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Chambers County

Younger people get coronavirus, too

Because that’s how viruses work.

More Houstonians younger than 60 are testing positive for the novel coronavirus than those who are most at risk of developing serious complications from the illness.

Of that number, middle-aged adults — those in their 40s and 50s — have garnered the brunt of the cases that have tested positive, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis.+

A review of 164 cases from March 4 through [March 23] in counties with confirmed diagnoses — Harris, Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria, Galveston, Liberty and Chambers — show around 78 percent of COVID-19 cases in the greater Houston region are of children and adults under the age of 60. People older than that, who federal health authorities say they are more likely to require hospital care if infected, make up about 21 percent of those who have tested positive.

[…]

Even a handful of children in the Houston region tested positive for the novel coronavirus.+

Dr. Umair Shah, executive director of the Harris County Public Health, was aware of the trend of younger people contracting the novel coronavirus.

“People like me, who feel like they can go out and do everything — we, too, can test positive,” Shah said Tuesday morning at a news conference, where officials also announced a stay-at-home order.

“All of us have the potential of transmitting that to others,” he continued.

Maybe someone can tell Dan Patrick? It’s one thing for geezers like him to get sick and die, but people in their 40s and 50s aren’t Grandma and Grandpa, they’re Mom and Dad. And, as Dr. Shah notes, they’re all very capable of passing along the virus to whoever else they encounter, old and young. True, they’re less likely to die than old useless people like Dan Patrick, but 1) the chances are still greater than zero, and some people with zero risk factors have died from COVID-19; 2) plenty of younger folks have pre-existing respiratory issues and/or are immuno-compromised; 3) some people have had lasting after-effects of the disease; and 4) getting sick, and especially going to the hospital, can be very expensive. All of which to say, it’s better to not get sick. Which is what human beings with empathy and compassion, who are not sociopaths like Dan Patrick, are trying to accomplish with social distancing and stay-at-home requirements. I can’t believe I have to explain this, but here we are.

(Yeah, I drafted this last week, which now seems like a million years ago, and Dan Patrick has been blessedly quiet since then. He still needs to be raked over the coals at every opportunity for his hateful, nihilistic blatherings.)

The rest of the H-GAC region

As long as we’ve been talking about Waller County and Montgomery County, I thought I’d check in on the other members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council region. Harris County and six of its seven neighbors – Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Liberty, and Montgomery, but not Waller – have issued stay-at-home orders. What about the other five counties in the region?

Austin County says the following on its website:

UPDATE 02.24.2020

We have been advised by authorities of one confirmed Covid-19 case in Sealy. The family is self-quarantining and is complying with guidelines. Any potential exposure is being investigated. Our recommendations have not changed. Continue to practice good hygiene and social distancing. Stay home if you are sick. If you have symptoms, even if they are your usual allergies, flu, etc., call your doctor first. Only go to the doctor’s office or hospital if directed by the doctor. We need to isolate the virus. Stay home as much as possible. Limit your exposure. Tell this to your kids if they are running around on their extended spring break. Stay calm and be safe. As the governor says, we can defeat Covid 19 in Texas.

Here’s a news story from Brenham that basically recapitulates this information. One thing you find when you go looking for news about these smaller counties is that there ain’t much out there. For now, this is what we know.

Colorado County has a disaster declaration by its County Judge and the Mayors of three towns (Columbus, Eagle Lake, and Weimar) that “shall be read to comply” with the initial executive order from Greg Abbott, which closed bars and gyms and schools, limited public gatherings to a maximum of ten people, and limited restaurants to take-out only. The Colorado County order says it continues till March 27, but I presume there has been an extension since then; the Abbott order was through April 3, anyway. As of March 25, there were no confirmed cases in Colorado County.

Matagorda County has been under a disaster declaration since March 16, and has closed county parks, community centers, fairgrounds, and county beach access, in addition to restricting access to county government buildings. They reported eleven positive cases as of Saturday morning.

Walker County has a COVID-19 information page, where I learned that they have a midnight to five AM curfew as of March 23, and they report two confirmed cases as of Friday. Walker County is the home of Huntsville, and thus the Huntsville Correctional Unit, and I sure would like to know what their plan is for when the first inmate tests positive.

Finally, there’s Wharton County, which has this press release stating that there have been five positive COVID-19 tests for county residents (out of 50 total, with eight still pending as of Friday), and little else.

Far as I can tell, none of these counties has a stay-at-home order similar to what the big counties have been doing. These five counties combine to have nineteen confirmed positive cases, though given that test results are taking up to ten days to return, who knows what the actual number is. It’s surely higher now than when I drafted this post on Saturday. I have no idea what is informing Greg Abbott’s decision-making process, but at least now you know.

UPDATE: From the Trib, a note on the larger picture: “As of Friday, the Texas Department of State Health Services said 105 of the state’s 254 counties had reported cases. A week earlier, there were only 34.”

What’s up, Waller County?

Meet the lone holdout county in the Houston area.

Trey Duhon

Waller County Judge Trey Duhon says he expected to announce a stay-at-home order for his rural county this week, following the lead of other major counties in the region.

But then Duhon studied other localities’ orders and reflected on President Donald Trump’s message about how the country needs to start getting back to work in the coming weeks, a view not shared by many public health experts.

“It was just the notion that we can’t paralyzed by this event,” Duhon said by phone Wednesday, referring to Trump’s remarks. “America is about ingenuity, it’s about working, it’s about enterprise, it’s about free market. People get up, they go to work. They earn a living. They move up the ladder. That’s what we do. That’s what makes America successful. So, if we’re paralyzed and we do nothing, then everything will just collapse.”

On Wednesday, Duhon stopped short of issuing a stay-at-home order, reflecting a reluctance among some local leaders to adopt the most stringent rules available to them to slow the spread of COVID-19. While Democrat-led Harris and Fort Bend counties have issued stay-at-home orders, GOP-majority Montgomery County has not. Two other counties led by Republicans — Galveston and Brazoria — have opted for stay-at-home orders.

“This action is not being taken lightly,” said Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta, a Republican, during an address live-streamed on Facebook on Wednesday. “As cases rise, the advice across the board has been to take action (now) to slow the spread of this disease.”

[…]

Duhon wasn’t calling for restrictions to be lifted in his county of 51,000 residents, but he acknowledged struggling with how far to go in imposing them.

His order calls for residents and workers to stay 6 feet apart from one another and for restaurants to remain take-out, drive-thru and delivery only. It discourages gatherings of 10 or more and encourages residents to remain in their homes as much as possible, unless they’re going to work, for example. He advised that trips out of the house should be made for essential items only. Churches and other religious institutions should aim to provide services via video or teleconference. However, they are permitted to hold services outdoors if people are 6 feet apart.

If the number of coronavirus cases goes up in Waller County, he said, he would reassess. There were no confirmed cases in the county as of Wednesday afternoon.

The order would go into effect at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday and remain in effect until April 3.

In his Facebook post, Duhon said it bothered him “measures are being taken so easily and without regard to our basic constitutional freedoms.”

“This is NO QUESTION that this is a public health emergency, and there is no doubt about that, but at each and every step, we must always carefully balance the restrictions we put in place with a person’s ability to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’” Duhon wrote.

As we know, Montgomery County has since issued a stay-at-home order, despite its County Judge sounding a lot like Trey Duhon as of Wednesday. Also since then, the first case of COVID-19 in Waller County has been reported. I think we all know it’s just a matter of days before that number is a lot higher than that.

Waller County is one of seven counties that border Harris. It’s mostly rural and sparsely populated (about 53K people as of 2018). Liberty County (population circa 86K) and Chambers County (population circa 42K), both of which also border Harris, are similar in nature, yet they have both already issued stay-at-home orders, Liberty on Thursday and Chambers on Tuesday. Both were stronger for Trump in 2016 than Waller was – Chambers 79% for Trump, Liberty 78%, Waller 63% – but that did not factor into their decision-making process. What’s it going to take to get you to take this seriously, Waller County?

We’re still #4

We’ll probably be that for awhile.

According to the new report from the Greater Houston Partnership, the domestic population growth for the Houston region has slowed down over the last eight years. The report, which is based on population estimates data from the U.S. Census Bureau released this spring, cited factors such as the downturn of the oil and gas industry and Hurricane Harvey as reasons for the slump.

“At the current pace, Houston won’t overtake Chicago for another 25 years,” the GHP stated in a July 2019 Economy at a Glance report.

Another notable trend the report found is that international migration to the Houston region has outpaced domestic migration over the last eight years, meaning more U.S. residents are moving to Houston’s outskirts while immigrants are moving to the city.

[…]

One-third of the metro Houston population now lives outside of Harris County, according to the report. Harris County accounted for all of the negative losses in domestic migration for the region from 2016 through 2018 – more than 100,000 residents. No other Houston area county experienced a loss in domestic migration, according to the report.

In fact, domestic growth into Houston’s nine surrounding counties has picked up over the last decade. Fort Bend County was ranked as the nation’s No. 10 fastest growing county from 2010 to 2018; while Montgomery was ranked No. 18; Waller No. 41,; Chambers No. 52 and Brazoria No. 83, according to the report.

“Harris County, with two-thirds of the region’s population, captured only 56.3 percent of the region’s growth over the past eight years,” the report stated. “The suburban counties, with one-third of the region’s population, captured 43.8 percent of the growth.”

It doesn’t really matter when, or even if, Houston passes Chicago to become the third largest city in America. This isn’t a race, and there’s no winner or loser. Growth trends can change on a dime, too, so the same kind of report made in, say, 2024 might well give a very different timetable. What does matter is how we respond to and plan for the effect of these growth trends. What can and should the city of Houston do to attract migrants, and retain existing population? Remember, population is representation, which is to say political power. How can the region react and get on top of housing, transportation, and flood mitigation needs in a coordinated way? We’ve had decades of growth in the Katy Prairie area that have had all kinds of negative effects downstream. We can’t afford to continue that. Part of the challenge here is precisely that there isn’t much in the way of regional authority. Needs and solutions don’t end at county lines, so more and better cooperation is needed. These are the things we need to be thinking about and acting on.

Another big flood would be bad

Breaking news, but this is worth paying attention to.

Housing sales would drop, gasoline prices would increase and Texas would lose hundreds of billions of dollars in economic output if a major storm struck an unprotected coastline, according to a new study.

The joint study by Texas A&M University at Galveston and the Texas General Land Office assesses the storm surge impacts on the three counties along Galveston Bay — Galveston, Harris, and Chambers — and explores how flooding from a severe storm would impact different sectors of the local and national economies.

The study finds that a 500-year storm would result in an 8 percent decrease in Gross State Product by 2066, an $853 billion loss. (A 500-year flood has a 0.2 percent chance of occurring in a given year. Hurricane Harvey was the third such event in the Houston area in three years.)

With a coastal barrier in place, the study found, economic losses would be significantly less harmful. Gross State Product would still decline after a 500-year storm, but only by 2 percent. Housing sales would decrease by 2 percent, while petroleum and chemical output would decline by 3 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

[…]

The economic outlook for an unprotected Houston-Galveston region ravaged by a storm surge is bleak, the report shows.

Housing sales would decline by nearly 8 percent, a $39.5 billion loss. Revenues in the petrochemical sector would decline by 19 percent, a $175.4 billion loss, while prices on petroleum products would increase by 13 percent.

Nationally, following an unprotected, 500-year surge event in Galveston Bay, the U.S. Gross Domestic Product would be 1.1 percent lower by the end of the 50-year period, an estimated $863 billion dollar economic decline.

The GLO press release is here, and the website showing the result of various scenarios is here. The Army Corps has recommended a particular plan for a coastal barrier, though some people disagree with the option that was selected. Be that as it may, the point here is that however expensive an Ike Dike may be, the cost of doing nothing is potentially much greater, with long-lasting effects. We have seen very clearly that the “500 year” part of “500 year storm” doesn’t mean what it once did. How much are we willing to risk remaining unprotected when the next one hits?

Harris County sues ITC over Deer Park fire

Go get ’em.

Harris County has sued Intercontinental Terminals Co. for failing to prevent a massive chemical fire that burned for more than 60 hours last week and spewed an unknown volume of hazardous chemicals into the air and nearby waterways.

The county is seeking a temporary injunction and restraining order against the company, alleging that it violated the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, among other rules.

The lawsuit accuses ITC of violating the state’s water code, health and safety code and administrative code on multiple days, by “causing suffering or allowing the discharge of at least one air contaminant without a permit and in such concentration and or such duration as to be injurious to human health, welfare or property, or as to interfere with the normal use and enjoyment of property.”

[…]

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office will hire an in-house auditor to review ITC’s actions during and after the fire.

Soard also said Harris County will demand ITC cover the cost of the government’s response, which included frequent air and water monitoring, mobile clinics sponsored by the health department and an ongoing activation of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here in the updated version of the story. I hope the county collects on every last penny. These guys need to be held accountable for their failures. Yes, I know, there is a state lawsuit as well, but this is about reimbursing Harris County, in the same way that your insurance company collects from the other guy’s insurance company when the other driver is found to be at fault in your fender-bender. If ITC doesn’t like it, they can do a better job of fire prevention in the future.

Meanwhile, on a semi-related note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been holding continuous press conferences on the Intercontinental Terminals Co. fire in Deer Park, delivering updates in both English and Spanish.

Despite the effort to communicate with Hispanic viewers, one area commissioner publicly criticized her use of Spanish during a recent press conference.

“She is a joke,” Chambers County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Tice said in a comment under a live feed of a press conference Monday afternoon. “English this is not Mexico.”

Tice admitted to making the comment Tuesday afternoon during a phone interview with Chron.com. He also doubled down on the message.

You know the old bit about how every New Yorker cartoon could be captioned “Christ, what an asshole!”? Well, as of today, anything Mark Tice says can be responded to by saying “Christ, what an asshole!” as well.

UPDATE: Tice has apologized following some blowback. My assessment of him has not changed.

Chron overview of HD23

We go to Galveston for one of the few interesting Legislative races in the area.

Rep. Wayne Faircloth

Rep. Wayne Faircloth

A former Democratic state legislator is trying to recapture the Texas House District 23 seat from the first Republican to hold the office since Reconstruction.

In one of the few competitive legislative contests, Democrat Lloyd Criss, who represented Galveston County in the Texas House from 1979 to 1991, is challenging first-term Republican Rep. Wayne Faircloth.

Faircloth, 63, won the seat in 2014 by defeating Criss’ daughter, former Galveston County District Judge Susan Criss.

Although the district was redrawn to favor the GOP by combining the predominantly Democratic areas of Galveston County with overwhelmingly Republican Chambers County, Republicans have struggled in the district. Faircloth fell short in his first attempt to win the district in 2012, losing to then-Rep. Craig Eiland, a Democrat.

Lloyd Criss

Lloyd Criss

The seat came open in 2014 after Eiland decided to retire from a post he had held for two decades.

The district includes Democratic-leaning Galveston, the Bolivar Peninsula, Texas City, La Marque and the unincorporated community of San Leon before stretching across Galveston Bay to take in more conservative Chambers County.

[…]

[Sean Skipworth, who teaches government at the College of the Mainland,] said that Faircloth won during a mid-term election with low turnout, which usually favors Republicans. Incumbents are most vulnerable during their first reelection campaign, he said, and having presidential candidate Donald Trump at the top of the ticket could hurt Republicans farther down the ballot like Faircloth. The 75-year-old Criss also has high name recognition in Galveston County, which has 80 percent of the district’s population.

“If I was Faircloth, I would be a little nervous,” Skipworth said.

True, but Eiland was the only Democrat to receive a majority of the vote in HD23 in 2012. The district, like Galveston County itself, had been trending the wrong way for some time, and I suspect Eiland’s decision to retire rather than run in 2014 was predicated as much by an inking about which way the wind was blowing as anything else. That said, Susan Criss did about as well as one could expect in that environment, and it’s hardly outrageous to think that a guy like Faircloth, who represents a relatively balanced district, could get swept out in the Year of the Trump. It’s just that if that does happen, he’d immediately be the favorite to win it back in 2018, at least until we get a feel for where there will be a more permanent effect from this election. Bottom line, if the statewide polls are accurate, this seat could well be in play. Holding it after this year, that’s the challenge.

Our gay state

Is getting gayer, according to the Census.

It’s no secret that Austin and Central Texas have much appeal for same-sex couples, but new census data from 2010 underscore the depth and breadth of the attraction. Among the highlights from an American-Statesman analysis of the data:

• Travis County has the state’s highest rate — 1.25 percent, more than twice the statewide average — of households describing themselves as led by same-sex couples. There were about 5,000 same-sex households in Travis County in 2010, a 69 percent increase since 2000.

Travis County’s percentage of same-sex couple households ranks 13th among U.S. counties with at least 200,000 households, according to City of Austin demographer Ryan Robinson. Travis ranked 10th nationally in percentage of lesbian couple households.

• The percentage of same-sex couple households in Austin also grew since 2000 and was even higher than the county’s — 1.28 percent of the city’s 324,892 households were led by same-sex couples in 2010. Those 4,182 same-sex couples were split almost evenly between male couples and female couples.

• Growth among same-sex couple households extended to the four other counties which make up the Austin metropolitan area — Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays and Williamson — expanding on a trend noted across the country after the 2000 census, which found more same-sex couples living in suburban communities outside traditional urban enclaves.

Like Travis, other metro area counties exceeded the statewide average for same-sex couple households and had gains from 2000 ranging from 52 percent in Caldwell to 146 percent in Hays and 170 percent in Williamson, where the overall population increased 69 percent since 2000. Hays’ total population grew 61 percent since 2000.

Bastrop County ranked third, and Hays County fourth, among Texas counties with at least 4,300 households.

You should see the accompanying graphic of growth by county for more information. The greater Houston area saw considerable growth as well, with Montgomery and Fort Bend Counties registering in the 101-300% range, while Galveston, Brazoria, Liberty, and Waller Counties were in the 51-100% group. Harris and Chambers grew at “only” 1 to 50%, which is obviously too big a range to judge whether those scare quotes are needed. Please note that a high growth rate may be simply a function of a very low starting point. Going from one to three represents 200% growth, after all. Also, as the story notes, the growth may really be a reflection of how many such households are willing to identify themselves as such. Anyway, just another dimension to the diversity of Texas to think about.

Seliger-Solomons 2.0

Go to http://gis1.tlc.state.tx.us and have a gander at Plan C130 to see the version of the Seliger-Solomons Congressional plan that was passed last night by the Senate redistricting committee. The biggest changes are in and around Harris County, mostly due to CD36, which Rep. Solomons had admitted was ridiculous. Gone is its bizarre shape, which had been described by me and others as “the Gateway Arch”, a “horseshoe”, and a “Gulf shrimp”, which is my favorite. Here’s a before and after look for comparison. First, the original, Plan C125:

What once was

And here’s Plan C130:

What now is

CD36 loses all of its western turf and takes in territory that had originally been drawn into CDs 01, 02, 08, and 14. While it can now be more accurately described as an East Texas district, it still takes a chunk of Harris County, which I daresay will remain the population center for it. I don’t know if this is more of what State Rep. James White had in mind when he complained about the original CD36, but if it’s not I don’t know that he’s going to get what he wants. East Texas didn’t gain population in the past decade, the Houston area – Montgomery, Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Harris – did. One way or another they’re going to get yoked to this area. This is probably about as good as it’s going to get for them.

The folks in SN22 no longer have to be worried about being represented by someone from 200 miles away, but in return they get stuck with Ted Poe, whose CD02 is now entirely within Harris. CD08 takes most of the non-Harris portions of what had been the west and north ends of the CD36 arch – Grimes, Madison, Houston, and Trinity counties – while CD10 takes the piece of Washington county and the rest of Harris that didn’t go to CD02. Angelina County is reclaimed by CD01. CD22 gives up much of its east Harris turf and picks up more of Brazoria. The Brazoria bit came from CD14, which loses Chambers and picks up the rest of Jefferson.

There are some minor changes elsewhere in the map, which Greg discusses. He also disagrees with the contention made in the Trib that the changes to CD14 target Ron Paul. While I’ve long held the crackpot belief that this next round of redistricting would do Paul no favors, I also don’t think this is much of a threat to him. His district has been changed more significantly in the past, and it didn’t stop him. Short of eliminating his district altogether, I daresay he’ll keep on keeping on. According to this interactive Trib map, the redrawn CD14 is less red by a few points, but still pretty red and encompassing counties that are going the wrong way from my perspective. Paul has no real reason to lose any sleep.

Anyway, this is what we’ve got for now. Most of what will happen between now and the eventual adoption of a map is aimed at the lawyers, since there clearly isn’t going to be much public input allowed. See Greg‘s liveblogging of the Senate committee hearing, the Trib, and Texas on the Potomac for more. Finally, while I doubt it will be considered during this session, State Sen. Jose Rodriguez sent out this press release about “legislation which would establish new guidelines for the process of redrawing congressional district lines.” It doesn’t create a non-partisan commission for this purpose as Sen. Jeff Wentworth’s biennial bill would, but it does require that districts “not be drawn based on partisan data nor with int ent to favor or disfavor any individual or organized group”. The bill is SB32 if you want to have a look.

Are there any seats Dems could lose?

I’m sure you’ve heard someone express the view that if there’s a silver lining for the Democrats after the 2010 election, it’s that their decimated caucus offers no real targets for the Republicans to aim for. The Rs weren’t completely powerless in that regard, as their choosing to round down Harris County to 24 seats and pair Hochberg and Vo as a result will attest, but beyond that it’s slim pickings for them. Almost all of the remaining Democratic seats are VRA-protected, and even if they weren’t the Rs have to move the voters they don’t want somewhere. What else is there?

HD23

Well, there’s HD23, for starters. Held by Craig Eiland, one of the very few Anglo Democrats remaining in the House, it’s a dwindling bit of blue – Galveston Island, mostly – surrounded by growing pockets of red. At the Presidential level, it’s redder than several GOP districts, with McCain defeating Obama there 51.35% to 47.77%. Every other Democrat on the ballot did get a majority, so it’s not quite as grim as that, but one can easily imagine a campaign against him that amounts to little more than Obama bashing and hoping it sticks to Eiland. The good news, if you can call it that, is that if he survives 2012, he may have an easier time in 2014. Bill White won HD23, though no other Democrat cracked 47%. In a more normal off year, the numbers ought to be not too bad, basically a tossup much like SBOE2. It’s the population trends, which favor Democrats in many other places, that are working against Eiland here. Unless something changes, I don’t see that seat remaining Democratic for the decade.

No other seat should present any challenges to incumbent Democrats. Besides HD23, in only nine currently held seats did Obama fail to clear 60%:

Dist Incumbent Obama Houston =================================== 043 Lozano 57.63 62.16 074 Gallego 57.91 61.32 116 Mrtnz-Fscher 59.89 59.67 118 Farias 56.36 58.81 119 Gutierrez 58.59 60.38 123 Villarreal 59.58 59.35 124 Menendez 59.79 60.05 125 Castro 58.14 58.86 148 Farrar 58.27 61.75

I rather doubt any of these folks are sweating their next November.

Even going by 2010 numbers, the vast majority of Dems look to be in good shape. Bill White carried every incumbent Democratic district. Generally, the low score for Democrats came in the AG race. Here are all of the other districts in which Greg Abbott won at least a plurality; I’m throwing in the David Dewhurst numbers as well for comparison. As before, there are nine of them:

Dist Incumbent Dewhurst Abbott =================================== 043 Lozano 47.06 53.32 048 Howard 46.52 49.53 050 Strama 46.94 50.39 116 Mrtnz-Fscher 44.30 50.43 118 Farias 45.36 51.54 119 Gutierrez 44.19 50.88 123 Villarreal 43.40 49.10 124 Menendez 44.74 51.00 125 Castro 45.52 51.83

Note that Bill White scored at least 55% in each of these districts. In a more normal year, I would expect each of them to be about that Democratic, if not more so. But if there’s an open seat, or if it’s a bad year overall or just for one of them, you could see a race.

So in short, other than Eiland I don’t really have anyone on my long-term watch list. That may change after I see 2012 results, or if 2014 shapes up more like 2010 than I currently expect. Otherwise, I think it’s safe to say there’s nowhere to go but up.

Ike Dike update

As the first Atlantic tropical storms of the year make their appearance, we get an update on the proposed Ike Dike.

One of Hurricane Ike’s legacies may be the hardening of the upper Texas coast against hurricane storm surges.

Within weeks, a post-Ike committee appointed by Gov. Rick Perry will recommend that six Texas counties band together to form a storm surge suppression zone.

In effect, this would empower the counties — Harris, Galveston, Brazoria, Orange, Chambers and Jefferson — to seek state and federal funding and identify the best system of dikes, gates and seawalls to protect coastal communities — including the city of Houston and its Ship Channel industries — from devastating surges.

“We would like the counties to work together to study the potential of protective measures, whether it’s a levee system, a dike, an offshore barrier or something else,” said former Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, who chaired the Ike committee.

Ultimately, such a project is likely to cost billions, with funds coming primarily from the federal government.

Oh, that evil, evil federal government and its dirty, dirty money! Always doing things for us that we’re unable to do for ourselves. Why must we suffer under the burden of their yoke?

The recommendation will come amid a growing discussion in the area on whether Ike’s primary lesson should be to harden the Texas coast against storm surges, or to pull back from development in threatened areas such as Bolivar Peninsula.

The committee appears to back the “Ike Dike” approach advocated by oceanographer William Merrell of Texas A&M University at Galveston.

[…]

“We viewed the Ike Dike as an interesting idea, but not necessarily the solution,” Eckels said. “It’s a good starting point.”

He said area county judges are receptive to studying the idea further. But some, including Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, are skeptical.

“It’s an expensive proposition for a potential protection from one hurricane factor — storm surge — while doing nothing to protect us from wind, which was obviously a great problem here in Harris County,” said Emmett’s spokesman, Joe Stinebaker.

Additionally, many environmentalists and scientists believe more coastal development — which a dike could encourage — is not the best public policy.

In June the Houston Endowment gave $1.25 million to Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters center, in part to study coastal development and storm surges.

The money will allow environmental attorney and coastal expert Jim Blackburn and others to explore alternative visions to simply hardening the coast as part of a report due in two years.

Blackburn says dike alternatives include turning much of Bolivar Peninsula into a national seashore and expanding wildlife refuges in Chambers and Jefferson counties.

“Perhaps the coast should just be a place to visit,” Blackburn suggested. “Everyone who goes there wants to move in. I understand that, but maybe unfettered development right on the beach is not the best public policy.”

I have a lot of sympathy for that position. I also have a lot of doubt that the political support to go that route. Is there a viable non-dike solution if you assume that the current level of development will remain as is? I could maybe see that happening. Alternately, I could see putting some restrictions on new development, which maybe you could get through as an accompaniment to an Ike Dike. I’ll be very interested to see what their proposed alternatives are, but I have my doubts as to their prospects.