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Tropical Storm Allison

The Atlantic on CD07

I have three things to say about this:

Lizzie Fletcher

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

We’re going to need another jury building

Good luck with that.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Ghosts of Allison

I sure hope everyone made it through yesterday’s ferocious rain all right.

The storm that flooded the greater Houston area on Monday – drenching the region with the most rain since Tropical Storm Allison dumped more than 24 inches in June 2001 – packed a mighty punch in mere hours.

Some areas saw as much as 4 inches of rain fall in an hour Monday morning. Unfortunately for some motorists, the heaviest downpours occurred between 6 and 7 a.m., just as they had started their commute to work.

Parts of Harris and Waller counties to the west of Houston were swamped with as much as 18 inches. For that section of Harris County, and much of central Waller County, the rainfall totals matched those expected during a one-in-200-year rain event, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Totals were much lower for eastern Harris County, where fewer than 4 inches of rain fell in some locations.

Jeff Lindner, a meteorologist with the Harris County Flood Control District, said between Sunday night and mid-afternoon on Monday, an average of 7.75 inches of rain fell in neighborhoods across the county. That’s the equivalent of 240 billion gallons of water.

“The big problem with this storm was the volume of rain it produced in such a short amount of time,” said Don Oettinger, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service’s Houston/Galveston office.

[…]

As the heavy rainfall moved out of the Houston region on Monday afternoon the question became: what comes next? Fortunately, drier air contributed to a quiet Monday evening, in terms of rain showers.

Unfortunately, the greater Houston region is not done with the potential for heavy rainfall this week, as moisture will continue flowing in from the Gulf of Mexico to recharge the atmosphere, and the atmospheric instability that led to Sunday night’s and Monday’s downpours isn’t going away entirely. However, another gargantuan, slow-moving system that Houston just experienced seems unlikely.

The National Weather Service forecast for the Houston region calls for additional showers and thunderstorms over the next three days, with accumulations of perhaps 1 to 4 inches more rain between Monday night and early Friday.

It is possible there will be higher levels in certain areas. Meteorologists say Wednesday is the day when the region could see the most organized rain showers.

HISD schools are closed again today. Some parts of town experienced terrible flooding yesterday, and they are in danger of further damage today and tomorrow. I haven’t seen any information about what to do to help those who have been affected. If and when I do, I’ll post something about it. In the meantime, stay safe, and for God’s sake heed all warnings about high water on the roads. The Press has more.

Bell wants Meyerland flooding investigated

It’s a story about flooding and the Mayor’s race, but not the story about flooding and the Mayor’s race you might have been expecting.

Chris Bell

Chris Bell

Mayoral candidate Chris Bell on Sunday called for an independent investigation into why so many Meyerland homes flooded during the heavy Memorial Day weekend rains.

Surrounded by about two dozen residents at a press conference by Brays Bayou, Bell said it was important to figure out why infrastructure projects in the area didn’t prevent major flooding and why others were not completed on schedule. Bell challenged the assertion, backed by experts, that flooding was inevitable considering some areas were hit with more than 10 inches overnight.

“The least we are owed is an explanation of what happened,” said Bell, a former congressman and city councilman who lives in Meyerland.

Bell called for an outside investigation, saying that a report by the Harris County Flood Control District would be “biased” because the agency helped design projects in the area as part of the city’s drainage and streets program, ReBuild Houston. A spokesperson for the agency could not be reached Sunday.

Bell is not the first of the seven mayoral candidates to criticize the city’s ReBuild Houston initiative, the pay-as-you-go program that voters approved in 2010, in the wake of the Memorial Day flooding. Many of the candidates vying to replace term-limited Mayor Annise Parker have seized on the flooding to criticize the city’s infrastructure or talk about speeding up flood mitigation efforts.

Well, except that Bell never mentions ReBuild Houston in this story, and that the next three paragraphs have to do with Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 and the effect it had on Brays Bayou and the massive project that the Harris County Flood Control District undertook to mitigate those effects, which some people including Bell are now saying have taken too long and not done enough. None of this, you may note, has anything to do with ReBuild Houston. I’m sure Bell has been critical of ReBuild Houston, but as far as I can tell what he has not done – along with Adrian Garcia and Marty McVey – is publicly express an opinion on the Supreme Court ruling or the subsequent new litigation or the call for a revote. Any or all of those things would have been nice to know, but none of them are a part of this story. I don’t know if Chron reporter Tina Nazerian didn’t think to ask about any of these things or just didn’t report the answers she got when she did. Either way, we got nothing. For a bit of writing that does have something to do with ReBuild Houston, see PDiddie.

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.

So long, Skylane Apartments

This is happening in my neighborhood, and it’s already generated a lot of interest from the locals.

Elan Heights, from Swamplot

The aging Skylane Central apartments, perched near the entrance of the Woodland Heights neighborhood, are headed for demolition as a developer makes plans to replace the building with an upscale rental complex.

Charleston, S.C.-based Greystar is under contract to purchase the property, a low-rise complex built in 1960. Less than two acres, the site is just north of Interstate 10, off the Taylor Street bridge and across from White Oak Bayou.

The sale is expected to close in September, said Trent Conner, managing director of Greystar in Houston.

The project is the latest example of the rapid redevelopment of old apartment sites in highly desirable areas close to downtown.

The Greystar project, called Elan Heights, is still in the planning stages, but one of the scenarios being considered is an eight-story building with around 250 apartments and attached parking. The building would have a contemporary design encompassing an array of materials, including wood, metal panels, glass and stucco. Houston-based architecture firm Meeks & Partners is designing it.

“We’re hoping to improve the site and improve the curb appeal as you enter the Woodland Heights,” Conner said.

The new property will be an upgrade from what’s there now.

The existing apartments at 2222 White Oak have 76 units.

“I think there are some in the community that look forward to a change with the property the Skylane apartments are on,” said David Jordan, president of the Woodland Heights Civic Association.

Swamplot has the rendering you see above. The reactions I’ve seen to this in various places basically boils down to the following:

1. Happiness to see the Skylane disappear. As one Swamplot commenter notes, this also almost certainly also means the demise of the Little Buddy convenience store and the Mango Beach nightclub. Though I haven’t seen any mention of this elsewhere, I doubt the neighborhood will be sorry at that news, either.

2. Concern about the size of the proposed new building. Eight stories is pretty tall. Other than the townhomes on Usener, who as another commenter noted will likely lose their unobstructed view of downtown, there aren’t any other residences abutting this property. As such, I doubt this concern will mutate into opposition to the project.

3. Amazement that the developer could get a permit, considering that the Skylane flooded like crazy during TS Allison. I’m sure the first two or three stories of the new structure will be parking, so it’s only cars that will be at risk. I hope the future residents of this know what they’re getting into, and that their insurance is up to the task.

How bad would a big hurricane be to Houston?

Very bad. I trust you are not surprised by this.

When a really strong hurricane next blows through Houston, its winds – not its waters – pose the greatest threat to inflict damage unimagined by most living here.

Tropical Storm Allison produced a virtually worst-case flooding scenario in 2001, racking up $5 billion in damages. Hurricane Ike produced a destructive surge of water, and its U.S. damages came to $29.5 billion.

Such water damages, however, are nothing compared to the threat of a mighty blow, which Houston has not truly experienced since 1915.

A new, but unpublished, study reveals the true scope of damage Houston could sustain from a major windstorm if a hurricane were to strike Galveston Island and barrel on through Harris County.

According to the analysis by Civil Tech Engineering, a Category 4 hurricane moving northwest at 10 mph would cause $309 billion in property damage and $65 billion in business interruptions.

The study predicts nearly 800,000 homes in Harris County would be severely damaged or destroyed – 80 percent of the total housing stock – along with 50,000 commercial buildings.

“That’s just wind damage,” said Melvin Spinks, president of Houston-based Civil Tech. “It doesn’t include flooding from rain or surge.”

[…]

“We’ve always known there was significant risk from some of these much larger storms,” said Sharon Nalls, the city of Houston’s emergency management coordinator.

What isn’t clear, she said, is whether residents understand that risk.

That’s partly why the city commissioned the study. Since its completion in May 2010, the results have been used to prepare better tools for home and business owners to assess their risks.

In the next couple of weeks the city will roll out two new websites, Nalls said.

One is an update of its “Houston Hide from the Wind” website, offering real-time estimates of wind speeds, by ZIP code, based upon National Hurricane Center forecasts. The website will now include information for Harris and surrounding counties, not just the city.

Secondly, the city will launch a website on which residents can enter an address to view the potential wind, flooding and surge threats to their property from various strengths of storms.

After the regional evacuation from Hurricane Rita produced a massive traffic jam in 2005, city and county officials launched a campaign to better inform residents about who should go and who should stay.

The new wind damage data, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, doesn’t change the basic message – run from the water, hide from the wind.

I’m pretty sure Judge Emmett meant to say “hunker down” from the wind. He must have been misquoted. Be that as it may, I’m not really sure how much value this has. I mean, I agree it’s better to know what you might be up against than to be ignorant about it, but what’s missing from this story is what if anything we plan to do about this. That’s a non-trivial question because anything we did do now, such as raise building code standards for unincorporated Harris County, would not affect any current structure. Individual property owners are of course free to take whatever action they think is worthwhile, but I have my doubts that a report like this will do much to spur anyone to action. It’s a matter of risk assessment: Clearly, massive hurricanes are (thankfully) very rare events for Houston, so any investment made to fortify oneself against them may well be wasted. Against that, the failure to be adequately prepared if one does come our way will have devastating consequences. Pick your poison, I guess.

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.

Kirby storm drain construction update

Times are tough all over for retailers. They’re especially tough when the street you’re on is all torn up.

The four-phase project to install new storm drainage along Kirby Drive started in 2004. The latest round peeled back the asphalt at the intersection with Tangley in April and is inching its way toward Bissonnet. City officials expect the phase to be complete by next August.

Shops and strip malls along Kirby have become temporary islands until asphalt isthmuses appear wherever the road is peeled up and put back in place.

On a recent Wednesday, a neon sign glowed “Open” in the window of a Subway franchise, its empty parking lot surrounded by a moat of torn pavement. Farther south, Shipley’s is accessible, but the Starbucks across the street isn’t. To get there, you’d have to make a left turn three blocks later and then double back on the side road where, earlier that day, a truck got tangled in electrical lines and knocked out power to an office building.

At Cova, a high-end wine shop, owner Monsterville Horton IV watched the confluence of three Cats gouging out the intersection of Kirby and Quenby, where traffic alternately stopped and lurched forward.

I just want to interrupt here to say that “Monsterville Horton IV” is easily the best name I’ve ever heard in my life. No wonder he’s Monsterville IV – I’d want to pass that name onto my son as well. Oh, I think “Monsterville Horton” would make a great band name, too.

Still, business owners who remember Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 don’t take issue with the reason for the construction.

“It’s going to save us a lot of hassle and headache,” said Aubrey Mendonca, who owns the Perimeter Gallery, an arts and framing store on Rice Boulevard. “I’m one of the highest-elevated stores in the Village, and I had a foot of water from Allison.”

Mendonca doesn’t fault city engineers for the pace of construction: They’re going as fast as they can, he says.

Public works spokesman Alvin Wright says the city has done what it could to accommodate commerce, including promising to halt construction between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“That’s one of the biggest seasons for the Village,” Mendonca said. “They’ve kept us in mind.”

And he doesn’t think construction alone will be fatal to any Rice Village businesses.

“We did see a few businesses fold because of the economy, but I don’t think it’s a danger of the construction.”

I have to say, I agree that the pace of the construction has been as quick as you could reasonably expect. You can literally see the progress if you drive through the area with any regularity. And in an odd way, I think the traffic on Kirby isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. At least, that’s the case headed southbound; the line of traffic to get through the light at Sunset headed northbound is much longer. I think there’s a Yogi Berra-ish “nobody goes there any more, it’s too crowded” effect at play here – I try to take Shepherd/Greenbriar (where there’s now construction blocking a lane of traffic just south of Sunset) or Buffalo Speedway when I can – which surely contributes to the merchants’ lack of business. But it is moving along, and perhaps these businesses’ experience can provide a little hope for those whose shops are along the coming light rail routes. If this is survivable, in this economy, anything is.

Anyway. The status of Kirby Drive, both here and north of the Southwest Freeway, was a subject of discussion in my interview with Council Member Anne Clutterbuck, as all of this is in District C. Give it a listen if you haven’t already.