We all know how much Hurricane Ike has affected and continues to affect people and property. I at least had no idea how devastating it had been to the state's alligator population.
The throaty bellow of adult male alligators, a combination mating call/territorial warning and a signature sound of vibrant coastal wetlands, has been all but absent from marshes along Texas' upper coast this year.
The gators are gone. Marshes that a year ago held, quite literally, tens of thousands of alligators have, for the past eight months, been all but devoid of the signature wetlands reptile.
Hurricane Ike, which shoved a wall of saltwater as much as 18 feet deep as far as 15 or more miles inland along the upper coast this past September, profoundly impacted the marshes and the hundreds of thousands of alligators that lived there.
The storm hit dead-center of the state's most extensive alligator habitat and highest alligator populations. The four-county area of Chambers, Galveston, Jefferson and Orange in the southeast corner of Texas held an estimated quarter-million alligators ahead of Ike.
The storm's lingering effects continued killing gators for months. Just how many were lost to the storm remains in question.
"Right now, it's still too early to say," said Port Arthur-based biologist Amos Cooper, who heads Texas Parks and Wildlife Department's alligator programs. "We know we had some mortality of alligators. But whether they were just displaced and will move back as the habitat recovers is something we won't know for a while."
Better than a highly active season, I guess.
With the Atlantic hurricane season drawing near, the last of a growing number of storm prognosticators, Uncle Sam, chimed in Thursday with its predictions.
Federal forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said there probably would be nine to 14 named storms this year, with four to seven becoming hurricanes.
"A near-normal season is most likely," said Gerry Bell, NOAA's lead seasonal forecaster.
Among the burgeoning community of hurricane season forecasters -- from veterans such as William Gray and Phil Klotzbach at Colorado State University to new players like North Carolina State -- there's a general consensus that this year will bring less tropical weather than last year's 16 named storms.
They cite various reasons, such as an expectation of more moderate sea surface temperatures in tropical areas of the Atlantic Ocean as well as the possible development of an El Nino in the Pacific, which could dampen storm formation.
"During many El Nino years, we have had significantly fewer named storms than normal," said Chris Hebert, the lead hurricane forecaster with Houston-based ImpactWeather, a private forecasting service.
Over the last several decades an average of about 10 named storms have formed each year, but that number has risen significantly since 1995. Most forecasters attribute the rise to an upswing in a long-term, natural cycle of Atlantic temperatures called the Atlantic multidecadal oscillation.
Since 1995, 12 of the 14 Atlantic hurricane seasons have seen above-normal tropical activity.
I've mentioned the prospect of a special session several times lately. One of the issues that could be the cause of a special session is windstorm insurance, as the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association took it on the chin last year thanks to Hurricane Ike. Governor Perry even came to the floor of the House yesterday to threaten that he'd call a special session for June 2, the day after sine die, if a bill didn't get passed. Apparently, that was enough to make something happen.
Windstorm insurance reform legislation suddenly got voted out of a House committee Wednesday after Gov. Rick Perry threatened to call a special session on June 2 if the bill does not pass.
Both inland and coastal lawmakers expressed concerns about the bill they voted on, but said they needed to get something to a House/Senate conference committee if there is any hope of reaching a compromise to avoid a special session.
Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, complained that he was being forced to vote on a 51-page bill that he had not read. He said the House has had the entire session to work on a compromise and now was being presented a "false choice" of voting on an unseen bill or having it die in the Legislature's closing crunch.
"The House is on fire! Let's vote it out," Martinez Fischer said.
"I don't care what you do. If you want to vote it down, vote it down," replied House Insurance Committee Chairman John Smithee, R-Amarillo.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, joined Martinez Fischer in voting against the bill, also complaining that she had not had a chance to read it.
"I'm not trying to slow the process down, but don't I have a right to read this stuff?" Thompson asked.
Rep. Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, urged his fellow committee members to vote for the bill just to keep it moving and not let it die. He said there are many things in it that still bother him.
"We have been told we will be called into a special session on June 2 if we do not get this matter resolved," Hunter said. "Get the process moving so we do not kill the issue."
I don't know why I hadn't seen this story coming. In retrospect, it seems so obvious.
Doctors who work in Houston's busiest maternity ward say they're expecting an especially bustling June, leading some to conclude that Hurricane Ike was the perfect storm for making babies.
It's been eight months since Ike knocked out the region's electricity, leaving many with no television, Internet access or other distractions for days, if not weeks. Now there's a curious bump in the number of women who are rounding out their third trimesters of pregnancy.
Several obstetrical practices associated with The Woman's Hospital of Texas are extra-busy these days with prenatal care.
"I looked, somewhat in shock, at my little book of deliveries for June, and it's 26," said Dr. John Irwin, president of Obstetrical and Gynecological Associates.
He routinely delivers 15 to 20 babies a month and called the Ike boomlet "a real phenomenon." His colleagues in the 35-physician practice have seen a similar increase in patients who probably conceived during the powerless days after Ike.
"There's about a 25 percent increase in the number of deliveries coming up in mid-June to mid-July," said Irwin, also chief of surgery service at Woman's Hospital.
If you live near the coast, get ready to pay more for windstorm insurance.
Coastal residents insured by the state windstorm fund could see increases of 5 percent per year for the next three years under a bill passed Thursday by the Senate.
The vote to send the bill to the House was 27-4. One senator who voted against it said the rate increases are still too much for residents rebuilding from Hurricane Ike.
"I was very concerned about the impact the bill would have on the coastal communities. They've been hit hard and many are struggling to recover," said Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston.
But the bill author, Sen. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, said the Legislature has to do something to build up the Texas Windstorm Insurance Association, which was depleted by Hurricanes Ike and Dolly last year.
"Currently, TWIA has $68 billion in coverage written along the entire Texas coast and there is zero money in the reserve fund. This exposure is rapidly expanding as more residents and businesses seek windstorm coverage from TWIA," Fraser said.
TWIA provides coverage to homeowners and businesses in 14 coastal counties and a part of Harris County who can't find it elsewhere.
University of Texas regents today settled an open records lawsuit, agreeing to give hiring priority to 2,400 employees laid off at UTMB in December, one of the plaintiffs said.
In return for dropping the lawsuit, the regents also agreed to allow a Harris County judge to act as an arbitrator in disputes over rehiring, said Tom Johnson, Texas Faculty Association executive director.
The association and three Galveston residents filed the lawsuit last month saying that the firings were illegal because they were done in violation of the open meetings act. The suit accused the regents of convening four closed meetings, three by conference calls.
Barry Burgdorf, UT system vice chancellor and general counsel, said that the agreement to give fired employees priority was already policy at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
The venerable Saffir-Simpson scale for measuring hurricane strength is so simple to use, it's not really adequate for the task of assessing risk and estimating damage.
"If I could wave a wand and make it go away, I would," said Bill Read, at the National Hurricane Conference in Austin on Friday. "It made sense in the era it was conceived, four decades ago, and now it's ingrained in the culture."
Attendees at the hurricane center have buzzed about the Saffir-Simpson scale's inadequacies.
KHOU-TV's chief meteorologist Gene Norman said it needs to be modified to better account for surge.
Greg Bostwick, a meteorologist at KFDM-TV in Beaumont, said his viewers couldn't believe how "only" a Category 2 storm striking 90 miles away could flood one-third of Orange County.
Some hurricane scientists, such as Mark Powell of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Hurricane Research Division, have been arguing in recent months to replace the Saffir-Simpson scale entirely.
Powell said the scale is especially deceptive when it comes to storm surges, and when you review the data there's simply no correlation between the category of a hurricane and the amount of land it inundates.
Based upon maximum sustained winds, the scale ranges from Category 1, the weakest hurricane classification, to the fearsome and rare Category 5, with winds greater than 155 mph.
But the scale fails to take a host of factors into account -- such as physical size and rainfall potential -- that are critical to determining whether a particular storm will have a large surge or cause inland flooding, like Houston experienced during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.
This certainly sounds like a promising idea.
Protecting the region from a hurricane's storm surge, says William Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston, is simple: Extend Galveston's seawall to the island's West End, build a similar structure along Bolivar Peninsula and construct massive Dutch-like floodgates at the entry to Galveston Bay.
Merrell's "Ike Dike" idea, which would cost at least $2 billion not including land acquisition expenses, has gained momentum in recent weeks.
Gov. Rick Perry's post-Ike Commission for Disaster Recovery and Renewal reviewed the concept and unanimously recommended that the state fund a feasibility study to look at flood control efforts along the entire Texas coast.
"When I first heard about it, I thought it was a pretty outlandish project, but the more I've thought about it, the more I think we need to look into something like this," said Bill King, a former mayor of Kemah who is a member of the Ike commission.
"The benefits are obvious. To protect the entire Gulf Coast from a storm surge would be an incredible benefit."
The upfront cost may seem high, but storm surge damages caused by Ike along the upper Texas coast may have exceeded $10 billion, and that was for a hurricane that came in too far north to cause maximum damage to Galveston Island and heavily populated communities along western Galveston Bay.
Environmentalists familiar with the dike proposal say the large retractable gates it would require on Galveston Bay, as well as smaller ones at San Luis Pass and the Intracoastal Waterway, would inhibit fish migration and raise a host of other potential environmental impacts.
But perhaps even more significantly, said Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and coastal expert based in Houston, the dike proposal would give carte blanche to developers and businesses to continue building in sensitive areas around Galveston Bay. "I don't personally think this is the solution to this area's incredible vulnerability to hurricanes," Blackburn said.
"But there's a challenge to the environmental community, which may not want to see an Ike Dike, to come up with an alternative that addresses the problem."
On a related note, one preseason hurricane forecast for 2009 has been ticked down a notch, from a guess of 14 named storms to 12. The quieter this season is, and the farther removed we get from Ike, the more complacent we're likely to get. If there's something that should be done, the sooner we do it, the better.
The University of Texas Medical Branch on Friday asked a judge to stop Shriners Hospital for Children Galveston from locking its doors and imperiling millions of dollars in shared burn research.
UTMB asked Galveston County District Judge Wayne Mallia for a temporary restraining order and an injunction preventing Shriners from padlocking its hospital and its world-renowned burn center by a Tuesday deadline.
Ralph Semb, chairman and CEO of Shriners Hospitals for Children, said he was puzzled by the lawsuit because Shriners was prepared to give UTMB two more weeks to vacate the hospital.
UTMB was given only two weeks notice to move all laboratories and researchers out of the Shriners hospital, which is across the street from UTMB's John Sealy Hospital and is connected by a walkway to UTMB's Blocker Burn Center, Dr. Garland Anderson, UTMB executive vice president and provost, said at a news conference.
Anderson said it would take at least six months to a year to move all the equipment and researchers to a condemned building that had been slated for destruction. He said UTMB had tried to negotiate with Shriners headquarters but was unable to make any headway.
Nearly $14 million in ongoing research is at stake, officials said.
"If the laboratories and burn units were forced out in only a few days time, the damage would be catastrophic and irreparable," according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says that an affiliation agreement between UTMB and Shriners requires a five-year notice of termination.
Local Shriners vowed Wednesday to take their case for reopening the storm-damaged Shriners Hospital for Children in Galveston to convention delegates after the national leadership again decided to keep it closed.
Officials of the 1,000-member Galveston-based El Mina Shrine were notified Tuesday that their plea to reopen the hospital and its world famous burn center had been denied for the second time.
"Myself and the local Shriners from the El Mina Shrine, we are definitely going to take it forward to the national membership," said Tommy Lambright, Shriners Hospital for Children Galveston board member.
Packets of information arguing for reopening the facility have already been sent to the 1,163 Shriners delegates who will meet in San Antonio on July 23.
The delegates can vote to overturn the leadership's decision and have done so at least twice before.
Delegates prevented the leadership from closing the Minneapolis Shriners Hospital for Children in 2003 and last year stripped the leadership's authority to close any hospital, a rule that does not affect its power to forbid the Galveston hospital from reopening.
Lambright said El Mina Shriners would be lobbying delegates.
"We fully expect to get a positive vote to overturn the board's action," Lambright said.
If UTMB, why not Shriners?
UTMB hospital to stay in Galveston
UTMB layoff lawsuit update
Cleaning up the bay
Hurricane relief spending
Reliant roof repaired
HIWI presents "Ike: The Book"
Rebuilding the seawall
Republican women write letters
Can this city be saved?
Casino gambling for Galveston?
Layoffs for you, bonuses for me
HHSC extends Medicaid coverage
Another casualty of Ike
Rally to rebuild UTMB
"Recycle Ike" winner
Lawsuit filed over UTMB firings
More ways to measure hurricanes
You hunker down. I'm bugging out.
Curbside recycling to start again
Still talking about buried power lines
How would you recycle all that?
Curbside recycling still on hold
Galveston early voting locations
Mighty big pile of debris you've (still) got there
Once again with the electrical infrastructure
Mighty big pile of debris you've got there
Voting in Galveston
A more direct way to help
CenterPoint and the trees
The still missing
Power to the people - Working for the weekend
Power to the people: The people are still waiting
The undocumented reconstruction workers
Power and water to the people update
Billions and billions
Will Ike mean fewer billboards?
Are you ready for higher electric bills?
I said, power to the people!
Can we please wave bye-bye?
Power to the people
Chase Tower after Ike
A question about Ike
Today's Ike updates
Monday Ike roundup
A report from Houston
A report from Galveston
Reliant Stadium damaged, Texans game off
Starting to assess the damage
The last men on the island
Fearing the worst for Galveston
Texans game postponed till Monday
Ike equals Rita, or Alicia?
Ike is coming
Can you print that in large, friendly letters for me?
Not reassuring at all
Some hope for New Orleans
Too close for comfort
Go away, Gustav
Edouard: More drizzle than sizzle
Nothing to do but wait
Don't need to be a weatherman
Get ready for Edoaurd
Why we evacuate
Hurricanes are coming - Is your home ready?
Active hurricane season predicted: Film at 11
One degree makes a big difference
Do we name too many storms?
The 2007 hurricane season: Hot or not?
He writes letters
Two more hurricanes
The end (?) of hurricane season in Texas
No help for Rita victims
Only six more to go
Dean in Mexico
Dean heads towards Mexico
Dean headed for Mexico
Dean strengthens, moves south
Starting to worry about Dean
Erin and Dean
Hurricane forecast updated for 2007
Further dispatches from the "Good news, bad news" files
Hurricane season so far: Good news, bad news
Keeping the gas stations stocked
Duck and cover, or head for the hills?
This year's hurricane plans
Time for the annual "Very Active Hurricane Season" forecast
Seventeen named hurricanes predicted
Mayor White wins award for Katrina work
La Nina is not our amiga