hands) full right now. More to the point, it’s not clear what kind of legislation would be proposed to remedy the problems. Something like this needs to have a vetting period, with opportunities for public input, since any change would affect how current residents of unincorporated Harris County would be affected.

There’s an analogy here to the oft-lamented-by-the-Chron system of partisan judicial elections. What we have now is flawed, and it’s easy to say there must be a better way, but it’s all vaporware until something specific gets proposed and advocated. My suggestion would be to lobby Commissioners Court to put together a committee to study the options and propose something that can be turned into a bill one of our legislators can author for 2021. Something concrete has a chance to be enacted, so start with that and maybe we can actually make a change happen.

It’s always possible to make a border wall proposal stupider

Here’s Exhibit A.

An emergency Trump administration plan to tap storm protection funds to pay for a border wall was slammed Friday by Houston lawmakers who said it could endanger the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey and jeopardize the region’s preparedness for future storms.

While details of the proposal remained unclear, lawmakers in both parties scrambled to win assurances from the White House and allay concerns about projects in the Gulf Region, including a proposed coastal barrier to protect Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel.

Reports that President Donald Trump has been briefed on a plan to use unspent money from Army Corps of Engineers projects heightened tensions in Congress about his threat to use emergency powers to build hundreds of miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, much of it in the Rio Grande Valley.

The controversy also highlighted long-standing concerns about the slow pace at which Washington has released emergency disaster funds to Texas since Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

I wonder if this is what Trump meant when he said that Dan Patrick had offered to help pay for the wall? Maybe someone should ask him. There’s too much mendacity and stupidity here to waste time analyzing this, though my friend Amy Patrick took a crack at it from an engineering perspective. Not that any of this really matters, since Trump changes his mind every five minutes about what he does and doesn’t want. It does serve as a good distraction from the reporting that Trump is an asset of Russian intelligence, so there’s that. Happy Monday, everyone.

Our pretty decent revenue estimate

We’ve seen much worse.

At a time when legislators are vowing to spend more money on public schools and slow the growth of Texans’ property tax bills, the state should have enough money at its disposal to do just that.

That is, if its newest predictions hold true.

Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar on Monday offered a cautiously optimistic outlook for the Texas economy, telling lawmakers they will have about 8.1 percent more state funds available to budget for public programs — primarily schools, highways and health care — in 2020 and 2021. Hegar projected there would be about $119.1 billion in state funds available for the next two-year budget, up from $110.2 in the last two-year budget.

But falling oil prices in the last month, along with heightened uncertainty in the U.S. economy and international financial markets, led Hegar to deliver a “cloudy” forecast with some trepidation.

“We remain cautiously optimistic but recognize we’re unlikely to see continued revenue growth at the unusually strong rates we’ve seen in recent months,” he said.

[…]

Meanwhile, the state’s savings account, known as the rainy day fund, is projected to reach a record high balance of $15 billion. Lawmakers will debate whether to dip into that Economic Stabilization Fund to pay for bills coming due from the last two-year budget period, including Hurricane Harvey recovery, and in the upcoming two-year budget.

Advocates for greater investment in public schools reacted positively to the revenue estimate, saying lawmakers now have no excuse not to increase spending, given a growing budget and unprecedentedly large savings account balance.

“This is good news,” said Eva DeLuna Castro, a state budget analyst at the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. “This is enough to not cut state services.”

It is good news, but as always it comes with a warning label.

[T]he Republican-controlled Legislature has excelled at finding new ways to squander available funds on everything from inefficient property tax relief, piecemeal school finance fixes and heaps of corporate subsidies and tax cuts. Dan Patrick and the tea party faction are also intent on keeping the overflowing Rainy Day Fund under lock and key, despite the continued urgency of Hurricane Harvey relief. That could be a big wild card — given that Governor Greg Abbott never called a special session after Harvey, the Legislature has yet to allocate any state relief money. Leaders in the affected Gulf Coast region, from Rockport to Port Arthur, are sure to call on legislators to step up.

Of course, the devil will be in the details — GOP lawmakers are experienced at promising to tackle weighty, complicated issues like property tax relief and school finance reform while pushing policy that doesn’t really fix anything, or makes things worse. Abbott is intent on settling the property tax dilemma by handcuffing local governments’ ability to levy property tax increases, all while ignoring the larger problem at hand: the state needs to dedicate a lot more money for schools.

The state school finance system is in desperate need of an overhaul. Texas’ spending per student is around $10,000 a year, about $2,300 below the national average. Funding has remained relatively stagnant over the past decade and the state has plummeted to 36th in the nation in terms of per pupil spending. Meanwhile, as the state’s population has grown rapidly, the Legislature has forced local governments to pick up a larger share of the education tab through property tax revenues (thus fueling the current property tax crisis). In 2008, the state and local funding shares were split evenly, but the state’s contribution has since fallen to its current rate of 38 percent, according to the Center for Public Policy Priorities. Without a fix, that number is projected to fall even further. This has created a perpetual underfunding of the school system and has worsened the inequities between rich and poor districts.

But Hegar’s estimate is a heartening sign for advocates hoping for a substantial injection of state funding for public education — as much as $5 billion, which is what [outgoing Speaker Joe] Straus has said the state can afford. Perhaps an emboldened caucus of House and Senate Democrats, in tandem with Republicans who saw the writing on the wall in November, will be able to succeed in pushing for a more comprehensive solution.

The need is great, but the temptation to splurge on wasteful tax cuts that they call “school finance reform” is greater still. Even if there’s a zombie bathroom bill, that’s going to be the fight of the session. Texas Monthly has more.

Orlando Sanchez’s bizarre press conference

What a weird thing.

Orlando Sanchez

It was an absolutely wild afternoon for Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez. He planned to have a news conference across the street from the HISD administration building, but things didn’t go as planned.

Protestors showed up and completely disrupted Sanchez’s news conference. When he tried to get it started, the group would chant things like, ‘Go away, TEA’ and ‘You got voted out.’

Things really got heated when he was answering one of our questions. Someone from the group ran up and dumped water on him.

Someone from Sanchez’s team confronted the man. He ended up on the ground and police were called. Both sides claimed they were assaulted.

The news conference was supposed to be for Sanchez to call for the state to take over HISD.

“Taxpayers are fed up and it’s time for the governor and the Texas Education Agency to step up and make sure that children in HISD, which 83 percent of them are minority, get an education,” said Sanchez.

“To have somebody like that step on my toes like that when I have sacrificed so much for these kids, yeah, it’s emotional,” said HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern. “It is because it’s personal. These kids mean a lot to me; not just my five but all 215,000.”

Click over to see pictures and video. Far as I can tell, the only coverage of this fiasco has come from the TV stations; I’ve not seen anything in the Chron as yet.

Let me say up front that whoever poured water on Sanchez is an idiot, and what he did sure sounds like assault to me. It’s also terrible strategy from a public relations perspective. Sanchez’s purpose for calling the press conference was ridiculous on its face, and would have been easy to dismiss on its merits. Anyone who felt the need to attack Sanchez physically is someone who has no faith in their own political position.

Why do I say that Sanchez’s purpose is ridiculous? The law is clear that the authority of the TEA to step in only occurs after the schools fail to meet state standards. We won’t have that data for several months, a fact that everyone knows. It is entirely possible that the four schools in question, which were all granted one-year waivers due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey, could meet standards this year, as the other schools that had originally been under scrutiny and which did not get Harvey waivers did. One could easily argue that by making this needless and premature call for a TEA takeover, Sanchez is expressing a complete lack of faith in the students at the four schools. That’s an insult to them and their parents and teachers. Maybe he had some qualifiers and weasel words in his prepared text, but still, the message is clear: Orlando Sanchez expects you to fail, and so he wants the consequences of your failure to begin now.

One also can’t help but notice that Orlando Sanchez, who just got voted out of a cushy elected position where he was basically invisible for twelve years and has never before expressed any opinions about education or ideas about how to improve it, is jumping up and waving his arms in front of Greg Abbott at a time when he really needs something to do. It’s a clear grab for attention at a time when the news cycle is quiet and he can still call it in his capacity as an elected official. There’s also the rumors that Sanchez is prepping to run for Mayor (again). No such thing as bad publicity, am I right?

Finally, there will surely be litigation over the process of replacing an elected board with an appointed one – for sure, there’s a Voting Rights Act complaint to be made. There were lawsuits over the closure of North Forest ISD and La Marque ISD, and while the state prevailed in each of them, the situation with HISD, which is a much bigger district with many successful schools and is financially solvent, is vastly different. The state may well prevail in any litigation that will occur, but it will take time. There’s also the very real possibility that the Lege could modify the law in question that delays or makes less likely a TEA takeover. The point here is that in every way, this was way premature, and served to do nothing more than call attention to Orlando Sanchez. On that score at least, mission accomplished.

Is there a better way to predict flooding?

This startup thinks so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

But where would they be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More floodplain buyouts

Gonna keep seeing more of these.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to do with the county courthouse?

Seems like a problem.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

City seeks more Harvey recovery funds

Good. Seek all you can.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Who’s ready for a new flood plain map?

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Harvey and the Congressional races

This was from a couple of days ago.

Dayna Steele

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s a little toxic waste among friends?

No big deal, right?

On the plus side…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Atlantic on CD07

I have three things to say about this:

Lizzie Fletcher

On a Saturday morning in Houston, the high was 94 degrees with a chance of rain. It was hardly friendly weather for canvassing—the door-knocking, yard sign–delivering, get-out-the-vote efforts that define a politician’s grassroots network. Yet dozens of Seventh District residents, sporting lizzie fletcher for congress T-shirts, had happily crammed into a small office room on Richmond Avenue, awaiting their marching orders.

Fletcher stood on a step stool at the front of the room. The 43-year-old cuts an unconventional profile in the Seventh—female, liberal, inexperienced. Any one of those descriptors should be a nonstarter in this district, which a handsome blue blood named George H. W. Bush first turned Republican in 1966. That Bush has had only two successors in nearly five decades—both white, conservative men—appears testament to that fact.

But in a nod to the vast strangeness of 2018, Democrats see the Seventh as one of their best shots at taking the House. Indeed, Texas is changing. Across the state, Republican incumbents including Representative John Culberson here in the Seventh; Representatives Pete Sessions and Will Hurd; and even Senator Ted Cruz are struggling to fend off Democratic challengers. Suddenly, the idea of a progressive woman, a political outsider, unseating an 18-year incumbent like Culberson doesn’t feel so far-fetched.

On this Saturday in August, wearing a campaign T-shirt, a black miniskirt, and flip-flops, Fletcher prepped her volunteers by invoking the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey. It was exactly one year before that Harvey had dumped as much as 51 inches of rain on Houston, killing 75 people in Texas, and the trauma still ran deep. “For so many of us, Harvey was really a low point and a high point of our lives in Houston,” she said. The low point was obvious. But the high point, she said, was that in this community, “if you could help, you did.”

She didn’t have to adopt a hyper-partisan caricature—rallying for Donald Trump’s impeachment, say, or decrying his big tax cut for the wealthy—to energize the room. Rather, she compared volunteer efforts in the aftermath of Harvey to that day’s canvassing. “We are in a crisis in our country,” she said, her slight Southern lilt elongating her i’s. “And the best way—the best way—to do something about it is to do what y’all are doing today: Just show up.”

[…]

Today the district claims one of the most ethnically and economically diverse populations in Houston. It is 38 percent white, 31 percent Latino, 12 percent African American, and 10 percent Asian. To drive through the Seventh is to glimpse a vast number of takes on American life. The district touches some of the ritziest parts of Houston—the flashy mansions of River Oaks, the designer-stocked Galleria. Track a few miles southwest and you’ll find Gulfton, where Indian and Pakistani restaurants line the so-called Gandhi district and a single street might host Ethiopian and Guatemalan churches. Spin back up I-10 and there’s the Barker Reservoir, behind which many upper-middle-class homes were destroyed by Hurricane Harvey.

As the state undergoes a demographic transformation with the political shifts to match, the question for some political analysts has become not if Texas will turn blue, but when. So it has with the Seventh: The decades-long Republican stronghold swung for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, and Democrats have since zeroed in on it as a linchpin of their map to secure the House majority. “Any blue wave from Texas to Washington, including California, is going to start with this race,” the longtime Democratic lobbyist Scott Eckart told me. “If Culberson loses, I think all the others will follow.”

So far, polling suggests that, for Democrats, the Seventh is in fact within reach. Both Fletcher’s and Culberson’s internal polling clocks the race within the margin of error, according to three sources to whom the numbers have been relayed. Which means the pressure is on for Fletcher to run the perfect campaign not just for her own sake, but for House Democrats writ large.

“The political momentum here has shifted, and Lizzie is the ideal person to capitalize on that,” said Mustafa Tameez, a Democratic strategist based in the district. “She’s a progressive woman, she’s young, she’s smart. She checks off every box.”

[…]

This is in part why her campaign is less a collection of partisan talking points and more a commentary on local issues such as flood relief: She’s long been personally privy to the cyclical trauma of flooding in Harris County. Culberson “has been my rep since he was first elected in 2001,” Fletcher told me. “That year, we had Tropical Storm Allison. And I was working downtown at the time, and downtown flooded, my building flooded, people died. It was just this really incredible event that kind of snuck up on us.

“So he’s been on notice since he took office that this was something we needed to deal with,” she continued. “I didn’t ever agree with his positions in the first place … but what we are dealing with, in terms of flooding, is a years-long problem, and Culberson has been completely missing from the discussion.”

For Fletcher, it makes one of the key pro-Culberson arguments—that he’s a senior member of the powerful Appropriations Committee—unconvincing. “As a senior member of the Appropriations Committee … in the majority, why is it that two Democrats in our community are bringing the bill to fund all of our flood-mitigation projects, and he won’t sign on?” she said. “I think if you ask anybody, they’ll say we haven’t seen him use that to benefit our community, in all the years he’s been on it.”

1. The subhed on this article is “The Republican incumbent John Culberson has held the minority-majority Seventh Congressional District for almost two decades, but the Democrat Lizzie Fletcher hopes to finally turn out progressives and minorities.” So naturally I wanted to look at historic turnout numbers:


Year   CD07   County  Ratio
===========================
2016  67.04    61.33   1.09
2014  39.05    33.65   1.16
2012  67.72    61.99   1.09
2010  49.42    41.67   1.19
2008  70.61    62.81   1.12
2006  40.65    31.59   1.29
2004  66.87    58.03   1.15
2002  37.37    35.01   1.08

So turnout in CD07 is always higher than turnout in Harris County as a whole, ten to fifteen percent more in Presidential years and fifteen to thirty percent more in most non-Presidential years. That’s probably due to non-Presidential year turnout being generally lower in more Democratic areas. There’s still plenty of room for turnout to improve here. The goal of course will be to make sure that the reason for the bump in turnout is primarily due to voters who are friendlier to Fletcher than to Culberson.

2. As I’m sure you can guess, the prospect of poll data in CD07 is irresistible to me. We do have one publicly released poll that showed a two-point lead for Culberson. My guess is that the others mentioned in the story are all around that same margin, most likely all with Culberson in the lead. It’s all consistent with the larger picture. I do wonder, if the current slump in Trump’s approval ratings persists, if we’ll start to see more polls of Congressional districts being made public.

3. I do like the idea of turning Culberson’s tenure on the Appropriations Committee against him. If he couldn’t or didn’t deliver when his district and much of the rest of the region suffered such catastrophic floods as Allison and Harvey, then what good is he and his vaunted seniority and position of influence? It’s an argument that has a chance of catching on with people who aren’t congenital Democrats, and a good argument to make in an anti-incumbent year. Doesn’t mean it will work, or that it will be enough even if it does work, but it’s a good place to start.

Emmett speaks post-bond

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

One such improvement: a better system of urban governance.

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

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

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

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

In the meantime, the work has begun.

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

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

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

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

STEAR-ing help to those who need it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flood bond referendum passes easily

It was in the 85-15 range as of the 8:30 update from the County Clerk. Only a handful of precincts had reported as of that time, and I’m not going to stay up late waiting for more comprehensive numbers – I’ll post an update in the morning. There were about 95K early votes, and Stan Stanart was estimating another 60K on Saturday. The Yes vote had 70K more votes by this time, so it’s almost literally impossible for it not to pass if Stanart’s count of the Saturday tally is accurate. Not that this would have been likely in any event. The bond passed by a wide margin, so we go from here.

UPDATE: Final result, 129,944 in favor, 21,790 opposed, which is 85.64% in favor. Total turnout 152,305, for 6.66%, of which 57,365 were on Saturday. Some day I’d like to meet one of the 569 people who showed up at a polling place for this one election, and then did not pick one of the options available to them.

One year out from Harvey

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s not just in Houston.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flood bond election day is today

Here’s a Trib story about the bond.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better match from FEMA

Good news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD avoids sanctions for this year

Big sigh of relief.

Houston ISD will avoid major state sanctions for at least one year after four of its longest-struggling schools met state academic standards this year, according to preliminary results released Wednesday.

The announcement ensures the Texas Education Agency will not replace HISD’s locally elected school board in the coming months or close campuses that repeatedly have failed to meet academic standards before the 2019-20 school year. Under a new state law, commonly known as HB 1842, the TEA would have been required to implement one of the two sanctions if any of the four HISD campuses received another “improvement required” rating this year due to substandard academic performance.

[…]

The four HISD campuses that made standard to avoid triggering sanctions are Mading and Wesley elementary schools, Woodson PK-8 and Worthing High School. Each of those four had failed to meet standard for four to six consecutive years prior to 2018.

Although HISD will avoid sanctions this year, the threat of state-imposed punishment likely will loom throughout the 2018-19 school year.

Four low-performing HISD schools likely will risk triggering sanctions next year if they fail to meet academic standards when results are released in August 2019. Those four campuses are Highland Heights elementary schools, Henry Middle School, Kashmere and Wheatley high schools.

In an interview Wednesday, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath praised HISD’s accomplishment while cautioning more work needs to be done in Texas’ largest school district.

“Houston ISD has made progress, like many school systems across the state. That’s clear and that’s very good news,” Morath said. “But there’s obviously still a number of schools that need greater support throughout Houston, and I know they’re working diligently on that.”

See here for some background. As noted, the schools that qualified for Harvey waivers will need to be up to standard next year or the same sanctions will apply, but at least that gives the district another year to get there. Getting these found schools up to standard is a laudable accomplishment, and an encouraging sign that what the district had been doing has been working. Kudos to all, and let’s keep up the good work. The Trib has more.

More details on the flood bond referendum

Early voting starts today.

The Harris County Flood Control District on Monday released its complete list of projects that would be funded by the county’s $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond proposal, two days before early voting on the measure begins.

The 237 projects include $1.2 billion for channel improvements, $401 million for detention basins, $242 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Matt Zeve, the flood control district’s operations director, said the vast majority of projects will address problems engineers identified years or decades ago but lacked the funding to tackle. The flood control district’s budget totals just $120 million annually.

“It’s always been OK, how do we afford to solve these problems?” Zeve said. “With the bond, we’ll have funds to solve some of these drainage and flooding issues.

[…]

The bond also would put $184 million, coupled with more than $500 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain. It would not pay for a third reservoir to complement the Addicks and Barker reservoirs in west Houston, but would chip in $750,000 to help the Army Corps of Engineers study the idea.

Thirty-eight projects were added based on ideas from residents at more than two-dozen public meetings this summer. These include $6 million to improve flow in Horsepen Bayou, $15 million to do the same in Brays Bayou and $30 million to design and build new bridges over Buffalo Bayou.

Here’s the updated projects list. I’m sure there will be more added as we go along. I don’t have a lot to add at this time, as I haven’t had a chance to read through it all. The main thing you need to know right now is that early voting for the referendum begins today and runs through the 21st. Hours are a bit odd, so check the map and schedule before you head out.

Poll shows flood bond referendum in good shape

Standard caveats apply.

A majority of Harris County voters say they will support a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond at the polls later this month, according to University of Houston research released Monday.

Sixty-two percent of residents who said they are certain to vote said they will support the bond, compared to 55 percent of all respondents. Just 10 percent said they oppose the bond, while one-third remain unsure.

“People see flooding as a Houston and Harris County problem, not a problem affecting only certain neighborhoods or people,” Jim Granato, executive director of UH’s Hobby School of Public Affairs, said in a statement. “They believe the region’s future will be decided, at least in part, by how we respond.”

[…]

Residents who sustained property damage from Hurricane Harvey were slightly more likely to support the bond than those who remained dry, 60 percent to 52 percent.

Partisanship appears to play little role in residents’ views on the bond, as 58 percent of Republicans and 63 percent of Democrats support the proposal, which has wide support elected officials from both parties.

Sixty-nine percent of college-educated residents said they’ll vote yes, while the poll found residents 65 and older support the bond to the tune of 58 percent. Seniors whose homes are worth less than $200,000, as well as residents who are disabled, would not see their taxes rise because of the bond.

Just 18 percent of the youngest polling cohort, residents 18 to 25, said they support the bond, though 59 percent professed they remain unsure.

Harris County residents found most agreement when asked whether Austin should help the region’s recovery by tapping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund. Almost 88 percent said the Abbott administration should.

You know the drill: It’s one poll, polling local races is always tricky because the turnout model can vary wildly, nobody knows who is going to show up for a weirdo August election. That said, the fact that 55% of all adults were in favor of the bond, with the number climbing to 62% for the self-proclaimed likely to vote, is a positive sign. At the very least, it suggests that the people who are paying more attention are also more likely to favor the bond. The low numbers for those who are against it, much lower than those with no opinion, also augur well. I think this poll is probably correct about the outcome, though getting the exact numbers right is anyone’s guess. Early voting starts Wednesday – you know, tomorrow – so we’ll know soon enough. How are you voting on this? Since I was asked in an earlier post, I’ll state that I am voting for it. What about you?

Arkema indictments

This will cause a stir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Lots of Harvey waivers out there

And good for the school districts that got them.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

HISD is optimistic about not being taken over (yet)

I hope it’s warranted.

Several of Houston ISD’s longest-struggling elementary and middle schools posted significant gains on state standardized tests in 2018, including all three campuses that must meet Texas academic standards this year to avoid triggering major sanctions, according to preliminary data released this week by the district and the Texas Education Agency.

District leaders are “hopeful” those strong gains will be enough for HISD to stave off campus closures or a state takeover of its locally-elected school board when final results are released in mid-August, a top HISD administrator said this week. At the same time, a few of the district’s chronically underperforming schools appear less likely to meet state standards this year, putting HISD at risk of punishment next year if those campuses do not show immediate improvement.

The largely positive results offer another glimmer of hope for HISD as it seeks to avoid state intervention tied to its failure to improve performance at its lowest-performing schools in recent years, a possibility that has roiled the district for months. District officials already were buoyed by an earlier release of preliminary data, which showed strong gains in grades 5 and 8, as well as high schools. The latest data include results for grades 3, 4, 6 and 7, providing a fuller picture of elementary and middle school performance.

Headed into the 2017-18 school year, 10 HISD schools had to meet state academic standards to avoid triggering sanctions after receiving at least four straight “improvement required” annual ratings. However, it is expected six of those schools will receive a one-year academic accountability reprieve due to Hurricane Harvey, leaving four campuses — Mading and Wesley elementary schools, Woodson PK-8 and Worthing High School — at risk of triggering punishment this year.

HISD administrators said they cannot yet conclude whether those four campuses will meet standards before Aug. 15, when the state makes it official. However, after analyzing the available test scores and reviewing Texas’ revised accountability system, district staff are cautiously optimistic all four campuses will shed the “improvement required” label.

“We’re hopeful. The data looked good for the campuses,” Carla Stevens, HISD’s assistant superintendent of research and accountability, said in an interview this week. “You can see there’s progress for a lot of these schools, and that’s what we’re counting on.”

See here for the background. Obviously, I hope they make it, but even if they do there will still be next year to contend with, as the schools who qualify for the waiver will need to be up to standard by then, so there’s no time to relax. We’ll know the answer in a few weeks.

Houston Flood Museum

Sounds like a good idea.

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

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

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

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

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

CD07 candidates endorse the August flood bond referendum

What I would expect.

U.S. Rep. John Culberson and his challenger, Lizzie Fletcher, found rare common ground on Wednesday as both endorsed Harris County’s proposed $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond proposal.

Culberson said he can match every local dollar Harris County puts toward flood recovery with up to three federal dollars, ensuring the county would have access to additional flood mitigation funds it would not have to repay.

“I support that bond proposal, because that will increase the amount of money Harris County can put on the table, which allows me, as the appropriator, to put more federal dollars into the projects,” Culberson said.

Fletcher, his Democratic opponent, said the bond is critical to addressing the county’s chronic flooding problem.

“We saw as recently as last week how essential these investments in projects are to our community as Independence Day became another flood day in Houston,” she said in a statement.

It’s hard to imagine either candidate not endorsing any remotely sound flood bond measure. It would have been highly iconoclastic, and very much a campaign issue, if one of them did not do so. By the same token, it’s hard to imagine this bond passing if it doesn’t get robust support from within CD07. Go back to the 2013 referendum to build a joint processing center for the jail and combine the city jail into the county. It barely passed despite there being no organized opposition but very little in the way of a campaign for it, and it owed its passage to the voters in Council districts C and G, for which there is significant overlap with CD07. (This was an odd year election, and while the County Clerk has made some changes to its election canvass data since then, the only district information I had for this was Council districts.) Having both Culberson and Fletcher on board helps, but it’s not sufficient by itself, especially for a weirdly timed election. It’s a start, but more will be needed for this thing to pass.

More on flood tunnels

They’re a thing, I swear.

Japanese flood tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Where best to attack Culberson?

Flooding is an obvious issue, but it’s hardly the only one.

Lizzie Fletcher

After Hurricane Harvey flooded much of Houston – including the hotly contested Seventh Congressional District – Republican incumbent John Culberson used his position on the House Appropriations Committee to stamp his name on billions of dollars in disaster recovery funds.

By February, he could claim a leading hand in securing $141 billion in congressional appropriations to help the victims of the 2017 hurricanes in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

But as the nine-term congressman faces an unusually tough reelection against Democratic challenger Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, the city’s troubled history of flooding and the federal government’s long backlog of flood control projects has come under sharp political attack.

Fletcher, a Houston attorney making her first run for office, argues that Houstonians are paying the price for Culberson’s small government philosophy and a Republican-led Congress that she says has been slow to fund critical improvements to the Addicks and Barker dams, both aging structures that were deemed to be at “high risk” of failure as early as 2004.

She also has homed in on key votes cast by Culberson, who she labels a climate change skeptic, saying that they undermined flood prevention efforts in Texas and across the country.

“We can’t just look at the last nine months,” she said in an interview. “We need to look at the last nine terms.”

It’s a long story and I encourage you to read the whole thing. Culberson has done some things and was the only Texas Republican to avoid making himself a sniveling hypocrite when he supported federal relief funds for New York and New Jersey following Superstorm Sandy, but the fact that the rest of his caucus opposed such funds, and the fact that his party has so greatly prioritized cutting taxes and slashing spending over investing in infrastructure and solving problems just highlights why he doesn’t deserve a pass for a handful of decent votes. He’s part of the problem regardless, and the only way forward is a change of leadership in Congress. He can push the occasional bill and make the odd budget appropriation, but as long as he’s a vote for a Republican Speaker and a body in the count for a Republican House majority, nothing’s going to get done.

All this said, health care was the issue everyone was talking about earlier on, when the House – including John Culberson – was trying to kill the Affordable Care Act. That battle has shifted from Congress to the courthouse again, and that should bring this issue, on which Democrats enjoy an electoral advantage, to the fore. It’s never going to be a bad idea to remind people that Culberson has worked tirelessly to take their health care away. And since we’re only ever allowed to talk about mental illness when there’s another mass shooting, it’s also always a good time to remind people that the single biggest thing Texas can do to boost mental health care is to accept Medicaid expansion, which again John Culberson opposes with every fiber of his being. Flooding is a great and vital issue, with lots to talk about, but it’s not the only one.

Feds approve $5 billion in Harvey aid

Good.

Photo by Yi-Chin Lee

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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