See you later, alligator

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."

The good news is that the folks who keep an eye on this are optimistic that the gator population will bounce back next year. That's what happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, so there's no reason it can't happen here. We hope, anyway.

05/28/09 | permalink | comments [0]

"Near normal" hurricane season

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.

So don't rest easy just yet. Preseason predictions are not that accurate anyway. And as we all know, it only takes one well-aimed hurricane to make the season a bad one.

05/25/09 | permalink | comments [0]

Windstorm insurance bill passes House committee

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."

The bill in question is SB14, which was approved by the Senate on April 30, but which has been revised since then. One hopes everyone will have the time to read the bill before it gets voted on again, not that this has ever been a requirement for getting stuff passed; if it were, we might never have heard the words "Trans Texas Corridor". One also hopes that this bill will be given priority over clearly less-important things like voter ID. Finally, one hopes that this is the only thing that's on Governor Perry's list of reasons for which to call a special session, and not just the cudgel of the day. I don't want the Lege to come back this summer any more than they do.

05/21/09 | permalink | comments [0]

Ike, Ike, baby

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.

You see this kind of story about eight months or so after major nature events. Back in January of 1985, when a 13-inch snowstorm closed down the city of San Antonio for a couple of days, there was a reported spike in the birth rate that fall. Sometimes this sort of thing is more anecdote than evidence, but I can believe it happened here after Ike. Perhaps it's time to add "condoms" to the standard hurricane preparation checklist. I'm just saying.

05/13/09 | permalink | comments [0]

Windstorm insurance changes

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.

I can appreciate Sen. Huffman's concern, but I can also imagine how her vote might have gone had this not directly affected her constituents. I mean, it's ultimately the taxpayers who are subsidizing the TWIA. Shouldn't those who choose to live along the coast pay a bigger share of that cost? All a matter of perspective, I suppose. Burkablog and Postcards have more.

05/04/09 | permalink | comments [0]

Settlement in UTMB lawsuit

Hot off the presses.

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.

I'm sure there will be a longer version of this story in the morning. Given that this lawsuit was only filed in December, I have to think that the quickness of this settlement is indicative of UTMB deciding that its position was not tenable. The first ruling, over venue, went for the plaintiffs. Given that UTMB was going to be staying in Galveston and was already rehiring laid-off workers, you have to wonder what there was left for them to go to the mat over. Be that as it may, kudos to the winners for forcing the issue. I've got a press release from the Texas Faculty Association, which has some related news on its blog, beneath the fold.

Continue reading »

04/13/09 | permalink | comments [0]

Measuring hurricanes

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.

No big surprise here. The Saffir-Simpson scale is essentially one-dimensional, so of course it can only capture so much information in it. I'm a little incredulous that anyone who watched any of the Ike coverage from last year could have seen the satellite pictures showing just how massive it was and not imagined how much havoc it would wreak. Having said that, the words "at least it's just a Cat 2" escaped my lips more than once during the run-up. Perhaps another number, one that's more evocative than just a storm surge size, would help. If we can replace the Richter scale with something better, surely we can do it for the Saffir-Simpson as well.

04/12/09 | permalink | comments [2]

The Ike Dike

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.

Compared to the cost of an actual hurricane, as we have so clearly seen, this is downright cheap. Even if the $2 billion estimate is off by a factor of ten, this would be a worthwhile investment. A feasibility study would be a few million bucks, and that's a no-brainer. The only question there is what needs to be done to appropriate the money.

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."

Well, yeah. I appreciate the concern, but the potential benefit is very high, and I don't see the worries about developers carrying much weight as a counter-argument. The best bet at this point will be to make sure that future feasibility study takes these kind of costs and their mitigation into effect. More at SciGuy.

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.

04/08/09 | permalink | comments [6]

UTMB versus Shriners

Well, this might help keep Shiners Galveston Hospital open.

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.

Sure does seem like keeping the hospital open would solve a lot of problems, wouldn't it? Let's hope the national Shriners see it that way. There's a hearing for April 6, so perhaps we'll get an answer by then.

03/29/09 | permalink | comments [0]

A setback for Shriners


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.

I hope he's right. As I said before, your best bet to affect that outcome is probably to contact the national organization and any Shriners you happen to know personally. And hope for the best.

03/27/09 | permalink | comments [1]

If UTMB, why not Shriners?

03/24/09 | permalink | comments [1]

UTMB rehiring

03/19/09 | permalink | comments [0]

UTMB hospital to stay in Galveston

03/11/09 | permalink | comments [0]

UTMB layoff lawsuit update

03/10/09 | permalink | comments [0]

Cleaning up the bay

02/10/09 | permalink | comments [1]

Hurricane relief spending

02/05/09 | permalink | comments [0]

Reliant roof repaired

02/04/09 | permalink | comments [0]

HIWI presents "Ike: The Book"

01/24/09 | permalink | comments [0]

Rebuilding the seawall

01/19/09 | permalink | comments [1]

Republican women write letters

01/09/09 | permalink | comments [3]

Can this city be saved?

01/08/09 | permalink | comments [4]

Casino gambling for Galveston?

12/23/08 | permalink | comments [3]

Layoffs for you, bonuses for me

12/23/08 | permalink | comments [0]

HHSC extends Medicaid coverage

12/22/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Another casualty of Ike

12/20/08 | permalink | comments [2]

Rally to rebuild UTMB

12/15/08 | permalink | comments [0]

"Recycle Ike" winner

12/13/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Lawsuit filed over UTMB firings

12/02/08 | permalink | comments [2]

More ways to measure hurricanes

12/02/08 | permalink | comments [0]

You hunker down. I'm bugging out.

11/03/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Curbside recycling to start again

10/22/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Still talking about buried power lines

10/21/08 | permalink | comments [0]

How would you recycle all that?

10/17/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Curbside recycling still on hold

10/11/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Galveston early voting locations

10/09/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Mighty big pile of debris you've (still) got there

10/09/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Once again with the electrical infrastructure

10/05/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Mighty big pile of debris you've got there

10/03/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Voting in Galveston

10/01/08 | permalink | comments [0]

A more direct way to help

09/30/08 | permalink | comments [0]

CenterPoint and the trees

09/29/08 | permalink | comments [2]

The still missing

09/28/08 | permalink | comments [2]

Power to the people - Working for the weekend

09/27/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Power to the people: The people are still waiting

09/26/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Congressman No

09/26/08 | permalink | comments [3]

The undocumented reconstruction workers

09/26/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Power and water to the people update

09/24/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Billions and billions

09/23/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Will Ike mean fewer billboards?

09/23/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Are you ready for higher electric bills?

09/22/08 | permalink | comments [5]

I said, power to the people!

09/21/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Can we please wave bye-bye?

09/21/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Wind insurance

09/20/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Power to the people

09/20/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Donor fatigue

09/19/08 | permalink | comments [2]


09/19/08 | permalink | comments [0]

The missing

09/18/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Chase Tower after Ike

09/17/08 | permalink | comments [1]

A question about Ike

09/17/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Today's Ike updates

09/17/08 | permalink | comments [3]


09/16/08 | permalink | comments [0]


09/16/08 | permalink | comments [1]

POD confusion

09/15/08 | permalink | comments [3]

Monday Ike roundup

09/15/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Remembering Brennan's

09/15/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Volunteer opportunities

09/14/08 | permalink | comments [0]

A report from Houston

09/14/08 | permalink | comments [0]

A report from Galveston

09/14/08 | permalink | comments [1]

The recovery

09/14/08 | permalink | comments [2]


09/13/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Reliant Stadium damaged, Texans game off

09/13/08 | permalink | comments [2]

Starting to assess the damage

09/13/08 | permalink | comments [3]

Ike's arrival

09/13/08 | permalink | comments [1]

The last men on the island

09/12/08 | permalink | comments [2]

Fearing the worst for Galveston

09/12/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Texans game postponed till Monday

09/12/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Ike equals Rita, or Alicia?

09/11/08 | permalink | comments [3]

Ike is coming

09/11/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Can you print that in large, friendly letters for me?

09/10/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Not reassuring at all

09/09/08 | permalink | comments [3]

Hurricane fatigue

09/08/08 | permalink | comments [1]


09/07/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Goodbye, Gustav

09/02/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Gustav arrives

09/01/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Some hope for New Orleans

08/31/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Too close for comfort

08/30/08 | permalink | comments [2]

Go away, Gustav

08/29/08 | permalink | comments [0]


08/27/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Edouard's effects

08/06/08 | permalink | comments [2]

Edouard: More drizzle than sizzle

08/05/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Nothing to do but wait

08/05/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Don't need to be a weatherman

08/04/08 | permalink | comments [6]

Get ready for Edoaurd

08/04/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Tropical depression

08/03/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Why we evacuate

06/16/08 | permalink | comments [2]

Hurricanes are coming - Is your home ready?

06/01/08 | permalink | comments [1]

Active hurricane season predicted: Film at 11

04/11/08 | permalink | comments [0]

One degree makes a big difference

02/03/08 | permalink | comments [0]

Do we name too many storms?

11/29/07 | permalink | comments [1]

The 2007 hurricane season: Hot or not?

11/29/07 | permalink | comments [0]

He writes letters

11/10/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Two more hurricanes

10/03/07 | permalink | comments [0]

The end (?) of hurricane season in Texas

09/25/07 | permalink | comments [0]

No help for Rita victims

09/23/07 | permalink | comments [3]

Goodbye, Humberto

09/13/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Hello, Humberto

09/12/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Only six more to go

09/05/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Hello, Felix

09/03/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Goodbye, Dean

08/23/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Dean in Mexico

08/21/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Dean heads towards Mexico

08/20/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Dean headed for Mexico

08/19/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Dean strengthens, moves south

08/18/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Starting to worry about Dean

08/17/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Erin and Dean

08/15/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Hurricane forecast updated for 2007

08/04/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Further dispatches from the "Good news, bad news" files

07/27/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Hurricane season so far: Good news, bad news

07/27/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Outsourcing FEMA

07/16/07 | permalink | comments [1]

Keeping the gas stations stocked

06/25/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Duck and cover, or head for the hills?

05/28/07 | permalink | comments [4]

This year's hurricane plans

05/23/07 | permalink | comments [2]

Time for the annual "Very Active Hurricane Season" forecast

05/23/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Seventeen named hurricanes predicted

04/04/07 | permalink | comments [0]

Mayor White wins award for Katrina work

03/14/07 | permalink | comments [0]

La Nina is not our amiga

02/28/07 | permalink | comments [1]