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Hurricane Harvey

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.

Council approves initial Harvey housing aid

It’s a start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD approves its budget

In the end, they took what they initially rejected.

Houston ISD trustees unanimously passed a $2 billion budget Monday that is nearly identical to the one they narrowly rejected two weeks ago, signing off on significant cuts and agreeing to draw as much as $17 million from the district’s rainy-day fund.

At an hourlong early-morning meeting, trustees said they wanted to pass balanced budgets after back-to-back years of dipping into reserves, but they ultimately approved the spending plan ahead of a June 30 deadline.

[…]

The approved budget calls for about $83 million in spending cuts, which will result in hundreds of layoffs of support service staff. Hundreds of teaching positions also will be eliminated, but HISD administrators said they expect the vast majority of those jobs will be cut through attrition.

The budget includes about $17 million in new spending on dyslexia services, special education, the district’s plan for low-performing campuses and a comprehensive outside performance review. Trustees shaved about $1.5 million off the projected shortfall in recent days by choosing to use the state’s Legislative Budget Board for the performance review instead of a third-party vendor.

Trustees approved a budget last year that used $106 million in reserves to cover a shortfall and pay for raises ranging from 2 to 4 percent for many staff members, though they ultimately used less rainy-day money than expected.

At the June 14 budget meeting, several trustees said they were reluctant to tap reserves again, even on a smaller scale.

Glenn Reed, HISD’s general manager of budgeting and financial planning, said the district likely will not spend as much as is currently budgeted, and it could receive more tax revenue than was projected. As a result, Reed said: “I don’t expect to dip into our reserves next year.”

Administrators built the plan assuming a 1 percent increase in property values, but the Harris County Appraisal District expects HISD to see a 2 percent increase. Concerns about property appraisal appeals related to Hurricane Harvey led to the conservative projection.

HISD is expected to have about $275 million in reserves at the end of June, equal to about a month and a half of operating expenses. District officials have recommended keeping at least 3 months’ worth of operating expenses in reserve to cover emergency costs.

See here for the background. They could have done this last week, but it was definitely more exciting this way. In all seriousness, I get the urge to not want to dip into the reserve fund again, but 1) given the justifiably conservative revenue estimates that the district will almost certainly exceed, they probably won’t need to, and 2) sometimes the alternatives are worse. This was one of those times, so good call on taking the original path. The Press has more.

More details on the flood bond referendum

This is the longer version of the original story.

Through at least two-dozen public meetings across the county’s watersheds, County Judge Ed Emmett said residents have a crucial role to play as they provide feedback for the projects they think most will benefit their neighborhoods.

“As that comes in, Flood Control can make adjustments,” Emmett said. “You could have some projects just completely dropped. You could have some projects added we hadn’t thought about.”

The bond vote is an all-or-nothing gamble by Commissioners Court, whose members hope residents will commit to strengthening flood infrastructure after Harvey flooded 11 percent of the county’s housing stock this past August. If the bond passes, Harris County will have access to as much as $2.5 billion to make, over the next 10 to 15 years, the largest local investment in flood infrasctructure in the county’s history. If the bond fails, engineers will be limited to the flood control district’s annual operations and capital budgets, which total a paltry $120 million in comparison.

“This is the most important local vote I can remember in my lifetime,” Emmett said. “We either step up as a community and say we are going to address flooding and make our community resilient, or we kind of drib and drabble on, and it wouldn’t end well for anyone.”

A preliminary list of projects includes $919 million for channel improvements, $386 million for detention basins, $220 million for floodplain land acquisition, $12.5 million for new floodplain mapping and $1.25 million for an improved early flood warning system.

Also included is $184 million, coupled with $552 million in outside funding, to purchase around 3,600 buildings in the floodplain – more than the flood control district’s buyout program has bought in its entire 33-year history.

The draft list includes $430 million — nearly a fifth of the total — for contingency funding and “opportunities identified through public input.”

[…]

The bond would not finance the construction of a third reservoir in west Houston, but does include $750,000 to study, with the Army Corps of Engineers, whether another reservoir is necessary.

Other line items call for de-silting channels that lead into Addicks and Barker reservoirs, or possibly providing funding to the Army Corps to remove silt and vegetation from the reservoirs. Addicks and Barker are managed by the Army Corps, not Harris County, leaving any decisions about the future of those basins in the hands of the federal government.

The flood control district plans to work through the summer on the list of projects the bond would fund, and Emmett has pledged to publish a complete list by the time early voting begins in August. Until then, Emmett said plans may continue to change based on input from residents.

See here for the background. The county has a lot of work to do to finalize what the to-do list is, and to educate voters about it. Of course, first they have to make sure that the voters even know this is on the ballot in the first place, in August, at a time when no one has cast a vote in recent memory. I’m going to keep harping on this, because while I understand the reasons for expediting the election, I remain skeptical that it was a wise idea. I just don’t know, and neither does anyone else. It’s going to be fun trying to guess what turnout will be, I’ll say that much.

What the Texas State Aquarium is up to after Harvey

They’re doing what they need to do, which they should be doing.

During Harvey, aquarium officials took in other birds and marine animals from the University of Texas-Austin Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas and the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor — both areas that were devastated by the storm. They rescued pets such as Macaws, goats and chickens abandoned by owners who were fleeing Harvey’s torrent of wind and rain. And after the storm passed, they took in and cared for injured Brown Pelicans, turtles and other marine life.

Most returned to the wild. Others, like Storm, never will.

This kind of rehabilitation work is nothing new for the aquarium; it has been part of its mission, along with conservation, since it opening almost 30 years ago. It’s become such an important part of their work, officials said, they plan to open a new rehabilitation facility on their campus as early as 2021. Officials expect it will cost up to $20 million.

A new state-of-the-art building is important, aquarium president and CEO Tom Schmid said, because it’s only a matter of time before the Gulf of Mexico has another environmental disaster like Deepwater Horizon. When that oil rig exploded in April 2010, nearly 3.2 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf, harming animals, marine life and coral.

“We need to make sure we are ready for any environmental issue out there,” he said.

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Storm, by the way, is a Magnificent Frigatebird that the aquarium rescued right after Harvey. They’re doing a lot of good and necessary work at the Texas State Aquarium, and they deserve our support. I love aquariums and have visited several in my travels on the west coast, but I need to find a reason to call on this one.

County officially puts flood bond referendum on the ballot

Here we go.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final county report on Harvey

It was what we thought it was.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Not Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

If I had a boat…

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one could explain the president’s comment.

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

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

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

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

There. Much better now.

The criteria for Harvey accountability waivers

Here they are.

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

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

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

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

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

So what does that mean for HISD?

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You got something to say about the Harris County bond referendum?

You’ll get a chance to say it.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Wednesday announced a series of public meetings to seek input from residents on an estimated $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond that commissioners plan to put before voters on the anniversary of Hurricane Harvey in August.

“On August 25, the voters of Harris County will make one of the most important decisions, I think, in our history,” Emmett said.

Throughout June, July and August, the county will hold public meetings on the bond in each of the county’s 23 watersheds.

[…]

Flanked by Harris County Flood Control District head Russ Poppe, Emmett said the $2.5 billion sum is a ballpark figure, and projects may be added or subtracted before commissioners decide on a final amount on June 12.

Emmett said the county intends to publish a list of planned projects by the first week of August, when early voting on the bond begins.

An initial list of possible projects and information about the community meetings can be found at www.hcfcd.org/bondprogram.

See here for the background, and here for a list of the meetings that have been scheduled so far. There’s one for each watershed, though as you can see most are not yet on the calendar. There’s a lot we need to know about this, and just two months before we start voting on it, so find a meeting near you, learn what you can, and ask questions. We all need to know what we’re voting on.

Abbott versus Houston on Harvey funds

I have three things to say about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HISD hoping for Harvey waiver

That’s what it would take to avoid TEA sanctions this year.

Houston ISD’s 10 longest-struggling schools likely would not trigger major state sanctions this year if they all receive academic accountability waivers due to Hurricane Harvey, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Wednesday.

However, the district still would face punishment — either campus closures or a state takeover of the district’s locally elected school board — if Morath opts against accountability waivers for the schools and a single one fails to meet state academic standards.

The commissioner’s comments, made during a wide-ranging interview with the Houston Chronicle editorial board, answered several questions about the potential penalties facing Texas’ largest district, which must boost performance at its campuses to avoid unprecedented state intervention.

[…]

A decision on Harvey waivers is expected in June. All 10 of the schools were closed for 10 or 11 days following Harvey, with none sustaining catastrophic damage.

Morath repeatedly cautioned that no final decisions have been made about Harvey-related waivers or potential sanctions. However, if any of the 10 schools trigger the state law this year, Morath said he does not believe he has the legal authority to give HISD a break, as some Houston-area leaders have requested.

“Short version: I’m a constitutionally sworn officer, so, no,” Morath said. “I do what the law tells me.”

Morath said Texas Education Agency officials continue to collect and analyze data that will help decide which schools will receive Harvey-related accountability waivers. He expects the agency will analyze several campus-level factors — including days of instruction missed, students displaced and teachers left homeless — as they set criteria for issuing waivers. Some of those data points have been collected on a weekly basis, Morath said.

“Our team is trying to figure out whether or not the rules should be entirely consistent with (Hurricane) Ike or slightly more generous,” Morath said. “I think I’m currently leaning toward a slightly more generous framework than the prior systems, where it’s not just dates closed, but also student and staff displacement as a factor.”

Following Hurricane Ike in 2008, any school or district closed for at least 10 instructional days due to the storm received a “not rated” grade, unless its rating improved from the previous year.

See here for the last update. I’ve long maintained that all districts affected by Harvey deserve a one-year exemption from state accountability standards, and I remain hopeful that this will happen. Commissioner Morath is taking the question seriously, which I appreciate. We’ll know when he’s ready to tell us. A statement from Rep. Garnet Coleman, who is among the leaders that have been advocating for this, is here.

Abbott approves August flood bond referendum

One more step forward.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday approved Harris County’s request to call a multi-billion-dollar bond election to pay for flood control measures on Aug. 25, the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey.

By state law, the county needed Abbott’s permission to call the “emergency special election” in spite of his oft-stated goal of reducing property taxes. The flood control bond package almost certainly will be accompanied by an increase in Harris County’s property tax rate.

Abbott granted the county’s request to put the issue to the voters, affirming his stated belief that responding to Harvey does “qualify as an emergency” and stating that he is “committed to working with Harris County to achieve its goals in the most efficient way possible.”

“As this request for an emergency special election was duly passed by a unanimous vote of the Harris County Commissioners Court, I hereby grant approval as governor of Texas for this emergency special election to be called for bonds to fund flood-related mitigation projects that respond to Hurricane Harvey,” Abbott wrote in a letter accompanying his decision.

[…]

The county plans to launch a public outreach campaign to seek input on what to include in the bond package, as well as drum up support for the measure. [County Judge Ed] Emmett said the focus would be on helping the most people possible.

“The worst thing we can do is say, ‘Just give us money and trust us,’” Emmett said. “It’s got to be a very open, transparent process.”

See here for the background. Commissioners Court still has to officially call the election, which means they have to define what the issue covers and what the wording of the referendum will be. There’s stuff in the story about that, but we’re not really any farther along than the “well, we could have this and we could have that” stage yet. That will all work itself out one way or another.

I’m more interested in the politics of this. What will the county’s strategy be to sell people on this idea and get them to come out at a weird time of year to vote for it? Who will spearhead the effort, and how much money will they spend on it? Who will be on Team Referendum, and who (if anyone) will stand in opposition? As I’ve said before, while city of Houston bonds tend to pass with room to spare, Harris County bonds tend to have less margin for error, and can’t be assumed to be favored even in the absence of organized resistance. They’re going to need to figure out what this thing is quickly so they can start selling it ASAP. Among other things, the difference between an election in August and an election in November is that people expect to vote in the latter. The first part of the sales job is going to be making sure people know that they need to vote at a different time. I’ll be keeping a close watch on this.

We’ll be voting on flood control bonds in August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There will never be a hurricane named Harvey again

Or Irma or Maria or Nate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good.

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

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

Students across the state began taking STAAR exams this week.

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

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

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

Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium report

From the inbox:

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

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

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

 

Among the key conclusions within the report:

Flood Mitigation Infrastructure:

 

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

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

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

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

Regulations:

 

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

 

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

Buyouts:

 

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

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

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

Public Engagement:

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

General:

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Harvey effect on fire ants

Possibly another reason to curse that storm.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Council approves new floodplain regulations

We’ve been waiting for this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still discussing flood bonds

It’s complicated.

Harris County officials Tuesday said the “clock is ticking” on its call for a bond referendum for $1 billion or more in flood control projects, as requirements to provide matching funds for federal grants being disbursed in Hurricane Harvey’s wake threaten to deplete local coffers.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday stopped short of setting a date for the possible election amid questions about what projects could be included in such a bond issue and how much it would cost per year to complete them. The court directed staffers to hammer out specific proposals that would help determine how much debt the county should ask voters to approve.

Calling Harvey a game-changer, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and other members of Commissioners Court pledged last September to call for a bond election for upward of $1 billion to pay for wide-ranging flood control projects. The bonds likely would come with an increase in property taxes.

At the heart of Tuesday’s discussion was concern over the increasingly high stakes surrounding the fate and necessity of the bond, as well as the county’s ability to take on a host of large-scale projects aimed at preventing a repeat of the flooding and devastation wrought by Harvey.

See here and here for the background. Federal grants, some of which have already been approved, require local matching funds, which constrains what the county can do right now. The county will need to figure out how to balance what it’s doing now with what it wants to do with the bonds.

Officials also wrangled over several other logistical and political issues surrounding the proposed bond referendum, which would be one of the largest ever put before county voters.

“There are a lot of dilemmas facing us here,” Emmett said. “When do you have the election? How much is it? Do you get specific? Do you leave it general?”

The level of a property tax increase accompanying the bond likely will impact the referendum’s fate.

Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said that if, for example, the bond election was for $1 billion and the debt was issued over 10 years, that would result in a $5 increase in property tax bills for the average $200,000 home in the first year. That number likely would rise to about $20 in the 10th year.

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said that if voters reject a bond referendum, the county cannot put the same issue on the ballot again for two years.

Commissioners Court at its next meeting in April could vote to call an election for June 16, but Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis expressed concern over turnout during the summer months.

An election during the summer would require a plan to locate and staff polling places around the county. The governor also would have to sign off on a summer date.

“To my knowledge, no governor has ever denied a local bond election,” Emmett said. “But there haven’t been that many that have been called for a special date.”

Pushing the election to November would mean more turnout but also would raise the possibility that voters cast straight-ticket ballots for political parties and ignore the bond, Emmett said.

Ellis said he also worried about limiting the scope of the bond issue to focus on matches for federal grants, stating that he would like to see more investment in lower-income areas, and a bigger bond package to pay for it.

“After the most horrific and historic storm event we’ve had, I’ve heard members of this body say it’s our opportunity to do something big, and we may not get another bite at that apple,” he said.

I don’t think we’ve had a June election (not counting runoffs from May special elections) anytime recently. As far as the voters ignoring the bond question, Harris County hasn’t had a bond election in an even-numbered year recently. The city of Houston bonds in 2012 had undervote rates in the 20-30% range, but that still meant over 400K people voting on them. Metro’s referendum that year had a 21% dropoff but nearly 800K votes cast, while bonds for HISD (19% undervote, 315K ballots cast) and HCC (23% undervote, 352K ballots) were similar. If all those entities could have bonds in a Presidential year, I think Harris County could make do with a referendum in a non-Presidential year. (Metro is planning on one this year, remember.) Plenty of people will still weigh in on it, and if the county can’t successfully sell flood control projects post-Harvey then something is really wrong. I say put it up in November and start working on the campaign pitch now.

Flood tunnels

It’s so crazy, it just might work.

Japanese flood tunnel

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston’s flood mitigation priorities

The sooner the better with this.

Stephen Costello

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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