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flooding

Another ReBuild Houston lawsuit

Gotta say, this puzzles me.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A pair of Houston residents filed a lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and city council Monday, accusing them of failing to follow the will of voters who approved a charter amendment last year for funding drainage and street repairs.

The lawsuit accuses city leaders of shortchanging the dedicated drainage fund by failing to transfer the full amount required by last year’s ballot proposition.

The proposition, which essentially was a “do-over” vote on the city’s 2010 street and drainage repair program known as Rebuild Houston, requires the city to dedicate 11.8 cents of its property tax rate to the street and drainage fund. The city, under former mayor Annise Parker and Turner, has transferred less than the full amount generated by the 11.8 cents for the last five years.

The plaintiffs allege a roughly $44 million discrepancy in what the city currently has budgeted compared to the amount generated by 11.8 cents of property tax rate. Over 10 years, the funding shortfall could exceed $500 million, the plaintiffs say.

Turner’s office issued a statement disagreeing with the premise of the lawsuit, saying that transferring the full amount generated by 11.8 cents of tax rate would require moving some $50 million more annually and would “cripple” city services.

“That would mean cuts to essential services like police, fire, solid waste, and other services,” the statement said. “Mayor Turner doesn’t support that.”

The plaintiffs, Allen Watson and Bob Jones, are engineers who were part of the campaign that put the program, then known as ReNew Houston, on the 2010 ballot. It later was renamed Rebuild Houston.

They said they were suing because the city had failed to meet the expectations outlined in Proposition A, which 74 percent of voters approved last year. They are seeking a court order to force the city to direct more money and “to fund the things they said they were going to fund,” Jones said.

“Houstonians spoke loud and clear just one year ago when they voted to create a fund to fix our streets and drainage,” Jones said in a later statement. “…We are undertaking this suit to ensure that the law is upheld, that the promised funding is protected so that our street and drainage infrastructure receives the investment necessary to repair, replace and upgrade our street and drainage systems throughout the city over the next 20-30 years.”

Here’s what I wrote in 2018 about the ReBuild re-vote. You can click the links to the Chron stories, but there’s nothing in either of them that mentioned a percentage of property taxes. The story mentions this was a part of the original mix of funding for ReBuild Houston, and here I have to confess I don’t remember that. There was so much noise and drama about the drainage fee that anything and everything else got overpowered. If this is what’s supposed to happen, then the consequences will be unpleasant. On the plus side, maybe it’ll take another decade to get settled via the courts.

The state will be handling the Harvey relief funds

Don’t worry your pretty little heads about it.

Texas is likely another nine months from getting $4.3 billion in federal post-Hurricane Harvey recovery money aimed at better protecting the state from future flooding and disasters. But when it finally arrives, Gov. Greg Abbott made clear Friday the state will be handling the money directly and not turning it over to cities and counties to manage.

While some local officials expressed frustration over the decision, Abbott said he’s turning to Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush to lead the program aimed at large-scale, regional projects. Bush has already been tasked with dealing with housing recovery issues since Harvey hit Texas in August 2017.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she was hoping for more direct control over the funding.

“While we’re disappointed in Governor Abbott’s decision to run this program out of Austin instead of providing us local control, we’ll continue to work as a team to make sure we apply every single federal dollar available towards building a stronger, safer Harris County,” Hidalgo said.

Similarly Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the city will continue to work closely with Bush’s agency, but made clear who will be to blame for delays in getting work completed.

“If there will be any delay in the distribution and use of flood mitigation aid, it will come from the federal and state government,” Turner said.

Texas has been waiting for the money since February 2018, when Congress first approved the disaster mitigation program. But it took until August for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to publish rules on how the money can be used.

Now, Bush and the Texas General Land Office are required to develop a “state action plan” that must later get yet another approval from HUD. According to a joint statement put out by Abbott and Bush on Friday, that could take another “nine months or more to complete.” That would mean July 2020 — just short of three years after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

Here’s Mayor Turner’s statement about this. If one wants to feel cynical about this, one might note that while control of the funds will be with the state, blame for any delays or deficiencies will be laid on local officials, who are much more likely to be Democrats. How many people are going to understand it when blame gets pointed at the Land Commissioner? That’s not an intuitive place for these funds to originate, at the very least. Maybe this will all go well – if George P. Bush continues to have aspirations to run for Governor, he’ll have incentive to not screw this up or play politics in too obvious a fashion – but the incentives are not in alignment. Keep that in mind if and when there is something to complain about.

Oh, and since this story was published, both Greg Abbott and George P. Bush have been yelling at Mayor Turner on Twitter, for not being sufficiently grateful to them for the federal funds, which by the way still have not been released. So yeah, there’s good reason for being cynical.

The Chron’s overview of the Mayor

It’s a fair picture.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner hugged his way through three dozen staff and supporters, reached the podium, and smiled.

It was May 2017, and Turner’s landmark pension reform bill had just passed the Legislature, validating his decision to devote the first 17 months of his term almost exclusively to the city’s top fiscal challenge.

The longtime legislator finally had won the job on his third try, fulfilling a dream more than two decades in the making. His tenure had not been perfect — there was the Tax Day Flood, the tanking recycling market, two huge budget deficits.

This day, though, things were good.

“Let me just tell you,” Turner said, “this is one of those moments where you want to just kind of take it in and not let it pass too quickly.”

The moment would prove to be one of the last Turner — the first Houston mayor elected to a four-year term — could relish, unburdened by crisis.

Within four months, the mayor found his agenda dominated by catastrophic flooding wrought by the worst rainstorm in continental United States history, as well as a man-made crisis — a bitter fight over firefighters’ pay that led to a lopsided loss at the polls and, later, a win at the courthouse.

Those challenges, and Turner’s tendency to keep a tight grip on the reins of government and immerse himself in the details of decision-making, constrained what the mayor — and the allies who helped elect him to office — had hoped he would accomplish.

Most political observers expect Turner — who held a 17 percent lead over his nearest rival in a recent poll — to retain enough support to earn a second term. The mayor, however, has drawn plenty of detractors and underwhelmed some supporters, putting him in a less secure position than one might expect of an incumbent Democrat in a blue city.

You know I’m supporting Mayor Turner for re-election. I believe he’s generally done a good job, and I find his leading opponents to be somewhere between disingenuous, dishonest, and delusional in their alternate proposals. I wish he’d made more progress on some of the issues discussed in this story, but flooding and the firefighter saga have taken priority, and that’s just how it goes. The only one of his opponents that I’d trust to value those same priorities is Sue Lovell, and I have more faith in Turner to move them forward. Statements in the story about Turner’s control over the ordinance process have been made about every previous Mayor, and will continue to be made about future Mayors. We’re fine with Mayor Turner. I don’t feel fine about the alternatives. Sometimes it’s just as simple as that.

(There was a Chron profile of Bill King a couple of says earlier. I fell asleep each time I tried to read it.)

Once again, we wait for disaster relief funds

At least people know the drill by now.

Five deaths are linked to floods from Tropical Storm Imelda, the worst storm in Texas since Hurricane Harvey and one of the wettest tropical cyclones in the nation’s history, according to the National Weather Service.

Imelda dumped as much as 43 inches of rain in some parts of southeast Texas, according to the National Weather Service. In comparison, Harvey dropped about 60 inches of rain.

Although Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency Thursday morning, it does not qualify individuals for financial aid. That would have to come from a federal disaster declaration, which would release federal dollars for public assistance or individual assistance. Federal Emergency Management Agency agents began doing damage assessments Monday morning, said a FEMA spokesperson. It’s unclear how long that will take, the spokesperson said.

Public assistance is money reimbursed to state and local governments and certain nonprofit organizations for the cost of disaster-related repairs and protective measures, according to the FEMA website. The affected area must reach a little over $37 million in public damages to qualify, according to Seth Christensen, a representative for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. For individual assistance, paid out to individuals for housing and other disaster-related needs, there need to be 800 homes that took in 18 inches or more of water and are not covered by insurance, Christensen said.

We’ll see about that. And we’ll see about Donald Trump’s promise that federal aid will be expedited, because we all know how good to his word Donald Trump is. Maybe this time we’ll get it before the next 500-year storm hits. The Chron has more.

The cumulative effect

We really need to give a lot more thought, and action, to this.

As the flood-weary city of Houston recovers from yet another historic storm in the coming days, rubber-gloved mucking brigades and tow truck armies will swoop in to clean up the physical mess. But more and more, Houstonians are finding that the toll of these repeated floods reaches far beyond the physical. The events have changed the very way our city feels.

A Rice University study published earlier this month found that nearly 20 percent of flood victims surveyed in the wake of Hurricane Harvey reported post-flood PTSD, depression and anxiety. And more than 70 percent said the prospect of future flood events was a source of worry.

Harvey was the third “500-year” rain event to hit Southeast Texas in three years. This week, Tropical Storm Imelda also earned that distinction, as some areas received more than 40 inches of rain, paralyzing the area as highways morphed into parking lots and first responders performed more than 2,000 rescues Thursday alone. And many residents are now asking themselves: Is Houston worth it?

[…]

Ronald Acierno, director of UTHealth’s Trauma and Resilience Center, compares the cumulative effect of Houston’s weather events to a combat veteran who experienced improvised explosive devices in crowded marketplaces.

“Just as they may experience stress just being in a busy shopping center, new flooding can elicit anxiety or panic in victims of previous flooding,” said Acierno. “Even if they’re not affected by the new flooding or the danger isn’t as intense, the similarity will trigger a response.”

Acierno said “emotionally draining” is a good term for the frequent flooding’s effect on those for whom the toll doesn’t constitute PTSD.

“We don’t need to pathologize normal responses,” said Acierno, a professor of psychology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.”

Acierno said seeking treatment or connecting with other people going through the same experience is the most protective way people can deal with the constant stress.

I couldn’t find the study in question, but these two articles from Texas Climate News do a good job summarizing what researchers have learned since Harvey. Obviously, climate change is a huge part of the problem. That’s a bigger problem than anything Houston and the greater Houston area can solve, though every government entity should be doing all they can. In the shorter term, we need to be moving quickly and decisively towards greater resilience. That’s going to cost a lot of money, and the state and the feds are going to have to do their part. We all know now, it’s just a matter of “when” for the next massive flood event, whether it’s one we see coming like Harvey or not, like Imelda. We know it’s out there, and it’s going to happen. What are we doing about it?

Risk management is hard

I have a lot of sympathy for these school officials.

At least 20 school districts in Greater Houston opted to stay open as the remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda bore down on the region Thursday, decisions that angered some parents as heavier-than-expected rains flooded swaths of the region during the school day.

Water inched in at least two Houston ISD schools while students were inside. Parents drowned their cars or waited in long lines trying to pick up students in some neighborhoods. Districts canceled after-school activities, issued shelter-in-place orders and grappled with transportation challenges as rising waters swamped roads.

At least 11 local school districts announced they would be closed Friday: Aldine, Conroe, Humble, Huffman, Channelview, Galena Park, Sheldon, Dayton, New Caney, Crosby and Splendora. Parents and others still fumed that many districts opted to stay open during the worst flooding the region has seen since Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Shortly after 8 p.m. Thursday, Houston ISD issued a statement that all of its schools would also be closed Friday.

In choosing to hold classes, officials from districts across Greater Houston said they followed advice from emergency management officials delivered in the early morning hours of Thursday, before weather patterns took an unexpected turn. Officials in Houston, Aldine, Conroe, Willis and other school districts that remained open said the change in weather caught them by surprise, forcing them to make last-minute decisions about transportation and whether to delay or move up dismissal times.

Like I said, my office was open Thursday after we’d all been told to work from home on Wednesday. That didn’t work out so great for a lot of us, myself included. We didn’t see the Thursday deluge coming, so based on the evidence we had, that was the decision. As an HISD parent, I distinctly remember several recent occasions where schools were closed in anticipation of dangerous weather that wound up not coming. That causes lots of problems for parents, too, as not everyone has the capability of taking off time from work at the last minute. HISD and other districts – and businesses, and government offices, and so on – have to tke their best guess in these situations. Sometimes, even when they bet on an obvious favorite, that guess is going to be wrong. It sucks, but that’s life and it’s no one’s fault.

Tropical Storm Imelda

That escalated very quickly.

Heavy rainfall from now-downgraded Imelda continued to wreak havoc Thursday for much of southeast Texas, where officials were dealing with impassable roadways, downed trees, power outages, hundreds of high-water rescues, fast-rising water and in one small town, a hospital evacuation.

At least one death has been linked to the storm. A man in Jefferson County was electrocuted and drowned while trying to move his horse, according to authorities there.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said during a Thursday afternoon press conference that there have been no reported fatalities in the city, though the Houston Fire Department is responding to double its normal call volume.

Turner later added that the intensity of Thursday’s storm wasn’t anticipated after the tropical depression on Wednesday appeared to migrate east.

“This happened very quickly,” he said. “But it’s just demonstrating that in this day and time, climate change is real. And we no longer have to be concerned just with a hurricane. We have to be concerned with almost any sort of weather system that can quickly evolve into a major storm and produce a great deal of rain.”

In Galveston County, heavy rains pummeled the already saturated island community Thursday, with over 15 inches recorded at Scholes Field since Imelda made landfall, according to the National Weather Service. Another round of storms could develop over Galveston overnight, and a flash flood watch will continue to be in effect into Friday morning.

In Bolivar, water restrictions are in place after the peninsula’s water treatment facility, located in Winnie, went offline after storms pummeled the Chambers County community. It is unclear when the plant will be back up and running. Officials said there should be enough water stored to last residents for the next two days.

Towns east of Houston like Winnie and Beaumont really got slammed. When you see the words “worse than Harvey” being used to describe the damage in Winnie, you know it was truly bad. Houston became a traffic nightmare, but we’re used to that. The irony is that lots of people stayed home on Wednesday because that was supposed to be that big rain day here. It wasn’t, and so no one saw Thursday’s deluge coming. I know I got stuck at work thanks to I-10 being closed at 610. But we’re all still in better shape than the folks east of here. A disaster has been declared for multiple counties, and they’re going to need all the help they can get. I don’t know offhand what the best way to give to relief efforts is yet, but I’ll post an update when I find something. Stay dry, y’all. Space City Weather has more.

Some flood mitigation funds are coming

Good.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded Houston its first grant aimed at mitigating flooding since Hurricane Harvey hit nearly two years ago, laying the groundwork for new gates on the Lake Houston dam and detention basins in Inwood Forest.

Both projects have estimated price tags of about $47 million, with $35 million coming from the federal government. The state, through legislation passed during the recent session, will cover about $9 million for each, with the city paying the rest.

The announcement drew swift praise from local and federal officials, who had been awaiting the money since Houston applied last year.

“This is a breakthrough moment for the City and one we have been waiting for very patiently,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “Houston has bounced back from Harvey, but we need the federal government as a full partner as we work to prevent flooding from the next storms that will surely come.”

[…]

The Lake Houston project will add 10 gates to the dam, allowing the city to release larger amounts of water ahead of heavy rains. In a news release, Turner’s office said the project would protect about 35,000 residents and 5,000 structures.

Meanwhile, the Inwood basin project is a joint venture between the city and Harris County, who are aiming to build 12 detention basins on a defunct golf course in northwest Houston. The basins will be able to hold about 1,200 acre-feet of water, which equals roughly 592 Olympic-size swimming pools, or enough water to fill the Astrodome, Turner’s office said.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which has more details. The projects are slated to be done by 2022. I don’t have anything to add to this, I’m just glad it’s happening.

The Ike Dike debate continues

There’s more than one way to mitigate against flooding, and it may be best to adopt more than one of them.

For about a decade, two of Texas’ top universities have pushed dueling plans to protect the Houston-Galveston region from hurricanes.

A concept championed by Texas A&M University at Galveston appears to be winning out as the federal and state governments pursue a plan similar to one proposed by A&M oceanographer Bill Merrell in early 2009, months after Hurricane Ike smashed ashore at Galveston Island.

But that project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Texas General Land Office, which calls for the installation of beachfront sand dunes and massive storm surge barrier gates, won’t become reality for at least 15 years — and probably much longer. That leaves plenty of time for a worst-case hurricane to devastate the densely populated, highly industrialized region — a reality that’s coming into sharper focus as sea levels rise and the ocean warms.

The so-called coastal barrier system also carries a significant price tag — as much as $20 billion — and a significant part of the system may guard against only a modest 100-year storm.

In the meantime, Rice University is pushing a plan that it says could become a reality faster and more cheaply than the coastal barrier system. While the Galveston Bay Park Plan isn’t designed to protect as much land as the coastal barrier system, the chief spokesperson for the university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center — known as SSPEED — says it would offer a significantly higher level of protection than the coastal barrier system for the most populated and industrialized areas in Houston and Galveston.

The park plan, conceived in 2015, calls for the use of clay dredged from the Houston Ship Channel, where a $1 billion deepening and widening project is in the works to accommodate more and larger ships, to create a 25-foot-tall levee along the shipping lane, which is the nation’s busiest. Additional dredged material would be piled behind it to form parkland. The dike would connect to an existing levee at Texas City, which would be raised to 25 feet from 17 feet.

A significant amount of dredged material has already been disposed of along the channel, forming marshy islands and a wildlife management area. That means it would not have to be built entirely from scratch.

A large storm surge gate — much like ones called for in the coastal barrier system — also would be installed and would be closed only when big storms threatened the area. Like the coastal barrier system, the park plan also calls for a “ring” levee around the city of Galveston to protect it from incoming and outgoing storm surges, the deadliest effects of hurricanes. The new north-south levee, which would cut through Galveston Bay, would be punctuated by smaller gates to allow boats to pass through.

See here for some background on the SSPEED plan, and here for more on the plan that has been selected as the preferred plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The SSPEED alternative is touted by Jim Blackburn, who has been a critic of the Corps’ Ike Dike study. Blackburn says this plan could be done as early as 2027 for $3 billion to $6 billion, which means it could be locally funded; that would also speed up the process, as it would not need to go through so much federal review. It could also be done as a complement to the Ike Dike. The Corps disputes SSPEED’s cost estimate and argues their plan would have a significant environmental impact. I’m not qualified to sort that out, but I do like the idea of having a more nimble plan in place that could get some mitigation going right now, rather than a decade or more from now. Read the story and see what you think.

I for one am happy to be anti-drowning

I’m almost irrationally furious about this.

Wednesday’s event by the Bayou City Initiative was billed “Flood Resiliency and the State of City Infrastructure.” So, it was no surprise to see featured speaker Carol Haddock, head of Houston Public Works, get asked what the city department in charge of drainage and roads has done to prepare itself for the next storm.

Haddock started by saying the department had provided swimming lessons to its staff.

“I’m proud of that,” she said later.

There was more to the answer Haddock provided, including information on ditch clearing and updates to major projects before three successive years of deadly flooding and some projects still to come. Those details just came after the bit about teaching dump truck drivers how to swim.

“Why in the world would that be the first thing out of her mouth?” mayoral candidate Bill King said. “At first I thought it was a joke, but then it was clear she was serious. It was so bizarre.”

King, who often takes to Twitter, did just that, twice, lambasting Haddock.

“You can’t make this stuff up,” he tweeted. “Would love to see who got the contact (sic) to conduct the swimming lessons.”

[…]

After the flooding related to Hurricane Harvey, public works staff were asked how the city’s response could be improved, something Haddock said typically is asked after any major event.

Because the department has big trucks, and big trucks can travel in water deeper than conventional cars and trucks, some public works workers are called into service as first responders — either driving police and fire workers into flooded areas or closing off roads.

Many told Haddock and other public works officials they could not swim, but they wanted to help out in floods.

Haddock hooked up interested employees with a Saturday swim lesson at a city pool, taught by parks department instructors and firefighters. The lesson included basic swimming skills, how to secure a rope and proper use of objects to help someone in high water.

The public works employees did it on their day off, Haddock noted.

Yes, Bill King, coddled rich guy who wants to be Mayor, talked shit on Twitter about city employees who asked for swimming lessons so they could do more to help with rescue operations during floods. Bill King, pampered swell who doesn’t want for anything, sneered at people whose first instinct in a disaster is to think of others. Bill King, living a life of leisure on the wealth of a golden retirement portfolio, looked down his nose at working folks who gave up their Saturday so they could be a bigger part of the solution during the next Harvey. As that embedded cartoon says, “Christ, what an asshole”.

The Dutch way to mitigate against floods

We can learn a lot from this largely-below-sea-level country.

David Zacek for The Texas Tribune

On a sunny Friday in late May, a jubilant wedding party scrambled to the top of a colossal sand dune in this tiny Dutch beach town for a photoshoot, bridesmaids’ arms flailing as their high heels sunk in. The wedding ceremony had just ended at an outdoor venue nestled behind the six-story mountain of sand, which blocked the view of the North Sea.

At the town’s main strip nearby, a mostly older crowd sipped beers and wine and nibbled on ice cream cones. No one seemed to mind that they couldn’t see the water.

Unlike in the United States, such obscured ocean views are common in the Netherlands, where people aren’t allowed to build homes or businesses directly on the coast — and for good reason. Three of Europe’s major rivers run through the compact country on their way to the ocean, and almost one-third of it lies below sea level, making it extremely vulnerable to deadly storm tides.

The dunes in Noordwijk are part of a world-renowned storm defense system that covers the entirety of the Netherlands’ coastline — much of it hefty enough to protect against a monster, 10,000-year storm. The system has become a beacon for Texas as it looks to guard the eastern flank of the low-lying Houston-Galveston region — home to millions of people and the nation’s largest petrochemical complex — from hurricanes. Despite its vulnerability to deadly storm surges, the upper Texas coast has no comprehensive storm protection system.

That vulnerability became apparent after Hurricane Ike in 2008, when scientists warned that the storm — the costliest to ever hit Texas at the time — could have been much worse for the Houston-Galveston region if it hadn’t changed course at the last minute. And although 2017’s Hurricane Harvey made landfall much farther down the coast, its torrential rains put large swaths of Houston underwater and drove home the widespread damage a hurricane could inflict on the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The Netherlands experienced a similar reckoning after a freak storm in 1953.

That North Sea flood, which the Dutch simply call “the disaster,” breached neglected and war-battered dikes, inundated an area bigger than the city of Houston and drowned more than 1,800 people — a death toll nearly identical to that of Hurricane Katrina after it swamped New Orleans and parts of Mississippi. Within weeks, a special Dutch commission initiated a sweeping public works program that it vowed would keep the country dry forever.

“The 1953 flood was a wake-up call,” said Marcel Stive, a hydraulic engineering professor at the Delft University of Technology. “While the economy was resurrecting and doing well [after World War II], the public and politicians realized our vulnerability.”

The Delta Works, later declared one of the “Seven Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, surrounded a fifth of the country’s population with an ingenious combination of dams, dikes, locks and first-of-their-kind storm surge barriers. It took decades to finish it all — much longer than expected — but the first project was complete just five years after the storm.

In the 66 years since the disaster, no Dutch citizen has died in a flood. In Texas, hundreds of citizens have perished in floods and hurricanes just in the past two decades.

Flood risk has remained so low in the Netherlands that homeowners don’t buy flood insurance and building codes behind the flood barriers are virtually nonexistent.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? The Ike Dike is based on the Dutch storm surge system. Go read the rest of the story and see what that means.

A look at the Constitutional amendments we will see this November

There are ten of them, including a couple I will vote against as hard as I can.

House Joint Resolution 4 would let the Texas Water Development dole out dollars from a flood infrastructure fund — created by Senate Bill 7, which would spend $1.7 billion from the rainy day fund — to be used for planning, seeking permits for or constructing flood-related projects. SB 7 is awaiting Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

If approved by voters, the flood infrastructure fund would be created at the start of next year.

HJR 34 would let the Legislature temporarily lower tax rates on property damaged during a disaster declared by the governor. House Bill 492 would set the initial tax exemption rates, up to a full exemption, according to the extent of the damage.

HJR 38 would ban the creation of a state income tax, doubling down on a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1993 that requires voters’ permission for the Legislature to create a state income tax.

[…]

HJR 95 creates a tax exemption for precious metals held in the Texas Bullion Depository, which opened in North Austin in June 2018 with its permanent location in Leander expected to open in December.

While that depository made Texas the only state to have a state-operated depository, HJR 95 author Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said it is at a competitive disadvantage because it is also the only state allowing local property taxes on precious metals.

HJR 72 intends to ease the pressure put on smaller communities to find municipal judges by allowing one person to be elected to multiple cities’ judgeships. Currently a person can only hold multiple municipal judgeships by being appointed to each one.

Senate Joint Resolution 32 would let police dogs and other law enforcement animals retire in their old age to live with their handler or other caretaker. The state constitution currently prevents law enforcement from transferring valuable property to a private person or organization for free.

The other four are HJR12, HJR151, SJR24, and SJR79, all of which are financial in nature. As you know, I’m going to cast an enthusiastic but almost certainly futile vote against HJ38, the double secret illegal anti-income tax proposition. HJR95 also looks ridiculous to me – the whole Texas Bullion Depository thing is ridiculous, so it comes with the territory, while HJR72 and SJR32 seem reasonable. The rest I’ll figure out later. The ballot wording should be set in August. What do you think about these?

Still filled with dread about I-45

Anyone got a paper bag I can breathe into?

Strip away the enormity of rebuilding Interstate 45 and the promise of speedier trips along downtown Houston freeways, and two questions about the once-in-a-generation project remain:

How many negative effects are acceptable in one neighborhood for other people’s faster commutes?

And, how far should transportation officials go to reduce those impacts, to secure support and not vocal opposition?

“This is the defining project in the city of Houston for the next 20 years,” said Michael Skelly, a local businessman and organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “Doing it properly means minimizing impacts and, where there are impacts, mitigating them properly.”

Impacts expected from the widening of I-45 from downtown north to the Sam Houston Tollway — including a $3 billion remake of the downtown freeway system that buries a portion of the freeways and tears down the Pierce Elevated — run the gamut of environmental and social ills: air quality and flooding concerns for schools, day cares and low-income communities; removal of public housing developments in a city already hurting for affordable homes; concrete pillars and ramps rising above pristine park space along area bayous; uprooting 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes.

“What concerns us as a group is inequity,” said Oni Blair, executive director of LINK Houston, a local transportation advocacy group. “They will feel losses, not gains.”

Texas Department of Transportation officials say they are balancing those concerns with a need to rebuild a freeway beyond its useful life, in a way that officials believe prepares for how Houston will move more than a decade from now.

“We are working real hard to make this work,” said Quincy Allen, district engineer for the six-county Houston area. “Everything we’ve heard, we’ve said ‘let’s see if we can make this work.’”

Not every problem, however, has a solution as TxDOT awaits federal approvals, possibly by the end of this year. The total cost of the project could climb above $7 billion. Construction on the segments where I-45, Interstate 69 and Texas 288 intersect could start as early as 2021.

It’s a long story, so go read the whole thing. I’ve already written about Independence Heights and the raw deal they’re likely to get, so I’ll just note two more things. One is that when a certain high-speed rail project needs to use eminent domain to build on rural land, there’s a huge (though to be fair, so far not very effective) political backlash. But when a highway expansion being proposed for the heart of a city that will “uproot 300 businesses employing 24,000 people and 1,400 homes”, there’s a much more muted reaction. You tell me why that is. And two, as someone who is now working on the west side of town and commuting on I-10 every day, let me tell you that whatever traffic flow improvements this will achieve when the ribbon is cut, they will not last for long. I head west on I-10 from the Heights every day before 6 AM, and you’d be surprised how much traffic there is already. It moves at highway speed, but if I were to leave even thirty minutes later, that would not be the case at all. I drive home between three and four, supposedly going “against traffic”, and again, you wouldn’t believe how full it is. Most days, traffic is heavy enough to cause standstills, and it’s almost always worst inside the Loop. We’re what, a decade out from the much-ballyhooed Katy Freeway expansion? Good luck with trying to solve this when the clamor for relief starts to rise. My point is, we’re going to go through multiple years of hell, for maybe a few more years of improvement. Again, you tell me if there isn’t a better way.

We still have a lot of broken flood mitigation infrastructure

Did I mention that hurricane season is underway?

As the Atlantic hurricane season arrives Saturday, Harris County leaders say the region remains extremely vulnerable to major storms two years after Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented rains swamped the Houston area, forcing leaders to consider how flood protection projects can be sped up.

Ninety-five percent of the county’s flood control infrastructure damaged by Harvey has yet to be repaired, a testament to the scope of the monster storm and the laggard pace at which the federal government disburses funds. Though the county flood control district has begun projects supported by a $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond passed by voters this past August, no major improvements have been completed.

The Harris County Flood Control District made $5 million in emergency fixes in the months following Harvey, such as clearing a dangerous silt build up in waterways leading into Addicks Reservoir. Engineers, however, had to wait for federal aid to begin the bulk of needed repairs.

“We literally could not start the construction before grants were in place because we would not have been reimbursed,” said Alan Black, the district’s director of operations.

[…]

The precarious state of Harris County’s flood control infrastructure leaves the region more vulnerable to storms like Harvey and Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, where rainfall rather than high winds posed the greatest danger.

“If we have an exposed area where we’ve had erosion and slope failures, then yes, we’re susceptible to more damage,” Black said. “There’s no doubt about that.” The county has more than 200 sites across its 23 watersheds with eroded banks, collapsed slopes or submerged trees.

The flood control district is relying on three federal grants, totaling $86 million, to fund the repairs. The first appropriation arrived last August; the remaining two were delayed by the 35-day federal government shutdown beginning in December and were not approved until the spring. Now that Harris County has hired construction firms, the flood control district expects to complete the repairs by September 2020, three years after Harvey.

The good news is that we are expecting a modest hurricane season. The bad news, well, you already know what that is. We need some good luck this year, because our shields are down, and they’re going to be down for awhile.

Hurricane season again

As always, we hope for the best.

The National Hurricane Center predicted Thursday that a near-normal Atlantic hurricane season is most likely this year, meaning a likely range of nine to 15 named storms (winds of 39 mph or higher), of which four to eight could become hurricanes (winds of 74 mph or higher), including two to four major hurricanes (category 3, 4 or 5; with winds of 111 mph or higher). Hurricane season begins June 1.

A near-normal season, of course, could still be hazardous for southeast Texas residents, who are two years removed from Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that dumped 51 inches of rain in some parts of Greater Houston. That storm damaged 100,000 homes and left around 80 people dead in Texas, most in the Houston-Galveston area.

Matt Lanza, a forecast meteorologist in Houston’s energy sector and the managing editor of the website Space City Weather, said National Hurricane Center predictions are careful not to forecast with certainty. While the likelihood of a “near-normal” hurricane season was assessed at 40 percent, the chance of a season slightly above or below normal was judged to be 30 percent.

“There’s a lot of hedging in there. That’s kind of the reality with these sort of things; hurricane forecasting is not a perfect science yet,” Lanza said. “It’s a good incentive for people to not let their guard down despite a normal to below-normal potential season.”

Experts generally agree that the ongoing El Niño event, in which surface temperatures become warmer than normal in the equatorial Pacific Ocean, portends a quieter hurricane season.

But Phil Klotzbach, a research scientist for Colorado State University’s Tropical Meteorology Project, said the intensity of El Niño is subject to debate, and the phenomenon might not suppress hurricane development as much as it did in 2018.

“What (El Niño) does is basically it changes the circulation of the tropics in such a way that you get strong westerly winds that shear and tear apart hurricanes in the Atlantic, and especially in the Caribbean,” Klotzbach said. “The magnitude of the El Niño definitely plays a role; it’s not just that you hit this magical threshold and nothing happens.”

Definitely better to have a “normal” season being forecast than a busy one. This is one of those situations where it’s not just about the quantity, since as we well know it only takes one storm to make it a very bad year. We’re still getting funds related to Harvey – the Lege put up $1.7 billion for flood control, while Congressional Republicans continue to screw around with a national disaster relief bill – so it would be very nice if we could avoid anything nasty this year. Keep your fingers crossed.

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?

Who needs disaster recovery funds?

Not this guy.

Rep. Chip Roy

A bipartisan group of Texas members of Congress will have to wait until early next month to see passage on a long-sought measure that will release more than $4 billion dollars in aid to parts of Texas that bear the brunt of hurricanes.

Legislation that swiftly passed the U.S. Senate on Thursday afternoon came to an abrupt halt on the U.S. House side at the hand of a Texan — U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, an Austin Republican.

The bill allocated over $19 billion in disaster funding for nine states and two territories. But most Texans in Congress were focused on the bill’s provision that created a 90-day deadline for the Office of Management and Budget to release billions in grant funds to Texas that Congress approved more than a year ago after Hurricane Harvey.

The disaster funding bill had languished in both chambers. But then, on Thursday, congressional leaders and President Donald Trump were able to break the logjam, and the bill swiftly passed the Senate, 85-8. The chamber’s two Texans — Republicans John Cornyn and Ted Cruz — voted for it.

By that point, most of the U.S. House was headed home for the Memorial Day recess. Members are not expected to return until June 3. The hope, among backers of the bill, was that the House would pass the bill with a voice vote – a measure that would only work if there were no objections within the chamber.

Some Texas sources had anticipated an objection to the move, but that it turned out to be a fellow Texan shocked a number of them Friday morning.

Roy’s core objection was procedural: He didn’t like the notion of moving the bill forward after the House had left town, with little time to process legislation of that scale, according to a statement he released Friday. He further blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for not holding members in Washington to vote on the bill.

[…]

With the assumption that the bill passes when Congress returns from Memorial Day recess at the beginning of June, the OMB could end up waiting until late summer to release the funds — a time frame that blows past much of hurricane season, which begins June 1.

Eh, I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about. Whoever heard of a hurricane hitting Texas in the summertime? Chip Roy is a minion of Ted Cruz, who sent out an ill-timed press release lauding the quick delivery of Harvey funds before Roy’s little power ply. He learned at the feet of the master, Ted. Anyway, just a reminder that CD21 is one of the DCCC-targeted districts this cycle. We don’t have a candidate yet, but Wendy Davis has expressed interest in running. I figure this stunt will come up in the course of the campaign next year.

Kinder Houston Area Survey 2019

It’s one of the best things about Houston, year after year.

As Houston recovered from last week’s punishing rains, Rice University researchers reported Monday that public concern about flooding has diminished, while residents are ambivalent about certain policies aimed at easing the problem.

Researchers compiling the Kinder Houston Area Survey asked residents what they considered Houston’s biggest problem, and the share who named flooding this year fell to 7 percent from 15 percent last year. Only 1 percent cited flooding as the top problem in 2017, before Hurricane Harvey deluged the state with unprecedented amounts of rain.

Typical of human nature, the preoccupation with flooding fell with time, survey author Stephen Klineberg said. In each of the past three years, the most commonly cited top problem facing the Houston area was traffic, a frustration that residents confront daily.

“It is fair to say that the salience, the preoccupation with flooding, has gone down,” Klineberg said, “because it’s been a year and a half since Harvey.”

[…]

The 2019 results generally paint a portrait of an increasingly accepting and liberal place. The local economy is more stable. We are embracing our diversity.

But it also points to pressing problems: Financial insecurity, a failing education system and a shrinking determination to face flooding head-on. “The big story overall is the jury is out on Houston,” Klineberg said. “We understand better than we have before the challenges that we face.”

The city’s future, he says, hinges on the solutions in which area leaders invest.

[…]

Other findings: Support for immigration and gay rights continues to grow. So does the percentage of those who say they are friends with people of different ethnicities.

Klineberg’s big concerns include what he sees as the education system’s failure to prepare students to work. Jobs increasingly require a post-secondary education, he writes, and fewer Harris County residents are achieving this goal.

The survey shows that area residents, especially African American and Hispanic respondents, recognize this need for further education. And unlike in the past, more people than not think schools need more money — something Klineberg says is “a powerful kind of transformation.”

Financial insecurity is another concern. Nearly four in 10 reported that they did not have $400 in savings for an emergency. One-fourth said they did not have health insurance.

The city’s diversity and its challenges with education and jobs are likely to ripple across the country, in Klineberg’s view. “We’re there first,” he said. “We are a model for what is going to happen across all of America.”

The finding that support for various flood mitigation proposals has waned is the topline attention-getter, but it doesn’t surprise me that much. Not because I’m cynical, but because these things are hard to do. No one makes foundational changes without resistance and reluctance and false starts. People are going to be ambivalent and have buyer’s remorse. The best thing to do is to do things that will have the greatest positive impact, and ride it out till people get acclimated to it. That’s just life. As for everything else, there’s a ton to read on the general Houston Area Survey page and the 2019 Houston Area Survey page. Check ’em out.

Another view of pollution enforcement

The state has its role, but it’s not all on them.

Almost two months before a massive chemical fire erupted in Deer Park, sending a dark plume of smoke over much of Harris County, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked the head of the county’s Pollution Control Services Department what additional resources he needed.

County officials were nearing the end of a third day of annual budget hearings and Garcia was concerned the department lacked the manpower and equipment to properly monitor air quality in his eastern precinct, let alone the entire county.

So, he asked Director Bob Allen for a wish list.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Allen replied at the Jan. 11 hearing in the Commissioners Court chambers. He said the department could use additional air monitors — especially mobile ones — and noted Pollution Control had fewer employees than in the 1990s.

Garcia last week said he was struck by Allen’s “deer-in-the-headlights look.” He wondered why previous Commissioners Courts had not pressed Allen for more details, and why he appeared unprepared to outline an ambitious vision for Pollution Control.

In the end, the court in February approved a 28 percent budget increase for the small department, giving Allen an additional $1.2 million. The department inspects facilities and enforces state and local air, water, solid waste and storm water regulations.

The investment made little difference four weeks later when a storage tank farm at Intercontinental Terminals Co. ignited on March 17, burned for more than 60 hours and sent Harris County emergency responders scrambling to monitor pollution and keep the public informed of dangers.

The ITC fire, followed by a fatal explosion and blaze at the KMCO plant in Crosby two weeks later, tested the capabilities of several county departments and spurred the longest activation of the emergency operations center since Hurricane Harvey.

County leaders said Pollution Control, however, was uniquely unprepared for the fires. Department staff were unable to quickly test air quality and report results to the public, forcing the county to hire outside consultants and design a website from scratch. Garcia said he lost faith in Allen’s leadership.

Unlike the city of Houston and federal Environmental Protection Agency, Harris County had no mobile air monitoring vehicle especially useful in emergencies. Five of the county’s 12 ozone monitors were broken, and Pollution Control’s fast-response team consisted of four members.

“We do not have the staff to sustain a response to the scale of ITC,” said Craig Hill, field manager for Pollution Control. He estimated the conflagration — which required the assistance of Louisiana firefighters to extinguish — was the largest the department had ever encountered.

The ITC fire was the first major emergency for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who said the incident exposed significant gaps in the county’s capabilities. Hidalgo said residents shared concerns about daily air pollution, let alone from chemical fires, at a February town hall in Pasadena. She said county government in the past has taken a too-lax approach to potential disasters at industrial sites along the Houston Ship Channel.

“We’re not just going to hope that this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We’re going to do a thorough analysis and share the results, and do that quickly.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Here’s that website that the county got set up to track air quality results, in case you’re curious. It’s amazing, and in many ways quite telling, that none of this capability had existed before. We’re pretty good on disaster preparedness when the disaster is a weather event, which we can usually see coming. The man-made kind of disaster, which let’s be honest should be at least as predictable given what we do in this county and the lax enforcement around it, we’re caught flat-footed. I for one am very glad to see that’s no longer the case.

We’re still figuring out how to do development in a floodplain

From the inbox:

The Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium has released dual research reports that examine current standards in the area’s drainage, detention, and development regulations. The reports also include findings that encourage implementation of new and updated flood management infrastructure approaches and regulations to mitigate the risk of future flooding.

According to Consortium Project Manager Christof Spieler, “This research is intended to inform and unite our city and county leadership, development community and residents in planning for our region’s future. Some of the current regulations are not sufficient to address current flood risk and are further compounded by our region’s growth. Taking time to consider how we could benefit from updated regulations isn’t trying to limit that growth, but would set into motion the research and creative solutions required for growing in more resilient ways.”

Research Paper 1: Detention & Drainage Regulations:

According to researchers from Rice University’s SSPEED Center and report contributors Houston Advanced Research Center, as more and more land in and around Houston is developed, runoff and an inability for the land to absorb water from heavy rain events become contributing factors to flooding. The report goes on to identify areas where current detention regulations, which are in place to prevent those negative impacts, may in some situations be allowing new development to increase downstream flooding.

Specifically, the report findings state current regulations, with the biggest impact being from projects of 50 acres or less on greenfield sites:

  • Overestimate the runoff from some undeveloped sites and, as a result, underestimate detention required to maintain current conditions;
  • Use one-size-fits-all drainage formulas that do not reflect the variation in soils, vegetation and topography across the county; and
  • Only address maximum flow rate, not total runoff volume, meaning the cumulative effect of multiple developments can still increase flood levels. Further, downstream flooding can last longer while multi-day events can have a greater impact even if current requirements are met.

Suggestions to improve current regulations:

  • Increase the default minimum detention requirements set by the City of Houston and Harris County Flood Control District for development sites of all sizes to be a more conservative figure.
  • Allow developers / property owners with sites of any size to provide less than the default minimum detention requirements, provided there is an engineering study, based on field operations, that quantifies pre-development runoff.
  • Install gauges to collect measurable data on runoff in a variety of undeveloped watersheds.
  • Commission engineering studies for the undeveloped portions of Harris County’s major watersheds to understand cumulative effects and determine appropriate parameters.
  • Based on the studies, set specific criteria for the watershed, which could be coordinated across multiple jurisdictions in the watershed.
  • Require evaluation of cumulative effects across entire watersheds.
  • Require evaluation of multi-day events (three, five or seven days) as well as storms lasting a day or less.

Research Paper 2: Development Regulations:

According to the researchers from Kinder Institute for Urban Research Rice UniversityTexas Southern University, and Houston Advanced Research Center, the region can embrace a form of growth and innovation that sees opportunities in rules and systems that encourage resilient growth to avoid placing people and property in harm’s way.

Suggested approach for considering new regulations and policies:

  • Create regulations and policies to ensure both residents and officials understand that there is a range of flood risks both in and outside of current mapped floodplains.
  • Create systems that utilize both green and gray infrastructure elements for public and private infrastructure to maximize our ability to mitigate flooding.
  • Create land use and development policies that minimize future risk and address existing issues rather than relying too much on expensive infrastructure projects.

The report points out that these regulations are instituted and enforced by a variety of jurisdictions and operate within a legal framework set by the Texas Legislature. Changing the framework can require actions at many levels, and no one entity is solely responsible. Keeping the above points in mind and considering best practice research, key report takeaways include:

  • Tailor new developments to avoid at-risk areas in such a way as to keep people and structures from harm’s way and to reduce the number of existing vulnerable residents and structures.
  • Adopt regulations that inform residents about their flood risks and their options to mitigate those risks. This information should be proactively accessible to homeowners and renters both in and out of the mapped floodplains.
  • Provide public funding and programming to assist low-income residents in bringing their older, flood-prone homes up to new standards.
  • Require design standards and development permitting to incorporate broader resilience goals to help facilitate a more resilient region.
  • Implement regulations and design standards to encourage both green and gray infrastructure solutions to maximize our ability to reduce flooding. In order to see their use increased, green infrastructure efforts should be incentivized or even required, as the City of Houston is now studying.
  • Successful stormwater and floodplain management needs to be implemented at the regional level with the cooperation of city, county and regional institutions. Stormwater and floodplain management professionals within these institutions are best suited to put into place new and emerging best practices.
  • Balancing economic goals with regulatory reform can be a struggle. As new data and technology reveal a new picture of flood risks for the Houston region, this balance will likely shift, resulting in the need for a new set of regulatory practices. This report summarizes best practices that are potentially relevant for the Houston region.

A link to both reports can be found at  houstonconsortium.org.

flooding, harvey
See here and here for previous research, and here for the Chron story. I don’t have anything to add, I just hope Commissioners Court and the Lege are paying attention.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

A county’s gotta do what a county’s gotta do.

Harris County officials are using flood control regulations passed after Hurricane Harvey to delay the reopening of two chemical companies where fires erupted in recent weeks, killing one worker and sending large plumes of black smoke into the Houston area.

The Harris County Attorney’s office cited the post-Harvey rules on floodplain construction and stormwater drainage in its civil lawsuits against KMCO and Intercontinental Terminals Co., where cleanup is still ongoing after the fires.

“We don’t shy away from going after the biggest, baddest companies out there,” said Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “It sends a message to everyone.”

The county is digging through maps and available data to determine if both companies are in a floodplain. The new regulations put chemical facilities that are in a 500-year floodplain under tighter scrutiny.

The drainage rules restrict discharges of hazardous materials into the county’s stormwater system. If a company is found to have discharged hazardous materials, it can be cited by the county. Larger releases could lead to additional legal action.

The floodplain rules apply to more than facilities with fires and toxic releases and can force companies to meet new requirements when seeking to expand or change an existing facility, said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section.

The story doesn’t go into detail about what compliance issues there are and how long they may take to resolve. You may be thinking “why doesn’t the county file a lawsuit against these companies to force them to fix their problems?” The answer is that this used to be how things went, but your Texas legislature has taken steps to shackle counties and their enforcement efforts.

But in 2015, the state Legislature started taking away authority from the local governments. Lawmakers approved a bill capping the amount of money a local government could receive from civil penalties sought in environmental cases.

In 2017, another bill passed forcing local authorities to ask permission from the Texas attorney general before seeking penalties. If the attorney general’s office does not file its own suit in 90 days, the local government can go forward with a civil suit.

Lawmakers are currently considering two bills that would restrict local governments even more.

House Bill 3981, filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would give the attorney general the authority to settle lawsuits started by the county, without the approval of the county.

House bill 2826, filed by state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood and three others, would let the attorney general prohibit the county from hiring outside attorneys on cases.

“The concern isn’t that the local governments are intentionally causing any problems with these suits, just that a more efficient state-led effort may at times be more desirable,” said Justin Till, Bonnen’s chief of staff.

More desirable for the polluters, that’s for sure. Let’s be very clear, the main reason why bills like these get passed are specifically to muzzle Harris County’s enforcement efforts. (The city of Houston’s efforts were killed by the Supreme Court.) It’s a pollution-friendly Republican Legislature taking care of bad actors, aided and abetted by the business lobby. You know what I’m going to say next: Nothing will change until we change who we elect.

Still lots of houses at risk of flooding

This is going to take a long time to really mitigate.

A new study is raising concerns that restrictions on new construction put in place after Hurricane Harvey could leave low-income residents with fewer choices for affordable housing.

More than 475,000 people in Harris County live in multifamily units at risk of flooding, according to the study released Thursday by the Greater Houston Flood Mitigation Consortium. The group includes the University of Houston, the Kinder Institute and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, among others. Even without the flooding risk, units are becoming less and less affordable.

“The issue of flooding and the issue of affordable housing are very connected,” said Christof Spieler, the consortium’s project manager. “We have a lot of Houstonians who are in the difficult position where the housing they can afford is the housing that puts them at risk of flooding.”

In Harris County, 26 percent of all multifamily units — buildings with two or more units — are currently located within a flood-risk area. After Harvey, Houston leaders passed an ordinance known as Chapter 19 that requires elevation for rebuilding in the flood plain. The down side, according to the consortium, is that this requirement may lead to the loss of affordable multifamily units in the floodplain.

“Chapter 19 has the best interests of people in mind, but I just don’t think that we really thought through the potential impact on multifamily units,” said study co-author Susan Rogers, the director of the University of Houston’s Community Design Resource Center. “I don’t think any of us want to encourage apartment owners to continue to renovate and put people in (apartments) clueless of what could happen to them.”

While most of the multifamily units in Houston that are being rebuilt were permitted before the ordinance took effect, researchers heard through focus groups that property owners are worried about what will happen after the next storm.

“If you’re trying to keep affordable units, but safe and not-falling-apart units, you don’t want reputable property owners to either go bankrupt and abandon their properties to the kind of ‘owner of last resort’ who will potentially not bring things back up to where they should be,” said Kyle Shelton, director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute and another of the study’s lead authors.

The press release is here, the full report is here, and Mayor Turner’s response to this report is here. All of the Consortium’s research is here if you need to read more. I don’t have much to add to this, just that if we want to make good policy decisions to fix the mistakes of the past and prevent making more of them in the future, we really need to understand the full scope of the issues. I’m glad we have this group doing that work for it.

What’s wrong with the I-45 expansion plan?

Urban planner Jeff Speck, in a recent lecture in Houston, lays out the following problems with the planned I-45 expansion:

The brief list of negatives include:

I-45 will wreck your bayou parks.
I-45 will destroy wildlife habitat.
I-45 will make flooding worse.
I-45will impede neighborhood connectivity and access.
I-45 will reduce city revenues.
I-45’s bike facilities are a cruel joke.
I-45’s caps are not likely to succeed.
I-45 is so much money.

Other than that, though, I’m sure it’s fine. Chron writer Allyn West digs a little deeper into that last point.

In 2012, Houstonians were asked to vote on a $166 million proposition to pay for 150 miles of greenways along our bayous. In 2018, Harris County residents were asked to vote on a $2.5 billion proposition to pay for hundreds of projects that would help the entire region with flood control. This year, Metro says it will ask us to vote on a $3 billion proposition to pay for 20 miles of light rail extensions, 75 miles of bus rapid transit and other “systemwide improvements.”

The Texas Department of Transportation, too, is planning to spend $7 billion (and maybe more than that) to rebuild about 24 miles of freeways. The project will reshape roads between Midtown and Beltway 8, some of the most congested stretches in Texas, by merging Interstate 45 with Interstate 69 and rerouting them together northwest around downtown. Unlike with those greenways, flood projects or transit plans, TxDOT never had to ask permission from voters.

Because TxDOT doesn’t have to do that, its massive projects often ignore the reality of people on the ground — the thousands of Houstonians whose neighborhoods will be impacted both directly and indirectly as a result of the I-45 expansion.

“There has never been the same (political) pressure for specificity for highway projects,” Kyle Shelton, the transportation historian and the director of strategic partnerships at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, told me. Unlike transit, for example, freeways have historically been viewed and funded as a “public good.”

It should be noted that the city, the county, and Metro were and will be asking voters to authorize borrowing the money needed for those projects. Had they been funded out of their operating budgets, no vote would have been needed. The point West is making is that this makes the politics of these projects very different. TxDOT starts out with the assumption that it can do whatever it wants, as long as it goes through the regulatory approval process. TxDOT is required to solicit public feedback, and they do incorporate that into their designs, but it’s a lot harder to drum up public opposition and basically impossible to kill whatever it is they’re working on. That’s the nature of the system. It’s worth pausing for a moment and thinking about how the system might be different if, say, TxDOT and Metro – and we may as well throw in HCTRA and the other toll road authorities around the state – had identical hurdles to clear in order to build anything. I don’t know what that might look like, but it’s fair to say it would be different.

In the meantime, the final environmental impact statement for the I-45 project is now available on the project website. You have one last chance to give your feedback to TxDOT on it, so get moving before the 17th of March. Speck’s video will be available on the Kinder Institute YouTube channel, so go watch it when you can.

Senate presents disaster relief bills

Better late than never, though why they’re late remains a subject of interest.

More than a year and a half after Hurricane Harvey ravaged the state, Texas Senate leaders announced a $1.8 billion trio of disaster relief bills on Wednesday that they said would create “a roadmap to prepare our state for future hurricanes and natural disasters.”

The legislation — Senate Bill 6Senate Bill 7 and Senate Bill 8 — would require the Texas Department of Emergency Management to create a disaster response plan for local officials, direct the state’s water planning agency to devise a statewide flood plan and create a “resiliency fund” to support flood projects.

Flanked by senators who represent Harvey-impacted districts, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick acknowledged at a Capitol news conference that storm-ravaged communities have been waiting for a long time to see what the state might do to help them recover. But Patrick and the senators who authored the bills emphasized in their Wednesday remarks that the result was the product of “a lot of thought and input” and is the best possible outcome.

“We said at the time [of the storm] we would dedicate ourselves to helping people rebuild their homes, their businesses, their communities and do all we could to mitigate,” Patrick said.

[…]

Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Conroe Republican who authored SB 7, which would create the flood infrastructure fund, described the package as the “most comprehensive, forward-reaching approach that any state has offered following a disaster.”

His bill is the most expensive of the three. It would withdraw $900 million from the state’s historically flush Economic Stabilization Fund to help local officials put up the so-called “matching dollars” they’ll need to draw down billions more in federal recovery funds.

That’s far less than the $1.3 billion that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked for on behalf of all 55 Harvey-impacted counties to help with local matching funds. He has said that would draw down another $11 billion in federal dollars for debris removal, for repairs of storm-battered government facilities, and to harden public and private structures so they can better withstand future storms.

A similar bill Creighton filed in early February would allocate $3 billion from the state’s emergency savings account for the fund. But he said in an interview after the news conference that the total price tag of the projects local communities have told the state they want to complete is less than that.

Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who also spoke at Wednesday’s news conference, said about $200 million of the $900 million allocated under SB 7 would go to draw down federal funds for a multibillion-dollar project to construct nearly 27 miles of coastal levees in southern Orange County and to shore up nearly 30 miles of existing coastal levees in Port Arthur and Freeport. That project is a significant component of a larger coastal protection system that local officials and scientists have long envisioned to safeguard the state from deadly storm surges during hurricanes.

We can certainly debate whether or not there should have been a special session to get all this done. For now, this is what is on the table. I’m going to wait and see what the experts have to say about these bills before I draw any conclusions. Feel free to chime in if you have opinions already.

Flood tunnel study funds

Could be cool.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is set to receive a $320,000 federal grant to study the feasibility of constructing deep underground tunnels to move stormwater to the Houston Ship Channel without overburdening the area’s bayous.

The grant, from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, will fund a four-month investigation to determine whether such tunnels would be a practical and cost-effective addition to the county’s long-term flood protection strategy. The flood control district has begun work on scores of projects funded by the $2.5 billion flood bond approved last summer, though none to date include underground tunnels.

“The study is basically to look at our ground conditions, including our groundwater table, and compare that to existing technology in the tunnel industry to see if there’s a match,” said Russ Poppe, executive director of the flood control district. “If that’s true, then we can start looking at costs, routes and opportunities we can potentially pursue.”

[…]

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, raised no objection to studying the tunnel idea but said he worries that pursuing the proposal could become a boondoggle that siphons money from other, more urgent priorities.

“It’s one of those big dream projects that may take us away from much more reasonable short-term projects,” Blackburn said. “I doubt the feasibility of it.”

See here and here for the background. Looks like we were originally going to get that study last year, but for whatever the reason it didn’t happen. If it’s going to happen this time, it will be after the next Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, when they will vote on approving the study and ponying up $80K in matching funds. I’ll check back with it afterward.

The state of the state 2019

Sometimes it’s what you don’t say that gets noticed.

Gov. Greg Abbott, in his biennial State of the State address Tuesday, stayed on message about schools and taxes, continuing state leaders’ so far unified focus on bread-and-butter policy reforms in a forum where he has in the past served up red meat.

Speaking in the Texas House to both chambers of the Legislature, Abbott named as emergency items the consensus priorities of school finance reform, teacher pay raises and property tax relief, the issues he and the state’s other top two Republican leaders have trumpeted almost single-mindedly in the months since the midterm elections. In doing so, he carefully avoided controversial social issues like the ones that headlined last session’s speech.

Also topping the governor’s priority list: school safety, disaster response and mental health programs. Abbott’s designation of those priorities allows lawmakers to take up such measures sooner, lifting the usual constitutional limitation that prevents the Legislature from passing bills within the first 60 days of the session.

“Our mission begins with our students,” Abbott said as he began to lay out his legislative priorities. To improve lackluster student outcomes — only 40 percent of third-graders are reading at grade level by the end of their third-grade year, he said, and less than 40 percent of students who take the ACT or SAT are prepared for college — “we must target education funding.”

[…]

Unlike in his first two State of the State addresses, Abbott did not deem ethics reform an emergency item. He tagged that issue with top priority status in 2015 and 2017, but didn’t mention it this year. Nor did he raise any proposals related to abortion. And there was hardly any other mention of health care, an expense that takes up nearly as large a share of the state’s budget as does education.

House and Senate Democrats called it “disappointing” that the governor didn’t propose expanding access to pre-K or lowering the costs of teachers’ health care.

And state Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, who serves as the caucus’ second vice-chair, said that Abbott, for all his bragging on the state of Texas during his speech, failed to mention the state’s high uninsured rate for health care.

“Texas needs to expand Medicaid,” Rose said during the conference, “and we need to expand it today.”

Still, Democrats were optimistic about some of the notable absences. Two years ago, Abbott’s address was headlined by his call for an anti-“sanctuary cities” bill that Democrats would staunchly oppose. This year, the governor mostly stayed away from hot-button social issues.

“It certainly was a different speech than we heard two years ago,” state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democrat who heads his party’s caucus in the House, said after the speech. “It seems as though election results have consequences.”

Another conspicuous absence from the speech was the voter rolls debacle that has dogged state leaders in recent weeks. Last month, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley flagged for citizenship review nearly 100,000 Texas voters; in the weeks since, the list has been revealed to be deeply flawed, and civil rights groups have sued the state three times.

There’s still plenty of reason to be wary of the property tax proposals Abbott has made, and one reason why there are fewer red meat items on his agenda is that a lot of them – voter ID, “sanctuary cities”, campus carry – have already been passed. I will agree that this was much more temperate than the address from two years ago – there’s no way Abbott would admit this, but I think Rep. Turner is right in his assessment – and there are issues on Abbott’s list that will get broad bipartisan support. Let’s be glad for the small victories, and work to make them bigger. Ross Ramsey, Texas Monthly, and the Observer have more.

El Nino 2018

Here it comes.

Houstonians can expect more rain than usual — and possibly street flooding — this winter, thanks to El Niño.

The National Weather Service forecasts an 80 percent chance for a weak to moderate El Niño this winter, starting around Christmas and lasting through February. In Houston, El Niño means a warmer and wetter winter that could have more severe storms and a higher risk of localized flooding.

Last week’s storm, which brought high winds and street flooding to the region, is indicative of an El Niño storm, said Ken Prochazka, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Houston.

“After our wet fall, the ground out there is saturated,” Prochazka said. “When we don’t get a chance to dry out, we’re more likely to have runoff and street flooding.”

El Niño occurs when the temperature of the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America is warmer than usual. The warm Pacific water affects the atmosphere and causes changes in weather patterns around the world.

In the U.S., El Niño accelerates the North American jet stream, pushing storms from the Pacific across the the country at a faster speed. Storms can move across Texas every three to four days during El Niño, dropping more rain than usual.

Houston typically sees 3.6 inches of rain in January. El Niño can bring more rain than that, Prochazka said.

[…]

Houston last saw El Niño-related storms between 2014 and 2016. The city saw particularly strong El Niño storms in 1997 and 1998. El Niño, which occurs unpredictably, can last for a couple of years, Prochazka said.

It is what it is. All we can do is try to be ready for it.

Is there a better way to predict flooding?

This startup thinks so.

An artificial intelligence startup now says it can provide that warning. The company, One Concern, has announced that it can predict whether your block will flood — and if so, by how much — five days in advance of an incoming storm.

Founded by Stanford University graduates, the startup has launched a flood forecasting product called Flood Concern meant to give leaders hyperlocal predictions of where flooding will occur, allowing them to swiftly prepare and respond. High on its roster of potential clients is the Houston area, which lost over a hundred lives and suffered billions in damage last year during Hurricane Harvey.

The startup has begun approaching city officials and leaders in Houston’s private sector about bringing the technology to the region.

“They’re interested in multiple use cases, all the way from planning to responding,” One Concern CEO Ahmed Wani said of the discussions. Texas A&M University has already partnered with One Concern in anticipation of the potential benefits for the region.

“The use of artificial intelligence is potentially a game changer,” said Tony Knap, associate director of A&M’s Superfund Research Center. “It’s a different way of looking at things.”

Artificial intelligence allows computers to look for patterns from past events to predict what will happen in the future. Predictions become more accurate as the system collects more data — the Superfund Research Center is contributing data about hazardous chemicals so that a flood analysis can also understand potential health concerns.

“The aim is to get the prediction correct,” Knap said. “And artificial intelligence is something that we don’t use and they do. So if that can inform the model … it’s good for Houston.”

[…]

Eric Berger, a meteorologist whose forecasts on the Space City Weather website drew 1 million page views a day during Hurricane Harvey, said he could imagine artificial intelligence providing realistic worst-case scenarios for incoming storm systems. But he is skeptical of One Concern’s claim that it can predict flooding on a block-by-block basis.

To illustrate his point, he described a storm he was tracking that Tuesday afternoon that would hit Southeast Texas Friday night. Most of the region would likely see 2 to 4 inches of rain, but certain pockets could receive up to 8 — and those pockets would have a chance of flooding.

But where would they be?

“Three days before this heavy rainfall event, we can say this area is ripe for rain,” Berger said. “We could say that Harris County is at a greater risk than Galveston County. But to specify it even on a city-by-city basis is not possible. … There’s not the underlying meteorological data to support it.”

Here’s One Concern’s press release. As the story notes, Google is working in this space as well, though their claims aren’t as bold. I tend to agree with Berger that the data isn’t there for predictions this granular, but I like the direction they’re going, and I hope they can provide some value now, even if it’s not quite what they hope to achieve.

Of course we could have done more on flood mitigation before now

From the Chron: Harris County faces challenge, opportunity managing $2.5B flood bond program. I want to focus on this bit.

Jim Blackburn, co-director of the Severe Storm Prediction, Education, and Evacuation from Disasters Center at Rice University, estimates the bond program will complete a third of the flood protection measures Harris County needs. He said leadership from the incoming Commissioners Court, which now will be dominated by Democrats and include a new county judge and Precinct 2 commissioner, will be essential to getting the county the rest of the way.

“We are in a good position, but it’s not an end position,” Blackburn said. “It’s the beginning for the conversation that needs to occur, which is, ‘where are we headed?’”

[…]

The flood control district has issued bonds several times to pay for improvements, including $425 million in the 1980s, but by the 1990s was spending half its revenue on debt service. The district downsized its workforce and opted to pay for future projects up front, which significantly decreased the county’s investment in flood protection to around $15 million per year.

In 2001, after Tropical Storm Allison flooded 73,000 county homes, Harris County significantly increased the district’s funding to $120 million, split evenly between operations and capital projects. That annual sum has remained the same since then, its purchasing power diminished each year by inflation.

Blackburn said Commissioners Court and local members of Congress during this period focused too narrowly on building transportation infrastructure to keep pace with rapid population growth, at the expense of flood control.

“We were, basically, more interested in building the Grand Parkway than we were in fixing Addicks and Barker,” Blackburn said, referring to the west Houston reservoirs the Army Corps listed in 2009 among the most dangerous in the country.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett acknowledged in September that the county could have done more on flood protection in the decade before Harvey, but said he doubted the public would have supported a bond to pay for it.

“Sure, you could say the leader is supposed to get out in front,” Emmett said. “But people were not writing me saying we’ve got to raise taxes and do more for flood control.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, the longest-serving member of the court, predicted a flood bond proposal during the dry years of the 2010s would have gone down in “sizzling defeat.” He rejected the idea that commissioners erred by neglecting to increase the district’s budget in the past.

“There are people who believe we’ve underfunded indigent health care, underfunded roads, underfunded basically every single thing,” he said. “You’ll never be able to make everyone happy.”

In the nine years between Hurricane Ike in 2008 and Harvey, Commissioners Court kept the flood control district property tax rate at roughly 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, less than 5 percent of the overall county tax rate. That figure omits about 2 cents the county carries on its books in the form of debt service on old flood control bonds.

The rate devoted to flood control was two and a half times higher from 1995 through 2000; it took until this year for rising property values to let the district collect more in property taxes — its main revenue source — than it did in 2000.

It was not until Harvey, the wettest storm researchers have ever documented in the United States, that Commissioners Court members saw the urgency in funding the flood control district.

Would it have been difficult to sell a flood control bond ten or fifteen years ago, after Allison but before we started getting walloped on an annual basis? Probably, but you know, Commissioners Court could have tried. They could have engaged with the public about the need to take flood control seriously, and upgrade and improve our infrastructure to do it, and they could have done that even outside the context of a two-month political campaign for a bond. They could have supported other policies that would have boosted flood control efforts. And if they had done these things and encountered resistance, and maybe lost a flood bond referendum and even put their own political careers in jeopardy, well, that’s the nature of public service. As John Culberson can testify, there are downside risks to not taking that kind of action.

Also, too: People, such as Jim Blackburn, have been warning for decades that rampant sprawl into the western and northwestern parts of the county, and the paving over of the Katy Prairie that accommodated it, were bad for flood control. We could have made different choices, including choices that allowed for growth but prioritized growth in a more sustainable fashion. The fact that we’re getting the bill for it now doesn’t mean we couldn’t have taken action then.

Also, too, too: I’ve said this before, but maybe these stories should include reactions and quotes and whatnot from our incoming county executives? You know, the ones who are going to have to take the next steps in this process? Just a thought.

Use that mandate in Harris County

Jay Aiyer pens an agenda for Harris County and its Democratic government.

First and foremost, flood mitigation has to be at the top of any list. Harris County has taken good initial steps to improve flood control infrastructure, and the passage of flood control bonds was badly needed. Those steps however, are only the beginning of what needs to be done. Development changes that prohibit growth and expansion in the floodplain, and ideas from experts like Rice University’s Raj Makand to impose a moratorium on new municipal utility districts until the region has a comprehensive plan for flood mitigation should be considered. Infrastructure development in Harris County — everything from toll road expansion to affordable housing construction should be factored into flood control efforts. Flood mitigation needs to be the county’s top priority.

[…]

The need for ethics and transparency is also required at the Commissioner’s Court itself. Unlike Houston City Council or the Texas Legislature, Harris County government remains largely shrouded in secrecy. The lack of broad transparency and pro-forma meetings results in a policy process that is largely kept behind closed doors. Commissioners have wide latitude in how business is conducted within their precinct, but that should be governed by a strong ethics policy that requires lobbyists to register and places limits on campaign contributions. A strong government requires one grounded in ethics and transparency.

Access to the ballot box and the integrity of voting process remains a major concern to all voters. Harris County needs a transparent and error-free voter registration process that works to actively register voters. Texas is eliminating straight ticket voting in 2020 and Harris County needs to start preparing for the longer lines and logistical strains that surround the longest electoral ballot in the country. This means expanding the number early voting locations throughout the county, as well as extending the hours of operation. Harris County also needs to follow other Texas counties and create election day voting centers that allow voters to cast a vote at location throughout the county — not just at a precinct.

Part of the improving voting means replacing the outdated machines. The current click-wheel electronic voting system is outdated and slow in handling our long ballot. Harris County needs to invest in modern, verifiable voting machines that can provide confidence in the electoral process while allowing voters to exercise their vote quickly and efficiently. County government has historically worked to make voting more difficult and cumbersome, and these reforms would be a good first step in reversing that.

Finally, Harris County should also revisit initiatives around the expansion of early childcare. In 2013, the well-meaning pre-K training initiative “Early to Rise,” which called for a ballot initiative to expand pre-K training programs, was strongly opposed by outgoing County Judge Ed Emmett and the Republican majority of Commissioner’s Court. While that initial plan was limited in scope, the idea of a regional approach to expanding early child care is one that needs to be explored. Research indicates that investing in early education initiatives are the best way to mitigate the effects of poverty and improve long term educational outcomes. A countywide program may be the smartest long term investment that Harris County could make.

I endorse all of Jay’s idea, which he proposes as a first-100-days plan, and I’d add a few things of my own, none of which need to be done immediately. One is for Harris County to be a more active partner with Metro, and to be fully engaged in the forthcoming transit plan and referendum. There are a lot of ways the county can contribute to better transit, and with everything Metro has going on now, this is the time. Two, continue the work Ed Emmett started in consolidating services with Houston and other cities, and make non-MUD governance a part of that development reform Aiyer outlines. Three, figure out what the office of the Treasurer can and should be doing. Incoming Treasurer Dylan Osborne has his own ideas, of course, but my point is that back in the 90s Commissioners Court basically neutered the office during Don Sumners’ term. Maybe now the time has come to restore some actual power to that office. Other counties have Treasurers, perhaps we should look to them to see if there’s a good model to follow.

I’m sure there are plenty of other ideas. (The parts that I cut out for this excerpt talked about criminal justice and bail reform, some of which have been going on.) Reviving the pre-K proposal is especially something we should all get behind. The point is, there is much that can be done, and no reason to feel restrained by “we’ve always done it that way” thinking. If it’s a good idea, let’s talk about it and figure out if we can make it work. It’s a new era in Harris County.

More floodplain buyouts

Gonna keep seeing more of these.

Fifteen months after Hurricane Harvey flooded more than 200,000 area homes and apartments, Harris County has begun purchasing homes in the floodplain using funds voters overwhelmingly approved in this summer’s $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

Using matching funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Harris County in the past month has purchased 12 homes. For this program, which combines local and federal dollars, the Harris County Flood Control District has used $53 million in bond funds to secure $159 million from FEMA. Another 512 homes are in the buyout process, and up to 400 more could be purchased using this funding source.

James Wade, director of the flood control district’s buyout program, said his staff aims to leverage local funding to secure federal dollars, which lessens the burden for Harris County taxpayers. Homes the county is targeting for buyouts are so susceptible to flooding that engineers have concluded the cost to protect them cannot be justified.

“There’s no practical flood control project that can save them,” Wade said.

Over the course of the decade-long bond program, the flood control district plans to use around $180 million in local funding, plus $550 million from federal partners, to purchase as many as 3,600 buildings in the floodplain. That total would more than double the number of homes the flood control district’s buyout program has purchased in its 33-year history.

Harris County plans to focus many of the buyouts on the San Jacinto River watershed, though the dozen homes purchased to date include properties on Vince Bayou, White Oak Bayou, Cypress Creek and Vogel Creek.

Not much to add to this. Buyouts are a necessary tool in the kit, but they’re also necessarily going to be limited in scope. I’m curious what our incoming County Judge thinks about the progress of this program, but it will remain a mystery to me, as she was not quoted in the story.

What to do with the county courthouse?

Seems like a problem.

More than 15 months after flooding from Hurricane Harvey shuttered Houston’s 20-story criminal courthouse, county leaders say they will begin in January on the first phase of a multi-part $86 million restoration project, which won’t be finished until 2020.

But there is no timetable for the most ambitious part of the project — not scheduled to begin until June 2019 – that would greatly expand the chronically-crowded lobby areas, add more elevators and move critical building machinery out of the basement.

The extensive flood damage to the downtown skyscraper at 1201 Franklin has forced the relocation of hundreds of attorneys and staffers from the courthouse offices of the district attorney, public defenders office and other county departments to far-flung buildings across the city. The closure also forced dozens of courts to locate in other county courthouses, generally doubling up with courts that weren’t damaged, which has disrupted trials and clogged dockets.

The damage has also reignited the debate over the wisdom of making repairs to the critical court complex on the banks of a flood-prone Buffalo Bayou.

“We can’t possibly ask tax payers to foot the bill for redesigning the Criminal Justice Center without knowing the exact cause of the repeated flooding, and what is being done to stop it from happening yet again,” Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said Friday. “We have to object.”

[…]

“Things are progressing far slower than they should and the direction the county is going is just patchwork, not a long-term solution,” said Chris Tritico, a prominent attorney who has proposed converting the courthouse into an office tower. “We need a long-term solution that will keep us from having to do this again in a few years.”

Tritico’s proposal would be to build a new criminal courthouse across the street where the outdated family law courthouse now stands. That courthouse, which has been deemed a fire hazard because it lacks a sprinkler system, was scheduled for demolition. After the storm, it was pressed into service and now hosts docket calls and jury trials because the main courthouse remains largely unusable.

Tritico said repeated catastrophic flooding, along with long-standing design problems including a small lobby and limited elevator capacity, makes the building unworkable for the hundreds of residents coming who use it every day. The courthouse, which opened in 2000, was closed for a year of repairs after it was damaged by floods during Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

“The problem with the Harris County Criminal Courthouse, besides the flooding, is that it’s just not functional,” said the attorney, who is part of the county committee to study the courthouse repairs. “The population of Harris County is increasing, not decreasing, so the number of people coming in that building every morning is going to increase. Until somebody takes a look at that problem, it will always be a problem.”

The fact that no one can say why the building flooded during Harvey is a problem, since if you don’t know the cause you can’t say with any certainty that it won’t happen again. The building has to be downtown near the jails, so relocation options are limited. In the meantime, court is being held all over the place. Good luck getting your arms around this one, Lina Hidalgo.

Will we build the right Ike Dike?

Not everyone thinks the best design was chosen.

Jim Blackburn, a Rice professor and co-director of [Rice] university’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center, says the Corps’ initial Ike Dike study was incomplete because it did not account for the more powerful storms that have swept through the Gulf Coast and the Caribbean in recent years. The Corps’ coastal plan, called the Ike Dike, is named for the 2008 hurricane that caused more than $30 billion in damages to the Houston-Galveston region.

Hurricanes more powerful than Ike, including Harvey, Irma and Maria all in 2017, had unique characteristics rarely seen in major storms, Blackburn said.

“The storms that are being analyzed by the Corps are, in my opinion, too small,” Blackburn said. “They’re just not making landfall at the worst locations, with the type of wind fields and characteristics we’re seeing. I can’t remember if it was (Hurricanes) Irma or Maria, it was an Ike-like storm with Category 5 winds. That’s not supposed to happen.”

Larry Dunbar, a project manager at the SSPEED Center, added that the modeling system the Corps used to predict the effects of storms on its proposed barrier was outdated and that the study did not account for the worst possible storm tracts that could hit the Houston area.

“We said we’re using the updated information because that’s what we do, and (the Army Corps of Engineers) said, ‘That’s fine, we’re gonna use the old model because that’s what the flood insurance study work was based on and we want to be consistent with that,’” Dunbar said. “I can’t argue with that, but we at least now know what’s the difference between the two models, what effect it has, its effect on larger storms, you know it, I know it.”

Blackburn also believes the Corps’ proposed barrier leave parts of Harris County — most notably the Port of Houston and the sprawling industrial and petrochemical facilities along Galveston Bay — vulnerable.

“We think that there is too much remaining surge exposure, and it’s a valid concern, both with regard to the ship channel, to the Bayport Industrial Complex and with regard to the Clear Lake area,” Blackburn said.

The Corps’ alternative proposal includes a navigation gate placed along the Houston Ship Channel and smaller gates built near Clear Creek and Dickinson Bayou, but does not go as far as the SSPEED Center’s proposal for a mid-bay gate to protect Galveston Bay.

The Galveston Bay Park plan, first proposed by the SSPEED Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the Corps proposal for protecting Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston, but adds a vital component: a 25-foot, mid-bay barrier system that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Blackburn views the mid-bay gate as part of a bifurcated system — an internal barrier and a coastal barrier — that would not preclude the Ike Dike concept favored by the Corps and political leadership on the local, state and federal levels. He called the gate a “highly complementary” feature to the extensive barrier the Corps put forth, but one that could be built in half the time at a fraction of the cost — estimated from $3 billion to $5 billion.

“We think this alternative needs to be permitted,” Blackburn said. “We’re going to be urging Harris County to investigate filing a permit application. We are going to argue that to any governmental entity that is interested. I think we need options. If all of our eggs are in a $30 billion federal appropriation, that just sounds too risky to me.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the documents that are up for public review. There are a series of public meetings scheduled for this, and you can offer your own feedback at one of them, via email to [email protected], or via good old fashioned snail mail to:

USACE, Galveston District, Attn: Ms. Jennifer Morgan, Environmental Compliance Branch, Regional Planning and Environmental Center, P.O. Box 1229, Galveston, TX 77553-1229

Deadline for snail mail is January 9. Whatever the best solution is, I hope everyone who wants to have a say does so, and that the Army Corps listens to Professors Blackburn and Dunbar.

We have an Ike Dike plan

Now we need a plan to pay for it.

A decade after Hurricane Ike devastated the Texas Gulf Coast, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced Friday that a more ambitious version of the proposed “Ike Dike” — a 70-mile-long coastal barrier that could cost as much as $31 billion — is the preferred choice for protecting the state’s coastline from future storm surges.

The decision moves the project closer to ultimately being built, but leaves unanswered how to pay for it, especially with the estimated cost skyrocketing to between $23 billion and $31 billion — two to three times above original estimates.

The option backed by the Army Corps and the Texas General Land Office is similar to the original “Ike Dike” proposal developed by researchers at Texas A&M University in Galveston after Ike hammered southeast Texas in 2008, with some subtle differences.

“This study actually incorporates both coastal storm risk management features and ecosystem restoration features up and down the coast and some coastal storm risk management down on South Padre (Island),” said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project manager for the Army Corps’ study. “It’s a comprehensive study so it’s looking at the entire coast of Texas, much bigger than the Ike Dike per se.”

[…]

The coastal barrier would be a system of levees and sea gates beginning on high ground north of High Island and running the length of the Bolivar Peninsula. It would then cross the entrance of Galveston Bay and extend the length of Galveston Island, incorporating the existing seawall. It would end at San Luis Pass.

At the entrance to Galveston Bay, a system of storm surge gates would be constructed to protect the coastline during storm events but otherwise allow for navigation to the ports of Galveston, Texas City and Houston. A large navigation gate would also be placed along the ship channel. These gates are modeled after similar structures in London on the River Thames and on the coast of the Netherlands.

A “ring levee” would also be placed around Galveston to protect the bayside of the island, a densely populated area, from surge and flood waters. Gates and other barriers would be built near Clear Creek as well as Dickinson, Offatts and Highland bayous.

The plan also includes beach and dune restoration along the lower Texas coast, and nine ecosystem restoration projects to increase resilience.

Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University Galveston professor who proposed the Ike Dike concept more than nine years ago, noted some minor differences between his original plan and the one backed by the two agencies.

Merrell’s plan included a gate at San Luis Pass, which is south of Galveston, and a mix of gray and green infrastructure along the coast, most notably a series of 17-foot high dunes on Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston in lieu of a seawall. Built after the catastrophic 1900 Galveston hurricane, the 17-foot-high seawall spared the island from many storms but was overtopped by Ike’s storm surge and waves.

He also did not include any protection for High Island, nor a ring levee around Galveston, which he called an “extreme” measure that would require a sophisticated pumping system in the event of heavy rains.

“It’s a fishbowl effect. You have to pump it, and if your pumps work, you’re happy, and if your pumps don’t work, you drown,” Merrell said. “You’d have to pour a lot of maintenance money into it.”

Burks-Copes said that dunes and beach nourishment are “still in play” as options for Galveston and Bolivar Peninsula as opposed to a more hardened barrier.

See here for the background, here for the four alternatives that were under consideration, here for the plan that was chosen, and here for the related documents for public review. I just want to stress that the federal government absolutely, 100%, no questions asked can afford this. We may need to chisel back a tiny portion of the massive giveaway to the rich known as the Trump tax cuts to make us feel like we can afford it, but we can afford it. What we can’t afford is to do nothing.