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Hurricane Ike

Will we ever get an Ike Dike?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Harvey and the oysters

If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Oyster lovers will shell out more for the marine delicacy this fall, as freshwater runoff from Hurricane Harvey’s historic floods killed virtually all of the bivalves in the prolific seabeds of Galveston Bay.

The storm was the latest setback to a multimillion-dollar commercial fishing and seafood-processing industry that appeared poised to finally rebound from floods, including two devastating tropical weather systems, and an extended drought in less than a decade. Shrimpers, crabbers and other fishermen who work the bay also will feel an impact.

But it’s most lethal in the case of the oysters, as Harvey-spawned rains and rainwater runoff drove down the bay’s salinity to fatal levels. Salinity levels of 12 to 30 parts per thousand are ideal for a healthy oyster harvest in Galveston Bay, which researchers say is the nation’s most bountiful. Yet preliminary tests performed by commercial fishers on Tuesday revealed salinity levels at 0 to 5 parts per thousand – and excessive water continues to drain into the bay.

Industry leaders fear no more than 10 percent of oysters in the bay prior to the storm have survived. It’s possible, they said, that the entire crop is lost.

“That much freshwater in the bay has taken its toll on us,” said Mark Lewis, sales representative for wholesaler, Jeri’s Seafood. “There’s nothing in Texas to buy.”

From Hurricane Ike to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the drought to the other big floods of the last two years and finally Harvey, it’s been an extremely rough time for the oyster population and the industry it sustains. Things aren’t much better in Louisiana right now, either. Maybe we should work a little harder at being good stewards of the environment? Just a thought.

Now is not a good time for HHSC to be dysfunctional

And yet here we are.

Under Charles Smith, the longtime ally of Gov. Greg Abbott picked to lead the state’s Health and Human Services Commission, Texas’ government health care infrastructure is hemorrhaging veteran employees and facing criticism for its response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Harvey.

Dozens of experienced senior staff members have left the agency since Smith took over last year. Current and former employees attribute the exodus to widespread dissatisfaction with the executive commissioner, who they say lacks technical knowledge of the agency and pushes a political agenda backed by the governor.

Interviews with 11 current and former long-serving health commission staff, ranging from senior executives to mid-level managers, paint a picture of a state agency in disarray, with veteran staff clashing regularly with Smith and his supporters in the governor’s office. The internal conflict has spurred a wave of resignations, leaving the agency with a void of talent that critics say is hampering the state’s ability to aid victims of Hurricane Harvey.

“It’s hard to watch,” said one former high-ranking health commission official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of an ongoing professional relationship with the health commission. “Anybody with any knowledge or experience is not going to stay.”


Critics point to the agency’s actions in the month after Hurricane Harvey as evidence of its dysfunction.

Specifically, sources inside and outside of the commission told the Tribune that the agency was slow to act in providing guidance and assistance to Texans affected by Harvey who qualify for public programs such as food stamps and Medicaid.

Doctors have complained that basic information, such as whether displaced Medicaid patients could seek care outside of their insurance network or get prescription medications refilled, was slow to emerge from the agency, and advocates for low-income Texans were frustrated to see a flurry of revisions to information posted on the agency’s website as victims sought government assistance.

Others pointed to the delay in rolling out disaster food stamps benefits. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas on Aug. 25, and the health commission began rolling out disaster food stamps on Sept. 13, nearly three weeks later, but only in some counties. Houston, Corpus Christi and other areas that suffered some of the most extensive damage from the storm were not included in the initial rollout.

By comparison, when Hurricane Ike struck Galveston in 2008, then-Executive Commissioner Albert Hawkins announced the agency would provide emergency food stamps five days after the storm made landfall.

“When I see the response to Harvey, I am quite concerned about the level of expertise in the agency,” said one former commission official who has closely followed the hurricane response. “This stuff is not rocket science. We’ve had disasters before. There are templates for this.”

The Texas State Employees Union said this week that falling employee morale and a shortage of workers has hampered the state’s ability to provide recovery after Hurricane Harvey. Union officials say the health commission has lost nearly 11 percent of its eligibility operations staff — the workers who help connect Texans with public benefits.

In a statement for the union, Rashel Richardson, a caseworker in Houston, asked, “How are we supposed to work this much forced overtime week after week while our homes have been destroyed? How are we supposed to concentrate and get people services when we need services ourselves? It’s as if the state has no sympathy for workers who lost everything.”

There’s more, so read the whole thing. Not that there’s ever a good time for such a large agency that affects so many people to be dysfunctional, but in the aftermath of a huge natural disaster that has done so much damage? That’s a really bad time. Of course, HHSC has been a problem child for a long time, so none of this should be a big surprise. On the other hand, the HHSC under Greg Abbott has been particularly hostile to women’s health, so it’s all good as far as he’s concerned.

On when you should file a Harvey-related claim

It may or may not ultimately make a difference, but a new law that goes into effect on September 1 is about insurance claims and lawsuits.

For many Texans ravaged by the rain and winds Hurricane Harvey carried ashore this past weekend, filing an insurance claim for the damage their property sustained is probably the farthest thing from their minds right now. But waiting to submit a claim past Friday could cost them big.

A new law set to take effect Friday aims to crack down on frivolous insurance lawsuits. But House Bill 1774 also reduces the penalty interest rate insurance companies face for late payments if the policyholder files a lawsuit.

If insurance companies are late in paying claims as a result of a lawsuit, they must pay an additional penalty to policyholders. Under current state law, that penalty comes in the form of a fee that totals 18 percent of the claim. For claims filed after Friday, that rate will be determined by a market-based formula that is capped at 20 percent. Currently, the rate would be 10 percent.

While people filing claims by Friday would benefit from the higher penalty payouts in lawsuits, those same cases would be subject to provisions in the new law. Those provisions would decrease the chances insurance companies will have to pay the plaintiff’s attorneys fees in full and protect agents from being personally sued.

Jeff Raizner, a member of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, which opposed HB 1774, said the law is a mixed bag.

“I want to be completely fair, there were some bad actors,” said Raizner, a Houston trial lawyer who has worked on insurance cases for 25 years. He added that some of what the new law requires addresses that problem – like the strengthened rules on communications regarding claims issues and the structure for paying attorneys’ fees.

But he calls the penalty changes an overreach.

“Much of this new law is a money grab by the insurance industry,” Raizner said.

“The intent of the bill was to cut off this ‘cottage industry’ that was happening around hailstorms after Hurricane Ike; lawsuits that didn’t need to be filed,” said Lucy Nashed, a spokesman for Texans for Lawsuit Reform. TLR supported the bill and argues that because the bulk of Harvey insurance claims will be flood-related, nothing will change.

I’m not a lawyer, and I’ve thankfully never had to file an insurance claim related to storm or flood damage. This explanation on Facebook from someone who is a lawyer strongly suggests that HB 1774 won’t affect the vast majority of people:

First and foremost, HB 1774 does not change the insurance claims process. A person making a claim with her insurance company after September 1, 2017 will go through the same process as a person making a claim before September 1, 2017.

The new law applies to a lawsuit that is filed against an insurance company by a policyholder when the policyholder’s insurance claim is not timely paid or is underpaid, or when the insurance company acts in bad faith in dealing with the policyholder’s claim.

Lawsuits are the exception, not the rule. The vast majority of Texans will go through the regular insurance claims process without needing to file a lawsuit.

Even under HB 1774, Texans continue to have the strongest consumer protections in the nation against insurance companies. This includes the full recovery of amounts owed under an insurance policy, plus penalty interest, court costs, and attorney fees. Additionally, if the insurance company acts fraudulently or in bad faith, Texans may recover triple the amount of their actual damages, which is unchanged by the new statute.

The only advantage to filing a claim before Sept 1 is that IF the insurance is slow to pay or underplays, their penalty interest will be a floating rate between 10-20%, rather than a stagnant rate of 18%. Lawyers may worry about that change in rate, but you shouldn’t. It doesn’t impact your coverage.

The primary purpose of the new statute is to require written notice of a dispute before a lawsuit is filed (so that the insurance company can adequately address the claim before a lawsuit is even needed). If a lawsuit is filed, it would happen months or years after the initial claim was made with the insurance company. Nothing in the new law passed by the Legislature earlier this year requires that the initial insurance claim be made in writing or by a specific date.

For what it’s worth, the new law will not apply to most claims or lawsuits arising from Harvey, as I understand it, because most of the policyholders’ claims will be for damage caused by flooding. These claims will be made under the federal flood insurance program and governed by federal law. The new law will not apply to lawsuits pursued against the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association (TWIA), which is subject to an entirely different statute governing post-disaster lawsuits. TWIA provides insurance for many people affected by Harvey directly on the coast.

I guess I would say that if you do have a claim to file, and you can do it by Thursday, go ahead and do it then. It probably won’t matter, but it probably won’t hurt. RG Ratcliffe and Mother Jones have more.

There is trouble with the trees

More to the point, there is trouble with the idea that municipal tree ordinances are somehow a bad thing, but that’s where we are, and it’s got some folks worried.

Never turn down an opportunity to reference a Rush song

More than 40,000 trees were lost to [Hurricane] Ike, according to the nonprofit Galveston Island Tree Conservancy. A replanting campaign that began in 2010 has made significant progress: Volunteers have spent more than 17,000 hours planting more than 16,000 trees, including 250 live oaks and 60 palm trees on Broadway.

Now this effort faces a new threat – not from nature, but from politicians in the state Capitol. Gov. Greg Abbott wants the Legislature to strip cities of the authority to regulate – and essentially protect – trees on private property. It’s one of 21 items the Republican governor has placed on the agenda for a special session that begins July 18.

This action would weaken tree-protection ordinances in more than 50 Texas cities.

Local leaders across the state oppose the idea, but the issue has particular resonance in Galveston because of Ike’s devastating effect on its tree canopy.

In the storm’s aftermath, trees became precious jewels. Homeowners agonized for months, hoping in vain that their treasured oak or magnolia would somehow recover, before accepting the inevitable. Every dead tree that was felled and hauled away left the island a little barer, its people a little more sorrowful.

“Everyone was just so devastated by the loss,” said Jackie Cole, president of the nonprofit Galveston Island Tree Conservancy.

To bolster the recovery effort, the City Council passed a tree-protection ordinance in 2015. The measure requires property owners to seek a permit before removing trees considered significant based on their size or other factors. Trees that are unhealthy, that pose a hazard or that meet certain other criteria may be removed without penalty; others may be cut down only if the owner replaces them with trees of a specified size or pays into a local tree fund.

See here for some background. I would point out that for all of Abbott’s tree-hatred, his little vendetta will still require the consent of the Legislature. I hope the people of Galveston have been directing their concerns to Sen. Larry Taylor and Reps. Wayne Faircloth and Greg Bonnen. If local control still means anything, it needs to mean something to them.

By the way, story author Mike Snyder has a sidebar piece about the effort to defend local tree ordinances, which is being led by Defend Texas Trees. Turns out that most of the municipal tree ordinances in the state aren’t about what homeowners can and cannot do but about what developers can and cannot do, with restrictions and incentives in place to preserve mature trees. In other words, Abbott’s intended ordinance isn’t just an attack on trees, it’s a boon for developers. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

Busy hurricane season predicted

Welcome to summer, y’all.

The nation’s climate agency on Thursday predicted an above-normal 2017 hurricane season with 11 to 17 named storms, five to nine of them hurricanes.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicted a 45 percent chance of the hurricane season that begins June 1 being above normal, a 35 percent chance of a normal season and a 20 percent chance of a below-normal season. An average season is 12 named storms, six hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

The agency said it expected two to four of the hurricanes to be Category 3 or higher.

“The outlook reflects our expectation of a weak or non-existent El Niño, near- or above-average sea-surface temperatures across the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea and average or weaker-than-average vertical wind shear in that same region,” said Gerry Bell, lead seasonal hurricane forecaster with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.

Bell said a strong El Niño causes more intense wind shear, which tends to break up tropical disturbances before they can grow into a hurricane. He cautioned that chances were 50-50 that a stronger El Niño could develop later in the hurricane season, which ends Nov. 30.


The United States has had a long run of good luck, said Ben Friedman, acting NOAA administrator. “It’s been a record 12 years since a Category 3 or higher storm has hit the United States, Friedman said.

And it’s been nine years since Hurricane Ike, which caused a lot of problems even if it wasn’t nearly as bad a storm as it could have been. It’s not unreasonable to think that people have relaxed a bit recently, given how mild the storm seasons have been since then. Be prepared, don’t panic, and if you live in Katy go ahead and start evacuating now. Texas Monthly has more.

What is the environmental impact of building an Ike Dike?

Maybe we should try to figure that out.

Plans for building a massive storm-surge protection system for the Houston area are rushing ahead before officials determine whether the project could harm Galveston Bay, environmental groups say.

The Sierra Club and the Galveston Bay Foundation, the environmental groups most closely watching the planning process, worry that there’s been too much focus on how to build the so-called Ike Dike and not enough on its impact on the bay.

“The Ike Dike has gained traction and local government support,” said Scott Jones, spokesman for the Galveston Bay Foundation. “We understand that, but we don’t think the environmental questions have been answered.”

Brandt Mannchen, spokesman for the Sierra Club’s Houston Regional Group, agreed. “We really need to look at the environmental impacts and, from our standpoint, should have looked at them first. We are kind of doing this backward.”


The groups are concerned that political momentum for the existing proposal may be so strong by then that the study results will have little influence.

“Maybe the Ike Dike is the best thing since Wonder Bread, but right now we don’t know because we haven’t looked at it,” Mannchen said.

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I guess we need someone to create some models of the various proposals, to simulate what the effects of building them are, as well as the effect of having them or not having them in place when a big storm hits. It may be that even with some negative effects from the construction, the mitigation in the event of nightmare hurricane is more than enough to make it worthwhile. Or not. Who knows? It sure would be nice if we did.

Obama signs Cornyn flood mitigation bill

The title to this post is a bit of an overbid, but this is still a good thing.

President Obama on Monday signed into law a bill that could help expedite the long process of constructing a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast, including the particularly vulnerable Houston region.

The “Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation,” or WIIN, Act contains a major provision of another bill U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed in April — the month after The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an interactive report exploring the dire impacts of a monster storm hitting the nation’s fourth-largest city and its massive petrochemical complex. Scientists are still fine-tuning plans to protect against such an event, which they say could kill hundreds, if not thousands, of people and cripple the economy and environment.

Most agree on the need to build a project known as the “coastal spine,” a massive floodgate and barrier system, but there is no official consensus plan. (State lawmakers have asked scientists to settle on a plan to protect the coast, but they’re still in disagreement.) The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will have the final say on what plan to pursue and is conducting its own study of the issue, has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

The bill Cornyn filed in April, called the “Corps’ Obligation to Assist in Safeguarding Texas,” or COAST, Act, was designed to hurry things along by requiring the Corps to take local studies on the issue into account (one by a six-county coalition, in particular) and by eliminating the need for Congress to authorize construction of whatever project the Corps ends up recommending.

The bipartisan WIIN Act includes only the former provision requiring the Corps to account for local studies, meaning Congress still will have to sign off on any plan. (The COAST Act passed the Senate in September but never passed the House.)

See here for some background. We’re still a long way from something being built, as we lack such minor details as consensus on what to build and a funding mechanism for it. But this is a step forward, so credit to Sen. Cornyn for shepherding the bill through and to President Obama for signing it. The Current and Space City Weather have more.

Two Ike Dike updates

Ike Dike could be hidden by dunes:

The “Ike Dike” that is being proposed to protect the Galveston-Houston area from a potentially catastrophic hurricane storm surge could take the form of undulating sand dunes hiding a steel or concrete core.

The proposal to craft a storm barrier that would blend in with the environment and potentially strengthen beaches against erosion is one of three proposals for where and how to build a surge barrier, an idea that has gained considerable political momentum and is likely to be the subject of some form of action when the Legislature convenes next year.

The six-county Gulf Coast Protection and Recovery District, known as the storm surge district, has looked at placing the surge barrier landward of the highways that run along the coast on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula. Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (or SSPEED) has recommended raising the highways as the most economical way to build a surge barrier and still ensure an evacuation route as storm water rises. Several people died during Hurricane Ike in 2008 as rising tides isolated them on the highway.

Placing the surge barrier on the beach, as has been done successfully in the Netherlands, is a proposal being pushed by the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University at Galveston. Engineering the storm barrier to be part of the natural landscape would create habitat for plants and animals and protect homes between the beach and the highway that otherwise would be left to the mercy of the storm, said Sam Brody, who teaches marine science at the center.

Brody conceded that it will be more expensive to build the barrier along the beach and will increase the estimated $5.8 billion cost. “The added cost of restoring and enhancing the environment is worth it over the long term,” Brody said.

The idea is getting no resistance from the SSPEED Center and the storm surge district. “We don’t have a strong position one way or the other,” SSPEED Center Co-director Jim Blackburn said. Chris Sallese, program manager for the storm surge district, said his agency looked at building the barrier landward of the highway because SSPEED and Texas A&M were looking at the other alternatives and the district wanted to make sure all possibilities were examined.

Coastal barrier plan ‘Ike Dike’ draws support, needs funding:

If there is a lesson from the devastation of Hurricane Ike eight years ago, it is that the Houston-Galveston region is extremely vulnerable to a catastrophic storm surge, and the next hurricane could send the regional economy into a deep tailspin.

But plans to protect the region from such a storm surge have lagged as officials and experts argued about whether to build a major coastal barrier called the “Ike Dike” or a series of smaller projects that could be completed more quickly.

Now, there is strong support for building the $11.6 billion Ike Dike plan, designed to keep a massive storm surge from rushing into developed areas. A six-county storm surge district recently recommended a plan that calls for 277 miles of coastal barriers, including raised seawalls, levees and surge gates.


Planners have completed studies showing that the Ike Dike could prevent $38 billion in losses and save 151,000 jobs over a 50-year lifespan.

Unlike earlier proposals, the plan now backed by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, also known as the storm surge district, recommends raising the Galveston seawall by 4 feet, building a levee on the bay side of Galveston and a gate at Clear Lake. A proposed gate at San Luis Pass on the west end of Galveston Island was eliminated.

Differences remain over how to block a storm surge inside Galveston Bay and how close to the beach to build the surge barrier. Some also worry about the environmental effect of a proposed surge gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

Larry Dunbar, project manager for Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center, told legislators that it was better to move ahead with smaller projects, such as the center’s proposal for a gate inside Galveston Bay, that could be financed locally.

“Are we going to sit back and wait for the federal government to give us the $10 billion we need?” Dunbar asked. “We believe … it can be built in pieces if necessary.”

See here for previous Ike Dike blogging. I don’t have a point to make, I just wanted to note this stuff before it got completely lost in the 2016 election hole. Actually, I will say that if Sen. John Cornyn wanted to propose some kind of funding mechanism for this, I’d bet President Hillary Clinton would be amenable to working with him on it. Just a thought.

Cornyn files bill to speed up floodgate construction process

Credit where credit is due.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed legislation Wednesday that he says would expedite the long process of constructing a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast, including the particularly vulnerable Houston region.

But while local officials cheered the high-profile support, it’s unclear how much the measure would actually speed anything up.

Most agree on the need to build a project known as the “coastal spine” — a massive floodgate and barrier system — to protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane that could kill thousands and cripple the national economy. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has estimated that construction on any such system for Texas couldn’t begin until 2024 at the earliest.

Cornyn’s bill is intended to hurry things along by requiring the Corps to take local studies into account and by eliminating the need for Congress to authorize construction of whatever project the Corps recommends.

The Corps has already said it would consider locally done studies, however. And while getting rid of the need for Congressional authorization could shave off a small amount of time, the real hurdle will be getting Congress to help fund what is sure to be a multi-billion-dollar project.

“The devil’s in the details, right?” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership. “But I will tell you that for the senator to step up and start this process is very positive, and it can’t do anything but help … the positive is Senator Cornyn has done something, and we’ve got to build on it.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Shortly thereafter, Cornyn’s bill had a House companion.

Two days after U.S. Sen. John Cornyn filed legislation seeking to expedite a hurricane protection plan for Texas, U.S. Rep. Randy Weber said he expects to introduce a companion bill in the U.S. House in the coming weeks.

The two Republicans hope their efforts will speed up the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ long process of studying, approving and building a hurricane protection system for the Texas coast. (The Army Corps has estimated that under a normal timeline, construction on such a system could not start until 2024 at the earliest.)

“We’re heightening awareness, we’re trying to get this ratcheted up as quickly as we can, so that when appropriations do come into play, we can say, ‘OK, here’s the project we’ve been talking about, here’s why it’s important, and we’re just one step closer to getting funding for it,'” Weber said Friday in a phone interview.

As you know, I have zero faith that Congress will pay for any of this. I think Cornyn will have a hard enough time just getting his bill to a vote in the Senate, and I have less faith that Weber can do the same in the dismal catastrophe that is the Republican-controlled House. Nonetheless, someone still has to file a bill like this, so kudos to Sen. Cornyn and Rep. Weber for taking the first step. They has their work cut out for them from here, and they are both a part of the reason why it’s basically impossible to get stuff like this done nowadays, but they did file their bills, so good on them for that. The Press has more.

Don’t expect Congress to pay for a Gulf Coast floodgate system

I sure don’t.

After nearly a decade of bickering and finger pointing, Texas scientists and lawmakers finally seem to agree that building some version of a “coastal spine” — a massive seawall and floodgate system — would best help protect the Houston region from a devastating hurricane.

But with a price tag sure to reach into the billions, the spine will almost certainly require a massive infusion of federal money, state officials agree. Whether Texas’ congressional delegation has the political backbone to deliver the cash remains to be seen.

While state officials say the project enjoys the full support of Texans in Congress, almost every member has been silent on the issue, including those who hold the most sway.

“Everything depends on how long it takes us to get Congress,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, a local economic development organization. “We could have a hurricane in three months.”

In March, The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published an extensive look at what Houston’s perfect storm would look like. Scientists, experts, and public officials say that such a hurricane would kill thousands and cripple the national economy.

Building some sort of coastal barrier system around Galveston and Houston would rank as one of the nation’s most ambitious public works projects and would be unlikely to succeed without champions in Washington. State leaders and Houston-area congressmen cited U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Kevin Brady of Houston as those most likely to fill the role of standard bearer.

Cornyn and Brady, both Republicans, declined repeated interview requests about the coastal project over a period of months. The state’s junior senator, Ted Cruz, is busy running for president, and his staff has said he is waiting results of further studies. Of the 36 members representing Texas in the U.S. House of Representatives, only five agreed to interviews on the subject.

At the state level, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who has made coastal protection one of his top priorities, said he hopes for support from Brady, who chairs one of the most powerful committees in the U.S. House. He also mentioned Cornyn.

Congressman Randy Weber, a Republican from Friendswood, said he is already pushing the issue, but added that a senator’s support will be critical.

“John Cornyn, of course, a senior senator, majority whip over on the Senate side, would be a great one to champion the cause,” he said.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also just started studying the issue, and Cornyn’s office emphasized that he signed a letter last October in support of that effort. But the study will take at least five years.

In another letter sent last November, 32 members of the House delegation urged the Army Corps to speed up the process even though it is at the mercy of funding from Congress.

Meanwhile, the next hurricane season is just two months away.

“Don’t just write a letter and think that you’re done with it,” said Michel Bechtel, the mayor of Morgan’s Point, an industrial town on the Houston Ship Channel that was nearly wiped out during Hurricane Ike in 2008. “Let’s get some dollars flowing down here and let’s build it.”

Republican Congressman Pete Olson said the Corps is taking too long and should have started its efforts earlier. But for years it didn’t have the money to study hurricane protection for the Houston region. The agency was able to start last fall only because the Texas General Land Office agreed to pay for half the $20 million study at the insistence of Bush.

Congress is supposed to provide the rest, but the Army Corps will have to ask for it every year until the study is complete.

Asked if he thinks Congress will commit to the $10 million, Olson said the Corps had never given him that dollar figure. “They told you that, but not me that,” he said.


Weber said he thinks the federal government should help pay for a hurricane protection barrier, but he wouldn’t comment on whether his colleagues in Congress agree with him.

“I don’t know, well, maybe,” he said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I say the odds of Congress agreeing to pony up some $10 billion or so for a coastal floodgate system are pretty damn low. I cannot imagine Randy Weber’s nihilistic teabagger caucus members going along with it. Hell, I’d bet money right now that the Texas Republican Congressional caucus is not all on board with the idea, and I’ll even exclude Ted Cruz from consideration. Look at the recent track record of Congressional Republicans not wanting to appropriate funds to places that had been hit by actual disasters (two words: Superstorm Sandy) and ask yourself why they would vote to spend money on a disaster that hasn’t happened and may never do so in their lifetime. All spending is political now, and the death of earmarks makes dealmaking a lot harder. The fact that there isn’t unanimity about the best kind of flood mitigation system doesn’t help, either. Maybe someday, in a different political climate, but not now. Don’t be surprised if you see another article like this being written a couple of years from now.

Storm protection is expensive

But then so would be getting hit by a truly bad storm.

Building a storm surge protection system along the Texas Gulf Coast could cost between $7.9 billion and $11 billion, and likely would not be completed for about two decades, according to a new study.

The report by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, which includes six counties along the upper Texas coast, comes after years of urging by academics to take action to prevent a massive storm surge like the one spawned by Hurricane Ike.

The study analyzed the costs and benefits of a range of major infrastructure projects – from systems of levees to a giant gate in the Houston Ship Channel.

Robert Eckels, the district president, said even with the highest cost estimate of $11 billion, paying for surge protection is still far cheaper than the aftermath of Ike, which caused more than $30 billion in damage when it hit in 2008.

“Just the damage from Ike is more than double even what the most expensive alternatives are,” Eckels said.

But the study is likely to reignite a debate over how to best balance protecting the coast with the potential harm to the environment posed by artificial barriers.


The most expensive proposal, with a construction cost of $5.8 billion, involves building a 55-mile storm surge protection system that includes a massive navigation gate across the Houston Ship Channel. The alternative, at $3.5 billion, involves a series of separate systems that would not provide direct protection to the upper reaches of the ship channel.

We’ve been talking about this for years now, and while there’s no consensus on what the best course of remediation is, there’s definitely a consensus that a worst-case storm is a real if small possibility, and its effects would be devastating. Take a look at the Hell and High Water interactive slideshow put together by the Trib and ProPublica if you want to freak out a little. Of course, the first problem that has to be solved for this is how to pay for whatever we decide to do. I personally think that a combination of federal and state funds should be the source, but we can quibble over who pays how much for what. But first, we need to agree to Do Something. The rest can work itself out once we take that step. Swamplot has more.

On the environmental challenges to the Houston region

I turn the mic over to Jim Blackburn, in a reprint of an article he wrote for Offcite in 2014.

The future of the City of Houston might be more affected by extreme weather events than by any other factor. The impacts of these extremes are well known but not well addressed. Our ability to compete and survive in the harsh natural environment and competitive economic climate of the 21st century will rest on how we address these challenges.

As we learned in 2011, drought is a serious worry. Though we should plan for and anticipate constricted water supply and availability, we are not as vulnerable as many other areas of Texas. Our Achilles heel is flooding.

Flooding in our part of the world comes from two major sources: major rainstorms associated with tropical storms or cold fronts, and the surge tide associated with hurricanes. These two sources of water—one coming from the sky and the other from the Gulf—are major threats to our well-being.

Houston will be severely and perhaps permanently affected if we don’t address our known problems. All of the issues discussed below have solutions, but these solutions require that action be taken—that things be done differently. Some of the incentive for these changes will have to come through litigation simply because responsible officials will not otherwise step up and do what needs to be done.

It’s a long and detailed article, and well worth your time to read. Some of the topics it covers are the inadequacy of the 100 year flood map, the Centennial Gate, the value of undeveloped land like the Katy Prairie, and more. Check it out, then ask the nearest Mayoral candidate what he thinks about it.

Your annual “don’t get complacent about hurricanes” warning

You should know the drill by now.

It’s been seven years since a large hurricane – Hurricane Ike – threatened the Gulf states, and increasingly there’s talk among scientists that the Atlantic Ocean may be moving toward a more “quiet” period.

Hurricanes tend to come in bunches, and since about 1995 the Atlantic Ocean has burned hot with storms, spawning monster years in the 2000s when hurricanes like Katrina, Rita and Wilma pounded Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

Before then, in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, the Atlantic was comparatively quiet, with fewer named storms each season.

Now, after a 20-year, frenetic period, the cycle may be swinging back down. For the first time in a long time, sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic where hurricanes commonly form are cooler than normal. Seasonal forecasters predict fewer than 10 named storms this year, far below the 15 or more storms that have formed in most years since 1995.


[Chris Landsea, a senior scientist at the National Hurricane Center] says we need a few more hurricane seasons to know whether we really have entered a quiet period. Phil Klotzbach, a Colorado State University scientist known for publishing seasonal forecasts for hurricanes, is a little more confident.

The hurricane cycle is known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or AMO, and it reflects changes in sea surface temperatures from the equator to the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic Ocean. Periods of increased hurricane activity correlate to warmer sea temperatures, and slower periods correspond to cooler temperatures.

Klotzbach tracks the AMO closely, and it has essentially been negative – cooler than normal – since 2012.

“I would say at this point that my confidence that the AMO has flipped to negative has grown somewhat,” he said. “If this hurricane season ends up being as quiet as we are predicting, that would make three below-average seasons in a row. The odds of three below-average seasons in a row in a positive AMO would be quite unlikely.”

You can see the NHC’s 2015 forecast here. As the story and the NHC scientists take pains to remind us, it only takes one storm to make a given season a catastrophe. Hurricane Alicia in 1983 hit during a similarly “quiet” period. So remember the lessons that have been drilled into us all over the years – have bottled water at hand, know your evacuation route or be prepared to shelter in place, and stay on top of the news. And if you live in Katy, run for your lives.

UTMB continues to do well post-Ike

Good to see.

Ashbel Smith building at UTMB

The morning after Hurricane Ike crashed into Galveston Island six years ago, David Callender surveyed the sea of mud coating the 84-acre University of Texas Medical Branch campus.

The UTMB president saw oak tree limbs blocking the doors to John Sealy Hospital, which would be knocked out of service for the rest of the year. The 13-foot storm surge caused $1 billion in damage, plunging UTMB’s finances into the red and prompting the layoffs of nearly 3,000 workers. A consultant even recommended that the hospital be moved off the island, an idea that found favor with the University of Texas Board of Regents and a few legislators.

Six years later, UTMB is not only off life support, it appears to have made a full recovery.

The university is close to completing more than $1 billion in improvements and repairs to protect against future hurricanes, ranging from moving essential functions to a higher level to adding protective walls that can rise around certain buildings.

It is building a 13-story hospital in Galveston and a smaller medical center in League City. Last week, UTMB officially announced its takeover of the Angleton-Danbury Medical Center in Brazoria County.


While struggling to operate after the storm, UTMB officials made a discovery that would fuel eventual expansion, said Donna K. Sollenberger, CEO of UTMB Health Systems. With UTMB’s hospital shut down, patients were sent to Texas Medical Center and other hospitals. Meanwhile, UTMB rented offices in Texas City and other mainland cities to treat outpatients.

“In doing that” Sollenberger said, “we found we had a whole subset of patients who preferred or liked being seen closer to home.”

Galveston County, especially the League City area, was growing rapidly and suffered a doctor shortage. Within the next six years, Sollenberger said, the area will be short by about 1,000 doctors of what it needs.

UTMB opened clinics that were close to people who were going without primary care either because doctors were too far away or because they faced waits of as long as six months for an appointment. Patients normally will forgo primary care if they have to drive more than 15 or 20 minutes, Sollenberger said.

“If you have primary care services within that radius, they will come to you,” she said.

UTMB now operates 40 clinics at 30 sites in Galveston and Brazoria counties and 34 regional child and maternal clinics, including clinics outside the Galveston-Brazoria region in Orange, New Caney and McAllen.

Read the whole thing, it’s a good overview of what’s happened with UTMB and its environs over the past 6 years. I’ve had a few things to say about it as well, not all of it positive. More recently, UTMB was in the news for its Ebola-related work. Hurricane Ike was a tremendous disaster for Galveston, and recovery from it would have been a lot tougher had the island lost UTMB and all the services and jobs it provides. It’s good to see them thrive.

Ike Dike versus Centennial Gate

It’s an academic storm surge mitigation smackdown!

Lawmakers on Monday told representatives of two of Texas’ most distinguished universities to stop feuding and come together on a plan for protecting the Houston region from a storm surge similar to the one spawned by Hurricane Ike six years ago.

At a hearing at Texas A&M University Galveston, members of the Joint Committee on a Coastal Barrier System expressed frustration that the universities who took the initiative to devise a storm protection plan – Texas A&M Galveston and a Rice University-based center – were still arguing over the best approach.

“The fact is that Hurricane Ike was six years ago and we are still talking about how to come to a consensus,” said Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood and the co-chairman of the joint committee. “We’ve got to move forward.”

Legislators said they wanted a proposal they could turn into legislation soon. “You have to come up with a plan that can be passed,” said committee Co-Chairman Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont.

If the two sides fail to come together by the time the committee reconvenes in September, legislators said, they will take steps to bring about an agreement. “We’ll do something to encourage them,” Taylor said, adding that it could include picking a person or a committee to work out a deal.

“We have ways of making you achieve consensus,” Sen. Taylor did not say, definitely not twirling his mustache while not saying it. Sorry, got carried away for a minute there. Won’t happen again, I promise.

Texas A&M is backing a storm protection barrier proposal known as the Ike Dike, which would stretch from San Luis Pass at the western end of Galveston Island to High Island on the eastern end of the Bolivar Peninsula. Skeptics have said the idea is too costly.

Texas A&M marine scientist William Merrell proposed the concept soon after Ike caused an estimated $25 billion in damage to the Houston area, making it the costliest storm in Texas history.

The SSPEED Center, which draws on ideas from all over Texas, originated the proposal for the Centennial Gate at the head of the Houston Ship Channel. That plan calls for a ring barrier around the populated portion of Galveston Island, and a storm levee along Texas 146 to protect the western edge of Galveston Bay.

After the hearing, Jim Blackburn, a professor at the SSPEED Center, said he was confident that an agreement could be reached. But when Merrell was asked if there was a chance of a compromise, he responded, “No.”

“We’ve got a concept, we think it’s a good one and we are going to keep doing it,” Merrell said. “The Centennial Gate never did hunt.”

Merrell said he would welcome the backing of the SSPEED Center.

“Save time, see it my way,” Merrell did not say. Yeah, I know I said I wouldn’t do that again, but sometimes it’s just too easy.

See here and here for some background. I don’t know what the “right” answer is here. It’s a matter of how you calculate the risk and how much you’re willing to pay to mitigate that risk. There is such a thing as too much insurance, but there’s also such a thing as too little. What’s it worth to you? How will you pay for it? Answer those questions and you’ll answer the other one. Lisa Gray is right, that’s the Legislature’s call.

What should we do about hurricane preparedness?

Or, to put the question another way: Ike Dike, Ike Floodgate, something else, or nothing?

In 2009, months after Hurricane Ike devastated the upper Texas coast, Texas A&M-Galveston professor William Merrell unveiled a multibillion-dollar plan – to much skepticism – dubbed the “Ike Dike.”

The proposal calls for extending Galveston’s seawall 15 miles to the island’s West End, building a similar barrier along Bolivar Peninsula and installing massive Dutch-like floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay.

Snubbed by some for its price tag – an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion – and potentially detrimental environmental impact, the still-evolving concept since has gained many adherents who believe it would protect coastal communities and refineries near the Houston Ship Channel.

Five-and-a-half years after Ike, though, the true feasibility of Merrell’s proposal remains unknown. The same goes for a competing plan devised by Rice University that would guard the Bayou City’s industrial base – the largest petrochemical complex in the country – by placing a 600- to 800-foot wall across the 52-mile Ship Channel near the Fred Hartman Bridge or Morgan’s Point. The architects of the so-called “Centennial Gate” say the $1.5 billion project is more environmentally friendly than the Ike Dike and cheap enough to be funded without having to ask for federal help, meaning it could be built quicker.

Which way to go? Figuring that out is the aim of a new $4 million study by a six-county coalition that will assess both proposals, gather data and determine what – if any – storm surge remedies should be pursued to protect the Houston area from future hurricanes.


In the years since Ike, a cadre of local leaders, elected officials and academics have come to the conclusion that some kind of protective measures need to be taken, for safety, economic or environmental reasons.

That, however, is where any consensus ends, said Galveston County Judge Mark Henry, chairman of the district.

“Doing nothing has been the option used for the last several thousand years,” he said. “We don’t think it’s the best option.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, re-appointed to the district’s board of directors last month, remains a skeptic.

Industry has not pushed for any kind of protective structure, the county’s top elected official said at a recent Houston Chronicle editorial board meeting. He expressed doubts the state could secure federal funding for such a project under the current administration, noting President Barack Obama never made a post-Ike visit to Texas.

“For many reasons, I am skeptical of both the ‘Ike Dike’ and ‘Centennial Gate,’ ” Emmett wrote in a white paper this year, in part because “no other area has chosen to build such protective structures.”

I’ve blogged about this stuff multiple times – see here, here, and here for the Ike Dike; here and here for the Ike Floodgate. I have no idea what the right answer is. As insurance policies go, these are pretty expensive. Not nearly as expensive as a devastating storm, of course, but it’s hard to gauge the odds of a storm hitting in just the right place to do that kind of damage. I’ll be interested to see what this study says, but I doubt we’ll be any closer to deciding on a course of action, much less acting on it.

The D-word is back

It’s never really gone away since 2009.

Locked in a seemingly endless cycle of droughts and brief reprieves, the Houston region has quietly slipped back into yet another drought.

Since December Houston has received less than half its normal rainfall. That’s a pattern present since 2009, a period when the city racked up a deficit of 56 inches, nearly five feet less rain that it normally would have collected.

And there is little relief in sight, meteorologists say.

Cold temperatures this winter have masked drought conditions. Before last weekend’s warm-up, the city of Houston was experiencing its seventh-coldest winter on record, according to the National Weather Service. This has limited the evaporation rate of water that has reached the ground.

As a result, reservoir and aquifer supplies in the Houston region are generally fine, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist.

The imprint of a drought lies within the region’s soils all the same, say forecasters with the U.S. Drought Monitor. Nearly all of Harris County was classified as being in a state of “moderate” drought in the most recent report, and parts of Brazoria County have fallen into a “severe” drought.

“The main issue is a future one, the amount of moisture in the ground come May and June.” said Nielsen-Gammon, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University. “If rainfall stays light through then, the ground will dry out fairly quickly and water use will go up. Ranchers would produce less hay than normal.”

Basically, we’ve had below average rainfall in the Houston area since Hurricane Ike. It was at its worst in 2011, of course, and there have been periods of high precipitation that have taken us out of drought classification temporarily, but for the past five years it’s been drier than usual. It’s even worse in other parts of the state. The next couple of months don’t look any better, though the good news is that long-range forecasts suggest an El Niño will develop in the fall, bringing wetter than usual conditions for next winter. Hopefully we haven’t all crumbled to dust by then. The Chron’s Weather Blog has more.

Galveston passenger rail back on track

Sorry about the pun, they can be hard to avoid when writing these titles. Anyway, the on-again, off-again Houston to Galveston rail line is apparently on again.

A Houston-to-Galveston passenger rail line postponed indefinitely after the economy hit bottom in 2009 is getting another chance, but it could be a decade or more before the first spike is driven.

The original plan called for a passenger line carrying 1,000 to 2,000 people per day to be in operation as early as this year, but a series of events starting with Hurricane Ike and the stock market crash in 2008 stalled the project.

“The impact of the economic downturn has taken its toll in so many ways,” said Barry Goodman, whose consulting firm, Goodman Corp., is doing the planning. Goodman said the recession affected the rail project more than the storm.

The price tag had risen from an estimated $415 million in 2007 to $650 million, and local governments were unable to provide the 40 to 50 percent contribution typical for such projects, Goodman said.

Enthusiasm remains high for the plan among officials and residents in Galveston County’s 13 cities, so Goodman Corp. is redrawing the plans to accommodate the new financial reality, said John Carrara, senior vice president.

The revamped plan calls for starting more modestly with expanded park-and-ride and express bus services in the Houston-Galveston corridor.

The more measured approach could provide immediate benefits, said Alan Clark, transportation planning director for the Houston-Galveston Area Council.

The council, which coordinates planning for local governments in the region, will consider making the Goodman Corp. plan part of the regional transportation plan, Clark said.

I’m not sure why the story refers to this as “passenger rail”, which sounds like something that tourists would take, and not “commuter rail”, which is sure what it sounds like. The last updates I have on this is a story from 2011 about the project being off track (with a letter to the editor following a few days later disputing some of the points in the story); a 2010 story about the formation of a Galveston County transportation district; and a 2009 story about (what else?) a political dispute over who would do what for this rail line if it ever got off the ground. Who knows what will happen from here or more importantly when it will happen, but I do want to note that we are approaching the ten-year anniversary of the first Galveston rail-related blog post I ever wrote, which of course also prominently features a quote from Barry Goodman. Some things really do never change.

Calculate your storm risk

That hurricane risk calculator is now ready for your input.

Using the Storm Risk Calculator produced by the city of Houston and Rice University, users can enter an address and learn the risks for rainfall, power outage, storm surge and rain damage.

For example, Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s house in Midtown has a low risk of power outage and wind damage, and no risk of storm surge or rainfall with a Category 2 hurricane.

Users can adjust the strength of the hypothetical storm from a Category 1-5 to see how the risks increase and decrease depending on the size of the hurricane.

The goal is to keep Houstonians from leaving unnecessarily and creating the kind of mass reaction that followed Hurricane Rita in 2005, when tens of thousands evacuated for no real reason, causing highway congestion and panic, said Dennis Storemski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice, said the best way to get people to do something is to give them the information they need to make an educated decision.

Fair enough. The risk calculator can be found at You can see the result of my calculation in the graphic above. I agree with the rainfall risk – our street has never flooded, though some nearby ones did during TS Allison – but I’m skeptical of the power outage risk. Our house was only without power for a day after Ike, but some folks a block away were down for more than a week. There’s a lot of trees in our neighborhood, and with trees come the risk of power lines being taken down. Regardless, now I know what the experts think, and you can too. See the Mayor’s press release for more.

Who wants to live in Galveston?

Galveston would like to know.

Although the city is still rebuilding with new private investment and hundreds of millions in federal disaster money, Galveston finds itself at a crossroads and confronting fundamental questions: Will its population continue to shrink until it becomes nothing more than a husk of tourist attractions? Will the city attract new industry?

The city’s population was declining for decades before Ike reduced it from 57,000 to about 48,000. Restoring the city’s population is crucial to establishing a stable tax base, especially as the University of Texas Medical Branch and Texas A&M-Galveston pay no property taxes on the large tracts they occupy.

“The biggest problem is not the creation of industry, it’s getting people who work here to come back to live here,” said Harris “Shrub” Kempner, head of Kempner Capital Management and a member of the city finance advisory committee.

Although the Island’s 8.1 percent unemployment rate mirrors the nation’s, it’s higher than Houston’s at 6.5 percent and masks an unusually high ratio of population to jobs because so many people who work in Galveston live off the island, Kempner said.


The city needs a population of at least 50,000 to continue getting the level of federal aid it received before the storm. Restoring the population is a priority for both of the mayoral candidates preparing for a June 23 runoff, incumbent Joe Jaworski and challenger Lewis Rosen. Both say they want the population eventually to grow to 70,000.

A perception of low-performing schools once contributed to flight from the island, but that perception has changed, said Galveston school district Superintendent Larry Nichols. Discipline and test scores have improved, he said, and affluent residents like [UTMB president Dr. David] Callender are sending their children to public schools despite the availability of two charter academies and a Catholic school.

To entice people to live on the island, the city must overcome significant hurdles.

The scattered lots available for building don’t lend themselves to the same cost efficiencies developers can realize on the mainland, where large tracts are available. The potential for hurricanes is frightening to some. High insurance costs and stricter building codes on the coast make housing more expensive. Galveston lacks large retail outlets, forcing residents to leave the island to shop.

And the island, despite its natural attractions of sun, sand and surf, has a reputation for shabbiness.

Barton Smith, a University of Houston economics professor emeritus, said efforts to attract population and new business won’t be successful until Galveston overcomes the blight that motorists see coming in on Broadway Boulevard, and the industrial ambience of Harborside Drive that greets cruise ship passengers.

Really, this is a marketing question. What is it about Galveston that would make someone want to live there? That’s what they need to figure out. Is there an Island version of ttweak that can come up with a snappy catch phrase and a campaign to back it up? I know what draws people to a city like Houston, and I know what draws people to the various suburbs, and I know what draws people to small towns and the country. What is it about Galveston that makes people want to live there? Not everyone, of course, just that subset of people who would live there if given a reason that made sense to them. I wish them the best in figuring it out.

Ike rebuilding funds finally coming

About time.

More than 3½ years after Hurricane Ike, a high-ranking federal housing official and Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday that $151 million in federal disaster relief money is on the way to four areas of Houston to rebuild or repair homes and apartments.

“It’s about time we get this taken care of,” Parker said. “Because of the enormous devastation caused by Hurricane Ike, there’s still too many Houstonians and whole neighborhoods that are reeling from the impact.”

Houston housing officials scattered the previous $87 million in Ike housing money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development across the city. This time, they have chosen to channel the money to Acres Homes, Independence Heights, a northeast Houston crescent centered around the Fifth Ward, and Sunnyside/South Park/South Union in hopes of contributing to neighborhood redevelopment, as well as fixing individual homes.

Residents of those neighborhoods, assembled under the aegis of the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), which advocates for low-income people, have protested at City Hall about the pace of relief.

The federal money was allocated to the state.

“The state has been slow on that (passing the money to Houston) in the past,” said Mercedes Marquez, a HUD assistant secretary who attended the announcement. She said, though, that since last summer, when the state put the General Land Office in charge of Ike funding, the pace has “dramatically improved.”

Here’s the Mayor’s press release about this. The way that federal funds for Ike recovery have been disbursed has been controversial from the beginning. Here’s a Houston Tomorrow story from January 2010 that gives some of the details. I don’t want to look back at all that, I want to look forward, and when I do what I see is a tremendous opportunity for the city to help revitalize some historic neighborhoods that really need the help. I hope infrastructure improvements, whether through these funds or through the startup of Rebuild Houston, are a major component. In addition to contributing to the real estate recovery in Houston, if we do this right we can make some low-cost and underpopulated parts of town more attractive to developers, and thus draw people looking for housing closer in and inside city limits instead of the far-flung suburbs. There’s so much potential for good here, but job one is helping out the residents in these neighborhoods who have waited far too long for the assistance they’ve been owed. Let’s take care of them and go from there.

The Ike Floodgate

We have a recommendation for how to prepare for a future Hurricane Ike.

A giant floodgate at the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel, coupled with a 130-mile wetlands recreation area, should be built to protect Houston from hurricane storm surges, a research team from five Texas universities recommended Monday.

The two-year study led by the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED, at Rice University also recommends a 20-mile levee along Texas 146 and another to protect the bay side on the eastern end of Galveston, already protected on the Gulf side by a sea wall.

The proposals are on a much smaller scale than the Ike Dike concept, which envisions a storm gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula coupled with a massive levee protecting both barrier islands.

“We have looked very carefully at the Ike Dike proposals,” said Philip Bedient, a professor of engineering at Rice University. “We at the SSPEED Center don’t think it has a chance of getting built in our lifetime.

“We’ve gone with four proposals that we think have a better chance of being funded and built in a much shorter period of time.”

Jim Blackburn, environmental law professor at Rice University, said each proposal can be undertaken separately.

The full report is here, and you can see some background on this here and here. The real question is not whether this is the best or the most cost-effective solution. The question is whether this or any solution can be funded by our dysfunctional Legislature and Congress. If we believe those who claim there isn’t the money to build some mitigation now, what will we believe when we need to rebuild everything after a catastrophic storm? Swamplot has more.

More Perry privatization problems

Insert your favorite cliche about being shocked.

The state of Texas has quietly outsourced the management of more than $1 billion in federal disaster recovery funds to an engineering firm with close ties to Gov. Rick Perry’s administration, paying the Kansas City, Mo. -based firm HNTB $45 million so far to process infrastructure grants for communities damaged by Hurricanes Dolly and Ike.

The company’s billings threaten to exhaust the amount budgeted for administrative and planning costs, while only 20 percent of the first round of money released to Texas to aid disaster recovery grants has been spent three years after the storms. Based on the state’s original timeline, at least half those projects should have been completed by now, federal officials say.

The problems have caused officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to voice alarm and begin quarterly reviews in an attempt to get the program back on track.

Hiring a private firm to handle what has been termed the largest public works project in the state’s history is unusual, federal officials say.


[HNTB] was the principal consultant for Perry’s first — and largest — pet project as governor, the proposed $184 billion Trans-Texas Corridor, which succumbed to widespread public opposition in 2010. Since 2008, the Texas Department of Transportation has paid HNTB $109 million for engineering consulting services, according to records with the state comptroller. Ray Sullivan, communications director for Perry’s presidential campaign, has been a lobbyist for HNTB.

The firm is one of 139 major “crossover donors” identified by Texans for Public Justice who have contributed substantial sums to Perry and the Republican Governors Association, which Perry has twice chaired. According to, HNTB and its executives have given more than $500,000 to the association, which has sent $4 million to Perry’s political campaigns.

Business as usual. I’m so inured to this that the only aspect of it that’s making me raise an eyebrow is that this was an out of state firm. What, there’s no one in Texas good enough for Rick Perry to funnel government money to? I don’t know what else to say. Read the whole thing, and kudos to the Statesman for putting it together. Forrest Wilder, who’s written before about our disastrous hurricane relief efforts, has more.

Texas gators hanging in there

There’s good news despite the bad news for Texas’ alligators.

This year’s admittedly inexact estimate of the gator population in their prime habitat zone – the wetlands along the arc of the Texas coast – indicates there are a lot more alligators out there than most thought.

At least half a million gators, and maybe as many as 700,000, live in the 22 “core” alligator counties – up from earlier estimates of 400,000 or so. Tens of thousands more are scattered across the other counties in the eastern half of Texas.

(In the 1960s, before they were protected by federal and state law carrying penalties packing a wallop as painful as getting slapped by the tail of a 12-foot “bull” gator, Texas’ gator population had dropped to only a few thousand.)

“The population, overall, is doing pretty good,” Amos Cooper, who heads alligator programs for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, understated. “We’re not going to run out of alligators any time soon.”

But there have been a few bumps in the muddy road upon which Texas alligators crawl, especially along the upper coast where the state’s largest gator population lives.

“A lot of habitat has never really recovered from Hurricane Ike,” Cooper said of the wetlands in Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties, which held as many as 300,000 gators before the September 2008 storm.

Ike’s saltwater surge killed, outright, some gators and forced others into available freshwater. Some of those died from delayed effects of saltwater exposure, and others, especially smaller gators, fell prey to larger gators – alligators are highly cannibalistic.

But the biggest problem was Ike’s damage to brackish and freshwater wetlands gators require and the lack of salt-flushing, vegetation-regenerating rains over the past three years.

“We’ve just never had the rain we need to flush the salt from the marshes,” Cooper said.

This year’s drought added greatly to the problem.

“We had our second-worst nesting season on record this year,” Cooper said. Only the summer of 2009, the first nesting season following Ike, saw wildlife managers count fewer alligator nests.

See here and here for previous gator updates. The good news is that alligators are long-lived, so a bad mating season or two isn’t devastating to the population. On the other hand, we don’t know how long this drought will last. It sure would be nice if we had some boring weather for a few years, wouldn’t it?

Friday random ten: Blowin’ in the wind

Those of us here on the Gulf Coast are quite familiar with hurricanes and all they can bring with them, so we have much sympathy for those on the East Coast who are in the path of Hurricane Irene. Whether you hunker down or get out of town, we wish you all the best as this storm approaches. Here’s a little playlist to help get you through the weekend.

1. Mr. Hurricane – Beast
2. Ill Wind – Lonette McKee
3. Ready For The Storm – Gordian Knot
4. Storm Front – Billy Joel
5. Stormbringer – Elton John
6. Stormy Blues – Billie Holiday
7. Stormy Weather – Julie Murphy
8. Couldn’t Stand The Weather – Stevie Ray Vaughan
9. Full Force Gale – Van Morrison
10. Hasten Down The Wind – Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon

Stay safe, y’all.

Time for the annual “Are we ready for a big storm?” story

The answer, of course, is no, not really.

After Tropical Storm Allison’s devastating floods, the Houston area widened its bayous and hardened its infra­structure. After Hurricane Rita’s deadly gridlock, the state revamped storm communications and evacuation plans.

Yet since Hurricane Ike’s enormous surge wiped out coastal communities and its $30 billion in damages dwarfed those of the other two storms, not much has happened.

Which is to say that [Wednesday] — the first day of a new hurricane season that’s expected to be quite active, and nearly three years after the costliest storm in Houston history — the region remains as vulnerable as ever to storm surge.

In Ike’s wake the state formed the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, which includes Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties, to study storm surge remedies and possibly put them into effect.

But so far, the district has no federal or state funding.

State funding? Don’t make me laugh. Rick Perry has actually been using the prospect of a hurricane as a justification for not using more of the Rainy Day fund, even though that’s never been the fund’s intended use. As for federal money, there was probably a brief moment in 2009 when something like that could have been part of the stimulus package – Lord knows, we should have aimed to spend a ton more on infrastructure projects. That moment is long gone, and even if our ridiculous Republican members of Congress wanted to push for this, the only way the rest of the Republican majority would let it happen would be if the Democrats would agree to pay for it by cutting services elsewhere, much as they insisted on doing so for tornado relief. Meanwhile, a bunch of white swans are swimming by, but no one is paying attention to them.

As for what could be done, we’re familiar with the Ike Dike, but there’s another possibility out there.

“An environmental and industrial disaster that will put the Ship Channel down for months is my biggest fear,” [Phil Bedient, a Rice University civil engineer who studies flooding] said.

He said most facilities in the port area are protected from about a 14-foot surge, with some facilities a bit higher. Had Ike come ashore 25 miles down the coast, at the west rather than the east end of Galveston Island, it would have pushed a surge of up to 19 feet up the Ship Channel, Bedient said.

As a result of these concerns, Bedient and colleagues plan to propose putting a large gate at the entrance to the Ship Channel.

Such a gate would cost far less than the so-called “Ike Dike” proposal, and would cause less concern among environmentalists.

As it happens, Prof. Bediant had an op-ed in the Chron on the same day, also sounding the alarm about storm preparedness. Unfortunately, he didn’t go into any detail about the Ship Channel gate. I suspect it’s laid out in detail in this report on Hurricane Ike, which is on the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center‘s website. Read it and be prepared to take a short quiz on it for next week.

There still could be a special session

Even if the Lege manages to pass a school finance plan, there’s still an issue (not Congressional redistricting) that may force a special session: Windstorm insurance.

“The governor stated to me this morning that if we were unable to reach agreement, he most assuredly would call a special session on this issue July 15,” said Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. “It’s quite possible based on that statement that we’ll be in special session this summer.”

TWIA, the insurer of last resort for people seeking coverage for damage from hurricanes and other storms in 14 Texas counties, is running out of money. Hurricane Ike hit the pool particularly hard, and the lawsuits that followed the first round of settlements have further drained it; TWIA is still paying claims from that storm. The money is replenished by insurance companies, which then take credits against their state taxes until they’re repaid. In other words, the shortages in the fund are ultimately paid by taxpayers.

The fight over the bill, Carona said, boils down to an argument between to wealthy and powerful men: trial lawyer Steve Mostyn and Gov. Rick Perry. Mostyn has made millions from lawsuits over windstorm insurance claims. And he’s spent hundreds of thousands of those dollars on Democratic candidates opposing Perry.

“There’s no denying this is becoming a very personal matter between two very powerful individuals,” Carona said.

Lawmakers are arguing over legislation that would limit claims on the fund and damages awarded in lawsuits, and the House and Senate have been unable to find middle ground. Carona said the Senate agreed to a bill that would limit penalties in windstorm insurance claims against TWIA to 18 percent, the current limit. Perry and House legislators want the penalty limit scaled to zero. The other sticking point, Carona said, is a measure that would increase the burden of proof for ratepayers who sue TWIA, making it more difficult for homeowners who feel the insurer wronged them to collect damages.

Carona said both sides have strong arguments, but the fight has become intractable. “It’s a disappointment, but this kind of breakdown happens in the political process,” he said.

I don’t know anything about the details of this, but given recent legislative history I’m leery of any attempt to limit people’s ability to file for and collect on claims. If a special session is called for this, I would not be surprised if the call is limited to just this, much as the special session from 2009 was limited to unfinished sunset bills. Note that as with 2003, that session wasn’t called till the end of June, so don’t draw any conclusions if nothing happens in the first few days after sine die. The Chron and Trail Blazers have more.

Galveston’s comeback

I wish the city of Galveston all the best with this.

Community leaders here, concerned that 50 years of steady population loss could transform what was once one of Texas’ great cities into a hollowed-out tourist resort, are scrambling to reverse the decline.

Hurricane Ike bit into the island city’s population in 2008, knocking it from 57,000 to about 48,000.

“Our population is going to recover from a bottomed-out low point,” Mayor Joe Jaworski said. He wants to restore the population to 50,000 in one to two years. “My sweet spot is to get it up to 75,000,” he said.

The idea, echoed by others in the community, is to capitalize on the layout of the historic neighborhoods, historic downtown and seashore by making the city greener and pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

Jaworski says people are leaving the island for three reasons: a misperception that the schools are poor, the shortage of affordable, attractive housing, and a sense that the city lacks cleanliness and safety.

I don’t know how much fear of hurricanes plays into that, but as there’s not much to be done about it they may as well concentrate on the things they can control. It won’t be easy, but a great city like Galveston deserves the effort. I hope they succeed.

On a side note, apparently some people are circulating a petition to recall Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski. I don’t know anything more about this.

Texas gator population bouncing back

Good news.

The storm surge from Hurricane Ike in 2008 severely damaged alligator habitat in coastal marshes along the upper Texas coast, resulting in the outright death of a considerable number of gators. It also delayed the mortality of others and, the following spring, produced the worst alligator nesting effort wildlife managers had documented. But two years later, the big reptiles are recovering quite nicely.

“They’re doing very good,” said Amos Cooper, who heads the alligator program for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

After being nearly exterminated by unregulated hunting that continued into the 1960s, Texas’ alligator population boomed when the wetland-dependant reptiles were given federal and state protection. By 1984, the population in Texas had recovered enough that the first hunting season since the ’60s was allowed. That closely regulated season has expanded over the past quarter century — as has the gator population.

So how many gators live in Texas? Rough estimates indicate perhaps 400,000 or more. But that’s just an educated guess.


During the 2008 alligator nesting season, TPWD aerial surveys found only 24 gator nests in those three southeast Texas counties. That was less than 10 percent of the number usually found.

But it’s arguable the alligator’s marsh habitat has recovered completely, including the nesting effort.

“It was up 75 percent over last year,” said Cooper of this year’s nest counts. “We’re slowly getting back to normal.”

Because alligators live long (they can age 60 years or more), one or two “off” years of nesting success won’t crater a population, so even with the loss of gators from Ike, the population remains strong.

“We are not in danger of running out of alligators. That’s for sure,” Cooper said.

Indeed, when we read last year about the devastating effect of Hurricane Ike on the gators’ habitat, the prediction was that they would rebound. I’m delighted to see that prediction has been borne out. Just keep your distance from them unless you really know what you’re doing, and all will be well.

Look in the mirror, John

It is of course a terrible thing that the actions of a single Republican will keep the Houston/Galveston area from keeping $40 million in federal disaster funds, but the reaction to it from certain quarters is more than a little precious.

The bill passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support late Wednesday night just as both houses were wrapping up final business in preparation for adjournment until after the Nov. 2 elections. The Senate sent the bill to the House, where it also had bipartisan support, with a message requesting that it be passed by unanimous consent, which allows lawmakers to speed up the passage of a bill as long as no member objects. But U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s office said U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt, R-Kan., refused to vote on the bill, killing it. Tiahrt’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Cornyn, R-Dallas, who introduced the bill in the Senate, said, “I’m greatly disappointed that this bipartisan legislation was obstructed by one person, and he needs to step up and explain his actions to Texans and families in other impacted states.”

News flash, John: This has been the modus operandi for the entire Republican caucus since January of 2009. Do the names Jim DeMint or Tom Coburn mean anything to you? And now we know, it’s bigger than Todd Tiahrt.

The leadership and Republican members of the Appropriations Committee agreed that Texas took so long to spend its share of a 2008 disaster grant for $600 million that the state probably didn’t need the money, said the staff member, who wasn’t authorized to comment on the issue and asked not to be identified.

“The state of Texas has had almost two years to spend that money,” the staff member said. The staff member said other states dispersed their share of the money much quicker than Texas.

The committee members were also concerned that the bill came to the House just as it was getting ready to adjourn so that it could not be studied.

“It was the committee’s objection in consultation with our Republican leadership” that killed the bill, the staff member said.

The only difference between what happened here and pretty much everything else these past two years is that the former gored an ox that Cornyn happened to favor. That’s a shame on many levels, but it’s clearly not out of character. What’s more, if it weren’t for the coordinated Republican strategy of delaying and slow-rolling everything in the Senate via its endless morass of arcane anti-democratic rules, it’s highly likely this bill would have been sent to the House and easily passed weeks ago. Whose fault is that, John?

Ike Dike gets a study

The “Ike Dike”, a network of dikes and gates off the coast of Galveston that was first proposed last year by William Merrell as protection against storm surges from future hurricanes, is being discussed more seriously by the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District.

Although the Ike Dike may not be the final solution — environmentalists have raised concerns about the effect of gating off Galveston Bay and the project’s potential to spur development in sensitive areas — Merrell is happy there will be a comprehensive study of the issue.

“It will get a fair shake,” Merrell said of the Ike Dike.

“During this process everyone gets a chance to get their two cents in. My goal was to make sure this got on the table and that it got a fair hearing. Now that’s happening and I couldn’t be more pleased.”

A new report released last week by Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center bolsters the case for doing something to mitigate storm surge, said Phil Bedient, the center’s director, who co-authored the report with environmental attorney Jim Blackburn.

“It’s pretty clear that we now really need to have a serious discussion about how to defend and mitigate against surge as best we can. You can’t completely protect an area, but you can reduce the risk,” Bedient said.

The report reinforces the notion that Ike could have been worse. Had it struck 30 miles down the Texas coast, for example, the surge at the Port of Houston would have been 19 feet, instead of just over 13.

It’s scary to think that Ike could have been a lot worse, isn’t it? Blackburn was one of the ones raising environmental concerns about the dike approach, so alternatives will get a fair hearing as well. The website for the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center (SSPEED) is here. You can read their full report here, an overview of some of its findings here, and a brief status report here. To me, the key bit is this from that last link:

Dr. Merrill has estimated the Galveston portion of the Ike Dike to cost roughly $3 billion, or only 5-6 cents of property tax for residents in the affected counties over the next 30 years. Wayne Klotz, president of the Houston engineering firm Klotz Associates Inc., believes the estimate is higher at around $7 billion to $10 billion. Whatever the final cost may be, advocates believe there is a high benefit to cost ratio for such a project when financial consideration is given for the structure’s potentional to prevent future damage.

Even at the high end, $10 billion is a relatively small amount, which would be amortized over decades and which would have long-lasting benefits. Cost is always a consideration, but if that’s the most expensive scenario, it shouldn’t be an obstacle.

AAUP criticizes UTMB for post-Ike layoffs


The University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston and the University of Texas System (UTS) violated established and widely accepted guidelines on academic freedom and tenure when it laid off more than 2,400 faculty and staff in the wake of 2008’s Hurricane Ike, according to a report released today by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

More than 120 faculty members, 43 of whom were tenured or tenure-track, fell under the axe in late 2008, after Ike ripped through UTMB’s island campus, visiting destruction on hospitals, labs, and teaching facilities. Administrators at the UTS declared financial exigency, claiming that the hurricane damage put the facility in such dire economic straits that severe cuts to the faculty were necessary for it to remain solvent.

Critics have claimed that the declaration of financial exigency and decisions about who and where to cut the faculty were made behind closed doors with no broad-scale faculty input.

UTMB administrators may have been justified in declaring financial exigency when the hurricane hit, the AAUP’s Associate General Secretary Jordan Kurland told The Scientist. “But in a remarkably short time, monies were found, facilities were put back into operation, the worst case scenario never really materialized, and by the end of the winter, they were already hiring new people.”

Kurland, who supervised the staffing of the investigative committee that compiled the report, stressed this last point — the UTMB’s hiring of new faculty members mere months after firing others — as a key disappointment to the AAUP. “Those in charge took advantage of the ‘flexibility’ that had come from the initial lay-offs to move as soon as it was clear to do so to engage new people who would best meet current desires at the medical branch.”

The AAUP report is here. The reason this is a big deal is because the AAUP is considering adding UTMB to its censure list, which as a brief Chron story notes would make it a lot harder for UTMB to hire top faculty in the future. There will be a committee meeting before the AAUP’s annual meeting in June to formalize a statement about this. UT says it has proposed some revisions to its process that may address the AAUP’s concerns. We’ll see what happens.

Interview with Chula Ross-Sanchez

Chula Ross-Sanchez

Chula Ross-Sanchez

I have one more interview for the Galveston city elections on May 8, that being with Chula Ross-Sanchez, who is running for Council District 6. She is a former member of the Planning Council whose non-reappointment caused a bit of a stir. She has a long history of advocacy for things like mitigating beach erosion and providing affordable housing.

Download the MP3 file

Early voting runs through next Tuesday. You can find early voting locations and hours here.