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Port Aransas

The Harvey effect on marine research

It’s tough being on the coast sometimes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

School districts affected by Harvey ask for a break on testing

One way or another we’re going to have to reckon with this.

Leaders of school districts heavily affected by Hurricane Harvey told a legislative panel on Monday that they would like to see Texas’ accountability and testing requirements relaxed in the wake of the disaster. They also said the storms have dealt a financial blow and that they weren’t optimistic about being reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency or insurance anytime soon.

[…]

Although the state’s accountability system and standardized testing was not on the agenda, it was repeatedly brought up by superintendents and education leaders who testified.

Before the superintendents testified, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said his agency had polled Harvey-affected school districts and found that by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, school districts preferred to keep the current testing windows the same rather than move them later.

That stunned Port Aransas ISD Superintendent Mark Kemp, who helped reopen the district to students in mid-October.

“I’m on all the conference calls and meetings with our local superintendents, and we keep saying the same thing – just give us a one-year reprieve,” Kemp said. “The stress of testing is huge, and on top of that, we have students who have to find their next meal, who have nowhere to lay their head at night.”

Other superintendents who testified Monday said they’d rather have the state hold them harmless for their students’ results than change the testing window. None spoke in favor of leaving the state’s testing and accountability system in place, as is, for storm-affected districts this year.

Katy ISD Superintendent Lance Hindt said his district’s accountability data has been out of whack since the late-August storm. At Mayde Creek High School, for example, Hindt said they’ve seen a 14 percentage-point drop in the number of students who submitted free or reduced-price lunch applications. He said that’s because the district offered free meals through September, so many students who qualify didn’t end up submitting applications on time.

He proposed the state give every campus and district within the federal government’s disaster area an accountability ranking of “not rated – data integrity issues.” Hindt said that’s a designation that already exists and can be used under current law, and that it reflects the situation in Katy ISD and other Harvey-affected districts.

“Why hold districts accountable based on flawed data?” Hindt asked. “The state does not care that parents lost jobs or are living on the second story of their home. If you don’t think that will have impact on accountability, let me come back a year from now and show you how it did.”

I’ve been generally sympathetic to this position all along, and I like the proposed solution from Superintendent Hindt. One way or another, the TEA is going to have to come to terms with the fact that this is going to be a hugely abnormal year for many students. Why not plan to take that into account now?

What will we do with the hardest hit schools?

The Houston area was inundated by floods during Harvey. As bad as that was and is, we weren’t affected by the wind. The coastal region is dealing with that, and it’s a very tough road they have ahead of them.

Hundreds of students languish at home, still out of school weeks after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in coastal Texas, sundering even sturdy school buildings. The storm sliced off rooftop air-conditioning units and ripped holes in roofs, allowing rainwater to gush inside. It felled trees, toppled stadium lights and turned hallways and science labs into lakes.

Five school districts north of Corpus Christi remain shuttered, and two of them are not expected to open until mid-October — or later, if contractors diagnose unanticipated damage or cannot find supplies.

The extended closures have raised concerns about how students will catch up as the state recovers from its worst natural disaster. Then there are money concerns: How will school districts fare when they confront the cost of rebuilding and the potential loss of state money if enrollment drops?

Children from some of the hardest-hit communities — Rockport, Aransas Pass and Port Aransas — streamed into schools in neighboring towns to register, anxious to get back into the classroom. But many of those schools are running out of room.

[…]

The Gregory-Portland district, which was spared the brunt of the storm, reopened within days. Since then, its enrollment has exploded from about 4,500 students to nearly 6,300 — a 40 percent increase. Most of those students came from Rockport, which was walloped by Harvey.

As the hurricane made landfall near Corpus Christi — where tourism and shrimping are mainstay industries — it packed winds of more than 100 mph. Streets once lined with lush oak trees are now filled with gnarled branches and debris. Mobile-home parks have been reduced to rubble. Many hotels and restaurants sit closed. The water tower in Aransas Pass came crashing to the ground.

Many of Aransas Pass’s school buildings lost rooftop air-conditioning units, peeled off by high winds. The air conditioners then stamped holes in the roof as they bounced to the ground. Drenching rain soaked carpets and ceiling tiles, ruined papers and spawned hazardous mold. At A.C. Blunt Junior High, the library collection that took generations to build was soaked and will have to be replaced.

“When this devastation came about — gosh, it hit us hard,” said Mark Kemp, superintendent of the Aransas Pass Independent School District, which will not open before Oct. 16. He has encouraged students to enroll elsewhere until he can reopen schools. “We are Panther nation,” he said. “We love our athletes. We love our academia. We love our community.”

Teachers have been displaced, too. Some returned to homes left uninhabitable and now live in campers in a nearby state park that offered a free place for the hurricane homeless to stay.

I don’t have any answers for this. I’d like to know what answers Greg Abbott and his recovery czar, John Sharp, have. An awful lot of students and their parents need to hear it.

A smattering of Harvey news

If you are among the lucky ones whose house or apartment remained dry and you want to help those in need, here’s a handy guide to where and how to volunteer. If you want to go to the George R. Brown to help at that shelter, they have a real need for people to work the night shifts. There are lots of smaller shelters, many outside Houston, that could really use your help.

Via Swamplot, here’s a crowdsourced map with more information. Find a need and do something about it.

If what you can give is money, the Greater Houston Community Foundation remains a fine option, though there are plenty of others worthy of support.

All HISD students will receive three free meals per day this year. The HISD Foundation, which exists to help students, is also accepting donations to help families recover from Harvey.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg has also set up a Harvey relief fund, which you can donate to here.

Port Aransas was truly devastated by Harvey.

Houston’s airports will reopen today. Metro buses will return to service on some core routes on Thursday.

The Astros will return to Minute Maid on Saturday.

Even monster trucks were pressed into rescue service during the height of Harvey.

Michael Skelley and Anne Whitlock have set an example for us all. In a slightly different universe, Skelley would be in Congress.

Former Houston mayor Bill White, who welcomed some 200,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees, was himself displaced by Harvey. He, along with former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and former Houston Mayor Annise Parker are now assisting Harris County officials with the shelter at NRG Stadium.

Whatever your status was and is during Harvey, undocumented immigrants have more to deal with and worry about.