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The great state of Texas

Bexar County raises its COVID threat level

Hopefully not a sign of things to come.

Local health officials raised San Antonio’s COVID-19 risk level to high this week after warning of a “silent surge” just two weeks ago.

That surge continues, according to data from the city’s Metropolitan Health District, which is documenting an increase in new cases and hospitalizations.

As the July Fourth holiday approaches, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District chief Claude Jacob urged folks who will be getting together with friends and family to follow COVID-19 prevention strategies: “mask up in crowded indoor places, get tested if you have been exposed or have symptoms and stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccine and boosters.”

Dr. Bryan Alsip, chief medical officer at University Health, said the curve is starting to rise again, “but it’s not as steep an increase. It doesn’t look like the previous waves, not yet, so I think we have to wait and see how that turns out.”

The actual number of COVID-19 cases are suspected to be much higher than what is officially reported, as most people aren’t reporting positive home tests to any health authority.

Metro Health does not collect at-home test data, a spokeswoman said. Some rapid test kits include a way to report results through a mobile app, she noted, and urged everyone who uses a self-test to report positive results to their healthcare provider.

Alsip echoed Metro Health’s prevention strategies, noting that most people have stopped wearing masks. “Now that we know that the data support this high level [of transmission], while we’re in that higher risk timeframe, it would be a good additional layer of protection.”

He also warned that COVID-19 can now include a constellation of symptoms beyond the fever, cough and shortness of breath that characterized the disease at the beginning of the pandemic.

For the record, Harris County is still at Moderate threat level. Given the viral load in Houston’s wastewater these days, it’s not hard to imagine it going up. They key metric is hospitalizations, and that at least has remained at a sufficiently moderate level. It’s still the case that everyone needs to be vaxxed and boosted – kids under the age of five can now get vaccinated, and it looks like we’re getting an Omicron-specific booster later this year – and masking in indoor public places as well as anytime you may feel ill are still necessary. City and county governments can’t do much beyond exhort you to do the civic-minded thing, and for that matter the feds are pretty limited thanks to a bunch of sociopathic court rulings, so this is where we are. Do your part, if only for yourself, and we can make this be less bad than it otherwise would be.

The empty “mental health” promise

What’s going on in Uvalde these days.

Days after the May 24 shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised an “abundance of mental health services” to help “anyone in the community who needs it … the totality of anyone who lives in this community.” He said the services would be free. “We just want you to ask for them,” he said, before giving out the 24/7 hotline number — 888-690-0799.

That’s a tall order for a community in an area with a shortage of mental health resources, in a state that ranks last for overall access to mental health care, according to a 2022 State of Mental Health in America report.

Mental health organizations are assembling a collection of services to assist those who seek help in Uvalde. But there have been hiccups and hitches along the way.

There is worry that what’s being offered is not coming together as fast or efficiently as it could be, and that it’s being assembled without keeping in mind the community it serves: Many residents are lower income, and some may have difficulties with transportation, or are mainly Hispanic. Many are not accustomed to seeking out therapy, or are distrustful of who is providing it.

Quintanilla-Taylor didn’t believe many would use the mental health services and had doubts about their long term availability.

“It’s not going be prevalent. … I don’t trust the resources, and that’s coming from an educated person,” said Quintanilla-Taylor, who’s pursuing a doctorate in philosophy and specializing in organizational leadership at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

[…]

Uvalde County Commissioners, the countywide government body, voted Thursday to purchase a building to create the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center to serve as a hub for long-term services, such as crisis counseling and behavioral health care for survivors.

Abbott set aside $5 million in funding for the center, which has been operating at the county fairgrounds.

Texas Sen. Roland Gutierrez, whose vast district includes Uvalde, said the community needs continuity of care and rather than create a new building the state could invest in the existing local community health clinic, in operation for 40 years and already serving 11,000 uninsured Uvalde residents.

“These are people who have behavioral health on the ground. They actually have the one psychiatrist in Uvalde right here,” Gutierrez said Friday referring to the clinic. “We needed to have the budget so that we can bring in therapists, which we would have been able to do with that money. Instead, they’re starting from whole cloth this promised center you’re going to have the district attorney run?”

Gutierrez, who has shifted a district office from Eagle Pass to Uvalde, said he met with 11 families whose children survived the shootings and were either wounded or sent to the hospital.

“What the families have been telling me is they don’t want to see one therapist one week, a different one the following and another one yet maybe the next week,” he said. “So, they are having trouble with appointments, with continuity and that’s very, very important, especially when we are talking about young children.”

Gutierrez said he sent a letter to Abbott asking for $2 million for the existing free community clinic to provide crisis care but has not heard back.

I’ve discussed this before, and this is another illustration of the problem. We can count on hearing two things whenever there’s a mass shooting in Texas. One is the usual blather about guns and why restricting access to guns isn’t the answer. The other is a rush to talk about mental health, both as a means of explaining the shooter’s actions and now more regularly as an alternate mitigation for gun violence that doesn’t restrict access to guns. It was a big component of the Cornyn bill, and may have been a key to its passage since there’s no question that more mental health services and funding for those services are badly needed. I’m happy to see that happen, it’s just that we all know this is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

From the state perspective, any and all talk of mental health and services for mental health that comes from our state leaders is guaranteed to be little more than hot air. We have the longstanding issue of healthcare in general being out of reach for too many people because of lack of insurance, and the continued resistance to expanding Medicaid, which would be the single biggest step forward in that regard. We have the also longstanding issue of healthcare in rural areas, from hospitals closing for lack of funds to scarcity of doctors in rural areas, a problem that was supposed to have been solved by the passage of the tort “reform” constitutional amendment nearly 20 years ago. More recently there was Abbott’s redirection of over $200 million in funds from the Department of Health and Human Services to his never-ending border boondoggle. At every opportunity, the Republican leadership has made it clear that they don’t care about funding healthcare in general, and mental health services in particular. But they are willing to use the promise of mental health services as a distraction when the next crisis hits. That’s where we are now, and where we will be again if nothing changes.

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in a drought

And by “we”, I mean most of the state.

About 80% of Texas is currently experiencing some level of drought conditions, ranging from “moderate” to “exceptional.”

The drought, which caused wildfires across the state earlier this year and prompted burn bans, is now negatively affecting farmers and ranchers.

A lack of rain during the spring resulted in lower crop production and decreased soil moisture levels, with no relief in sight.

“This is a tough situation,” Tracy Tomascik from Texas Farm Bureau told Houston Matters on Monday, comparing this year to Texas’ historic drought in 2011. “It’s something that we hoped we’d all put in the back of our minds, but this year it has a little added sting to it.”

Hay supply is down, and 78% of the wheat supply in Texas is in “poor” or “very poor” condition.

“It’s as bad as it’s been since 2011, if not worse,” Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said about the state’s wheat supply. “2011 was a wake-up call… I think that experience will be of considerable help this time around.”

[…]

May and June are typically the wettest months of the year in Texas and are the prime months for plant growth. Hungry plants and no rain can quickly lead to a bad situation.

“It’s a flash drought,” Nielsen-Gammon said about the combination of factors working together to cause Texas’ current weather conditions and agricultural obstacles.

The drought is also causing water supply issues statewide as officials ask residents to conserve water.

“The way the weather pattern looks, it’s going to be like that for a while,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

While Houston has not been severely affected by drought conditions, Nielsen-Gammon said that could change.

“Coastal areas have been fairly dry, and with the high temperatures, the dryness is spreading over the whole area now.”

Remember 2011? More terrible drought, wildfires all over the state (especially around Bastrop), a whole month of daily temperatures over 100 degrees? Yeah, that. Any time 2011 is in the conversation, weather-wise, it’s a bad thing.

As far as Houston goes, it’s not that bad right now, but we know how bad it can get because we lived through 2011, too. So please, pay attention to this.

For the first time in a decade, the city is asking property owners to voluntarily cut back on water usage as low rainfall and blistering temperatures push Houston closer to drought conditions.

The solstice arrived Tuesday with temperatures up to 9 degrees hotter than average, triggering phase one of Houston’s drought contingency plan, adopted to stave off water shortages in times of dangerous heat and low precipitation.

Under the plan, residents are asked to voluntarily reduce water usage by watering plants after sunset, repairing dripping faucets and ensuring sprinkler heads do not spray directly into storm drains or streets. The requested moves could become mandatory if drought conditions worsen.

City officials hope the optional measures will cut water use citywide by 5 percent.

It marked the first time the city has entered any version of its drought contingency plan since 2011.

[…]

City officials issued the following voluntary water conservation guidelines, expected to continue until the threat of drought lifts:

  • Limit outdoor watering to twice a week after sunset and before sunrise
  • Single-family homes with even-numbered street addresses are asked to water on Sundays and Thursdays; those with odd-numbered street addresses are asked to water on Saturdays and Wednesdays, with Tuesdays and Fridays reserved for apartments and businesses
  • Check and repair water leaks from dripping faucets and running toilets
  • Fix sprinkler heads to ensure sure water is not disappearing directly into the street, storm drains or gutters

Surely that isn’t much to ask. Let’s do what we can to keep 2022 from being as bad as 2011 was.

“We all marched into Stuckey’s, one hundred thousand strong”

I wish her all the best.

[Stephanie] Stuckey, 56, is in the third year of a turnaround for Stuckey’s, which, at its 1960s peak, boasted 368 travel centers along highways in 40 states. Their teal, steeply arched roofs were visible from afar, and their pecan log rolls were a staple of family vacations.

The company also owned a manufacturing plant, a trucking division and some 4,000 billboards that beckoned drivers with the cheesy come-ons for clean restrooms, Texaco gasoline and souvenirs for the kids. A sort of Buc-ee’s before Buc-ee’s.

That heyday was well in the rearview mirror by the time Stephanie Stuckey bought the company in 2019. The few branded stores remaining were owned by licensees. The handful of original buildings that weren’t torn down exist today mostly as “ghost stores,” still recognizable by the roofs but repurposed as everything from a quilt shop in Pennsylvania to a strip club in Florida.

An observant traveler can spot one just off the Gulf Freeway in La Marque and another at the northwest corner of Interstate 45 and Texas 21 in Madisonville, catty-corner from a bustling Buc-ee’s.

Stuckey paid $500,000 for the company, which by the time she took over had been reduced to two employees in the corporate office, three sales reps and a handful of workers in a rented warehouse. It closed the year $133,000 in the red.

Stuckey quickly set a new course, focusing on pecan treats and the nostalgic power of her family name rather than on building new brick-and-mortar convenience stores. She revved up online candy sales, which have grown by 850 percent. The roster of retail clients has swelled to 5,000 locations, including truck stops and grocery stores.

In the summer of 2020, Stuckey’s acquired the snack company Front Porch Pecans and brought on its founder, a third-generation pecan farmer with more business experience, as president of the combined company. The following January, it purchased a candy factory in Wrens, Ga., to bring production of pecan log rolls, divinity and other candies back in house.

Stuckey, who remains as chief executive officer, revived the original recipes developed by her grandmother and boasts that most artificial ingredients are gone, replaced by real chocolate and vanilla.

“We produce the best pecan snacks you will taste, period,” she said.

I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever stopped at a Stuckey’s. The main road trip I used to take as a young single dude was between Houston and San Antonio, and the place I usually stopped was what was then called Grumpy’s in Flatonia; it had a McDonald’s, which meant it had clean bathrooms, plus a big gas station and a hotel attached if for some reason you couldn’t make it the hundred more miles to whichever big city you were aiming for. There was also a small no-name place on the westbound side that had dirtier bathrooms but were a quicker in and out when I was going that direction. The McDonald’s and the gas station and the hotels (two now) are still there, but the Grumpy’s iconography is long gone, while the smaller place is now somewhat bigger. I usually aim for the Buc-ee’s in Luling now anyway.

But I had heard of Stuckey’s, perhaps mostly from the Austin Lounge Lizards song “The War Between The States” (from which this post title comes), and I’m sure I drove past a few back in the day. That also led me to this bit of linguistic controversy from the article:

After wrapping up her tour of the Beer Can House, Stephanie Stuckey popped into the gift shop and emerged wearing a turquoise ball cap she’d bought.

“I love swag,” she said, beaming.

About 90 minutes later at the Omni Houston, smartly attired in a cream-colored dress, she addressed a crowd of accountants and blue-blazered students from a charter school supported by the luncheon’s host, GLO Certified Public Accountants. The firm bought 500 shrink-wrapped tins of Stuckey’s treats to get her there.

Her delivery was crisp, with a touch of Southern humor as she instructed the audience on the preferred pronunciation of “pecan.” (PEE-can, not puh-CON)

As I said on Twitter, I pronounced it PEE-can coming from New York, but was firmly told I was wrong after arriving in Houston. I’ll leave it to you to fight it out in the comments.

Monkeypox? Really?

Yeah, really.

Texas health officials said Tuesday they have identified the first case of monkeypox in the state this year, but noted the illness does not currently present a risk to the general public.

The case was identified in a Dallas County resident who recently traveled internationally, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The department is working with Dallas County Health and Human Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the case.

Health officials said they have also identified a “few” people who may have been exposed to the virus in Dallas. Those people are monitoring themselves for symptoms of infection, officials said.

In May, several cases of monkeypox were reported in countries that don’t regularly report the disease. This is not typical of past patterns of monkeypox, according to the World Health Organization. The organization is working with all affected countries, including the U.S., to investigate the outbreak and provide guidance on how to stop the spread and care for those infected.

The risk of this outbreak becoming widespread is low, according to WHO. Monkeypox is not typically considered to be very contagious because it requires close physical contact with someone who is infectious in order to spread.

[…]

Monkeypox is a viral zoonotic disease, meaning that it can spread from animals to humans and between humans, according to the World Health Organization. The disease is usually found in West and Central Africa, where the animals that may carry the virus typically live.

Symptoms usually include a fever, intense headache, muscle aches, back pain, low energy, swollen lymph nodes and a skin rash or lesions. The symptoms often resolve on their own without the need for treatment, according to WHO. Those infected should take care of the rash by letting it dry if possible, and they should avoid touching any sores in the mouth or eyes.

In most cases, monkeypox symptoms go away within a few weeks, but newborns, children and people with underlying immune deficiencies may be at risk of more serious symptoms and death from monkeypox, according to WHO.

The disease is commonly transmitted to humans through close contact with an infected person or animal, according to WHO. It can also be transmitted from person to person by inhaling large respiratory droplets or through close contact with body fluids and lesions or bedding and other contaminated materials.

So the good news is that it’s not very contagious – you’re not going to get it from some random person walking by you at Costco. You’ll probably be fine if you do get it. Just, you know, be careful when traveling, avoid contact with people who appear to have it, and for crying out loud if you do get infected please seek treatment and/or isolate yourself until you recover. We’ve got enough trouble already. The Chron has more.

When we had more deaths than births in Texas

Seems like that would be a bad thing.

In the midst of the nation’s deadliest pandemic, Texas recorded more births than deaths every month since 2016 — with one exception.

Provisional data from the Texas Department of State Health Services shows that January 2021 was the only month when, statewide, the number of deaths was greater than the number of births.

Nine months before in April 2020, the world was one month into the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2021, the seven-day average number of deaths from COVID-19 peaked in Texas, according to The New York Times, and vaccines had just become available to select groups of individuals.

Twenty counties — including Bexar County — recorded more births than deaths every month until the pandemic, when they began having months with more deaths than births.

The number of births for a county is determined by the mother’s residence.

Thirty one counties — including more populous ones like Harris, Dallas and Travis — always recorded more births than deaths, even during the pandemic.

Five counties — Bowie, Kerr, Potter, Smith, and Wichita — reported more deaths than births for all 22 months of pandemic data available.

There are charts and maps in the story, and they calculate the birth and death rates on a per 100K people basis to make everything more easily comparable. One thing the story doesn’t go into, which is a thing that has been widely reported on elsewhere, is differences in voting patterns across the counties. I’m not going to dive into all of the data here, but I will note this much about those five counties that had a net loss (not counting migrations) for each month:

Bowie – Trump 70.9%
Kerr – Trump 75.3%
Potter – Trump 68.5%
Smith – Trump 69.0%
Wichita – Trump 69.7%

You get the picture.

McConaughey opines for gun control

Not bad.

I believe that responsible, law-abiding Americans have a Second Amendment right, enshrined by our founders, to bear arms. I also believe we have a cultural obligation to take steps toward slowing down the senseless killing of our children. The debate about gun control has delivered nothing but status quo. It’s time we talk about gun responsibility.

There is a difference between control and responsibility. The first is a mandate that can infringe on our right; the second is a duty that will preserve it. There is no constitutional barrier to gun responsibility. Keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous people is not only the responsible thing to do, it is the best way to protect the Second Amendment. We can do both.

Depraved acts of violence, with guns as the weapon of choice, are ripping apart families, tearing at people’s faith, and shredding the fabric of our society. We have an epidemic of indiscriminate mass shootings, of parents burying their children, of inaction, and buck-passing. Saving the unnecessary loss of lives is not a partisan issue.

The need for mental health care, school safety, the prevalence of sensationalized media coverage, and the decaying state of American values are all long-term societal factors that must be addressed, but right now, we don’t have the luxury of time. We need to focus on corrections and countermeasures that can also and immediately reduce the gun violence tragedies that have become too common in our country.

We need to make the lost lives matter. Our leaders must make bipartisan compromises on a few reasonable measures to restore responsible gun ownership in our country.

He goes on to support enhanced background checks, raising the age for buying assault weapons to 21, national red flag laws, and a national waiting period for assault rifles, and he’s also now advocating for them in public. You could certainly go farther on a number of these, like all the way to an assault weapons ban like we once had, and he studiously refuses to name the reason why no gun control laws can be passed (it’s so much easier to make grand “both sides” pronouncements), but if we did manage to get these items it would be a step forward, and it can’t hurt to have someone like Matthew McConaughey make the case for them. So, two and a half cheers, B+ for the effort, and so on. Via Reform Austin.

I’m sure they’ll evaluate themselves objectively

What could possibly go wrong?

In October, Colorado-based E3 Consulting offered a plan for how the Public Utility Commission should redesign Texas’ deregulated power market. It produced a 44-page proposal, paid for by energy giants NRG and Chicago-based Exelon.

Now the PUC — saying it wants an impartial review of the proposals — has hired E3 to analyze the plans, including its own.

A PUC contract signed May 10 shows the consulting firm will receive up to $364,000 for its review. The contract notes that E3 would create an “internal firewall” to protect against bias in the report, but the contract’s administrator for E3 is first among four authors listed on its market redesign plan.

E3 didn’t respond to a voice message or email requesting comment. The PUC, in a statement from spokesman Rich Parsons, said E3 was selected through a competitive bidding process “open to any qualified respondents and in full compliance with the state’s procurement laws and procedures.”

“Through this competitive process, it was determined E3 presents the best value to Texans for this project,” he wrote.

But energy experts said the contract casts a shadow of bias over the market redesign process.

“Can you spell conflict of interest?” said Alison Silverstein, an Austin-based energy consultant who worked for the PUC from 1995 to 2001 and with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 2001 to 2004. “Just on the surface, apart form evaluating their own project, you’re not supposed to have the appearance of bias, if not the reality of possible bias. Most of us citizens think if you take money from someone like a generator, you are likely to favor that party’s point of view.”

[…]

When the PUC, which regulates public utilities in Texas and oversees ERCOT, sought companies to provide an independent analysis of the market proposals, only two responded: E3 and Potomac Economics, an independent market monitoring service out of Fairfax, Va.

Potomac monitors ERCOT to ensure companies don’t cheat in the wholesale power market, where power producers compete to supply the cheapest electricity.

Silverstein, the energy consultant, said unlike E3, Potomac cannot receive money from power generators or retailers because of its independent status.

Ed Hirs, an energy fellow with the University of Houston, said the requests for proposals for the independent analysis was written in a way that may have worried some analysis firms. He said it looked like the PUC was looking for a rubber stamp, a concern he said is also reflected in its contract with E3.

E3 told the PUC about its work with NRG and Exelon during the solicitation process, according to the contract, but noted that the relationship had “been terminated prior to signing this contract.”

I feel like if someone wanted to do a modern-day version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, you could quite reasonably work the entire ERCOT/PUC freeze-and-post-freeze saga in as a subplot for the Governor, though you might have to tone it down a bit so it doesn’t come off as too ridiculous. Jokes aside, the obvious solution to this particular situation is to simply disqualify E3’s proposal from consideration. There’s no conflict of interest problem if E3 isn’t being asked to judge themselves. It’s so simple that of course we’ll never do it. But since I brought up TBLWiT, here’s the video of the song you now have in your head:

You’re welcome, and may God forgive me.

Is there any chance the GLO won’t screw Houston this time around?

I mean, maybe. Things can happen. I just wouldn’t count on it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday commended the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ordering Texas to fix a Hurricane Harvey recovery plan that the federal agency concluded “disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic residents.”

HUD told the state’s General Land Office in the letter, dated Monday, it had 10 calendar days to become compliant by coming to a resolution. The federal department had found GLO discriminated against minority residents when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

To date, Houston has not received any funds, Turner said, “despite the city and the county incurring 50 percent of the damages from Harvey.”

“This is a step in the right direction. I appreciate HUD for ordering the GLO to bring its Hurricane Harvey Recovery Plan into compliance within ten days, or HUD will refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice,” Turner said in a statement. “This is about equity and fairness. It is time for the GLO to allocate a fair (or proportional) share of the federal funds to allow our communities to have adequate climate change mitigation and resilience resources. I urge the GLO to do the right thing for our most vulnerable communities.”

See here for the background. I use the embedded GIF in these posts as a reminder to everyone, including Chron editorial writers, that what the GLO has been doing isn’t “bungling”, it isn’t “a mistake”, it isn’t a matter of the GLO “getting its act together”. It’s all been a deliberate choice by the GLO, which knows what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. The solution to that isn’t trying to get them to see the error of their ways, it’s to take the job away from them because they don’t have any interest in doing it correctly.

Along those lines, this is the right attitude to adopt.

“We intended for the people who were suffering to get the money. But if you decide that you’re going to take it from the poor and the people of color and send it to areas where you don’t have a lot of people of color, then I think there’s reason for HUD to continue with this and I think HUD will,” said [US Rep. Al] Green. “That money was not sent to Texas so that it could be distributed to people who were not impacted by the hurricane.”

[…]

Green says he has talked to the General Land Office. And he’s held hearings where GLO representatives testified.

The Democrat says problems arise after the federal government sends money to the states, because once distributed, the states ultimately decide how it’s spent. And he says Texas has had problems in the past with diverting federal funds away from the intended purpose.

“And this is not just peculiar to this circumstance. It’s happened with money that was for education, not spent as we assumed it would be,” he said.

Green says lawmakers and HUD are waiting to see specific guidelines for the next round of funding distribution. He says it is possible for HUD to step in and take action against the state.

Meantime, the Houston Democrat says he’s looking into ways to “overhaul” the system. And he says lawmakers will consider adding a “clawback provision” to any future legislation.

“If a state declines to adhere to the intentionality of Congress, we can claw that back, claw the funds back and hold onto those funds. We should not allow states to receive funds and then disregard what Congress intended,” Green said.

That’s at least providing the proper incentives. We’ll see what happens next.

The editorial notes that bypassing the GLO and allocating the federal funds directly to the affected localities is an option and that the city is prepared for it, but that the city’s past track record with distributing Harvey funds isn’t good, either. That was the GLO’s rationale for stepping in as the middleman, though the city claims it was existing GLO bureaucracy that caused their problems in the first place. Be that as it may, I’d rather take my chances with the city than the GLO because at least I know the city will try to do right by Harvey victims. I can’t say that for the GLO, not as it is currently governed. Give me a different Land Commissioner and then we can talk, though really it would be nice to have made more progress by then. The bottom line is, George P. Bush cannot be trusted with this. Once that is accepted as the reality, we can figure out what the best way forward is.

We really missed counting a lot of people in Texas

Over half a million, by the latest estimate.

Tripped up by politics and the pandemic — and with only a last-minute investment in promotion by the state — the 2020 census likely undercounted the Texas population by roughly 2%, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday.

The once-a-decade national count put Texas’ official population at 29,145,505 after it gained the most residents of any state in the last decade, earning two additional congressional seats. In a post-count analysis using survey results from households, the bureau estimated that the count for people living in Texas households — a slightly smaller population than the total population — failed to find more than half a million residents. That’s the equivalent of missing the entire populations of Lubbock, Laredo and then some.

The undercount means that many residents were missing from the data used by state lawmakers last year to redraw congressional and legislative districts to distribute political power. For the next decade, the undercount will also be baked into the data used by governments and industry to plan and provide for communities.

Texas is just one of six states that the bureau determined had a statistically significant undercount. The others were Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and Tennessee.

[…]

Even as other states poured millions of dollars into census campaigns, Texas left local governments, nonprofits and even churches to try to reach the millions of Texans who fall into the categories of people that have been historically missed by the count — immigrants, people living in poverty and non-English speakers, to name a few.

Already without state funds, the local canvassing and outreach efforts relying on in-person contact were shut down by the coronavirus pandemic just as they were ramping up in the spring of 2020. The bureau extended time for counting by a few months, but the Trump administration later accelerated the deadline.

As Texas fell behind in the counting compared to other states, organizers struggled to reach groups at the highest risk of being missed as the pandemic continued to ravage their communities. It wasn’t until the 11th hour that Texas quietly launched a sudden pursuit of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to promote the count using federal COVID relief dollars.

By then, with just a month of counting to go, the self-response rate for Texas households had barely topped 60%. As census workers followed up in person with households that hadn’t responded, the share of households accounted rose, but Texas remained far behind several other states and several percentage points behind the national average.

[…]

Because it’s based on comparing the 2020 census to a followup population survey, the Texas undercount is more of a statistical guess and carries a margin of error. In the case of Texas, the bureau estimates the undercount could have been as large as 3.27% or as small as .57%. By limiting its analysis to people living in households, it leaves off people living in college dorms, prisons and other group quarters.

The bureau did not report any statistically significant undercounts after the 2010 census.

The bureau will not be providing more detailed undercount figures to determine which areas of the state or residents were missed in the census. But earlier this year, it reported the communities were not equally left off. Nationally, the census significantly undercounted communities of color, missing Hispanic residents at a rate of 4.99% — more than triple the rate from the 2010 census. Black residents were undercounted at a rate of 3.3% and Native Americans at a rate of 5.64%.

The 2020 Census also had a larger undercount of children under the age of 5 than every other census since 1970.

A previous estimate had the undercount at around 377K. That could still be accurate – note that this is a range, not a single number – but it is likely that it was higher. We certainly could have added one more Congressional district if the Republicans had given a damn, but since the undercount was mostly people of color, what did they care? Cities can still file a challenge to their official tally, but so far none have. It is what it is at this point. The Chron has more.

Rough times for oysters

It’s bad for oyster fishers, too. But if there just aren’t enough oysters to support harvesting them, well…

Currently, 25 of the state’s 27 harvesting areas are already closed. The season normally runs from Nov. 1 through April 30, but many of the areas have been closed since mid-December – a move the state says is necessary for future sustainability.

But those in the oyster business worry about the sustainability of their industry and livelihoods — and it’s set up a clash between state officials and oyster harvesters over how the resource should be managed.

[…]

The Gulf Coast region produces 45% of the nation’s $250 million oyster industry, according to NOAA fisheries. In Texas, the industry contributes an estimated $50 million to the state economy.

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department decides when to close areas for harvesting using a traffic-light system that went into effect in 2015. If samples taken by state biologists come back with too many small oysters or too few oysters in general the agency closes the area.

[…]

Texas oysters have been having a rough decade, enduring hurricanes, flood events, and drought, says Jennifer Pollack with the Harte Research Institute.

“Oyster reefs really just aren’t able to recover from the things that we see happening to them,” Pollack says.

Across the Gulf Coast region, an estimated 50-85% of the original oyster reefs have disappeared, according to a report by the Nature Conservancy. They’ve been hit with hurricanes, flood events, droughts and the BP oil spill.

In Galveston, Hurricane Ike in 2008 was particularly devastating, destroying more than 6,000 acres of oyster habitat there, according to TPWD.

We have all these disturbances that knock the reefs back, we have harvesting that continues, that probably keeps them at maybe a lower abundance level of oysters in the bay,” Pollack says. “They just can never climb back out so they’re a little bit less resilient next time something happens.”

A lot of these conditions – droughts, heavier rainfall – are only expected to be exacerbated by climate change.

Beyond the temporary closures, Texas Parks & Wildlife is also studying the permanent closure of three bays.

Oyster harvesters argue with the methodology that the TPWD uses to determine when bays should be closed, but it feels like we’re just rearranging the deck chairs. If oyster populations are declining like that, we need to take action now to ensure they don’t go away permanently. That’s rough on the people who make their living fishing them, but I don’t know what a better alternative is.

GLO prepares to screw Houston again on Harvey recovery funds

Gird yourselves.

Of the more than 300,000 homes in Texas damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, none were in Coryell County.

Located 220 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this small agricultural county was not the place Congress had in mind when it sent Texas more than $4 billion in disaster preparedness money six months following the storm, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.

“We wanted to help people who were hurt by Harvey and had the potential to be hurt again, as opposed to people who were inland and not likely to have suffered great damage,” Green said.

Nevertheless, Coryell is slated to receive $3.4 million under the plan by the Texas General Land Office and its commissioner, George P. Bush.

After the land office awarded $1 billion of the aid last year, giving the city of Houston nothing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development accused Bush’s office of discriminating against Black and Latino Texans. The land office had an opportunity to correct these inequities as it developed a new spending plan.

But an analysis by The Texas Tribune found that the land office is on track to follow a similar pattern as it prepares to allocate the next $1.2 billion of the federal aid. The agency’s revised plan will once again send a disproportionately high share of money to inland counties with lower risk of natural disasters.

Residents in the counties that will benefit most are also significantly whiter and more conservative than those receiving the least aid, an outcome some Democrats view with suspicion as Bush competes for the Republican nomination for attorney general this month.

[…]

John Henneberger, co-director of the low-income housing advocate Texas Housers, whose complaint set off the federal investigation, said the land office is failing to meet the most basic requirement for the money: to spend disaster aid in the areas at highest risk for disasters.

“Why does some community 200 miles from the coast get a new water system when you’ve got neighborhoods that have flooded four or five times in the last decade in a coastal community?” Henneberger said. “It’s a very cynical — and we think illegal — use of the funds.”

Numerous studies have shown poor people and people of color are most likely to be impacted by disasters, said Kevin Smiley, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. Planning for future calamities should address that disparity rather than make it worse, he added.

“It’s weird to think about disasters as one of the fundamental mechanisms widening social disparity in the United States, but they are,” said Smiley, whose research focuses on Harvey recovery efforts. “And it’s through nitty-gritty governmental processes that are disbursing mitigation funds that are partly doing it.”

See here for the previous update. The key thing to understand here is that this is not a mistake, it’s not an accident, it’s not the result of a good faith difference of opinion, and it’s not something that can be corrected by reasoned persuasion. It’s a deliberate choice, one that has now been made multiple times. Unfortunately, this time around they had a little help.

The land office’s new proposal for determining which counties would get funding, submitted in August, eliminated its old scoring metrics and instead opted to give $1.2 billion to nine regional councils of government, which would decide how to spend it within the HUD and state counties. These groups are political subdivisions of the state that help plan regional projects like infrastructure.

The land office argued the revisions would allow aid distribution to be tailored more closely to regions’ different mitigation needs. But although the strategy is different, a Tribune analysis of the plan found a fundamentally similar result: far lower spending per capita in the counties with the highest disaster risk.

The funding has not yet been allocated, but the state’s methodology all but guarantees the less disaster-prone counties selected by Bush would still end up with two to four times more funding per resident than the more coastal counties chosen by HUD.

This is because a sizable chunk of the councils of government’s $1.2 billion will flow inland. Even if the land office spent all of it in HUD counties — the plan only requires the councils to spend half their allotment there — it would still not close the per-person spending gap created by the initial funding competition.

Including the awards from the first funding competition, two councils composed of state-picked inland counties that rank no higher than 66th on the disaster index will end up with $752 per resident under the new plan.

The council which includes Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties — HUD-selected counties on or near the coast that rank in the top 8 for disaster risk — will receive $441 per resident.

When federal investigators reviewed the original plan, these kinds of outcomes were a problem. HUD’s fair housing office on March 4 concluded that the initial scoring competition discriminated against Texans on the basis of race and national origin, since the coastal areas it steered aid away from have high concentrations of nonwhite residents.

Of the nine states that received disaster mitigation funding from the same federal appropriation, only Texas has received such a sanction. HUD gave the state two options: Enter into a voluntary agreement to correct the disparity or face a civil rights lawsuit from the Department of Justice.

And then, two weeks later, HUD approved the Bush team’s new spending plan.

In a letter to the land office on March 18, HUD Office of Block Grant Assistance Director Jessie Handforth Kome said the agency was required to approve the new plan because it was “substantially complete.” She warned, however, that HUD would closely monitor how Texas spends the rest of the aid and could address new violations by requiring the state to give money back.

The advocacy groups who pushed HUD to investigate possible discriminiation were shocked. They felt the best strategy would have been to withhold approval of the plan until Texas had demonstrated future aid distribution would be fair to Black and Latino residents in communities most at risk for disasters.

“HUD is making this harder on themselves,” said Maddie Sloan, an attorney who works on disaster recovery issues for public interest nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It would make much more sense to ensure the money gets where it’s needed in the first place instead of doing a retroactive look at where it went and whether that violates the law.”

The mixed messaging from HUD, however, creates the impression that Texas can simply ignore the agency’s discrimination claims and spend the aid as it sees fit.

The land office has since shown few signs it is open to compromise. In a blistering 12-page letter in April responding to the discrimination findings, attorneys for the agency called HUD’s objections “politically motivated” and “factually and legally baseless” and noted that HUD had approved the state’s plan for distributing the money.

How thoroughly HUD may vet the new land office plan is unclear. If investigators apply the same rigor they did to the original, said Texas Housers Research Director Ben Martin, they will likely conclude it also violates federal civil rights laws.

“The jurisdictions that were hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey remain the jurisdictions at the highest risk of future disaster,” Martin said. “They’re being severely underfunded by GLO.”

I don’t understand what HUD is doing either. At this point, it may be best to bring on the civil rights lawsuit. And vote in a Land Commissioner that won’t do this sort of thing again.

Sure hope our grid can handle a bunch of crypto

I have three things to say about this.

With interest surging in digital currencies and the blockchain technology behind them, more and more investors and operators are turning to Texas, lured by its cheap energy and hands-off regulatory approach. The rush, like those underway in Wyoming, South Dakota and other states, has been welcomed by energy executives and some elected officials who see it as a catalyst for job growth and tax revenue.

But it is also adding massive new demand to the state’s fragile electricity grid and putting pressure on legislators to harness the growth in ways that are sustainable — and that don’t price out residential consumers.

The Energy Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s grid, is projecting that the explosion in cryptocurrency and other “large load” operators could bring as many as 16 gigawatts of new electricity demand by 2026. That’s about a quarter of the grid’s current capacity and enough to power over 3 million homes on a summer day.

“I don’t think anybody thinks all of that will be built, but it’s still a tremendous amount,” said Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

For a state that failed so spectacularly to secure the power supply during last year’s winter blackouts, piling on more demand will be a critical new test, especially in the face of climate change. Last week alone, unseasonably high temperatures drove electricity demand to midsummer levels. Late Friday, the state asked Texans to conserve power after six natural gas-fired power plants tripped offline.

Leaders in the crypto industry say their entrance will improve reliability by bringing uniquely flexible loads — often sprawling, power-hungry data warehouses — that can shut down within minutes and put electricity back on the grid when demand peaks.

[…]

Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who has consulted for a crypto mining company, said the same hallmarks of the state’s deregulated electricity market that helped lead to such growth in wind and solar over the past two decades could make it hard for leaders to rein in bad actors.

“They have the ability to be part of the energy transition that we need, but I’m becoming less convinced that the majority of them care enough to do it,” Rhodes said of the industry.

Any new regulation will have to wait until next year’s legislative session. Last cycle, the House and Senate set up a study group that includes two Republican members and the president of the Texas Blockchain Council, a trade group whose lobbyist is a former top aide to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The group will meet to take public testimony this month.

Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, has been leading the crypto push in the House. He said his focus is on helping the industry grow with minimal restrictions and on ensuring there is enough power to meet demand, including new generation from fossil fuels and possibly nuclear power.

“It’s all about creating a level playing field so that folks know what the rules of engagement are, and therefore can be successful,” Parker said.

If new rules are on the way, many in the industry aren’t worried that they’ll stifle growth.

“We just had a gubernatorial race where we had three candidates tripping over each other to be the most bitcoin candidate there was, so I don’t see regulation coming now,” Griffin Haby, co-founder of Limpia Creek Technologies, told attendees at a crypto conference last month in Houston, referring to the Republican Party primary. “But you never know.”

1. This story weirdly does not mention the utter mess that the crypto market is in right now. I’m hardly a crypto expert, and things change quickly over there, so one might simply say that it’s all a bit of minor turbulence that will have no effect on the longer term projections. Fair enough, but the volatility of the market, the zeroing out of some entire currencies, the huge loss of investors’ capital, you’d think it would have at least merited a sentence or two.

2. We all know that the Republicans will do absolutely nothing to bolster or protect the grid as they roll out the red carpet for coinminers. They did nothing after the freeze last year, so it would be delusional to think they’ll do anything here. Maybe those “large load” operators will come swarming in, and maybe the coinminers themselves will have a bit of civic responsibility. That’s about the best you can hope for as long as the Republicans are in charge.

3. It’s going to be a long, hot summer. Forget the future projections, hope that the grid doesn’t crap out on us tomorrow or next week or (God forbid) in August.

Bad news for the crazy ants

They have found a mighty foe.

Several years ago, staffers at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Texas, noticed a new type of invasive ant species. Tawny crazy ants were so aggressive that they were driving birds out of their nests and occasionally swarming over visitors who paused to sit on a trail. Populations of other native species—like scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, and lizards—sharply declined, while rabbits were blinded by the ants’ venom.

That’s when University of Texas at Austin biologist Ed LeBrun got involved. The park “had a crazy ant infestation, and it was apocalyptic—rivers of ants going up and down every tree,” he said. Crazy ants have since spread rapidly through every state on the Gulf Coast, with over 27 Texas counties reporting significant infestations. The usual ant-bait traps and over-the-counter pesticides have proven ineffective, so the EPA has approved the temporary (but restricted) use of an anti-termite agent called fipronil. But a more targeted and less toxic control strategy would be better.

LeBrun has worked extensively on fire ants, another invasive species that has plagued the region. He has spent the last few years investigating potential sustainable control strategies based on crazy ants’ natural enemies in the wild. LeBrun and his colleagues have now discovered that a specific type of fungus can effectively wipe out crazy ant colonies while leaving other native species alone, according to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See here, here, here, and here for some background. I can’t believe I’ve not had any crazy ant posts since 2011, but there you have it. I’ll take my good news where I can get it.

How much is Greg Abbott sweating right now?

I hope it’s a lot. It should be a lot.

With temperatures soaring statewide, Gov. Greg Abbott is scrambling to reassure Texans he’s closely monitoring the state’s shaky electric grid as other GOP officials vow to get back to work fixing a system many, including Abbott, declared they had repaired after deadly outages during last year’s winter storms.

An hour after high-level meetings with Abbott, the state’s electricity monitor warned the public that six power plants had failed, forcing the state to call on Texans to reduce air conditioning usage and watch their energy consumption through the weekend. Electric Reliability Council of Texas did not disclose which units had gone offline or when they’d be back up.

ERCOT data showed demand for power in Texas was projected to be within 2,000 megawatts of the total supply by mid-afternoon on Saturday, triggering the conservation alert. Typically the state has a much bigger cushion. When operating reserves drop below 1,750 megawatts for more than 30 minutes, ERCOT can interrupt power for large industrial customers and can call for rotating blackouts if reserves drop to 1,000 megawatts. A megawatt is about enough electricity to power 200 homes on a hot day.

Peak demand on the grid was expected between 5 and 6 p.m on Saturday.

Abbott, who said last June that lawmakers did “everything that needed to be done” for the grid, released a photo of himself on Friday, meeting with officials from ERCOT and the Public Utilities Commission in his office just over an hour before the conservation warning was sent out.

“We continue to work closely to ensure Texas’ power grid remains reliable & meets the needs of Texans,” Abbott said.

[…]

Democrat Beto O’Rourke has been blistering at rallies, reminding voters that more than 700 Texans died, by some estimates, when the grid failed in 2021 during the winter storms. Lawmakers had been repeatedly warned that the power grid needed reforms, but those warnings had largely been unheeded until millions of Texans were left without power during the record freezing temperatures last winter.

O’Rourke has been campaigning on forcing more weatherization requirements on energy providers and connecting the Texas grid to the national grid to ensure the state can tap into national emergency supplies when needed, something Republicans who control the Legislature have declined to do.

On Friday, he blasted Abbott for waiting until after 5 p.m. on Friday to make ERCOT put out their conservation alert, even though he had been meeting with them well before that.

“He doesn’t want Texans to know that he STILL can’t keep the power running in the energy capital of the world,” O’Rourke said on Friday after the ERCOT alert went out.

By the time you read this, the worst is likely to be over, and maybe there haven’t been any power outages resulting from the extra demand on the grid. But you know, it’s not even halfway through May yet. There will be more opportunities for us to be told to turn the A/C down as the temperatures creep up towards 100. Maybe if Greg Abbott had spent some of that federal COVID relief money on fixing the grid instead of having the National Guard write jaywalking tickets we’d be better off now.

Here are some tweets to sum it up:

The classics always have something to say to us.

A tour of the future Ike Dike

Fascinating stuff.

Federal engineers envisioned a massive version of the “Ike Dike” plan to protect the region from hurricane storm surge. It’s currently sitting with lawmakers, who have to decide whether to pay their share of the $29 billion proposal and move the years-long project ahead.

Those weighing these ideas must consider a granular level of detail, block-by-block, as a recent bus tour of the concept with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made clear. Every component of the new infrastructure stands to change the landscape for people, wildlife and businesses. Each small choice for the huge project matters, such as which homes get left unprotected and what color sand is used to build dunes.

Three main components make up the bulk of the planned work around Galveston Island, where the Gulf Coast Protection District members made a series of stops, each with unique concerns. A series of towering gates will cross the mouth of Galveston Bay. Two lines of dunes will span the island’s west end. What’s known as a ring barrier will encircle the most concentrated part of the city.

Advocates have criticized the plan’s myriad possible environmental impacts, including turtles potentially being crushed by the gates and restricted water flow into and out of the bay. They’ve called for more nature-based solutions and emphasized that no silver bullet will protect people from every storm.

But political support appears to be building for the project, as each hurricane season brings fear of significant damage to the energy capital of the world. The state legislature created the protection district to begin preparing for the project. Members of this group rode the bus last Wednesday with Corps’ outreach specialist Kelly Burks-Copes.

What follows is a story with a ton of photos describing where Ike Dike construction will be, some of the things it will and won’t protect, compromises already made, and more. One detail that I marveled at:

The west end of the island will get two rows of dunes. Burks-Copes described them as “somewhat sacrificial,” meaning they will erode away with time and will need to be built back. There will be drive-overs and walk-overs so people can still access the beach. People swam in the ocean as the tour group disembarked. A bird stuck its beak in the sand.

Building back the dunes isn’t as simple as it sounds. The color of the sand dictates temperature, which in turn influences the gender of newborn turtles, Burks-Copes said, so engineers plan to carefully match the natural hues. The previously-built dunes that day at the end of the seawall were so small that the walkover to get over them basically rose high over flat sand.

Now I need to go down a Google rabbit hole to learn more about the correlation between sand color and turtle gender. You can go read the rest of this story.

Time once again for Texas hospitals to struggle financially

I feel their pain, but…

More than $3 billion in federal money has flowed to Texas health care providers in recent months to help pay for COVID-19 treatments, tests and vaccines for patients without health insurance, according to national health officials.

Of that, a tiny fraction — some $2.2 million — went to the local independent hospital in rural Titus County for treating patients during wave after overwhelming wave of the devastating virus in an area where 1 in 3 residents are uninsured.

But the 174-bed Titus Regional Medical Center in northeast Texas needed every penny it could get as it struggled to cover the sudden, skyrocketing expenses of the pandemic: paying staff competitive wages to keep them on the job, keeping up with federal safety rules and managing record-breaking numbers of patients pouring into in the intensive care unit from a 150-mile radius, said CEO Terry Scoggin.

Now, after sending some $19 billion to hospitals and other health care providers nationwide, the fund known as the Health Resources and Services Administration COVID-19 Uninsured Program — created to help hospitals like Titus Regional pay for the care of uninsured COVID patients — has dried up.

While the halting of funds comes as Texas has seen infection numbers fall dramatically, the virus is still largely uncontrolled, causing surges and lockdowns in other countries. In the past, those surges abroad have always occurred before new cases rise again here in the United States, including Texas, which has more uninsured residents than any other state.

The failure to renew the program in time to continue reimbursing providers means that hospitals, clinics, private practices and others that don’t get public health funding from the state will have to “eat the cost” if they don’t charge for COVID-related services, Scoggin said.

“It’s a huge issue for us because we have so many adults who are uninsured,” Scoggin said. “And so it was kind of a kick in the gut for us when they shut that program off because I thought it was a good use of funds for the COVID piece.”

Refusing care to those patients who can’t pay is not an option, legally or morally, he said.

“We can’t turn people away, so we’re still going to pay for it,” Scoggin said. “It just shifted the expense of the uninsured from federal funds to individual hospitals.”

We’ve discussed the financial straits of rural hospitals in Texas before. I am once again pointing out that the locale in which this story is sited, Titus County, is yet another place that votes heavily Republican – Trump and Cornyn in 2020 and Abbott and Cruz in 2018 all topped 70% of the vote. I continue to have empathy for the employees of these hospitals, who for all I know may be habitually voting for politicians whose stated policy preferences are to help them. But I’m also saying it would be nice for these stories to include that easy-to-look-up data, because the simple fact is that if the likes of Greg Abbott or John Cornyn wanted to help the Titus Regional Medical Center, by expanding Medicaid or helping to push through more federal funds for the care of uninsured COVID payments, they could absolutely do so. The dots are just sitting there, waiting to be connected. We should do that.

The New Orleans perspective on the Ike Dike

Of interest.

Kelly Burks-Copes braces herself against the wind and marches past the ruins of Fort San Jacinto, a strategic spot on a sandy, wave-battered point where Spain, France, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the United States have all taken turns building coastal defenses to protect Galveston Bay.

Now it’s Burks-Copes’ turn. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers project manager is leading an ambitious effort to build the “Ike Dike,” a $30 billion storm protection project that’s been in the works since its namesake hurricane roared through the bay almost 14 years ago. The project will dwarf the one built around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and perhaps even the immense coastal barriers in the Netherlands that inspired both Gulf Coast projects.

“If it’s not the largest surge barrier in the world, it’s certainly the world’s longest,” Burks-Copes said, pointing at the 2.5-mile-wide channel between the old fort site on Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula.

By comparison, the Lake Borgne surge barrier between New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish, once considered the world’s largest, is 1.8 miles long. Had the New Orleans system been built today, it’d cost about 70% as much as the Houston system.

“It’ll be like a 10-story building all the way across,” Burks-Copes said of the Galveston Bay surge barrier. “It’s something that you can barely imagine. But what do they say in Texas? ‘Go big or go home.’”

The project aims to harden 70 miles of coastline with artificial dunes, sea walls and vast steel gates, making the bay a veritable fortress that could be sealed when hurricanes threaten.

It’s ambitious and expensive, but it still may be woefully inadequate — just like New Orleans’ system.

Neither project is likely to hold up against the worst hurricanes. The New Orleans collection of levees and floodwalls is designed to withstand storm surges with a 1% chance of occurring in any given year, a so-called 100-year storm. The Ike Dike may not even meet that level of protection, the Corps admits.

Climate change is increasing the likelihood that 100-year storms and floods could occur every few years, with monster 500-year storms popping up every 50 to 100 years. The Houston area has seen no fewer than three such events, including Hurricane Harvey, between 2015 and 2018.

“Look, (the Ike Dike) needs to be built,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer who teaches at Rice University in Houston. “But it needs to be built for the bigger storms to come. It will be way outdated once it’s constructed.”

See here and here for the most recent updates. I know we’re in for a long haul here, but I hadn’t thought of it before in the terms Blackburn expresses, that we’re going to have to keep going, and maybe even start over at the drawing board, when this thing is built. That’s more than a little daunting, and maybe a bit discouraging, but we can’t let up. Even an outdated Ike Dike is going to be better than no Ike Dike, and it will serve as the starting point for Ike Dike II: The Next Generation. What other choice do we have? Read the rest, there’s a lot more.

Our still-smoggy skies

We’re being called on the carpet for them.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday sought to list the Houston and Dallas metro areas as “severe” violators of 2008 federal ozone pollution standards, kicking off a process that will likely impose stricter pollution controls in both regions to reduce local smog.

Ground-level ozone pollution, known as smog, harms human health by constricting lung muscles, making it harder to breathe and exacerbating lung diseases such as asthma. More than 79 million Americans live in areas that do not meet national air quality health standards for smog, according to the EPA.

“Smog pollution is a serious threat to public health,” said EPA Administrator Michael Regan in a Wednesday statement on the proposed rule. “With these proposed determinations, we are fulfilling our duty under the Clean Air Act.”

Ozone pollution results from car and truck emissions, industrial emissions from facilities such as refineries and electric generation plants, as well as from natural sources (trees, for example, emit organic compounds that react with other emissions to form ozone).

The 2008 rule requires metro regions to stay below 75 parts per billion of ozone in the air; the EPA looks at the fourth worst ozone pollution days between 2018 and 2020 to determine the limit was violated. The Dallas-Fort Worth area, a 10-county region, exceeded the threshold at 76 parts per billion, while the eight-county Houston region exceeded it at 79 parts per billion.

Three other metro regions — Denver, Chicago and New York — also failed to meet the standard and would be listed as “severe” violators under the EPA’s proposal.

“It is a big deal,” said Victor Flatt, an environmental law professor at the University of Houston who has studied the Clean Air Act. “Once you change those designations, it requires the state to do more in that locality to reduce pollution.”

In addition, the EPA is seeking to designate the San Antonio region as a “moderate” violator of the more recent 2015 ozone standard of 70 parts per billion, with a measurement of 72 parts per billion.

The new designations in the Dallas and Houston regions would trigger more aggressive pollution control requirements on businesses by requiring the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to revise its plans to control smog in those regions. The changes could include stricter air pollution permits and requiring businesses to install better pollution control technology, as well as requiring a greater reduction in pollution before an area can approve new additional pollution sources.

A TCEQ spokesperson declined to comment on the EPA’s proposal on Wednesday.

Flatt said he wouldn’t be surprised if Texas sues the EPA to protest the new designations, although winning would be difficult since the EPA’s authority to enforce the ozone requirements is well settled, he said.

“But the attorney general of the state of Texas is running for reelection,” Flatt said. “He plays to a base by opposing EPA or the Biden administration.”

I think there’s a 100% chance that the state files suit over this, and given the debasement of the federal judiciary in recent years I’d be surprised if Kan Paxton can’t find a judge that will give him what he wants. After that, who knows what might happen. In the meantime, maybe we can hope for a bit of voluntary compliance, and maybe we can put some local pressure on the larger offenders. Don’t take anything for granted about this. The San Antonio Report has more.

The Texas City explosion, 75 years later

Not the sort of thing you want your city to be known for.

Saturday marked the 75th anniversary of what has come to be known as the Texas City Disaster, the deadliest industrial accident in United States history. All told, 581 people died and thousands more were injured after a ship — the S.S. Grandcamp — caught fire and its load of fertilizer with ammonia nitrate and other chemicals exploded, causing a cascade of explosions up and down the coast of Texas City, igniting refineries and leveling entire city blocks.

Dozens gathered at Memorial Park in Texas City to remember those lost and reflect on how the city was able to rebuild from such devastation. Mayor Dedrick Johnson said to outsiders, it may have looked like a city with such promise had been utterly destroyed.

“But it did not destroy us. That is the message I want to leave you with today — a message of rebirth,” he said. “The community came together to rebuild one building and one block at a time. We witnessed our community’s refusal to die.”

Johnson walked the crowd through the events of that morning, although most in the crowd did not need the history lesson.

In the days before the explosion, workers had loaded around 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer into several of the ship’s holds. As eight crew members began loading the last of the fertilizer bags the morning of April 16, they smelled smoke. After they were unable to put out the small fire with water, they closed the holds in hopes steam would douse the flames.

Instead, experts now believe the steam vapors may have liquefied the ammonium nitrate to produce nitrous oxide, and may have produced more oxygen that continued to feed the flames. The heat of the ship’s cargo soon reached 850 degrees, the temperature at which ammonium nitrate will explode.

Plumes of brightly colored smoke, flashing green, purple, orange and yellow, rose from the ship’s hull, drawing hundreds of onlookers. Workers in nearby industrial plants rushed to make sure their contents were safe if the fire spread.

The link above is to this Chron story from 2016, which goes into some more detail about the disaster. You should browse the photo archive from that event as well. Reading those stories, and the Wikipedia page, I was wondering what was done in response to the explosion. This is what I found, from that 2016 story:

The accident prompted more than 3,000 lawsuits against the federal government, because the ammonium nitrate came from U.S. ordnance plants. Congress resolved the lawsuits in 1955 by passing a special act that settled all claims for $16.5 million.

The accident also resulted in new regulations for the manufacturing and shipping of chemicals. The rules required specialized containers for ammonium nitrate and prohibited its storage near other reactive substances.

Still, 69 years later, the U.S. government is grappling with ammonium nitrate regulation.

Safety advocates called for the Environmental Protection Agency to add it to its list of dangerous chemicals that require companies to take greater safety measures after an explosion in West, Texas, in 2013 killed 15 people and injured 160.

But the agency did not add ammonium nitrate when it released proposed reforms earlier this year.

Guess it’s a good thing we don’t have big chemical explosions in populated areas anymore.

Texas child welfare workers are resigning

Three guesses why.

Morgan Davis, a transgender man, joined Texas’ child welfare agency as an investigator to be the advocate he never had growing up.

Less than a year later, one of the first cases under Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to investigate parents of transgender children landed on his desk.

His supervisors in the Travis County office of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services offered to reassign the case, but maybe, he thought, he was the right person for the job.

“If somebody was going to do it, I’m glad it was me,” Davis said.

He hoped it would be reassuring to the family to see a transgender man at the helm of the investigation. But the family’s lawyer didn’t see it that way.

“She said, ‘I know your intentions are good. But by walking in that door, as a representative for the state, you are saying in a sense that you condone this, that you agree with it,’” Davis said.

“It hit me like a thunderbolt. It’s true,” he said. “By me being there, for even a split second, a child could think they’ve done something wrong.”

Davis resigned shortly after. Since the directive went into effect, each member of his four-person unit has put in their notice as well.

[…]

The employees, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, said they feel conflicted — unwilling to undertake what they see as discriminatory investigations and critical of the agency’s internal response to requests for guidance, but haunted by what a mass exodus of experienced child abuse investigators would mean for the state’s most vulnerable children.

“Things are already slipping through the cracks. … We will see investigations that get closed where intervention could have occurred,” one supervisor said. “And children will die in Texas.”

We know whose fault that will be. Given the criminally abhorrent state that the foster care system is in, it’s also clear how little that Abbott and Paxton and the rest care. I could quote large swaths of this article to illustrate how monstrous this is, how deeply damaging it has been to these kids and their families, and how this already-overburdened agency will be left with fewer experienced caseworkers and investigators as a result, but you should just go read it. And be mad about it.

It’s hurricane forecast season

Gonna be busy again. You should know what to do about it by now.

Another above-average hurricane season is in the forecast for 2022. A prediction issued Thursday by scientists at Colorado State University says there will be at least 19 named storms and nine hurricanes — four of which will be Category 3 or higher.

An average season normally has 14 named storms, around seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

Residents living along the U.S. coastline and in the Caribbean should be prepared for “an above-average probability for major hurricanes making landfall” near their homes, researchers said. Hurricane season begins officially in June and lasts through November.

“As is the case with all hurricane seasons, coastal residents are reminded that it only takes one hurricane making landfall to make it an active season for them,” the researchers said. “They should prepare the same for every season, regardless of how much activity is predicted.”

The busier-than-average predicted season continues a trend that researchers have seen for some time. Last season, CSU scientists predicted 17 named storms and four major hurricanes.

It ended up being the third most active season on record, with 21 named storms. There were seven hurricanes last season — four of which were considered major.

Hurricanes are likelier to be larger and more powerful as they form over hotter ocean water. Thanks to climate change, global sea-surface temperatures are rising.

Not all storms make landfall. But those that do can lead to more than $1 billion in damage, especially as these storms continue to cause more severe flooding.

You can see the CSU forecast here. There will be others – the NOAA will get into the act as well – but I doubt they’ll disagree too much. And look, years with below-average activity are increasingly the exception these days. At least until the move up what “average activity” means. So yeah, get used to it.

How the reproductive rights groups reacted to the Lizelle Herrera arrest

Respect. Deep, abiding respect.

Cathy Torres was ready to log off for the weekend and start celebrating her 26th birthday when she got a text message with a link to a local news story: A woman in the Rio Grande Valley had been arrested for a “self-induced abortion.”

“I was just completely sick to my stomach,” Torres said. “I couldn’t believe it. I was just panicking.”

But not for long. Torres is based in Edinburg and works as the organizing manager for the Frontera Fund, a nonprofit that helps people in the Rio Grande Valley access and pay for abortions. She sent the story to the group’s leadership, as well as other reproductive rights advocacy groups in the area.

Ten minutes later, they were on a Zoom call. Fifteen minutes later, they had plans for a protest at the Starr County Jail the next day. They contacted partner organizations around the state and country to draw attention to the case, created social media messaging and started working with legal aid groups to figure out how to post bail.

Their furious work was interrupted only when there was a knock on Torres’s door: her best friend, who had driven hours to celebrate her birthday with her.

“I opened the door and she was there with balloons and I was just like, ‘Thank you so much for being here, but you won’t believe what happened,’” Torres said. “She was so great, though. She was like, ‘OK, let’s go to work.’”

Over the next three days, a coalition of small, scrappy local reproductive rights advocacy organizations fanned the flames of a national firestorm that subsided only when Starr County District Attorney Gocha Ramirez agreed to drop the murder charges against 26-year-old Lizelle Herrera.

Many details of the case remain murky. But as whole regions of the country prepare to follow Texas’ lead in significantly curtailing abortion access, local organizers say they want this weekend’s activism to send a clear message:

“I hope that people get that we’re not just going to stand back and let all of this happen,” said Nancy Cárdenas Peña, the Texas director of policy and advocacy for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice. “They can’t just mess with us. We’ll fight back. We’ve proved that time and time again.”

See here and here for the background, and of course read the rest. You might also listen to the May 17 edition of the What Next podcast, which featured an interview with Cathy Torres of the Frontera Fund. These folks deserve our respect and our support.

COVID hospitalizations at a low in the state

Good news (say it with me) for now.

Texas hospitals are treating fewer than 1,000 patients with COVID-19 for the first time in two years. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, hospitalizations totaled 993 on Sunday. The last time COVID-19 patients in Texas numbered less than a thousand was April 4, 2020, before the state’s initial surge in hospitalizations, which rose to nearly 11,000 by late July that year.

“Less than a thousand [hospitalizations] is a good place to be and this is what we’ve kind of been waiting for and watching really closely,” said Chief State Epidemiologist Dr. Jennifer Shuford.

Fewer people are getting severely ill and needing medical care, said Dr. Shuford, because nearly the entire Texas population has now developed at least some immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

“We expect, based on some antibody studies that we’ve done, that about 99% of our population has some antibodies to COVID-19, either from vaccination or from prior infection.”

Other infectious disease experts are also cautiously optimistic that vaccinations, combined with four waves of widespread infections – the most recent of which was driven by the omicron variant – will help minimize future surges in cases and hospitalizations.

“I do think that the antibody seroprevalence does have something to do with the declining severity of the illness that we’re seeing in terms of decreased hospitalizations,” said Dr. Robert Atmar, an infectious disease expert who teaches at Baylor College of Medicine.

Dr. Atmar said while he was not aware of how DSHS estimated Texas’ overall immune response, the high rate is possible, especially if infection rates for the virus have been under reported.

“It wouldn’t be surprising if a large percentage of the population had been infected and/or vaccinated. 99% just seems high, but it’s certainly not unreasonable that that might be the case,” he said.

I’m just some guy on the Internet, and I also think 99% is a little high. I do agree that between our mediocre vaccination rate and our undoubtedly high infection rate that a lot of people have at least some immunity at this point, and that is keeping the rate low for now. To some extent, as I understand it, this is how a pandemic becomes endemic – there’s enough residual immunity out there to keep infection rates modest and generally tamp down on larger outbreaks. But that surely comes with no guarantees, and the next bad mutation could happen at any time. If we’re lucky, that will either be relatively mild or be mostly stopped by vaccinations, but at this point who knows what could happen. I’ll be getting booster #2 in the near future, and you should be getting whichever booster you can if you haven’t already. It’s still your best bet.

Will the Huntsville bats be homeless?

I sure hope not.

Hundreds of thousands of Mexican free-tailed bats in the coming weeks will return to an abandoned Texas Department of Criminal Justice warehouse, their preferred spot to spend the summer.

They will find their usual digs partly demolished.

Workers are focused this week on the northern end of the structure, which state prison officials long wanted to tear down. TDCJ said in a recent statement that the red brick building was “in danger of collapsing.”

It’s the first step toward what will be a total razing of the warehouse — a plan that has drawn concern from environmental advocates and residents watching skeptically as prison officials proceed. More than 750,000 bats live in the cavernous, decaying space during warmer months. No one knows yet how the flying mammals will respond to finding their home damaged, and later gone.

[…]

TDCJ in its statement promised only to tear down the rest of the structure later this year after the bats have left for the winter, and experts can make sure it is unoccupied. That will be the critical last step; the bats’ worried fans will likely be watching to be sure they are indeed gone when the bricks begin to fall.

Another concern is where the Hunstville bats will make their new home. Stragglers can stay in the main warehouse for now, but Monday’s demolition made quite a ruckus, as equipment beeped and rumbled and debris tumbled to the ground. One worker scooped strips of metal into a bin. Later, a machine knocked brick from the building’s facade.

The disruption raised questions among conservationists about whether some of the small portion of bats that remain year-round will start to look for new homes. Living amid the demolition noise and vibration would be like trying to sleep in on a Saturday and instead waking up to one’s neighbor running a lawnmower, said Fran Hutchins, of Bat Conservation International.

“They’re well aware something’s going on,” Hutchins said.

See here for the background. As we know, there were bat houses built by TDCJ in 2017 to house those bats, but for whatever the reason the bats preferred their current digs. What will they do once that’s gone? No one knows. Hope for the best, I guess. If some of them come to roost at your place, here’s how to handle it.

Why the business response to the state’s right wing assault has been so muted

A really good in depth article on the subject from the tech press, which is a source I hadn’t thought about for this before.

When Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in February directed state agencies to investigate anyone who provides gender-affirming treatment to transgender children for alleged “child abuse,” he drew a swift and vocal backlash from civil rights groupsmedical organizations and the White House.

Tech companies also spoke up, signing pledges or reiterating offers to help employees affected by the order. South by Southwest, the world-renowned tech, music and film festival slated to start in Austin on Friday, condemned Abbott’s order. “The governor’s latest directive puts trans children in harm’s way once again and we unequivocally condemn this action,” SXSW told local newspaper The Austin American-Statesman.

But that’s done nothing to budge Abbott or his supporters from accelerating the shift further to the right in Texas politics.

Indeed, the governor’s directive about trans youth was just the latest in a series of laws and orders targeting social issues, including voting, reproductive and gun rights. But for a state that has seen such an influx of new voices — Texas has the ninth-largest economy in the world, is the third-fastest growing state and has added more people than any other state in the past decade — the overall public response to this slew of laws and orders affecting individual rights has not been as resounding as political observers expected. That’s especially the case when it comes to the booming tech community, which has played a key role in the state’s expansion in recent years.

That dynamic underscores the tradeoff that tech companies — and the liberal employees who have moved to Texas — must reconcile as their values collide with their wallets.

Tech and Texas have become intrinsically linked. It’s no coincidence that the so-called Texas Miracle, which refers to a decade-long period of economic expansion after the Great Recession, has continued as technology companies relocate or expand in the Lone Star State. The companies include the likes of TeslaOracleHewlett PackardAppleGoogle and Amazon.

“Businesses are having a really difficult time deciding how to position themselves on these issues of social justice and public policy,” Joshua Blank, research director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, said over Zoom.

The reason? Taking a stand on social issues is hard when you are benefiting from a fiscal and regulatory agenda that makes Texas a business haven, according to several experts. Compared with other states, especially California, doing business in Texas is much less expensive. Texas has no state income tax or capital-gains tax on individuals and has fewer business regulations. By moving to Texas, tech companies are “escaping high taxes and a regulatory environment,” Bill Fulton, director of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Houston’s Rice University, said over Zoom.

[…]

Indeed, the hard turn right in Texas politics hasn’t taken a toll on the state’s economic growth prospects or even on recruitment efforts of tech companies located in the state, especially those in the ever-expanding and liberal-leaning metropolitan areas of Austin, Dallas and Houston.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the radicalization of Texas social policies won’t have an impact on the state’s economic or social future. Political experts, academics and business leaders interviewed by CNET expressed concern that the trend — assuming it continues — will eventually tarnish the Texas brand and make it increasingly difficult for companies to attract and retain top talent.

But also at stake is the role that corporate America can play in society at a time when consumers and employees expect business leaders to advocate for social responsibility.

“Texas will become a textbook example of what happens when social policy and marginalized, underserved, underrepresented communities become the collateral damage of corporate political giving,” Jen Stark, senior director of corporate strategy at Tara Health Foundation, a nonprofit focused on engaging private companies to advance gender and racial equity, said over Zoom. “Companies have been complicit in setting up an extremist government in Texas and other states.”

I found this article in a completely serendipitous fashion. The Sunday print edition of the Chron carried an excerpt from the New York Times story about how the 2030 Census might be done, and when I did a Google search for it I also got this story among the results. You never know.

The story goes into demography, the fact that some actions companies had taken in the past had little effect even among their own employees, data about people not wanting to move here because of our wingnut politics is more anecdotal than anything else, and because living in mostly Democratic urban areas provides some illusion of comfort. The somewhat ironic good news is that if these current trends continue, which have among other things contributed greatly to the fast growth in Democratic and Dem-trending urban and suburban areas, we really will turn the state blue in a few more years. Of course, a lot of damage can be done in the meantime, and as we well know by now, waiting for demography to do your work for you is at best a deeply frustrating experience. My takeaway from all this is that nothing will beat good old fashioned organizing, the kind we’ve been getting better at lately. Lord knows, there’s no time to spare. Read the rest and see what you think.

Keep your hands off of the Harvey money, H-GAC

Seriously. You’ve done enough already.

First, a regional council of government officials left Harris County and most of its cities out of a plan to distribute $488 million in federal flood mitigation funds stemming from Hurricane Harvey.

As justification, the Houston-Galveston Area Council — a regional planning board covering 13 counties — cited a separate, $750 million allotment proposed for Harris County itself.

Now, H-GAC wants to control that $750 million, as well. The council’s board voted Tuesday to ask the Texas General Land Office, which manages the relief money, to route the $750 million to H-GAC instead, allowing it to divide the pie among the broader region.

The resolution has no practical effect, unless the GLO decides to grant the request. It would require the GLO to submit an amended plan for federal approval, a process that often takes months. The GLO has been waiting for approval of its latest amendment, including the $750 million allocation to Harris County, since November.

[…]

Houston At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who represents the city on the board, was the lone vote against the resolution. She said the entire debate is moot until the GLO addresses the HUD decision, which likely would change the amount of funds headed to Houston and Harris County. She said the mitigation funding has shown that “the HUD-to-GLO pipeline is broken.”

“We’re not talking about the right pot of money. We need to wait until the GLO deals with the issues presented in the (HUD) letter,” Alcorn said. “The city and county were originally planning on both getting a billion…. We’re going to try everything to get the money we deserve. It’s too bad it’s taking so long.”

The city’s other representative, At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer, did not attend the meeting.

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who represents the county, also was absent, but sent a scathing letter about the resolution. He said he was not sure “whether my attendance would be welcome, anyway.”

“The resolution considered today serves no practical purpose other than to send a message. And I am not sure it is the message H-GAC wants to send,” Garcia wrote. “The message HGAC will be sending, loud and clear, will be to (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), and it will be that HGAC is a willing partner in the GLO’s scheme to deprive the most impacted, most racially diverse jurisdictions of funds that Congress intended.”

[…]

Last month, H-GAC, citing the $750 million allotment, scrapped Harris County and all of the cities it includes from its plans to distribute a separate $488 million allotment the GLO gave the regional council. City and county officials lambasted that move, as well. H-GAC’s decision was based on the assumption that Harris County would share the $750 million among cities within it.

The council now is saying it wants to add the $750 million to the $488 million it originally received, and then divide that $1.2 billion among the broader region with a formula that does include Harris County, Houston and other cities within county limits.

That formula would leave Harris County itself with $266 million, about a third of what it is set to receive in the direct allotment. Houston, currently slated to receive nothing from the GLO and about $9 million from H-GAC to address parts of the city outside Harris County, would get $445 million. Those two numbers together add up to $711 million, still short of the direct allotment.

Smaller allocations to other cities in Harris County — including about $25 million for Pasadena, $8 million for Bellaire — would bring the total sum within Harris County to about $790 million. H-GAC argues that means its formula would represent an increase of about $40 million for the entire county.

It would, however, take decisions about how to divide the money out of the county’s hands and put that power in H-GAC, instead.

See here for the background, and here for a reminder that the process that the GLO used to award that $750 million to Harris County and zero to Houston was found to have been discriminatory. H-GAC’s new math here is an illusion and an insult, and once again I question why Houston and Harris County remain a part of this unrepresentative organization. I’m sure it had a useful purpose in the past, and as a theoretical matter we certainly need regional coordination and cooperation. But that ain’t what we’re getting here. What we’re getting here is screwed, and we can and must do better.

How Republicans bullied a gender affirming care clinic into closing

Gross.

Leaders of a now-defunct health clinic — known for years as the largest program of its kind for transgender youth in Texas — came under pressure to restrict gender-affirming care from the governor’s office and a state House investigative committee, according to recordings of internal meetings among hospital leadership and staff obtained by The 19th.

Hospital administrators and doctors at GENder Education and Care, Interdisciplinary Support (GENECIS), a state-run medical institution, struggled to reconcile halting care with the knowledge that doing so could severely jeopardize the mental health of their patients, the recordings reflect.

GENECIS, which was jointly run by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Children’s Medical Center Dallas, quietly closed to new patients in November, with all references removed from the Children’s Health website. The 19th obtained nearly five hours of meetings among UT Southwestern leadership and staff, as well as staff and leadership at Children’s Medical Center and GENECIS employees, that took place during 2021 and 2022.

The shuttering of GENECIS is part of Texas officials’ efforts to restrict health care and full access to services for trans youth. Gov. Greg Abbott called three special sessions of the Texas legislature that prioritized anti-trans legislation, pledged to take action against gender-affirming care for trans youth, and has backed the state attorney general’s interpretation that giving puberty suppressing drugs and hormone therapy to trans youth is child abuse. These moves have put multiple parents seeking care for their trans children under investigation by the state. (A state court issued an injunction on Friday evening blocking these investigations.) On a March 2 call with reporters, Abbott’s campaign reportedly described the push to investigate parents of trans kids as a winning issue.

[…]

The hospital leadership and staff at GENECIS began to discuss the political pressure on the clinic as early as July, according to the recordings, as the Texas investigative committee looked into their work and the governor’s office probed for more information.

Meetings among hospital leadership and staff beginning last summer portray disarray and distress. They worried that halting care could lead to suicides and poor mental health among trans youth in a state with few options.

“How can we minimize the risk of suicidality in patients who could otherwise have come into GENECIS? I think that’s a very high priority,” Dr. Perrin Whitedirector of pediatric endocrinology at UTSW, said at a November meeting.

“We’re taking away the life-saving medical care for the new patients,” one GENECIS employee said in response. “If we’re mitigating suicidality, let’s be clear, it’s because in large part, we’re taking away medical care.”

The GENECIS team was instructed by UT Southwestern leadership in November to stop prescribing hormone treatment and puberty blockers to new patients, several days after the website suddenly came down on November 12. Existing patients were allowed to continue all treatment, but new patients would only be able to access psychiatric evaluation and counseling, and be evaluated for gender dysphoria.

Physicians and staff debated how to maintain some semblance of care for trans youth under their new normal. Several GENECIS staff members raised concerns that the program was not designed to offer psychological care alone — and that the ultimate point of evaluating patients’ mental health is to determine whether they can receive hormone treatment or puberty blockers, considered life-saving care by families of trans kids and many of the physicians who work with them.

Access to hormone therapy and puberty-suppressing drugs, widely recommended by medical authorities, is linked to lower rates of suicidal ideation and improved mental health among trans youth. Kids who received one year of hormone therapy through GENECIS reported small to moderate improvements in symptoms of depression, per research by leaders of the program published in the American Academy of Pediatrics in March 2020.

Evan Singleton, 19, who lives outside Dallas, told The 19th that he believes the gender-affirming care he received through GENECIS — puberty blockers and hormone treatment — saved his life.

“I feel scared and sorry for these kids that can’t get the help that they need,” he said. For him, starting puberty blockers soon after he turned 10 was a relief. His mother, Mela, added that finding a way to halt her son’s puberty afforded her time to learn the best course of action for her child’s future, while halting the extreme emotional distress caused by his puberty.

There’s more and you should read it. The Dallas Morning News and the New York Times were on this as well. Here’s a bit of interest from the latter:

Since its founding in 2014, the Genecis clinic had offered patients aged 5 to 21 counseling, pediatric care and, starting at adolescence, puberty-blocking drugs and hormones. (The clinic did not perform surgeries.) With no other options for such comprehensive care, the clinic was sought out by families across the state. It also published scientific research about its patients.

“The Genecis clinic has been a leader in producing data about the youth they see — data that everyone on every side of this issue has argued that we need,” said Kristina Olson, a psychologist at Princeton University who studies gender development in children.

Early evidence suggests that these hormone treatments, part of what’s known as “gender affirming” care, improve the mental health of trans teenagers. But few studies have looked at the long-term outcomes of adolescents who take these medications, which may also come with risks, like fertility loss.

Gender-affirming care has been endorsed by major medical groups in the United States. Although some doctors have debated which adolescents will benefit most from such treatments, many say that the decision to take them should be made by patients, their parents and their health care providers, not the state.

Legal experts have also questioned whether shutting down the clinic could constitute discrimination under federal statutes. Pediatric endocrinologists around the country — including those at U.T. Southwestern — routinely prescribe similar drug regimens to children with hormonal disorders who are not transgender.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has held in the ‘Bostock’ case that discriminating because of sex does include gender identity,” said William Eskridge, a professor at Yale Law School. “Ultimately they are denying medical care based upon gender identity.”

The federal government has taken a similar stance. “Denials of health care based on gender identity are illegal, as is restricting doctors and health care providers from providing care because of a patient’s gender identity,” according to a statement released last week by the Department of Health and Human Services.

I suppose this means we should expect more litigation, this time in the federal courts, which unfortunately will mean another opportunity for the Fifth Circuit to act like monsters. Just a reminder, that article from The 19th notes that access to this kind of care correlates with “lower rates of suicidal ideation” in these kids. If it’s really being taken away, Abbott and Paxton and the rest will have blood on their hands. Don’t ever forget that.

We’ve heard a lot from Amber Briggle lately, now here’s an interview with her husband Adam Briggle, who discusses the recent CPS visit to their house, courtesy of Abbott and Paxton.

How long did the interviews last, and what sorts of questions did they ask you?

The whole thing felt like forever, but I guess it took about two hours. It’s humiliating. She asked me first, do I have a history of mental illness? And second, do I have a history of abuse? Like abusing my kids, my wife. Of course the answer is no. Then she asked about our social support network, like what kind of connections do we have in the community. And then she wanted to know what our daily routines are like. She wanted to see the house to see where we have food, to see if we have blankets, to see all the things you would want to see if somebody was really being a child abuser. It was surreal.

[…]

How were your kids reacting to all of this?

Well, Amber and I have been publicly raising a trans child and being a trans-inclusive family in Texas for about seven years now. And until now, we’ve been able to shield our children from the hatred that pervades our country’s politics, but I’m afraid now that it has walked through our door it’s taking a toll on them mentally and emotionally. So we’re not doing well, to put it bluntly. We get through the day, but it’s hanging over all of us.

And they’re pretty young, right? Your son is 14, and you have a 9-year-old daughter. How did you explain to them what was happening?

Well, I don’t know if we did it right. Because you never really imagine being in this situation. But I told the kids, “We’ve done nothing wrong. We never want you to lie. We’re not going to lie about anything. But we’re not going to answer questions, because the government is sending a spy into our house, and we don’t talk to spies. And we’re being interrogated for no legal or moral reasons.” It was, as you might imagine, scary for kids to hear that. But I didn’t know how to sugarcoat it. Because it’s very serious. You know, the consequences at stake for us are losing our child or uprooting our family. I’d lose my job, my health insurance. You look around the country, where could we move? There’s a guy who said he could maybe help me find a job in Arizona, but Arizona is hardly any better with this shit.

[…]

How did it feel, after inviting Paxton to dinner, to see his recent opinion on trans kids and to learn that an investigation was being opened against you?

Like the depths of betrayal, basically. And utter cynicism on his part, that this is just a way to get through a primary season for him, just using us. He knows us. He said at the end of that dinner, he looked at our son, he said, “You got a good kid there.” By the way, it’s the same thing the CPS worker said after our visit. She looked at us and over at our son, who was practicing his cello at that point, and said, “Clearly you’re doing something right because you have wonderful children.” It’s maddening that we are going through this when anybody who meets us is like, “This is just a loving family.”

Have you reached out to Paxton again since the investigation was opened?

No, we haven’t. He’s made it plain that he’s not open to learning. I think what’s going on, like historically in this moment in time, is you have trans folks who feel like they can be out as their authentic selves within circles of friends or within safe communities. And the struggle we’re in now is how to achieve that liberation more widely in public society. And frankly, people like Paxton are just acting as the oppressors preventing that from happening. And at some point, dialogue is impossible with those sorts of people. So we tried, but he’s shown us his hand, and so there’s no point with him anymore.

I would like nothing more for the Briggle family and everyone else in their position than to be left alone. But we have work to do before that can happen.

Ken Paxton repays the Briggle family for their hospitality

What a scumbag he is.

When the case worker asked to inspect the house, Amber and Adam Briggle first led her to the kitchen. They opened the cabinets to show they were full of food.

They moved on to the dining room. Every Sunday the Briggles and their two kids, now 14 and 9, sit in those chairs for dinner and talk about gymnastics or their new purple hair. It was around the dining room table where, six years earlier, Attorney General Ken Paxton and his wife, Angela, sat with the Briggle family eating steak kabobs and watermelon. But last month, Paxton issued a nonbinding legal opinion that gender-affirming health care for transgender kids, like the Briggles’ son, constitutes child abuse. Shortly after, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) to investigate the parents of trans kids.

The Dallas-area family now says it is under investigation and at risk of losing the kids.

“When we were notified of the allegations, it was as if the wind had been knocked out of us. We wanted to scream and cry, but we had no air,” the couple wrote in a statement approved by their lawyer. “Raising a transgender child in Texas has been one long political emergency.”

Briggle said she learned of the investigation February 28, when she found a sticky note on her desk at the massage studio she owns saying she had missed an urgent private call. She assumed it was from another parent of a trans kid looking for advice. When she called the number, the woman on the line informed her that she was a Child Protective Services investigator, and she was 30 minutes away from the Briggle home.

The next 30 minutes went by in a blur, Briggle said. She managed to reach Adam, and they got family attorney Ian Pittman on the phone. They convinced the investigator to meet them at Briggle’s office. She would schedule another meeting for that Wednesday at the house.

“We told the children that they have the right to not answer questions,” the couple wrote in a statement. “We told them that the government is trying to spy on us even though we have done nothing wrong.”

[…]

In the meantime, families like the Briggles have been working feverishly to secure attorneys who will work pro bono, testimonials from friends and family, and home studies for a “safe folder,” an emergency packet of documents to demonstrate their parenting skills. The Briggles have filed a federal complaint against the state, Adam Briggle said.

“The Texas government has launched an effort to round up transgender children and send them off to a broken, overcrowded, and dysfunctional foster care system,” the Briggles wrote.

Last year, the legislature failed to pass a bill that would have labeled gender-affirming medical care as child abuse. Briggle testified against that bill. The couples say their family has been the subject of death threats and harassment ever since.

The family is terrified of speaking up about the investigation now, they said. But the couple is prepared to flee the state, and they worry that if no parents speak up, other trans kids will also face removal.

Adam is a tenured professor. Briggle owns a business. Both kids have a lot of friends. Leaving Texas would destroy their lives, they said.

“I really think that we need to start a contingency plan of that nature,” Adam said.

“If we have to become political refugees in our own country, then that’s what we do,” Briggle added. “But I don’t know where it’s safe.”

I wrote about the Paxtons’ dinner with the Briggles at the time. I did not believe that the Briggles’ generosity would have any effect on the Paxtons, and I’m sad to have been right about that. I can’t imagine what the Briggle family is going through right now. Just seeing them talk about the possibility of leaving the state is breathtaking, given that Amber Briggle was saying this on the same day that story was published:

Whatever the Briggles decide to do, they’re not the only parents who are thinking of fleeing. I can’t even type things like that without wanting to scream. If we’re lucky, there will be a statewide injunction against this cruel policy as soon as today. But that will be appealed, and who knows what happens after that. We also know that losing in court is not going to stop the Republicans, who are all in on hating transgender people now. I’ve said it many times, they’re going to have to lose elections over this. Like, a lot of elections. That’s not going to be easy. The Briggle family is out there doing their part. We all have to do ours.

This is a good start, if a belated one.

Sixty-five major U.S. companies who do business in Texas are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott to reverse his order requiring the state’s child welfare agency to investigate gender-affirming care for transgender youth as a form of child abuse by their parents.

The companies, including Apple, Dow, Google, Johnson & Johnson, Meta and PayPal, in conjunction with the LGBT advocacy nonprofit Human Rights Campaign took out full-page print and digital advertisements in the Dallas Morning News that state in all capital, bold letters: “Discrimination is bad for business.”

“The recent attempt to criminalize a parent for helping their transgender child access medically necessary, age-appropriate health care in the state of Texas goes against the values of our companies,” they wrote. “This policy creates fear for employees and their families, especially those with transgender children, who might now be faced with choosing to provide the best possible medical care for their children but risk having those children removed by child protective services for doing so.”

So far, there are nine new CPS investigations statewide involving parents who are supporting their children’s medical care, said Patrick Crimmins, spokesperson for the state Department of Families and Protective Services. But advocates and lawyers say even just the fear of an investigation is putting immense stress on Texas families with transgender children.

Good for them, but there are a lot more companies that do business in Texas. Where are they? As that Trib story I linked to above points out, the Republican animosity towards the transgender community (as well as some other social issues) has caused a rift between them and their longtime benefactors in the business world, because they care about homophobia and transphobia and “critical race theory” and voter suppression so much more. When is the business community going to recognize this and start acting accordingly?

As a reminder, this is the system that Abbott and Paxton want to put these children into.

Employees at a state-contracted foster care facility established to help female victims of sex trafficking were instead trafficking the children staying there, state officials said Thursday.

The Bastrop operation, called The Refuge, has served 11 children ages 11 to 17. State officials began receiving reports of sexual abuse at the facility in late January, when a staffer alleged that a former employee had sold nude photos of two young girls and used the money to purchase illegal drugs and alcohol for them.

More accusations were made in the following weeks, and state investigators discovered that several staffers still employed at The Refuge were involved in the criminal activity. In total, there are seven alleged victims and nine alleged perpetrators, state officials said at an emergency court hearing Thursday afternoon.

All of the children were finally removed from the facility on Wednesday. One staff member has been arrested, and additional criminal charges are expected, officials said.

“The most appalling thing about this is the disregard of these children and you had to wait to get eight calls before you took 11 female already-trafficked children out of this trafficking situation,” said U.S. District Judge Janis Jack, who has overseen a decade-long lawsuit over the state’s foster care conditions. “This is a system that remains broken.”

The matter came to light Thursday, after the state Department of Family and Protective Services notified court-appointed monitors of the “urgent situation” at The Refuge. Jack blasted state officials for withholding the information from the monitors for several weeks, and for failing to remove the children after the first reports of abuse.

Emphasis mine. Such a commitment to “protecting” children Abbott and Paxton have. Maybe this should be a bigger story? I’m just saying. The Trib has more.

One more thing:

My family has personal experience with evidence-based gender-affirming health care at Texas Children’s Hospital. An amazing team of professionals lovingly guided us through a process that involved months of discernment with an incredible array of best-in-the-world physicians, social workers and mental health professionals. And our child’s quality of life immediately improved. Everything we did was medically necessary. We cannot imagine the devastation we would feel at being told “our lawyers say we cannot provide the medically necessary health care you desperately need.”

Last week, Texas Children’s announced that it would halt gender-affirming procedures. The hospital leaders should know that this is exactly the result Rep. Matt Krause, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott hoped would occur with their thinly-veiled circumvention of the democratic process: chaos and fearful reactions.

[…]

Abbott not only used Paxton’s legal opinion but misrepresented it to instruct the state to investigate families. In his letter to Department of Family and Protective Services Commissioner Jaime Masters, Abbott states that the attorney general determined that the gender-affirming health care procedures about which Krause inquired “constitute child abuse under existing Texas law.” Abbott completely ignored the express limitations in Paxton’s opinion. As a former Texas attorney general himself and a former justice on the Texas Supreme Court, it is fair to assume Abbott understands the difference. Frankly, the sheer political expedience of his actions seriously endangering the lives of the very children he should be protecting is beyond reprehensible — it is diabolical.

Finally, the simple truth is that Texas Children’s Hospital has allowed the Abbott/Paxton scheme to work by failing to stand up for the right of physicians (not politicians) to determine the medical standards of care for transgender youth. The hospital explanation was that it made the decision to halt care “to safeguard our healthcare professionals and impacted families from potential criminal legal ramifications.” While it is wrong for politicians in Austin to decide what the medical standard of care should be, it is also wrong for lawyers rather than physicians at the leading clinical and teaching children’s hospital in the world — located in the Texas Medical Center of Houston, literally the apex of medicine — to determine standards of medical care.

More importantly, the hospital has missed this opportunity to stand up for their patients. The hospital has left families like ours out in the cold and dashed the hopes of transgender kids just wanting to be their authentic selves.

Instead of using lawyers to dictate medical standards of care, put them to use in the legal arena fighting for medical independence of physicians and the rights of your patients. Don’t succumb, fight back. File a petition in intervention or an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit filed by the ACLU of Texas and Lambda Legal. Show up. Be courageous. Make the voices of the best medical experts in the world heard on these issues. Your silence is deafening.

See here for the background. Whether we get that statewide injunction or not, I agree with this. Texas Children’s Hospital, the other hospitals that have halted gender affirming care, the physicians who treat trans kids, the Texas Medical Association, all of them and more should be doing their part to fight back. If not now, then when?

And more people are travelling for abortions

The number of abortions performed in Texas has declined greatly since the passage of SB8. But the number of Texans seeking abortions has remained the same, which is what abortion advocates have always said would be the case.

The number of women leaving Texas to obtain abortions has grown tenfold since lawmakers here banned the procedure after early pregnancy, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

The findings, coupled with a huge uptick in online orders for abortion pills, suggest that the state’s widespread crackdown has not yet led to a large decline in procedures. While abortions at Texas clinics did fall by about half after the new restrictions took effect in September, many women still sought out to end their unwanted pregnancies through other, often more challenging paths.

The law “has not reduced the need for abortion care in Texas. Rather it has reduced in-state access,” said Dr. Kari White, lead investigator at the university’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project.

More than 5,500 Texans traveled to abortion clinics in six surrounding states between September and December of last year, according to the study. That’s nearly 1,400 trips per month, up from about 130 per month in the same period in 2019. The latest tally is likely an undercount, since some clinics did not participate and the study did not include trips to states farther from Texas.

[…]

Abortion rights advocates are already preparing for states to cut access in more than two dozen states across the South and Midwest, and providers are rushing to build out clinic space in northern and coastal states more friendly to abortion rights.

The new findings from Texas may be an early picture of the scramble to come for women in other states. The vast majority of trips out of Texas were to Oklahoma and New Mexico, where clinics are on average several hundred miles from most Texans. Oklahoma has its own “trigger” abortion ban in place if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision protecting the right to abortion until about 23 weeks of pregnancy.

Women interviewed in the study said they faced heavy obstacles in seeking out abortions since the law took effect, including delays at clinics in and out of Texas. One in four said they had visited crisis pregnancy centers, which often discourage women from getting abortions. Researchers interviewed 65 women in total.

See here for the TexPEP news release, and here for the full report. You can consider this a bookend to the other recent report about the increase in demand for abortion-inducing medication. It may seem like a bit of comfort that there are still options available, but one is much more time consuming and expensive, not to mention about to get more so as states like Oklahoma and Louisiana follow in Texas’ cursed footsteps, and the other is also heavily restricted under state law, with the great likelihood of further restrictions coming in future legislative sessions if Republicans remain in control. It’s just a matter of time before the emphasis changes from “ways to make abortion more illegal” to “ways to increase enforcement of anti-abortion laws and increase the penalties for violating them”. Do not think for a minute that locking up people who seek abortions, and the people who help them, is off the table. I guarantee you, it is not.

In the “I hate it when I’m right” department, later the same day that I wrote this, I saw this on Twitter:

Don’t ask how that could be legal, or how it could possibly be enforced. The terror of it is the point. Scare people into thinking they can be locked up for seeking a legal abortion elsewhere, and you’re done.

And on that cheery note, we have this update about the largely futile efforts so far to stop this travesty in the courts.

In its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court created a constitutional protection for abortion through viability, the point at which a fetus could likely survive outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks.

Since then, states, including Texas, have been stopped by the federal courts when they’ve tried to ban abortions before that point in pregnancy.

But Texas’ law has so far managed to evade a similar fate. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to stop the law from going into effect before Sept. 1, instead allowing lawyers for the abortion providers to bring a pre-enforcement challenge, which was heard in November.

The U.S. Department of Justice also tried to challenge the law, and succeeded in getting it temporarily enjoined by a federal district judge. That ruling was swiftly overturned by a higher court and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually threw out the DOJ’s challenge.

In December, the Supreme Court also threw out the vast majority of the abortion providers’ legal challenge, allowing only one narrow aspect to proceed. That remaining challenge is slowly wending its way through the courts, but even if it is granted, it would not allow abortion providers to resume providing the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy.

Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the abortion providers, said Thursday that their challenge in federal court “no longer stands a chance” of stopping these lawsuits from being filed.

“The Supreme Court greenlit this law’s unprecedented vigilante scheme and essentially said that federal courts are powerless to stop it,” he said. “There is no end in sight to this nightmare.”

Abortion providers have had more luck in Texas courts, where state District Judge David Peeples ruled in December that the law is unconstitutional. His judgment did not block lawsuits from being filed under the law, and is currently being appealed.

[…]

Immediately after Texas’ latest abortion restrictions went into effect Sept. 1, one San Antonio doctor, Alan Braid, announced in a Washington Post op-ed that he had provided an abortion after cardiac activity was detected.

“I fully understood that there could be legal consequences,” Braid wrote, “but I wanted to make sure that Texas didn’t get away with its bid to prevent this blatantly unconstitutional law from being tested.”

Three people sued Braid, including two disbarred attorneys who indicated they were more interested in seeing the law tested and getting the money than actually taking a stand against abortion.

Hearron, who is also representing Braid, said Thursday that they have filed a countersuit in federal court against the three claimants, seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional and the suits thrown out.

Beyond those initial three claims, no lawsuits have been brought against anyone for aiding or abetting in a prohibited abortion. But just last week, a group of anti-abortion lawyers asked a judge to allow them to depose the leaders of two abortion funding nonprofits to gather information for potential lawsuits.

So things are bad, and there’s no clear path to them being less bad. If you want something to happen at the federal level, we’re going to need to add at least two more Democratic Senators, which might give us enough to make changes to the filibuster, and we need to hold onto the House as well. If not, well, as the story says, there’s no end in sight.

HUD finds the GLO’s process to screw Houston out of Harvey funds “discriminatory”

Good. Now get us the funds we deserve.

In a decision that could redirect millions of dollars in flood relief to Houston, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found the Texas General Land Office discriminated against minority residents and ran afoul of federal civil rights protections when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

At issue is the process used by the state agency to dole out more than $2 billion in federal funds, awarded to Texas in early 2018, to pay for projects aimed at tempering the effect of future storms. Because there were not enough funds to cover every project sought in the 49 eligible Texas counties, the GLO held a competition and developed scoring criteria to find the best applicants.

Though Houston and Harris County expected to receive roughly half the funds, matching their share of the damage, the land office — led by Land Commissioner George P. Bush — initially awarded nothing to the city and county. Bush, facing bipartisan criticism from Houston-area officials, later asked federal officials to send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid. The total still fell short of the funding sought by local officials, however, and it remains unclear when the money will arrive.

Prompted by a complaint filed last year by two local advocacy groups, the Biden administration investigated the GLO’s distribution of the Harvey funds, focusing on the complaint’s allegation that Bush’s agency “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin through the use of scoring criteria that substantially disadvantaged Black and Hispanic residents.”

In a 13-page finding, HUD said the exclusion of Houston and Harris County “caused there to be disproportionately less funding available to benefit minority residents than was available to benefit white residents.” The federal agency singled out a scoring metric that effectively penalized large jurisdictions, such as Houston, by measuring what percentage of an applicant’s residents would benefit from a project.

“The City of Iola applied for a project benefitting 379 people. This project received 10 points out of 10, because Iola has only 379 residents,” the finding raised as one example. “The City of Houston applied for a project benefitting 8,845 people in the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood. This project received 0.37 out of 10 points, because Houston has approximately 2.3 million residents.”

[…]

HUD also said the GLO unfairly divided the competition into two uneven categories: the most impacted and distressed areas as defined by HUD, an area that included Houston and Harris County; and more rural counties that also got a presidential disaster declaration.

Both categories fought for separate pots of essentially equal money. That meant about $500 million was available for residents in the most distressed areas, and $500 million available to counties added by the state.

The most distressed areas, though, had eight times as many residents as those identified by the state. They also had 90 percent of the minority residents in the entire eligible population.

“Specifically, approximately $458 per resident was made available to State MID applicants, while just $62 per resident was made available to HUD MID applicants,” HUD wrote. “Put differently, State MID areas were eligible for seven and a half times the funding per resident than HUD MID areas.”

See here for the background on the complaint. This has been a screw job from the beginning, and I really hope this finally brings some accountability to the GLO and the overall process. I mean, it’s been 4.5 years since Harvey, and there are people still waiting to be made whole. It’s beyond shameful that it has taken this long. It may take even longer from here, as P Bush’s attack poodle spokesperson is threatening that the office will file a lawsuit against HUD. Given that will just add further delays, it’s hard to see such action as anything but vindictive and retaliatory. But not unexpected, not even a little. Please pay attention to the Democratic primary runoff for Land Commissioner and support whoever wins, because that’s likely going to be the fastest path to actually getting this resolved. The Trib has more.

Have van, will travel to register voters

Nice.

Elizabeth Conley, Houston Chronicle

Tayhlor Coleman keeps a framed Texas voter roll from 1867 in the van she calls home to remind her why she chose to live there in the first place. Names from her family tree appear here and there throughout the document — proof that when Black people in Texas were still fighting for their legal right to vote, the Coleman family took that fight seriously.

One-hundred-and-fifty-five years later, that right may be written into law, but barriers to voting in Texas remain. Long lines and sparse polling sites already made it difficult for poor people to vote, and recent legislative restrictions to mail-in ballots and ID requirements have only made voting harder.

Coleman, 33, set out in December on a nearly yearlong journey to tackle those obstacles firsthand. The Houston native will live out of her van — lovingly named “Barb” after Barbara Jordan, the first Black congresswoman from Texas — until November. She will spend that time driving to every corner of the state and registering as many voters as she can.

“What we’re going through right now reflects some very tense moments in our country’s past, and voting rights for me is how I knew I would be able to make sure that people who looked like me would continue to have a say,” Coleman said during a stop this month at Houston’s MacGregor Park.

“There are people who want to make voting rights a partisan issue, but increasing access to the ballot does not benefit one party or the other,” she said.

Coleman’s #vanlife adventures began like so many other endeavors at the beginning of the pandemic. The idea was sparked when she started tracking “cool teenagers” who posted their hobbies on the internet.

She had just moved back from Washington, D.C., where she worked for years on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. So she found herself wiling away hours scrolling through Instagram in her parents’ Third Ward home, and quickly fell into a rabbit hole of influencers living out of large, refurbished vans.

Coleman bought a 2021 Ram ProMaster a few months into the pandemic and set to work making it livable.

The idea to use the van to advance voting rights came later, as Texas Republicans drew closer to passing a bill which they said would strengthen election integrity. Opponents argued it would make voting more difficult for marginalized people.

Coleman’s career in politics made living out of the van a relatively easy adjustment.

“In my job, I’m used to traveling to visit my candidates and being on the road, so van life seemed perfect,” said Coleman, who also works remotely from the van as a Democratic strategist at a private media company.

I met Tayhlor a few years ago when she was working for a City Council candidate. I follow her on Instagram, and saw the evolution of her van over the months. She’s doing great work and I wish her all the best on her journeys. Go read the rest of the story.

Create your own power grid

Two words: Solar panels.

For nearly eight hours one day in late January, the power to Sam Bryan’s house blinked off after a transformer near his greater Third Ward lot blew a fuse.

The same transformer has long had issues, he said, leading to blackouts at Bryan’s house and those of his neighbors several times a year. But in January, Bryan’s lights stayed on, thanks to 43 photovolatic solar panels bolted onto his roof and a battery system stored in his garage. Instead of comforting his 4-year-old, who had grown anxious during power outages since the freeze of February 2021, they played a game.

“It was a pretty neat experience,” he said. “Part of the fun was that I don’t have to explain why we can’t turn the lamp on.”

Bryan is among thousands of Texans who have turned to solar power and battery storage, creating so-called microgrids, as a solution to blackouts. With a venture creating the same little power plants for apartment buildings, Texas has become a national leader in residential solar power installations.

From 2019 to 2020, small-scale solar capacity in Texas grew by 63 percent, to 1,093 megawatts from 670 megawatts, according to the Energy Information Administration. In the first three quarters of 2021, another 250 megawatts of residential solar were installed in the state, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. In last year’s third quarter alone, Texas ranked second behind California in the amount of power from new installations during the period, the industry’s Washington, D.C. trade group said.

[…]

Rooftop solar systems and other residential generators like those powered by diesel or batteries can create microgrids to power an individual house or be linked to others in a neighborhood. They can operate as part of the main power grid — like the one managed by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas that almost collapsed last year — or they can disconnect and be managed autonomously during a power outage.

The flip of a switch can disconnect a microgrid from the larger utility, says Stephen Bayne, department chair of electrical and computer engineering at Texas Tech University. It can be as simple as a breaker in a garage or a computer system that automatically disconnects from the grid when there’s a disruption. More advanced microgrid systems, sometimes known as virtual power plants, can track usage, generation and battery storage across multiple buildings. It also prevents the microgrid’s power from flowing to the wider grid during emergencies.

“So let’s say the grid has to turn off for some reason, say in Houston you had flooding and part of grid is underwater, but not a certain community,” Bayne said. “That area could still lose power for days, but if the community had a microgrid, it could disconnect and use a diesel generator, battery storage, solar — it could keep grid going, or at least keep critical loads going for a while.”

Sounds pretty good, no? The main obstacle is the up-front cost, which can be in the mid-to-high five figures, though federal tax incentives can bring it down some. You do get much lower utility bills, which pays you back over time, but if you can’t spend fifty or sixty grand for the panels and the battery equipment, this won’t be for you. We need to think about some creative ways to defray those initial capital costs for homeowners, so more people can do this.

We’ve had a lot of COVID

Wow.

More than half of Texans had been infected by COVID-19 as of late January, according to a nationwide blood sample survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The survey was based on samples from 52 commercial laboratories across the country and included specimens that were collected as part of routine care and sick visits unrelated to the virus. The specimens were tested for a specific type of antibody developed in response to an infection but not vaccination.

The CDC has been regularly gathering the data since August 2020 to track the percentage of people with resolving or past infections, and how that varies across geographic areas and age groups.

The survey estimates that 14.7 million Texans — or 52.8 percent — had been infected. That’s well over the 6.5 million cases that have been publicly reported. That figure is also likely an undercount, reflecting only a portion of the new infections from the record-breaking omicron wave, during which Texas reported more than 50,000 new cases in one day.

The high number of infections underscores new CDC guidance that no longer recommends mask-wearing indoors for most of the country, including Harris County, except during times of high transmission. Addressing the rationale for the change, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that with “widespread population immunity, the overall risk of severe disease is now generally lower.”

About 64 percent of Texans are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. While health experts agree that the omicron surge likely bolstered vaccine-related protection, the degree to which people are immune because of a previous infection remains unclear.

“What we don’t know for sure with COVID is how long that natural immunity lasts,” said Dr. Catherine Troisi, epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “And there is the added question of how protective are the antibodies that you’ve made against the (variant) you’ve been infected with.”

Yeah, that’s pretty much the sum of it. We’re likely as well protected right now as we can be given our unacceptably low vaccination rate, but we’re sitting ducks if and when there’s a nastier version of COVID out there. Get your booster if you haven’t – it really matters. We can certainly act in ways that are better suited to risk level and the given situation, but let’s not forget that there’s still a risk out there, and it can and will change over time.