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Galveston

Another look at how Galveston County disenfranchised its voters of color

The Trib takes a deep dive.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

Carver Park in Texas City, created during segregation, is considered the first African American county park in the state. It sits on land donated by descendants of freedmen who survived slavery and pioneered one of Texas’ oldest Black settlements, the footprint of which sits just a few blocks away.

Until last year, the park sat at the heart of Galveston County’s Precinct 3 — the most diverse of the four precincts that choose the commissioners court, which governs the county along with the county judge. Precinct 3 was the lone seat in which Black and Hispanic voters, who make up about 38% of the county’s population, made up the majority of the electorate.

The precinct sliced the middle of coastal Galveston County, stretching from the small city of Dickinson on the county’s northern end through residential areas of Texas City and down to the eastern end of Galveston Island. Its residents included medical professionals and staff drawn in by The University of Texas Medical Branch, petrochemical workers that operate a large cluster of refineries and commuter employees of the nearby NASA Johnson Space Center.

The area stood as an exemplar of Black political power and progress. For 30 years, Black voters — with support from Hispanics — had amassed enough political clout to decide the county commissioner for Precinct 3, propelling Black leaders onto a majority white county commissioners court. They worked to gain stronger footholds in local governments, elevating Black people into city halls across the precinct. Two years ago, they reached a milestone, electing Texas City’s first Black mayor and a city commission on which people of color are the majority.

But the white Republican majority on the Galveston County’s commissioners court decided last November to dismantle Precinct 3. Capitalizing on its first opportunity to redraw commissioner precincts without federal oversight, the court splintered Black and Hispanic communities into majority-white districts.

Under the final map, which will be used for this year’s election and possibly for a decade, white voters make up at least 62% of the electorate in each precinct, though the county’s total population is only about 55% white. Because white voters in Galveston — like Texas generally — tend to support different candidates than Black and Hispanic voters, the map will effectively quash the electoral power of voters of color.

The new map was so egregious to officials at the U.S. Department of Justice that it prompted the department to file its only federal lawsuit at the county level in the entire nation challenging a redistricting plan as discriminatory.

Black residents here have often needed federal intervention to help them pursue equality and fairness. Without it, it’s possible the white power structure will never voluntarily grant them them political equity and would continue threatening the gains they’ve achieved over the last few decades.

“With the district, people feel that they have a voice and a choice. Without it, no voice, no choice,” said Lucille McGaskey, a longtime Galveston County resident whose community in the city of La Marque was drawn out of Precinct 3. “It’s a shame … that it has come to people trying to wipe other people out.”

See here for a bit of background. The piece goes into Galveston’s racial and political history, and recaps how the soon-to-be-all-Republican Commissioners Court rammed through this new map with no real alternatives and with basically zero public input on the last day to adopt a new map. There are two federal lawsuits that have been filed over this new map, which was able to be adopted because preclearance was killed in 2013, but you know how I feel about the likelihood of any justice that way. Indeed, the story notes that Galveston County has “asked for a postponement in the case until possibly 2023 while the U.S. Supreme Court considers a challenge out of Alabama that could further contract the Voting Rights Act’s protections from discrimination in redistricting”. The writing is on the wall here. The only way forward is more voting, at a time when the powers that be have made it as difficult as possible to vote, and to have your vote make a meaningful difference. I don’t know what else to say.

The New Orleans perspective on the Ike Dike

Of interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second lawsuit filed over Galveston redistricting

Similar grounds, different plaintiffs.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

A coalition of civil rights groups in Texas filed a federal lawsuit Thursday against Galveston County, alleging that the county’s redistricting plan intentionally discriminates against a growing minority population in the Gulf Coast community.

The complaint, shared first with CNN, marks the second lawsuit that seeks to overturn maps approved by the Republican majority on the county’s governing body. Last month, the Justice Department filed a federal lawsuit against the county on similar grounds — in a redistricting dispute that has garnered national attention.

The new lawsuit — brought by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice on behalf of local branches of the NAACP and the Galveston League of United Latin American Citizens Council 151 — alleges that the new map diminishes the voting power of Black and Hispanic voters by splitting up the only majority-minority precinct.

The new map endangers the reelection of Stephen Holmes, the county’s only Black commissioner, who has served on the board for 22 years. Holmes is next on the ballot in 2024.

The lawsuit alleges the Republicans majority pushed through a “racially discriminatory map” that “largely took place behind closed doors.”

Sarah Chen, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, called the map — and the process used by the Republican majority in the county to approve it — “egregious examples of people in power … exercising that power to dilute the votes of racial minorities.”

[…]

Both this lawsuit and the complaint by the Justice Department underscore the difficult legal terrain that voting rights advocates now face in challenging alleged discriminatory maps. This cycle marks the first round of redistricting since the US Supreme Court in 2013 gutted the so-called preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

That provision required states with a history of discrimination to first obtain the permission of the federal government or the courts before enacting new laws related to voting.

With those powers gone, the Justice Department’s lawsuit relies largely on another section of the federal voting rights law, Section 2, which puts the burden on the federal government to prove its case.

The lawsuit filed Thursday cites Section 2, but also argues that map violates the constitutional rights of Black and Latino voters to equal protection of the law.

Chen said civil rights groups are looking for “different pathways” in voting rights cases “because victory is never assured.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the complaint. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which is co-counsel along with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, has a tweet thread about this as well. I haven’t read through the two of them so I can’t say where they are specifically similar and different, but the coverage suggests they have overlap. It won’t surprise me if these two lawsuits are eventually combined. I remain less than confident that the plaintiffs will get the relief they seek given the hostility the federal courts have shown towards voting rights in recent years, but I will say that I’m old enough to remember a day when a white majority reducing the political power of communities of color for the reasons of “because we can, that’s why” was considered to be in poor taste. I feel like we should try to return to those days, but what do I know? Daily Kos has more.

Justice Department sues over Galveston County Commissioners Court map

Good, but remember how the federal courts are these days before getting too optimistic.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

The Department of Justice on Thursday sued Galveston County over its new redistricting map, accusing Republican county officials of violating the Voting Rights Act last year when they carved up their Commissioners Court precincts into four majority-white districts.

The redrawn map dismantles the precinct represented by Commissioner Stephen Holmes, the only Democrat and minority member of the court, all but ensuring his defeat in 2024 if the map remains intact.

Under the new layout, Republicans are poised to gain a 5-0 majority on the governing body for Galveston County, where 38 percent of voters cast their ballots for Democrat Joe Biden.

In a 25-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Justice Department officials alleged that Galveston County’s freshly drawn boundaries dilute the voting strength of Black and Hispanic voters, denying them “an equal opportunity to participate in the political process.” The lawsuit accuses the county of violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which broadly bars racially discriminatory voting practices, including those that minimize the voting strength of racial minority groups.

In asking the court to toss the precincts for “any future elections” — and order the county to redraw a map “that complies with Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act” — the Justice Department also cited Galveston County’s history of drawing federal scrutiny over redistricting. In 2012, federal officials struck down the county’s commissioner, constable and justice-of-the-peace maps, finding that they ran afoul of the Voting Rights Act by diminishing the power of minority voters.

“Over the course of the past three decades, Galveston County has sought to eliminate electoral opportunities for the County’s Black and Hispanic voters,” the lawsuit reads. “The County has a long history of adopting discriminatory redistricting plans.”

[…]

Commissioners Court approved the latest boundaries in November, uprooting Holmes’ Precinct 3 from parts of the county he had represented since being appointed to the court in 1999. While the district had previously cut through the middle of Galveston County, covering an area where the majority of eligible voters were Black and Hispanic, it is now consolidated in the largely white and Republican northwest corner of the county, taking in Friendswood and League City.

Holmes has said he expects to be replaced by a white candidate, given that only about a quarter of the eligible voters in his new precinct are minorities.

“Even though Galveston County is 45 percent minority, every single member of the Galveston County Commissioners Court, under the new map, is going to be Anglo,” Holmes said in an interview last November. “Minorities would not be represented by, or have the opportunity to elect, the candidate of their choice.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the complaint. The story notes the 2012 redistricting in Galveston that was blocked for being discriminatory, and also notes that that happened back when we still had preclearance. We don’t have that, and we do have a Supreme Court that is increasingly aggressive in allowing all kinds of radical Republican redistricting maps to stand, so like I said, I’m not optimistic. But what else are you gonna do? Reform Austin has more.

Let’s pay some attention to the Gulf Coast Protection District

They may raise some tax revenue to help pay for the Ike Dike, so best to know what’s happening with it. Especially since they didn’t exactly go out of their way to make it easy to do that.

Danielle Goshen spent months trying to figure out when and where the new group that will work on funding the so-called Ike Dike was meeting. The environmental advocate was eager to know how the Gulf Coast Protection District would cover the local cost if Congress approves the sweeping coastal barrier project.

Goshen is a policy specialist and counsel for the National Wildlife Federation. She’s concerned about pursuing a $29 billion dollar plan, with the prospect that the project could cost even more. The proposal calls for building a massive series of gates across the mouth of Galveston Bay to stop hurricane storm surges from pushing up the industry-lined ship channel.

The legislature created the protection district to find local funding for 35 percent of the portion of the project built here — perhaps by levying taxes. Supporters say the concept is necessary as climate change will likely strengthen the winds and rains of future storms. Advocates such as Goshen caution it will take at least 12 years to design and build. Non-federal funding needed for the barrier system is about $10 billion.

Environmental advocates have expressed wide-ranging concerns about the proposal, which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers finalized last fall. They’ve pressed for more information about how the foundations of the gates will restrict water flow between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, potentially impacting water quality and marine life. The barrier also won’t stop the worst of storms and it will still leave the region especially vulnerable during the years it takes to build.

Harris County is the most populous of the five counties the district represents, and residents could be responsible for some 85 percent of the local tax share for the proposal, making for about a 20 percent tax increase, Harris County Administrator David Berry said in December. Galveston, Chambers, Jefferson and Orange counties are also in the district’s jurisdiction.

The costly burden makes it all the more pressing for stakeholders and residents to be tuned into the decision making, Goshen said.

“The real concern is that they’re not doing enough to make these meetings accessible to the public and to really get the word out that they’re having these meetings in the first place,” Goshen said, adding, “We really think that it’s imperative that this district has public engagement at the top of mind.”

Goshen kept searching online for months for information about the meetings, she said, and found nothing. It wasn’t until near the end of 2021 that someone forwarded her an agenda.

It turned out Gov. Greg Abbott had appointed six board members in June. Each county’s commissioners court picked one additional board member. The group had been getting together since August. The meetings were open to all, and met legal requirements, whether or not they’d been thoroughly advertised, according to those in charge.

[…]

The newly formed district now has a website and email distribution list but as the pandemic stretches on, the group still offers no way for the public to watch meetings online. It also has pages on FacebookLinkedIn and Twitter. Goshen, as well as a Houston Chronicle environment reporter and an environmental advocate, Bayou City Waterkeeper’s legal director Kristen Schlemmer, were its only three Twitter followers before the Chronicle covered the group Wednesday.

See here and here for the background. I confess I had totally forgotten about this – it’s not like we’ve been in a low-news environment lately, but still – but I am now a Twitter follower of the GCPD, whose count was up to 119 including me as of Monday evening. I hope that whatever business the conduct going forward, it’s better publicized and better covered. This is a big deal, and we deserve to know what they’re up to.

Et tu, H-GAC?

WTAF?

Houston is slated to get just 2 percent of the regional council’s $488 million tranche for storm mitigation, angering city leaders who say the city consistently has been shorted when it comes to the federal money.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional group made up of representatives from local governments, voted Tuesday to proceed with a funding plan that skirts Houston over the opposition of city officials. The plan still needs state and federal approval, along with a lengthy public comment period, before moving forward.

“This is not the end,” said At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who represents the city on the regional body.

[…]

The dispute centers on federal funding distributed after Harvey and other storms to help state and local governments finance infrastructure to mitigate the risk of future disasters. Last year, the Texas General Land Office announced Houston and Harris County would get none of an initial $1 billion funding round for communities. The agency later reversed course and said it would give Harris County a direct allotment of $750 million. The city is not slated to get any of that money. The city and county had expected to receive about half of the $4.3 billion in total funds, or $1 billion each.

H-GAC then removed Houston and other Harris County cities from its plans to distribute $488 million to local governments. Commissioners said those cities stand to benefit from the separate, $750 million GLO tranche. It is not clear, however, whether any of the money will reach the city’s coffers. The county faces a $900 million funding deficit for its bond program alone and is unlikely to send some of its money to the city, although it may work on joint projects.

“We’re basically penalizing Houston and other cities in Harris County because we might get some benefit from the Harris County money,” Alcorn said. “And we don’t know that yet.”

Houston, which makes up about 30 percent of the regional council’s population base, would get about $9 million under the regional council’s plan, or 1.9 percent.

Chuck Wemple, H-GAC’s executive director, said the board felt Houston would see some of the $750 million headed for the county. He emphasized that there will be time for public comment, and the plan is not yet final.

“I would offer that the complication we have before us today is a result of that $750 million allocation to the county, without any definition of what the expectation is for that money,” Wemple said. “That makes all of our jobs more difficult.”

As the story notes, Galveston and Fort Bend counties will combine to receive about $170 million. Houston had asked for $148 million, in line with its share of the total population in the H-GAC region, and it was voted down. Which means that the other ten counties – Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, Walker, Waller, and Wharton – get to split up the remaining $300 million. Pretty damn sweet deal for them.

Let’s be clear, that explanation given by Chuck Wemple is absolute self-serving caca. Let me count the ways:

1. Whatever portion of that $750 million that Harris County was given as a consolation prize by the GLO is still a lot less than what Houston as well as Harris County had requested. It doesn’t come close to meeting the need the city has.

2. While I fully expect some of that $750 million that Harris County is getting to be spent inside Houston, the city has no control over where and when it will get spent, and if Harris County decides that a greater portion of its need is outside the city’s boundaries, well, that’s just tough.

3. But even if the city hadn’t been screwed by the GLO, and both it and Harris County were being given a proper share of the relief funds, that still doesn’t make this right. Houston is a part of H-GAC – it’s right there in the name! – and any process that doesn’t allocate these funds in a rational and equitable manner is just wrong. This is not difficult, and the proposal made by CMs Alcorn and Plummer were eminently reasonable.

This is another screw job, and it’s even more disheartening coming from an agency whose entire mission is to serve this region. Part of the problem, as I understand it, is that H-GAC’s governing structure is more like the US Senate than the House, which means that Houston and Harris County get as much representation as the small counties. It’s not hard to see how that math works against us. This is the right response:

Turner, Houston’s chief recovery officer Stephen Costello and other council members also urged a revision, and Turner last week went so far as to question the city’s involvement in the council.

“We got zeroed out by the GLO, and it seems as though we are getting almost zeroed out by the H-GAC,” Turner said last week, when Alcorn broached the issue at City Council. “If they’re going to operate at the exclusion of the city of Houston, then the city of Houston needs to reevaluate its relationship with H-GAC going forward.”

What’s even the point of being in H-GAC if H-GAC is not going to serve Houston’s interests? If they don’t make this right then yeah, let’s get the hell out.

Galveston adopts all-white Commissioners Court map

In case you missed it.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes

Dozens of residents crowded into a small county annex building Friday afternoon to urge, beg, lecture and warn commissioners against approving new precinct maps that dissenters called unfair, undemocratic and potentially illegal.

The protest, mostly by county Democrats and Black residents, culminated with a speech by Commissioner Stephen Holmes, the only Democrat and only minority member of the court, who said the maps would put people of his precinct at an electoral disadvantage.

“It’s about the people of Precinct 3 being able to pick the candidate of their choice,” Holmes said. “It’s not just an election, this is their life. They fought this for years.”

Holmes told the court the maps were drawn with a “discriminatory purpose” and presented his own versions of new precincts that would maintain the status quo in the county.

“We are not going to go quietly into the night,” Holmes said. “We are going to rage, rage, rage until justice is done.”

A majority of the court wasn’t moved by the outpouring of opposition, however.

Commissioners voted 3-1 to approve a precinct map that changes the balance of political power in the county. The map redraws political lines to give Republican voters a majority in each of four precincts.

Holmes’ Precinct 3 now contains a majority of Democratic voters based on results of recent partisan elections. The other three precincts already contained mostly Republican voters.

County Judge Mark Henry and commissioners Darrell Apffel and Joe Giusti voted in favor of the map. Holmes voted against it. Commissioner Ken Clark was absent. In a text, Clark said he was out of town because of a pre-planned family trip.

The county was compelled to draw new precinct lines to make population adjustments based on the 2020 census. Commissioners are required by law to have roughly equal-sized precincts by population.

Commissioners gave themselves an option to vote on two maps designed by a Republican Party strategist hired earlier this year. One map made minimal changes to precinct lines that mostly maintained the status quo. The second, the one approved Friday, makes extensive change.

The approved map doesn’t just change the party makeup of the county’s precincts. It also changes their racial makeup.

By the county’s own analysis, the new map would divide minority populations so that every precinct is mostly made up of white voters.

Holmes is Black, and his precinct is the only one where a majority of voters are Black or Hispanic.

You can see the proposed maps here, with Map 2 being what was adopted and Map 1 being close to what currently exists. Ari Berman, who notes a lot of similar activity by Republicans going on around the country, brings more details.

For more than two decades Holmes has represented a district running through the center of Galveston County where Blacks and Hispanics comprise a majority of eligible voters. But under the new maps approved by three white, male GOP county commissioners, voters of color would make up just 26 percent of eligible voters in Holmes’ new district, reducing the minority vote by a staggering 28 points and likely dooming his re-election chances in 2024.

Such a move would have been unthinkable and illegal before the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, ruling that states like Texas and jurisdictions like Galveston County with a long history of discrimination no longer needed to approve voting changes and electoral boundaries with the federal government. As a result of that decision—and the failure by Democrats to overcome four GOP filibusters in order to pass federal legislation protecting voting rights and outlawing extreme gerrymandering, such as the Freedom to Vote Act and John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act—Republicans are erasing decades of long-fought gains for voters of color, returning parts of the South to a pre-1965 status quo where conservative whites have effectively denied political representation to previously disenfranchised communities of color and are preventing major demographic changes from leading to shifts in political power.

[…]

Some of the GOP’s top mapmakers are behind the strategy to eliminate representation for communities of color. In 2011, Galveston County hired the firm run by GOP gerrymandering guru Thomas Hofeller to redraw districts for the county commission, justices of the peace, and constable offices. Hofeller practically invented modern gerrymandering and was well-known for drawing maps that aggressively helped Republicans.

Along with his partner Dale Oldham, Hofeller drew congressional districts in North Carolina that were struck down by the courts for racial and partisan gerrymandering. He also urged the Trump administration to add a question about US citizenship to the 2020 census so that the GOP could draw legislative districts that “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites,” he wrote.

The districts Hofeller drew in Galveston were blocked in 2012 by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act for reducing representation for communities of color. But two months after the Supreme Court’s decision gutting the VRA in June 2013, Galveston enacted the justice of the peace and constable districts that were previously deemed discriminatory, becoming one of the first jurisdictions in the country to target communities of color following the Court’s decision.

Hofeller passed away in 2018, but Galveston County hired Oldham to draw its commissioner districts in 2021. Holmes said he had “minimal interaction” with Oldham, but when they first spoke Oldham asked Holmes to draw the map he wanted for his district, which Holmes thought was odd because Oldham, not Holmes, was the mapmaker. Holmes sent Oldham a rough map of the district he wanted, but when Oldham traveled to Galveston to meet with the commissioners the maps he showed Holmes looked nothing like the one he suggested. “You didn’t draw the map I asked you to draw,” Holmes said he told Oldham. One map diluted the minority vote in Holmes’ district by adding a predominantly white area along the Gulf Coast, while another completely dismantled his district by taking away Galveston and other diverse, Democratic-leaning areas and concentrating his precinct in the heavily Republican and overwhelmingly white northern parts of the county.

Holmes objected to both maps, but when he talked to Oldham next over Zoom, “he showed me the same damn maps again,” Holmes said.

Commissioner Holmes has urged his constituents to contact the Justice Department and ask them to intervene. He has talked about filing a lawsuit, and even though I don’t have much faith in that vehicle these days, I hope he does. I don’t know what else there is to do. I’m sure all of the Harris County Republicans who have complained about the “radical changes” made to our map will be quick to condemn this one as well. Houston Public Media has more.

Galveston ISD mask mandate remains, Round Rock gets halted

Good.

A Galveston County judge Thursday denied an attempt by Attorney General Ken Paxton to stop Galveston ISD from requiring masks, according to a court document.

Judge Kerry Neves ruled against Texas’ request for a temporary restraining order on mask mandates in the district.

According to court documents, a hearing on the matter is set for Sept. 28.

See here for the background. That’s the whole Chron story – the Galveston County News covered this as well, but they’re behind a paywall so I can’t see it. Paxton scored an initial win against Paris ISD in his second round of lawsuits, though that happened without Paris ISD being in the courtroom. It would seem he used that same tactic in Round Rock.

A state district judge in Williamson County has temporarily blocked the Round Rock school district from enforcing its mask mandate, according to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who sued the school district.

In a tweet Thursday night, Paxton’s office declared “Another WIN!” in its legal fight against school districts that have defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders banning schools from requiring masks. Paxton sued Round Rock along with Elgin and other school districts with mask mandates last Friday.

[…]

In a statement, Round Rock school district leaders said they had not been officially served or notified by Paxton’s office of the order. District officials also said they were not given the opportunity attend any court proceedings to oppose the order, but they said they would “comply with any lawfully issued court order.”

“We will also use all proper and available legal proceedings to challenge this order and vigorously defend its long-established lawful authority to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for Round Rock ISD students and staff, including during this pandemic,” the statement said. “The district continues to strongly encourage and recommend the use of masks in accordance with guidance from our local health authorities.”

I totally get Paxton playing dirty, but what is up with these judges letting it happen? Do they have no responsibility to at least inquire why there’s no opposing counsel? I’m puzzled, to say the least.

As for the other affected districts, I did a quick Google News search and didn’t see any news for them. I would assume there will be more rulings in the coming days, but for now as far as I can tell this is where we are.

Remembering Ike as Nicholas pays a visit

Won’t be as bad, thankfully. But still be careful.

Tropical Storm Nicholas is approaching the Texas coast Monday, threatening torrential downpours and flooding for Houston. It also brings with it memories of Hurricane Ike, which wrought havoc across the region on this day 13 years ago.

Ike made landfall in Galveston just after 2 a.m. on Sept. 13, 2008, and wiped out much of the property in the coastal city. The Category 2 storm punched above its weight as 110-mph winds sent water surging over Galveston’s seawall, reaching depths up to 13 feet on Galveston Island and up to 17 feet on Bolivar Peninsula.

The storm knocked out power for millions in the Houston area, with some outages lasting weeks. It cost the Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas areas about $29.5 billion.

The early evening Space City Weather report says that the flood risk is receding for those living more inland, but is still significant for those closest to the coast. As for Ike, well all these years later we’re finally on the verge of building the Ike Dike. Keep thinking happy thoughts for that one.

Also, too, think about how nice it must be to live in a state that has a real Governor.

There’s no partisan advantage to Abbott in answering questions, and he’s a weak leader with no ability to reassure people, so from his perspective there’s nothing to be gained from allowing himself to be asked questions. Also, he has a plan to eliminate hurricanes, which he’ll be announcing soon. So there’s that.

The final Ike Dike plan

It’s taken a long time to get to this point.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released the final version of its Coastal Texas Study, which examines a proposed coastal barrier to protect the Houston region against storm surge. The report’s completion marks a significant step for a concept that has taken years to develop. It began with the early imaginings of a Texas A&M professor, who designed a so-called “Ike Dike” to protect against devastating surge such as that seen on Bolivar Peninsula from Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Environmental advocates, regional planners and concerned residents are among those who have offered feedback on various project drafts. The details and big picture have been argued every which way. Now begins a years-long process before it can be built, leaving the region and the Houston Ship Channel still vulnerable to hurricanes as the design is sorted out and funding secured.

Here’s what you need to know now:

You can click over to read the report itself and the Chron summary. A few things have changed along the way, but the basics are still all there. The study also includes a final environmental impact statement, if you want to know more about that. The Army Corps of Engineers will sign off on the plan and send it on to Congress on or before October 12, at which point the question of funding this project, which has a $29 billion price tag, can begin in earnest. I have no idea at this point if Ike Dike funding will be part of the budget reconciliation process – I don’t think it was in the Senate’s infrastructure bill, but I could be wrong about that. I can’t wait to hear what excuse Ted Cruz will come up with to vote against this.

Greg Abbott will blame you if you get sick

He will take no responsibility at all.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations soaring past 5,000 statewide for the first time in nearly five months, state officials are stepping up vaccination outreach programs and promotional campaigns but Gov. Greg Abbott insists that the state won’t impose any new mandates on Texans.

State officials announced Wednesday that Texas has 5,292 people hospitalized with lab-confirmed COVID-19 — the highest number since March 2, the day Abbott announced he was ending all state mask mandates and restrictions on businesses.

At that time, Abbott called for “personal diligence” and said statewide mandates are no longer needed.

Though 10,000 new COVID infections were reported statewide on Wednesday, the most since February, he has not changed his messaging.

“The time for government mask mandates is over — now is the time for personal responsibility,” Abbott wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks.”

His latest comments came as the president of the Texas State Teachers Association publicly called on Abbott to allow schools to require masks, particularly since vaccines have not been approved for children under 12.

“If Gov. Abbott really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said on Tuesday.

I mean, I think we know the answer to that hypothetical.

Meanwhile, statewide hospitalizations from the virus have doubled in the last two weeks and more than tripled since the start of July, when Abbott re-issued a disaster declaration to deal with COVID-19.

“COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising and new variants of the virus are spreading quickly in our communities,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services in a statement Wednesday.

While Texas still appears to have more 9,100 available hospital beds statewide, there are areas around Beaumont, College Station and Killeen reporting that few intensive care beds are available for additional chronic patients.

The College Station region reported no more available ICU beds on Wednesday and Laredo officials were down to just 1 available ICU bed.

Killeen is a city in Bell County, which has one of the worst vaccination rates in the state, according to state data. Just 33.5 percent of that county’s population over 12 years of age have been fully vaccinated compared to over 54 percent in Harris County and 56 percent in Bexar.

“It is clear that increasing vaccinations is still our best strategy to navigate through this pandemic and get to closure,” Bell County Judge David Blackburn said in a recent news release.

Statewide, just 52 percent of Texans 12 and older have been vaccinated.

Here’s the Thursday update.

Across Texas, 5,662 people were hospitalized for the virus as of Thursday, the highest number recorded by DSHS since Feb. 28 and a massive increase since its low point of 1,428 on June 27.

It’s bad, y’all. And it’s getting worse. There’s a bit of a vaccination push now, but as you know it takes time to get fully protected, and we don’t have any. Abbott’s lifting of the mask mandate when he did was premature, and his mulish resistance to any possible leeway for local officials is harmful in the extreme, but let’s be clear that his biggest sin is not doing everything he could to get more Texans vaccinated. Masks at least would do something now, and even if it is too late for this surge to ramp up vaccinations, that’s still by far the best thing to do. So what is Abbott doing?

Vaccinations > masks, but thanks to Abbott’s utter lack of leadership, we have neither. And so thousands more people are getting sick, and some number of them – more than it should be – will end up in the hospital or a grave. And all of that is on Greg Abbott.

What will Harris County do about rising case numbers?

I’m afraid we’ll find out soon enough.

The Harris Health System’s COVID-19 ward was down to just one patient at the beginning of July.

Anxious to hit zero COVID-19 patients, Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, the hospital system’s CEO, purchased and stored a bottle of Martinelli’s sparkling grape juice — “fake champagne” — in his refrigerator. If the COVID ward emptied out, he would drive to Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital, one of the system’s two medical centers, to celebrate with doctors and nurses.

Instead, the numbers went the opposite direction. As of Friday morning, nurses were treating 14 COVID patients at LBJ Hospital.

“We really had the opportunity to have this darn thing beaten,” Porsa said.

COVID-19 infections are climbing upward again in Houston and Texas as vaccine rates lag, the delta variant spreads and people return to their normal lives.

Most of the patients admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 are unvaccinated or have received just one dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, Porsa said. None of the 119 people who have died from COVID-19 at Harris Health since January were fully vaccinated.

“If that is not reason enough for us to change our attitudes toward a simple, accessible, proven safe and proven effective prevention … I’m just losing my mind,” Porsa said.

Hospitalizations across the state have increased by more than 75 percent in recent weeks: On June 27, 1,428 hospital beds were filled; by July 15, the number had reached 2,519.

According to KHOU, “Almost every county in the area is seeing an increase in new cases”, and “Daily new cases in the Greater Houston area have jumped about 65% in the last two weeks”. (Cases and hospitalizations are rising nationally, too.) They show data from Harris and its surrounding counties except for Liberty and Waller. Harris has the lowest percentage increase, but it’s the biggest county so its sheer numbers are the highest.

We know how Travis County is responding to its increase in cases. Harris County had dropped its threat level to Yellow in May. Are we looking at a step up again?

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has yet to announce any rollbacks for the region.

“There is no conceivable reason why a single additional hospital bed in our healthcare system should be filled with someone who is sick from COVID-19 when vaccines are readily available and free,” said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesperson for Hidalgo’s office.

Vaccination rates plateaued in late April amid high hesitancy rates and difficulty accessing immunization sites. In recent months, health officials piloted financial incentives such as scholarships to encourage younger people to sign up for an appointment.

Stay tuned on that. Maybe there’s some headway to be made with younger people, whose vax rates are the lowest among age groups. Better happen quickly, that’s all I can say.

Precinct analysis: State House district changes by county

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1
Fort Bend, part 2
Fort Bend, part 3
Brazoria County
Harris County State Senate comparisons
State Senate districts 2020
State Senate district comparisons
State House districts 2020, part 1
State House districts 2020, part 2
Median districts
State House district changes by demography

One more look at how state house districts have changed over the decade. For this exercise, I’m going to look at some key counties and the State Rep districts within them.

Bexar:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
122   -1,304  10,628  12,204  21,091  10,900  31,719  20,819
121   -4,020   6,534   6,059  15,078   2,039  21,612  19,573
116     -583   6,014   3,546  10,281   2,963  16,295  13,332
117    4,532   8,828  14,927  22,921  19,459  31,749  12,290
123   -1,427   5,225   3,742   9,272   2,315  14,497  12,182
124      330   5,077   5,877  11,756   6,207  16,833  10,626
125   -1,081   4,378   4,753   9,350   3,672  13,728  10,056
120     -184     863   4,503  10,856   4,319  11,719   7,400
119    1,062   3,428   6,041  10,507   7,103  13,935   6,832
118    1,391   3,719   6,633   7,790   8,024  11,509   3,485

Bexar County doesn’t get the props it deserves for contributing to the Democratic cause. Each of its ten districts became more Democratic in each of the two Presidential cycles. Where Bexar had gone 51.56% to 47.04% in 2012 for Obama, it went 58.20% to 40.05% for Biden. Obama had a net 23K votes in Bexar, while it was +140K votes for Biden. The two districts that shifted the most heavily towards Dems are the two Republican districts (HD117 went Republican in 2014, then flipped back in 2016), with Biden carrying HD121 as Beto had done in 2018, and HD122 coming into focus as a potential long-term pickup (modulo redistricting, of course). Both HDs 121 and 122 were over 60% for Romney, with HD122 at almost 68% for him. Both can and surely will be shored up in the next round of mapmaking, but the long term trends don’t look good for the Republicans holding them both.

Tarrant:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
092   -1,102   3,986   4,166  13,144   3,064  17,130  14,066
094   -3,344   2,238   2,655  10,231    -689  12,469  13,158
096      821   4,468   6,527  15,522   7,348  19,990  12,642
098     -489   6,891   8,798  13,948   8,309  20,839  12,530
097   -3,267   3,654   6,147  11,472   2,880  15,126  12,246
101     -734   3,487   4,523   9,808   3,789  13,295   9,506
093    2,751   5,180   9,984  15,697  12,735  20,877   8,142
091      401   2,489   5,437   8,897   5,838  11,386   5,548
090     -180   2,391   3,170   5,496   2,990   7,887   4,897
095     -613  -2,745   2,727   7,752   2,114   5,007   2,893
099    2,757   3,282   9,686  11,208  12,443  14,490   2,047

I know everyone sees Tarrant County as a disappointment in 2020. Beto broke through in 2018, we had a bunch of close districts to target, and the Republicans held them all even as Biden also carried Tarrant. The point here is that Democrats made progress in every district, in each cycle (the dip in predominantly Black and heavily Democratic HD95 in 2016 notwithstanding). That includes the strong Republican districts (HDs 91, 98, and 99), the strong D districts (HDs 90, 95, and 101), and the five swing districts. Tarrant will be another challenge for Republicans in redistricting because like in Harris they have mostly lost their deep red reserves. HD98 went from being a 75% Romney district to a 62% Trump district last year. They can spread things out a bit, but remember what happened in Dallas County in the 2010s when they got too aggressive. I’m not saying that’s what will happen in Tarrant, but you can see where the numbers are.

Collin:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
067   -3,022   8,595   6,135  19,411   3,113  28,006  24,893
066   -4,911   8,517   4,001  14,432    -910  22,949  23,859
089    1,038   6,667   9,980  17,338  11,018  24,005  12,987
033    4,656   8,268  18,234  20,233  22,890  28,501   5,611
070    7,648   8,675  21,284  25,686  28,932  34,361   5,429

Denton:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
065   -1,378   6,440   6,048  16,110   4,670  22,550  17,880
106    8,757  11,138  21,190  29,280  29,947  40,418  10,471
064    3,003   6,205   8,257  15,136  11,260  21,341  10,081
063    2,642   6,129  16,382  17,279  19,024  23,408   4,384

I’m grouping these two together because they have a lot in common. Both shifted hugely Democratic over the decade, in each case across all their districts. Both contain a district that was added to their county in the 2011 redistricting. HDs 33 (72-26 for Romney in 2012, 60-38 for Trump in 2020) and 106 (68-31 for Romney in 2012, 54-45 for Trump in 2020) were supposed to be super-red, but didn’t stay that way. I might have thought that the southernmost districts in each county – i.e., the ones closest to Dallas and Tarrant – would be the bluest, but that is not quite the case. HD65 is in southeast Denton, where it is almost entirely adjacent to HD115, but HD63 is the reddest district in Denton (61-37 Trump) and it is the other district on Denton’s south border, though it aligns almost perfectly with HD98, the reddest district in Tarrant. HD64 is the next most Dem district in Denton, and it’s in the northwest quadrant, catty-corner to HD65. I have to assume this is a function of development more than who its closest neighbors are; I’m sure someone who knows Denton better than I can comment on that.

In Collin, HDs 66 and 67 are on the southern end of that county, but so is HD89, where it abuts Rockwall County more than it does Dallas. HD70 is north of 67 and 89, and HD33 (which contains all of Rockwall County) is the outer edge of the county to the west, north, and east, dipping down into Rockwall from there. Both counties continue their massive growth, and I expect them to have at least one more district in them next decade. Republicans have more room to slosh voters around, but as above, the trends are not in their favor.

There are of course other counties that are growing a lot and not in a way that favors Republicans. Here are two more of them.

Williamson:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
136       52  10,901   7,842  22,330   7,894  33,231  25,337
052    2,422   8,335  11,479  22,872  13,901  31,207  17,306
020    7,373   2,895  20,820  14,926  28,193  17,821 -10,372

Fort Bend:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
026   -4,573   9,082   7,327  13,556   2,754  22,638  19,884
028    4,053  14,090  19,260  24,010  23,313  38,100  14,787
027     -461   4,708   6,324  13,724   5,863  18,432  12,569
085    2,908   5,495  10,258  10,161  13,166  15,656   2,490

HD20 also includes Milam and Burnet counties, and I suspect that’s where most of the Republican growth is. HD85 also includes Jackson and Wharton counties. The previous version of HD52 had flipped Dem in 2008, the first such incursion into the formerly all-red suburbs, before flipping back in 2010, but neither it (55-42 for Romney) nor the newcomer HD136 (55-41 Romney) were ever all that red. There were some maps drawn in the 2011 redistricting process (not by Republicans, of course) that carved HD26 out as a heavily Asian swing district (it went 63-36 for Romney as drawn), but it just needed time for the “swing” part to happen. Of the various targets from 2018 and 2020, it’s one that I feel got away, and I wish I understood that better.

Brazoria:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
029      496   8,084  10,828  15,387  11,324  23,471  12,147
025    1,759     215   8,293   3,874  10,052   4,089  -5,963

Galveston:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
024    2,403   3,959  13,045   8,928  15,448  12,887  -2,561
023    3,847     346  11,123   7,296  14,970   7,642  -7,328

Montgomery:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
015   -1,563   7,905  13,226  15,512  11,663  23,417  11,754
016    7,437   2,437  16,088   7,160  23,525   9,597 -13,928
003    7,758   1,807  17,456   8,286  25,214  10,093 -15,121

We’ve looked at these counties before, this is just a more fine-grained approach. Note that HD03 includes all of Waller County, HD25 includes all of Matagorda County, and HD23 includes all of Chambers County. HD23 was already Republican in 2012 when Craig Eiland still held it (Romney carried it 54.6 to 44.2) and while it has gotten more so since then (Trump won it 57.5 to 41.0), that has mostly been fueled by the Republican growth in Chambers. I did a quick calculation on the data from the Galveston County election results page, and Biden carried the Galveston part of HD23 by a slim margin, 29,019 to 28,896. (Republican rep Mayes Middleton won that part of the district 29,497 to 27,632, so this tracks.) The rest of Galveston, the northern part that’s all Houston suburb, is much more Republican, but like with these other two counties one can see a path forward from here. What to do about the likes of Chambers County, that’s another question.

HD29 in Brazoria should have been a target in 2018 but the Dem who won the primary dropped out of the race, and there was no traction that I could see there in 2020. I expect that district to get a little redder, but the same story as elsewhere applies in that the geographic trends are a force that won’t be stopped by boundary lines. As for Montgomery, there are your signs of progress right there. HD15 is still very red, but as I’ve said before, the first goal is to bend the curve, and we’re on the right track there. HD15 is basically the Woodlands and Shenandoah, just north of HD150, while HD03 wraps around it and HD16 is the north end of the county.

Lubbock:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
084     -474     873   4,124   6,975   3,650   7,848   4,198
083    3,359     242  12,224   5,141  15,583   5,383 -10,200

Smith:


Dist  12-16R  12-16D  16-20R  16-20D  12-20R  12-20D Dem net
============================================================
006       67     938   6,922   6,208   6,989   7,146     157
005    4,565  -1,293   9,646   2,832  14,211   1,539 -12,672

These two districts, on opposite ends of the state, may seem odd to be paired together, but they have a couple of things in common. Both contain one district that is entirely within its borders (HD06 in Smith, HD84 in Lubbock) and one district that contains the rest of their population plus several smaller neighboring counties (HD05 also contains Wood and Rains counties, while HD83 contains six other counties). Both have a city that is the bulk of of its population (the city of Lubbock has over 90% of the population of Lubbock County, while a bit less than half of Smith County is in the city of Tyler). And both provide a bit of evidence for my oft-stated thesis that these smaller cities in Texas, which are often in otherwise fairly rural and very Republican areas, provide the same kind of growth opportunity for Democrats that the bigger cities have provided.

Both HDs 06 and 84 were less red than Smith and Lubbock counties overall: Smith County was 69-30 for Trump, HD06 was 68-32 for Matt Schaefer; Lubbock County was 65-33 for Trump, and HD84 was 61-39 for John Frullo. I didn’t go into the precinct details to calculate the Trump/Biden numbers in those districts, but given everything we’ve seen I’d say we could add another point or two into the Dem column for each. HD84 shows a clear Democratic trend while HD06 is more of a mixed bag, but it’s still a slight net positive over the decade and a damn sight better than HD05. HD06 is not close to being competitive while HD84 is on the far outer fringes, but that’s not the main point. It’s the potential for Democratic growth, for which we will need every little contribution we can get, that I want to shout from the rooftops. The big cities and big growing suburbs are our top tier, but we’d be fools to ignore the places like Lubbock and Tyler.

What are the limits on limiting vaccination requirements?

News item #1: Carnival will require COVID vaccinations for all passengers cruising from Galveston:

Carnival Cruise Line today announced plans to begin cruising from the Port of Galveston on July 3.

Cruises will be open to customers who are fully vaccinated, meaning that they can show proof that they received their final dose of vaccine at least 14 days before the cruise begins.

“The current CDC requirements for cruising with a guest base that is unvaccinated will make it very dificult to deliver the experience our guests expect, especially given the large number of families with younger children who sail with us,” Christine Duffy, president of Carnival, said in a press release. “As a result, our alternative is to operate our ships from the U.S. during the month of July with vaccinated guests.”

The Carnival Vista will begin operations on July 3, followed by the Carnival Breeze on July 15.

On the one hand, that sounds not only eminently sensible – I mean, cruise ships are often called “floating petri dishes”, and I say that as someone who has enjoyed going on a couple of cruises – it’s something that the cruise industry itself may see as existential. Who would want to put themselves in an extremely enclosed space with hundreds if not thousands of possibly virus-shedding people if they didn’t have to? Who would want to work under those conditions? If there’s one activity that scores near the top of the scale on “non-essential services” and “high-risk for COVID spread”, it’s going on a cruise. Who in their right mind would not want to encourage, if not outright mandate, cruise passengers being vaccinated before getting on board?

Hold that thought while we note news items #2, As Carnival requires vaccines for cruisers, Abbott to sign ban on ‘vaccine passports’.

Texas businesses cannot require their customers to prove their COVID-19 vaccine status under a bill soon to be signed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The measure, Senate Bill 968, outlaws so-called “vaccine passports” and prevents businesses from asking consumers to show their vaccine cards to receive services. Abbott had issued a similar executive order in April, though that applied only to state agencies and other organizations that receive public funding.

“I’m signing a law today that prohibits any business operating in Texas from requiring vaccine passports or any vaccine information,” Abbott tweeted Monday. “Texas is open 100 percent without any restrictions or limitations or requirements.”

The Senate approved the measure unanimously in April, and the House passed it by a vote of 146-2 in May. Because it earned two-thirds support in both chambers, the bill will take effect immediately after Abbott signs it.

Any business that does not comply with the law “is not eligible to receive a grant or enter into a contract payable with state funds.” State agencies may also “require compliance … as a condition for a license, permit, or other state authorization necessary for conducting business in this state.”

It should be noted that SB968 is a much larger bill that has to do with disaster preparedness and response – it has sections on things like personal protection equipment contracts, a disease prevention information system, wellness checks for medically fragile individuals, and more – so while it does impose this restriction on “vaccine passports”, it’s very much not just about that.

That said, the answer to my rhetorical question is “Republican governors”. Florida’s top madman Ron DeSantis imposed a similar ban on cruise ships that depart from that state. As the story notes, the cruise industry operates in multiple states and in international waters – the ships themselves fly under various foreign flags. Also, too, the specific term “vaccine passports” is basically meaningless now, no such thing currently exists. But one way or another, we have an irresistible force careening into an immovable object. Something is going to have to give, and unless one side or the other backs down, it will surely be up to the federal courts to sort this out. In the meantime, if you yearn to party on the high seas again, check the fine print on your cruise contracts. The Press and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: One more thing to consider:

In other words, this is more hot air than anything else. Still likely to be fought out in court, but the stakes may not be as high as you think.

The freeze was hard on the trees

Palm trees in particular.

Galveston’s majestic palm trees could be another casualty of Texas’s four-day freeze last month.

The cold snap that left millions of Texans without power and caused burst pipes across the state has also had a pronounced effect on local vegetation. Weeks after the freeze, with the winter weather now normalizing to mild temperatures for the region, many trees in Galveston remain in a torpid state — with brown leaves, broken branches and a general hang-dog appearance.

“Your queen palms, Japanese blueberry trees, citrus trees, olive trees — there’s probably a 90 percent chance that those are just really not going to come back,” said Orvis Himebaugh, owner of Tree Worxx, a company that specializes in tree servicing in Galveston County and the Houston area.

Galveston’s iconic palms, synonymous with the island’s laid-back ethos, bore the brunt of the impact from the harsh weather. The lofty trees — there are more than 20 species of palms on Galveston Island — are surprisingly resilient, able to withstand the region’s volatile climate from hurricanes and tropical storms to the occasional frost. But the sustained subfreezing temperatures and vicious winds in February proved too severe for the trees to overcome.

Himebaugh said the palms on the island’s West End were hit particularly hard by the freeze, as there are fewer buildings on that part of Galveston to shield the trees from being pummeled by arctic winds. He added it will take up to two months to determine whether any of the damaged trees will perk up.

In Houston, where palm trees are also flagging from the spate of cold weather, the official prognosis is that it’s too soon to tell which will survive. Jeremy Burkes, division manager of urban forestry for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, said it could take anywhere from six months to a year for trees to make a full recovery.

“It (a palm tree) is completely brown, there’s a good chance that it may not make it,” Burkes said. “But if there’s any, any sign of green, then we’re hopeful that the tree is going to thrive and come back.”

As the story notes, there was some variation in the damage to the Galveston palms based on geography – some places had more wind than others, which magnified the effect of the freeze. Houston palm trees generally did better than those in Galveston. There’s one on my street that appears to have ridden it out. We won’t know for a few months if the damage is permanent or if some of these trees can recover. Just another thing to worry about.

We also have to worry about water

Hopefully not for too much longer.

On Friday, as the ice melted and lights flickered back on in homes and businesses across the state, Texans were melting snow into their toilet tanks and mopping up water from busted pipes.

The state’s power outage disaster had firmly transitioned into a water crisis.

The state’s power grid operators declared the worst is behind us, as most Texans have their power restored and the Electric Reliability Council of Texas is no longer calling for forced outages. They said residents can resume normal consumption of electricity.

But about half of the states’ population is still battling water infrastructure problems because of the cold weather — made worse as temperatures ticked up above freezing leading to pipes and water lines bursting.

For Texans who do have water, millions are being told to boil it before consuming in cities across the state including Houston, San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, Arlington, Galveston and Corpus Christi.

The state is accelerating efforts to restore water to Texans, Gov. Greg Abbott said at a Friday press conference. The state will connect overloaded local facilities with other labs to expedite clean-water testing efforts and grow the number of plumbers available to fix broken pipes, he said.

More than 1,180 public water systems in 160 counties reported disruptions from the winter storms, affecting 14.6 million people as of Friday morning, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Reduced water pressure — due to pump failures and increased demand from burst pipes and millions of people dripping their faucets for days on end — is the root of the problem for many of these infrastructure problems. Reduced water pressure can lead to harmful bacteria growing in the water. Other times, power outages have prevented treatment centers from properly treating water.

“When the pressure drops significantly you can’t maintain water quality standards,” Texas Water Foundation CEO Sarah Rountree Schlessinger said. “You got to have that energy come back online … then, allow for sufficient time for pressurization, and then for water quality testing to occur.”

Water pressure improved noticeably at our house from Friday to Saturday – it feels pretty close to normal now, though I can’t say for certain. There’s likely a lot of stress on the system as well, as people who are newly back in their powered homes are showering and washing dishes and laundry. It’s hard to resist, but do try to keep your usage modest for the next few days.

Of course, if your pipes are busted, you’re not using any water anyway.

City and county leaders on Friday said tens of thousands of area residents and business owners suffered burst water pipes or other damage from the winter storm this week, with the resulting property damage likely costing tens of millions of dollars.

The Harris County engineer’s office estimated 55,000 homes in unincorporated portions of the county likely have pipe damage. The city reported it has received some 4,900 calls to its 311 system for water breaks, a figure officials said likely pales in comparison to the number of residents who have not reported the damage to City Hall.

“That number is higher, probably much higher,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding that many people — including himself and some City Council members — shut off their water without calling the city. “There are still breaks that exist in our city that have yet to be reported, and the water is still running.”

With power restored to nearly all residents, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the most serious problems remain access to water and food.

“We’ve been in touch with the major grocery stores, and they said the supply chains will catch up by this weekend,” Hidalgo said. “The issue, of course, is hoarding. So, I’ve been asking folks to only purchase what they need for their own families.”

Turner has said the city will work with the county to launch a fund to help residents confront the costs of repairing their pipes and the damage water has done to their homes, though details on that fund have not been announced yet.

The major disaster declaration may help with that as well. We dealt with busted pipes on Thursday – we were fortunate that our regular plumber put his regular customers at the top of his priority list, and that meant he could deal with us. We had something like nine cracked pipes, all under the house, all now replaced. Not cheap, but we’re in a position to be able to afford it. (The total amount was less than the deductible on our homeowners insurance, so it was all on us to pay, in case you were wondering.) Lots of people are going to need help with their repairs, and they should get it with as little resistance or red tape as possible.

We should also remember, it can always be worse.

Residents of San Angelo, a West Texas city in the Concho Valley, have gone days without safe drinking water after city officials discovered industrial chemicals contaminated the water system.

The crisis — which stretches into at least its fifth day Friday — in the city of 101,000 people has left residents frustrated and scared after the city told them Monday night to cease all uses of water other than flushing their toilets. They were also told that first boiling the water before use would not make it usable and, instead, only more dangerous.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality found the water, which smelled like chemicals or mothballs, is contaminated with benzene, acetone, naphthalene and other chemicals consistent with industrial production.

That story is from Monday, before we all froze solid. I’m sure the frigid weather, and the fact that you can’t fix water than has benzene in it by boiling it, has made the situation that much worse. I don’t know how things are today in San Angelo, but I sure hope those folks are getting the help they need.

More vaccination hubs

Keep ’em coming.

State health officials Saturday announced 79 hub providers that are expected to receive allotments of COVID-19 vaccines this week, including newly designated hubs in some suburbs of Houston.

The hub providers include two in Galveston County, one each in Fort Bend County, Montgomery County and Liberty County and six in Harris County, according to a list of the hubs that are intended to focus on mass vaccination efforts. Officials plan to distribute 333,650 first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 260 providers across the state. Additionally, the state will order about 500,000 doses expected to be the second ones for people who received their first shot a few weeks ago.

Earlier this month, the Houston region’s three hubs were all in Harris County, making officials in some surrounding counties fear they’d been forgotten. The Texas Department of State Health Services previously said more hubs were likely to be added but that the main obstacle was a short supply of vaccines.

“In the past week, Texas became the first state to administer 1 million doses of vaccine, and vaccine has been administered to residents of all 254 counties,” state health officials said in announcing the allocation breakdown of the week’s doses. “Vaccine remains limited based on the capacity of the manufacturers to produce it, so it will take time for Texas to receive enough vaccine for all the people in the priority populations who want to be vaccinated.”

The vaccine first arrived in Texas on December 14, so that million doses was administered over about five weeks, or less than 30K per day. Things have surely picked up since the first few days, with the emergence of hubs. We’re still working to get to that 50K per day minimum target, which as we have discussed is still a 20-month time frame. Getting the rate higher than that is going to depend on the federal supply, which was very much over-promised and under-delivered by the Trump administration. But today is a new day, and now we have a new President, and things should be looking up soon. Let’s all hope so.

Precinct analysis: Appellate courts, part 1

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions

My next two posts in this series will focus on the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals. These courts are a little strange electorally, as the elections cover ten counties in all, and over the past few elections they have proven to be pretty darned balanced. As we know, turnout in Harris County has gone up a lot in recent years, and the county has gone from evenly split to strongly blue, yet the balance in these ten counties persists. In this post, I’m going to do a bit of a historical review, to look at the trends and see if we can spot the underlying metrics.


2008 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.58%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,111,642  70.74%   585,249  52.65%
Others     459,704  29.26%   209,510  45.57%

2012 - 14th CoA Pl 3 (47.74%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,137,580  69.82%   580,356  51.01%
Others     491,673  30.18%   197,511  40.17%

2016 - 1st CoA Pl 4 (48.95%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,273,638  69.00%   671,908  52.76%
Others     572,258  31.00%   231,702  40.49%

2018 - 1st CoA Pl 2 (50.93%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,187,403  68.63%   647,398  54.52%
Others     542,765  31.37%   233,693  43.06%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.76%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,122  68.23%   856,056  54.35%
Others     733,364  31.77%   314,644  42.90%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 5 (50.10%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,903  68.24%   845,951  53.75%
Others     732,455  31.76%   309,497  42.25%

2020 - 14th CoA Chief Justice (49.97%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,801  68.23%   841,923  53.43%
Others     733,698  31.77%   312,231  42.56%

2020 - 14th CoA Pl 7 (49.57%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,716  68.25%   833,925  52.99%
Others     732,057  31.75%   309,115  42.23%

A couple of points of explanation here. For 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2018, I picked the top Democratic performer among the appellate court candidates. For 2008, that meant the one Democratic winner. In 2018, as every Dem won their race, I went with the candidate with the narrowest victory, since what I’m most interested in is the threshold needed to win. For 2020, I included all four candidates.

In each table, I separated out the total votes cast in that race from Harris County, and from all the other counties. “Share” is the share of the vote that came from Harris County, so in the 2008 race 70.74% of the total vote came from Harris County. “DemVotes” is the total number of votes the Democratic candidate got, in Harris and in the other counties, and “Dem%” is the percentage of the vote that Democratic candidate got.

We see that the share of the vote from Harris County has dropped every year, from over 70% in 2008 to a bit more than 68% this year. That doesn’t appear to be predictive of anything, as Dems swept these races in 2018 and won two out of four this year, with the lowest-performing Dem having (by a tiny amount) the largest Harris County vote share. The rise of Fort Bend County as a Democratic bastion has no doubt mitigated the shrinking contribution from Harris, but that points out again the importance of counties around Harris, as the reddening of Galveston and the smaller counties has kept these races competitive. One thing I hadn’t realized till I went through this exercise was that Waller County was quite close to even in 2008, but gave Republicans a 7K vote edge in 2020. Indeed, Dem candidates in Waller in 2020 were getting about the same number of votes as Dem candidates in Waller in 2008, after two cycles of failing to meet the 2008 number, as the Republican vote steadily climbed. As we have discussed before, Jane Robinson lost her race by 0.06 percentage points, or a bit more than a thousand votes out of over 1.5 million votes cast. In a race that close, you can point to many, many ways in which a small difference would have changed the outcome.

That’s one reason why these races interest me so much. For one, the appellate courts were a place where Dems made numerous pickups in 2020, yet still fell a bit short of expectations – I at least thought we’d win all four of these, given how well we’d done in 2018. But as you can see, it wasn’t quite to be. I don’t want to downplay the races we did win – Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra are both terrific candidates, and they are now the only Latinas on that court – I’m just greedy enough to have wanted more.

What’s frustrating to me is that I can’t tell what I think is the magic formula here. The difference between Guerra, who won by four thousand votes and 0.20 percentage points, and Robinson is tiny enough to be rounding error. The main difference is that Guerra won Harris County by ten thousand votes more than Robinson did, while Robinson did five thousand votes better in the other counties than Guerra did (she lost them by 421K while Guerra lost them by 426K). We know that Latinx candidates generally did better in Harris County this year than their peers, but that wasn’t the case outside Harris County. And even if it was, that’s not much of a lesson to learn. It was a game of inches, and we won one and lost one.

Ultimately, I think the path here is the same as the path I’ve described in the various “key counties” posts. We’re starting to move in the right direction in Brazoria County, and if we can keep that going that could be enough to tip the scales to the blue side on a longer-term basis. Basically, if we keep doing what we’re doing we’ll likely be at least competitive in these races, and if we can step it up a bit, especially but not exclusively in Brazoria, we can do better than that. Maybe not the deepest insight you’ll ever read, but it’s what I’ve got.

(Assuming that the judicial districts don’t get redrawn, which I suppose they could. In 2004, the First and Fourteenth districts included Burleson, Trinity, and Walker Counties plus the current ten. We’d have zero chance of winning these races if those three were added back in. I have no idea what the process or criteria for defining the judicial districts is. I’m just saying that if Republicans decided to do something about this, they probably could.)

Next up, I’ll do the district breakdown for these four races in Harris County. After that, more judicial races and then on to the other county races. As always, let me know what you think.

The regional COVID situation

Not great, Bob.

COVID-19 is surging across southeast Texas, especially in the suburban counties outside of Houston, which have seen a steady increase in the number of new cases, data show. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, Liberty, and Montgomery counties have all had higher COVID-19 cases per capita than at any point during the pandemic. Chambers County leads the region with 463 virus cases per 10,000 residents, followed by Galveston County with 433 cases per capita, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle.

Experts say the latest spike is driven by a combination of factors — public fatigue from basic COVID-19 restrictions such as mask wearing and social distancing, but also more family gatherings in households and larger groups in bars and restaurants. While case counts are consistently much higher than they were in previous weeks and months, they have yet to equal the peak seen during the summer.

Yet the virus’s resurgence in places like Galveston County has put business owners like Railean on edge, owing to an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott that could trigger new restrictions — including the complete closure of some bars — if regional virus hospitalizations exceed 15 percent of hospitals’ total bed capacity for seven consecutive days. At a time when thousands of restaurants — as many as 10,000 across the state, per the Texas Restaurant Association — have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, further closures could be catastrophic for the industry.

“It would be absolutely devastating to lose this holiday season, devastating to our businesses,” said Gina Spagnola, president of the Galveston Chamber of Commerce.

The Texas Department of State Health Services divides each of the state’s 254 counties into 22 “trauma service areas” which coordinate systems of emergency healthcare and preparedness for their respective regions. Galveston, Chambers, Brazoria, and Liberty Counties are part of a nine-county region trauma service area where COVID-19 hospitalizations have spiked significantly since early November. On Saturday, the region’s rate of hospital beds in use by covid-infected patients eclipsed the 15 percent mark for the first time before dipping back down to 13 percent by Tuesday.

After seven consecutive days above that 15 percent mark, per Abbott’s executive order, the state health agency would notify county judges in all nine counties of the following restrictions: hospitals must suspend elective surgeries; businesses including restaurants, retail stores, offices gyms, and museums would be limited to 50 percent capacity; and bars and other establishments with more than 51 percent alcohol sales must close.

I wish the Chron had included the comparable number for Harris County. I tried computing it myself based on the Chron’s coronavirus page and 2019 Census numbers I found on Wikipedia, but I got higher totals for Chambers and Galveston than what the story gives. The Harris County number I calculate by the same method was lower than those two, but I don’t know how to adjust them, so we’ll leave it at that. I could still probably make a moral comparison between Harris’s more strenuous effort to combat the virus and the more lax attitude of some neighbors, but I don’t know what that would accomplish at this point. The bulk of the blame for all this remains with Donald Trump, Greg Abbott, and the Senate for not passing further COVID relief, which among other things might have helped all these businesses to survive without being open. We can’t wind the clock back and make Trump take COVID seriously, but we could still do the stimulus. Greg Abbott could still tell our Senators to demand that the Senate pass something that would help our state and our businesses. I’m going to keep saying that, every time. On so many levels, it didn’t have to be like this.

Counties of interest, part one: Around Harris

There’s been so much focus in the past couple of years about the suburbs and how their traditional voting patterns have changed. I wanted to use the election results we have to take a closer look at what that means. My approach is to look at the results in the counties that surround the large urban counties in Texas, and see what we can infer from the Presidential election data since 2012. A few things to note before we get started.

– I will be looking at the counties that border Harris, Dallas/Tarrant, Travis, and Bexar. I’m skipping El Paso because there’s only one county in the state that is adjacent to it.

– I’m using Presidential results from 2012, 2016, and 2020. As we have discussed, this is only one dimension to the data, but I want to keep this fairly simple. We can discern direction from these numbers, and that’s good enough for these purposes.

– I’m going back to 2012 to provide some extra context. I could have gone back further, and maybe I will take a look at trends since 2004 in some counties at a later date, but I think keeping this study to after the 2010 election, when rural areas gave up the pretense of supporting Democrats at any level, makes more sense.

– In the chart below and in subsequent posts, “Shift” is the change in net votes from a Democratic perspective, from 2012 to 2020. A positive number means Democrats did better in 2020 than in 2012, and a negative number means Republicans did better. So for example, Obama trailed in Brazoria County by 36,431 votes, but Biden trailed by 28,159 votes, so a shift in the Democrat direction by 8,282 votes. Obama lost Chambers County by 8,997 votes, Biden lost it by 13,346 votes, so a shift of 4,329 away from Dems. Make sense?

All right. Let’s start with the seven counties that border Harris County.


County       Romney    Obama    Trump  Clinton    Trump    Biden    Shift
=========================================================================
Brazoria     70,862   34,421   72,791   43,200   89,939   61,780    8,282
Chambers     11,787    2,790   13,339    2,948   17,343    3,997   -4,349
Fort Bend   116,126  101,144  117,291  134,686  157,595  195,191   52,578
Galveston    69,059   39,511   73,757   43,658   93,306   58,247   -5,511
Liberty      17,323    5,202   18,892    4,862   23,288    5,779   -5,388
Montgomery  137,969   32,920  150,314   45,835  193,224   74,255  -13,920
Waller        9,244    6,514   10,531    5,748   14,206    8,130   -3,346

The first thing that should be clear is that just because a county borders a big urban county, that doesn’t mean it’s suburban. For sure Montgomery and Fort Bend and Brazoria and Galveston meet that definition, though all four of those counties also have some very rural areas, but I daresay no one thinks of Chambers or Liberty or Waller that way. Yet while the first four are seen as places of booming population growth, the other three are doing their share of growing, too. Chambers County has doubled in population since 1990. Waller County has more than doubled in that timespan. Liberty County is up by almost 75%.

But they’re still small. None has a city with more than ten thousand people in it, so they don’t have much in common with the other counties. Maybe it’s different for you, but while I personally know plenty of people in Brazoria, Fort Bend, Galveston, and Montgomery Counties, I know all of one in the other three. I drive through Waller now and then on my way to Austin or to Camp Allen when my daughters were going there, but I couldn’t tell you the last time I was in Chambers or Liberty.

I say all this to note that while Montgomery is the driving force behind the Republican strength in this area, with Galveston right behind it thanks to places like Friendswood and League City, the other three counties have increased the Republican bottom line over the past few elections by a significant amount as well, with far fewer people in them. Jane Robinson would be the incoming Chief Justice of the 14th Court of Appeals if Chambers County had had the same numbers in 2020 as they had in 2016. It makes a difference.

Part of the reason I’m doing this is just to highlight the places where we’re losing ground, if only so we can be aware of it. We’ve got our arms around Fort Bend County, and Brazoria is starting to head in the right direction. Montgomery and Galveston are problems, but we have infrastructure in those places, and just by virtue of being suburban I have some reason to think we’ll get to a turning point. I have no idea what exists in the other three counties to promote Democratic policies or candidates. We need a strategy for these places, and the resources to carry it out. We don’t need to win them – we’re no more likely to win Chambers than we are to win Montgomery any time soon – but we at least need to keep up with Republican voter growth.

That’s a theme I’m going to return to more than once a I proceed through these. I don’t pretend to know what the right answers are, I’m just trying to make sure we know there are problems that need to be addressed. I hope you find this helpful.

Harris County posts updated election results

From Twitter:

You want to get my attention on Twitter, that’s a good way to do it. For comparison purposes, the unofficial final election night returns that the Clerk’s office sent out are here. The still-unofficial (because they haven’t yet been certified by Commissioners Court) results are here, though that URL may be temporary. A couple of highlights:

– Final turnout is now given as 1,656,686, an increase of 7,113 over the originally given total of 1,649,573. Turnout was 68.14% as a percentage of registered voters.

– Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump grew from 212,152 total votes to 217,563 total votes. The final score is now 918,193 to 700,630 for Biden.

– A couple of the close races changed by tiny amounts. Lizzie Fletcher’s margin of victory grew from 10,217 to 10,475 total votes. Jon Rosenthal lost 17 votes off his lead to Justin Ray to finish exactly 300 votes ahead, while Gina Calanni fell an additional 59 votes behind Mike Schofield.

– The two appellate court races cited by Adams-Hurta were of great interest to me. Amparo Guerra is leading on the SOS election night results page over Terry Adams by 1,367 votes out of 2.3 million votes cast. Meanwhile, Jane Robinson trailed Tracy Christopher by 4,311 votes. Could either of these races be affected? I had to check the other county election results pages as well, to see what final results were now in. This is what I got:


County       TC EN      JR EN      TC fin     JR fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,440      2,680      11,606      2,698     -148
Brazoria    91,378     57,684      91,378     57,684        0
Chambers    17,200      3,720      17,200      3,720        0
Colorado     7,351      2,281       7,351      2,281        0
Fort Bend  161,423    176,466     161,532    176,662       87
Galveston   94,759     54,178      95,355     54,623     -151
Grimes       9,305      2,647       9,318      2,650     - 10
Harris     734,315    838,895     733,878    841,923    3,465
Waller      14,245      7,501      14,302      7,556     -  2
Washington  12,852      3,905      12,852      3,905        0

Total    1,154,268  1,149,957   1,154,772  1,153,702

County       TA EN      AG EN      TA fin     AG fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,468      2,632      11,632      2,649     -147
Brazoria    91,430     57,174      91,430     57,174        0
Chambers    17,180      3,656      17,180      3,656        0
Colorado     7,393      2,217       7,393      2,217        0
Fort Bend  162,238    175,460     162,338    175,664      104
Galveston   95,057     53,375      95,643     53,820     -151
Grimes       9,351      2,570       9,364      2,572     - 11
Harris     728,402    842,905     727,952    845,951    3,496
Waller      14,303      7,459      14,364      7,508     - 12
Washington  13,043      3,784      13,043      3,784        0

Total    1,149,865  1,151,232   1,150,339  1,154,995

The first table is Tracy Christopher (TC) versus Jane Robinson (JR), the second is Terry Adams (TA) versus Amparo Guerra (AG). The first two columns represent the Election Night (EN) numbers as posted on their SOS pages, the second columns are the final numbers now posted on the county sites. Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, and Washington still have their Election Night results up, so those have no changes. The Change column is from the Democratic candidates’ perspective, so a negative number means the Republican netted more votes.

Not surprisingly, the Harris results had the biggest effect, but in the end the winners were the same. Robinson now trails by an even smaller 1,070 vote margin, while Guerra has a bit more room to breathe with a 4,656 vote lead. Given the deltas in the other counties, my guess is that both Dems will see a small net loss. A real nail-biter in both cases, and it wouldn’t have taken much to change the outcomes. For what it’s worth, the two Dems who won these races this year were both Latinas, the two Dems that lost were not. Both Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra had larger leads in Harris County than Jane Robinson and Tamika Craft had, and that was what ultimately propelled them to victory. Maybe that would be different in a different years – Dems won all these races in 2018, remember – but this year it was consequential.

I suppose it’s possible there could be recounts in some of these races, but honestly, nothing is close enough to be changed. It’s a rare year that has no recounts, though, so we’ll see. Commissioners Court will certify the Harris County results on Tuesday, the statutory deadline.

Followup omnibus Election Day post

Wanted to clear up some loose ends from the late night/early morning post and add a couple of things I’d missed the first time around. I’ll have a longer “thoughts and reactions” post probably tomorrow.

– The district results from last night appear to be the same this morning, which means: No Congressional flips, Dems flip SBOE5 and SD19, Dems flip HD134 but lose HD132, for a net one seat gain the the Senate and zero seats in the House. I don’t know how many people would have bet on no net changes to Congress and the State House.

– One other place where Dems made gains was the Courts of Appeals. Dems won the Chief Justice seats on the Third (anchored in Travis and Williamson counties) and Fourth (anchored in Bexar but containing many counties) Courts of Appeals, plus one bench on the First Court (anchored in Harris, won by Veronica Rivas-Molloy) and three on the Fifth Court (Dallas/Collin, mostly). Dems fell short on three other benches, including the Chief Justice for the 14th Court, though the other result on the First Court was really close – Amparo Guerra trails Terry Adams by 0.12%, or about 3K votes out of over 2.25 million ballots. The key to Rivas-Molloy’s win was her margin of victory in Harris County – she won Harris by 133K votes, while Guerra won Harris by 114K, Jane Robinson (Chief Justice 14th Court) won Harris by 104K, and Tamika Craft (14th Court) won Harris by 90K. With Galveston, Brazoria, and Chambers County all delivering big for the Republicans, that big lead that Rivas-Molloy got in Harris was enough to withstand the assault.

– Final turnout was 1,649,457, which was 67.84%. That fell short of the loftier projections, but it’s still over 300K more votes than were cast in 2016. The new Election Night returns format at harrisvotes.com does not give the full turnout breakdown by vote type, but the PDF they sent out, which you can see here, does have it. The breakdown: 174,753 mail ballots, 1,272,319 in person early ballots, 202,835 Election Day ballots. Note that these are unofficial and un-canvassed numbers, and will change by some amount when the vote is certified, as some late overseas and military ballots arrive and some provisional ballots are cured.

– Another way to put this: 10.6% of all ballots were mail, 77.1% were early in person, and 12.3% were cast on Election Day. Just the early in person votes is a higher percentage of “before Election Day” tallies than any previous year. Will this be a new normal, at least for high-turnout even-year elections? I have no idea. Those extra days of early voting, plus all of the sense of urgency, surely contributed to that total. I don’t know that we’ll match this level going forward, but it won’t surprise me if the standard is now more than 80% of all votes are cast before Election Day (again, in even-year elections; who knows what will happen in the odd years).

– For what it’s worth, the closest countywide race was decided by about 76K votes; the next closest by about 90K, and the rest over over 100K. What that means is that if somehow all 127K of those votes cast at drive-through locations during the early voting period were suddenly thrown out, it’s highly unlikely to affect any of those races. I suppose it could tip a close non-countywide race like HD135, and it could reduce Veronica Rivas-Molloy’s margin in Harris County to the point that she’d lose her seat on the First Court of Appeals. I can’t see that happening, but I wanted to state this for the record anyway.

I’ll have more thoughts tomorrow.

UPDATE: The SOS Election Night Returns site now shows Amparo Guerra leading by about 1,500 votes, or 0.06 points, in the First Court of Appeals, Place 5 race. Not sure where the late votes came from, but they helped her, and they helped Jane Robinson, who is still trailing but by less than 5,000 votes, or 0.18 points.

Scrambling to finish the Census

It’s a hell of a job, and it’s so important.

With a deadline looming for local governments to complete a population count for the 2020 Census, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is warning that the city could miss out on billions in federal funding for services such as road repairs and school lunches.

The reason? Less than 57 percent of the city’s residents have filled out the census form, a nine-question survey that can be completed by mail, phone or online. The city of Houston was planning a major outreach effort to avoid an undercount among young and poor people, immigrants and communities of color. The pandemic and economic insecurity from shuttered businesses, however, hampered outreach efforts and hobbled participation, officials say.

“September is the final month to respond to the Census,” Turner tweeted this month. “Over 40% of Houstonians have yet to answer 9 questions @mycensus2020.gov which could cost Houston $1500 person per year for 10 years. Please do so now.”

Sasha-Joi Marshall Smith, a city planner who has been coordinating outreach efforts, attributed low participation to political interference, civil unrest and the coronavirus pandemic. She is “terrified” about the economic and social reverberations of an undercount that’s now running about 15 percentage points behind 2010.

Every 1 percent of the population that’s not counted means $250 million in federal funding that the city is entitled to will be directed to another city, she said. “It’s that serious.”

“I tell people, ‘It’s our federal tax dollars… God forbid it goes to Dallas,’” she said. “Whether you were born here or not, it’s our job to make sure people here have basic services.”

Harris County faces a similar predicament, with just under 61 percent of residents having participated.

“There are so many pockets in Harris County where we haven’t heard from most people — perhaps a fraction of the people have responded but most have not responded,” said Tazeen Zehra, a senior census staffer in Houston.

Galveston County has had such a low return rate — 58 percent — that census workers have sought helpers from neighboring counties. Montgomery County is doing slightly better with just under 66 percent reporting. Fort Bend County has the highest participation rate in the state with more than 73 percent responding overall, including nearly 80 percent in Sugar Land.

The current deadline for local governments to complete their counts is Sept. 30. But outreach workers are hoping a federal judge will extend that deadline to Oct. 31 for the entire country at a court hearing in California next week. Harris County Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia joined as plaintiffs in the California case because they’re concerned that their districts will be undercounted without an extension. The Trump administration previously offered an extension, then withdrew the offer.

We’ve discussed the challenges of the Census many times. The undercounting issue is so pervasive that even our retrograde state leadership has been forced to try to do something about it. There’s a temporary restraining order in that California lawsuit to which Commissioners Ellis and Garcia are parties, with a hearing scheduled for the 17th. I think the odds are good that the plaintiffs will prevail since “arbitrary and capricious” is the standard operating procedure for this administration, but even with those extra 31 days it’s going to be tough to get an adequate count. As with so many other things these days, this did not have to happen.

On a related note:

A three-judge federal panel in New York has ruled that the Trump administration cannot keep undocumented immigrants from being counted when lawmakers reapportion congressional districts next year — an effort that could have potentially cost Texas several seats in Congress.

In a significant departure from the way representation is typically divided up, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum in July directing Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to exclude undocumented immigrants from the base population used to distribute seats in Congress. But in its Thursday ruling, the panel of judges deemed the memo an “unlawful exercise of authority granted to the President.”

The constitutionally mandated count each 10 years of every person residing in the country is used to determine congressional representation from each state. Excluding undocumented residents from the counts used to parcel out congressional districts would likely lead to a drastic realignment of political power throughout Texas.

Trump pursued the change by arguing that the U.S. Constitution does not define “which persons must be included” in that base population. But the New York panel of judges blocked Ross, who oversees the census, from providing any information on the number of undocumented people in each state.

See here for the background. This would almost certainly cost the state of Texas at least one if not two of the Congressional seats that it’s otherwise likely to get. Not that any of our state leaders care, going by their utter lack of any reaction to that memorandum. The courts can’t save us from everything, but they have been there at times like this.

No, seriously, what are we going to do to prepare for the next Hurricane Laura?

I mean, the next one is coming whether we’re ready or not. We just don’t know when it will be here.

Though the storm ultimately tracked east, sparing Houston, the problem remains: The region is disastrously unready to handle any of the three main threats of an intense hurricane: a high surge, damaging winds and — even three years after Hurricane Harvey — flooding.

While Harvey’s devastating stall over the Houston area has resulted in billions of dollars of investment in flood control infrastructure and new regulations, Laura reminded the region of what a different kind of storm could do.

In its wake, leaders have made impassioned pleas about preparing for when — not if — that storm does arrive. Most notably, they have ramped up calls for federal funding on a so-called “coastal spine,” a system of levees, gates and dunes first proposed after Hurricane Ike in 2008, to protect the region from a storm surge.

Those plans, though, remain mired in the slog of the federal approval process. The kind of political will and cohesion needed to fast-track such infrastructure typically only forms after disasters, not before.

[…]

There are signs the region has reached an inflection point on the need to protect against that threat. A growing consensus among local officials around the effects of climate change has shifted the public policy debate to figuring out which infrastructure projects will help stave off its worst effects, and at what cost.

The proposed coastal spine, a 71-mile-long barrier system to protect the southeast Texas coast, has received the most attention since it was taken up by the Army Corps of Engineers in October 2018.

The plan is an outgrowth of the “Ike Dike” concept first pitched more than a decade ago by William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston. It includes a series of gates that stretch the two-mile length of Bolivar Road, twin rows of 14-foot-high sand dunes across Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula, a ring levee around Galveston’s city center and investments in ecosystem restoration.

The price tag has been put at $23 billion to $32 billion, with the dunes and sea gate at the ship channel alone costing up to $18 billion of that. It is in the midst of a five-year design and study process and is on track to be sent to Congress for final approval in May 2021.

“Quite frankly, we need it yesterday,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said last week. “We’re running out of lives, so to speak.”

Even on the most optimistic timeline, the coastal barrier is 10 to 15 years from becoming a reality. With the Houston-Galveston region a perennial target during the Atlantic hurricane season, there is a growing urgency to find a more expedient, cheaper solution.

The Galveston Bay Park Plan, first proposed by the Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education & Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center in 2015, includes similar protection features as the coastal spine, but adds a mid-bay barrier island system with a 25-foot wall that would protect the industrial complexes and densely populated areas in the west and northwest sections of Galveston Bay.

Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and co-director of the SSPEED Center, says the plan could provide vital protection a lot sooner than the coastal spine, but that it also could complement that barrier. He estimates that if allowed to use dredging spoils from the planned widening of the Houston Ship Channel to build the barrier islands, the project could be completed by 2027 at a fraction of the cost of the coastal spine — an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion.

“You have a coastal defense and that’s your first line of defense and then you come in with your in-bay defense, that is really the one that can protect against your bigger storms,” Blackburn said. “It’s very much almost like thinking in a military sense of how do you defend against an enemy invasion?”

See here and here for some background. I’m of the opinion that we just need to start building something, and that the price tag is a mirage, because the federal government can absolutely afford this. What we can’t afford is to sit around on our asses until the devastating storm we’ve been warned about for years comes and wipes our unprepared selves right off the map.

Coronavirus and hurricane shelters

Two things we have to be thinking about today.

Houston officials and public health experts are expressing concern that Tropical Storm Laura could amplify the spread of COVID-19 by displacing residents to public shelters or residences outside the area, increasing opportunities for transmission.

With that scenario in mind, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Sunday encouraged Houstonians to get tested for COVID-19 before the storm makes landfall. Forecasters have predicted it will come ashore late Wednesday or early Thursday, though the path remained uncertain by Monday evening.

Officials from Harris County and the American Red Cross began preparing for potential shelter needs months ago, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Monday. At Red Cross shelters, officials will provide face coverings, conduct health screenings and follow federal social distancing guidance, the organization announced in a news release. It also will operate more shelters with a reduced capacity in each.

“This is not a situation where we would have the same kind of shelters we’re used to, where it’s completely open space and no division between folks,” Hidalgo said.

Turner, who urged people to get tested on Monday or Tuesday, tweeted, “You need to know your status for yourself, family members and friends.”

[…]

Dr. Peter Hotez, an immunologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, said that while disaster officials may come up with creative solutions to help contain the spread of COVID, public shelters would be “a nightmare even under the best circumstances.”

The effect may be especially pronounced, Hotez said, because those most likely to seek shelter in a public setting come from low-income communities where people are more vulnerable to the effects of COVID due to the prevalence of underlying health conditions.

It also would be difficult for contact tracers to follow the spread of the virus during an evacuation, he said.

“If you think about it, without a vaccine, what do we have? We have masks, we have contact tracing and social distancing — which are not great, but it’s all we have,” Hotez said. “With a hurricane, we’ve knocked out two of our three pieces of artillery equipment.”

These are obviously not the best of circumstances. Tropical Storm Laura is now officially Hurricane Laura, and it’s already a pretty strong one. Jefferson County, Chambers County, Orange County, and Galveston County are under mandatory evacuation orders, with parts of Harris County issuing a recommendation that areas in the storm surge zone evacuate as well.

Harris County officials urged residents of some coastal areas to evacuate Tuesday as Hurricane Laura could strike the Houston region Wednesday evening.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a voluntary evacuation order Tuesday afternoon for zones A and B and urged residents to leave immediately. She warned of a storm surge of three to five feet and high winds that could knock out power.

“All of us need to be prepared for the very real potential of a direct hit from this storm,” Hidalgo said. “Of course, we hope for the best, but we don’t want to find ourselves unprepared for the worst case scenario.”

These zones include part or all of Deer Park, La Porte, League City, Friendswood, Seabrook, El Lago, Morgan’s Point and southeastern portions of the city of Houston.

[…]

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner warned residents of congested traffic on freeways heading away from the coast and urged non-evacuating residents to avoid traveling if possible. Residents in the evacuation zone should not delay, he stressed, because Laura could change course unexpectedly.

“At this point in time, if it veers further to the west and becomes more of a direct hit on Houston-Harris County, we don’t really have a lot of time,” Turner said.

The mayor urged residents to be prepared for extended power outages, and noted that some households were without electricity for two weeks after Hurricane Ike in 2008. He said people should be off the streets by 8 p.m. Wednesday, but stopped short of calling for a curfew.

Immediate safety concerns take precedence over more theoretical longer-term safety concerns. In the meantime, we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. As of last night, it looks like the worst will probably (though not 100%) miss Houston, but that means Beaumont and Port Arthur are directly in its crosshairs. We’re going to need to mobilize a strong response, because it’s going to be bad.

As a programming matter, it is certainly possible that power and/or Internet outages will have an effect on my publication schedule. That’s a pretty minor consideration, but I wanted to note it just in case. Stay safe, everyone.

Here comes Laura

Be prepared.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged residents to prepare for a hurricane as the track and intensity of Tropical Storm Laura remains uncertain.

She said the greatest threat posed by Laura likely would be high winds and a storm surge, and urged the public not to make comparisons to historical storms.

“This is not Harvey, this is not Imelda, this is not Allison. This is Laura,” Hidalgo said. “Every storm is different, and we urge folks not to use any prior storm as a template for what could or will happen.”

Laura is expected to strengthen to a hurricane Tuesday, possibly as strong as Category 2, before making landfall in southeast Texas or southwest Louisiana on Wednesday, the National Weather Service predicted Monday afternoon.

Hidalgo said residents should prepare hurricane kits and check which evacuation zone they live in.

The mayor of Port Arthur ordered an evacuation beginning Tuesday morning for the 55,000 residents of that city on the Texas-Louisiana border. City of Galveston leaders issued a voluntary evacuation for residents in low-lying areas and on the west end of the seawall.

Houston and Harris County have no present plans to order an evacuation. Hidalgo said residents in coastal areas should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, as an evacuation order likely would come sometime Tuesday.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said residents should be prepared for high traffic on freeways heading away from the coast. He asked residents to stay off the roads if possible to keep evacuation routes clear and secure anything outside their homes that could blow away in high winds.

Generally speaking, you run from flooding and you shelter from winds. Unless you’ve been told to evacuate, you should probably prepare to shelter in place. In the meantime, stay calm and check Space City Weather for the most up to date forecasts.

Revisiting the May elections

I’m ambivalent about this.

Most cities in Texas — from Galveston to Lubbock — moved their May elections to November under a pandemic-era decree by Gov. Greg Abbott.

But the choices facing voters will remain limited to candidates who filed for office months ago — at least for now.

State Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Galveston County Republican, wants to reopen the filing period for candidates to lead cities and other political jurisdictions, including school boards. He believes voters may have soured on incumbents facing little or no competition.

Middleton is asking Attorney General Ken Paxton whether the state should give candidates who want to run in a postponed local election until mid-August to file for a spot on the ballot.

“I think it’s also only fair that this occur because there are a lot of people that have been frankly unhappy with how some of the decisions… have been made in local government during this pandemic,” Middleton said.

The legal rub: Abbott’s March 18 order was silent on the filing deadline. But Abbott’s secretary of state, Ruth Hughs, wrote local officials that “the postponement does not have the effect of reopening candidate filings.”

Middleton believes that guidance is not supported by election law and Abbott’s order. Middleton, who chairs the arch-conservative Texas Freedom Caucus, contends in his July 2 letter to Paxton that Texas law clearly states that if the election day is changed or moved, the filing period rolls forward with it.

He said the ripple effects of a legal opinion by Paxton go well beyond proving greater scrutiny for elected officials who have issued shutdown orders or mask requirements, which have drawn the ire of many conservatives. Some local officials believe that tax rates adopted by cities for the coming fiscal year could greatly exceed what voters have the appetite for amid curtailed local tax revenues due to the pandemic.

I mean, I don’t agree with Mayes Middleton on much, and I think his motives for this action are screwy. But I confess that a part of me thinks that an election held in November, even if it was supposed to have been held in May but had to be postponed for whatever reason, should have a filing deadline that’s standard for a November election. On the other hand, the original filing deadline for the May 2 elections was February 14, more than a month before Abbott’s order that rescheduled the thing. As such, it’s hard to argue that people may have been unfairly excluded from filing. Obviously, conditions have changed, and I think there’s a valid case to be made that if these elections had been scheduled for November in the first place, there would be a very different lineup for them than what exists now. I think you can also make a valid case that the voters have it in their power to persuade the candidates they do have to prioritize the things they want now, as opposed to the things they would have wanted then.

On the related question of whether we should have regular elections in May at all, I’m also ambivalent. No question, turnout would be much greater in November elections, and as a general principle I think that’s preferable. But November elections, especially November elections in even-numbered years, are full of races with a lot more money and noise-making ability, which combine to drown out whatever local issues would be heard in a quieter context. It would be so much better if people simply took a greater interest in their local and school board elections, so that they could be held at any time and didn’t need the boost of a Presidential or gubernatorial election to get even semi-decent participation. I’d like to have a robust debate about this, but I fear that only the hardcore, vote-in-every-election types would be tuned in for it, and that would miss the point entirely. I don’t know what else to say.

One more thing:

Republican Cheryl Johnson, the Galveston County tax assessor, wrote Paxton in support of Middleton’s position. She said the pandemic has “opened the eyes” of Texans to potential government overreach, namely local tax rates that could soar as cities try to bridge budget shortfalls. Johnson wants officials considering tax hikes to feel the pressure of a campaign challenge.

Johnson noted that Senate Bill 2, signed into law by Abbott during the 2019 legislative session, requires cities to receive voter approval before levying taxes that would result in collections 3.5 percent higher than the previous year. But the bill contains a disaster provision that permits a city to collect more than twice as much for at least two years if any part of the city is declared a disaster area during the current tax year.

State and local officials are at odds over whether the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as a “disaster” to trigger this provision.

“I’m of the opinion that COVID-19 is not the type of disaster that would warrant the disaster provision of Senate Bill 2,” she said.

The Texas Municipal League says it conducted a survey of cities recently and found the “vast majority” plan to keep increased collections below the 3.5 percent threshold allowed by Senate Bill 2.

Yeah, sorry, if you don’t think what we’re in now counts as a “disaster”, then I’m afraid I just can’t take you seriously. SB2 was a terrible bill for many reasons, and this is one of them. But look, if you don’t want cities and counties to try to deal with their massive revenue shortfalls on their own, then there is a simple alternative, and that’s to push the Senate to pass the HEROES Act, which the House passed months ago, to provide fiscal relief to local governments for precisely this purpose. If you’re not down for that either, then I think we know all we need to know about your priorities.

Who gets to be on the I-45 panel?

I’m not thrilled about this.

Houston will have a say in a regional response to design differences in the planned widening of Interstate 45 within the city — and so will Sugar Land, Montgomery County and Waller County.

After voting last month to establish a working group focused on improving the plans by the Texas Department of Transportation for rebuilding I-45, members of the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council approved the members of the panel Friday over the objections of critics and Harris County officials.

“I do take exception that those who are going to be most impacted are not as represented,” Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said.

[…]

Houston, via a letter from Mayor Sylvester Turner to TxDOT officials, has sought changes to the project north of downtown to ease those effects. City officials want frontage roads in some areas eliminated or reduced to two lanes, and a greater reliance on transit instead of carpools by making the center lanes bus-only rather than HOV. TxDOT has said it is studying the proposal, but said that after years of discussion it is committed to moving its designs along to keep construction on track while addressing possible changes later.

Regional officials with the transportation council ultimately will decide whether $100 million or more of locally-controlled federal money is spent on the project as phases begin over the next five years, a sum that while small in comparison of the $7 billion-plus cost, significantly affects TxDOT’s ability to leverage state-controlled dollars. That leaves the council to support or not support the changes as a condition of its funding, or allow TxDOT to move forward with its own plans.

The 16-person working group approved Friday includes some Houston-centric officials — including At-Large Councilman David Robinson, Metropolitan Transit Authority Chairwoman Carrin Patman and Port Houston Executive Director Roger Guenther. Half of the members, however, hail from outside Harris County, including Sugar Land Mayor Joe Zimmerman, Waller County Commissioner Justin Beckendorff and Montgomery County Judge Mark Keough.

Galveston County Commissioner Ken Clark, chairman of the transportation council, said his aim in appointing people to the group was to reflect the entire region’s interest in the project.

“Their commuters are driving their freeway roads all over the place,” Clark said. “I thought it was important we had a group that had that … a critical working group if you will.”

Zimmerman, who last month argued Houston-area officials needed to put the project “in a positive light” noted that the regional body’s role was to reflect the entire eight-county area.

“The intent was to keep politics out of this,” Zimmerman said.

Critics, who have said for two years that their concerns have been heard by TxDOT with little progress toward resolving the issues, said a regional group that includes no members from the project area speaking directly for residents and neighborhoods indicates their concerns are being ignored.

“This proposal is inequitable and unacceptable,” said Jonathan Brooks, director of policy and planning for LINK Houston, a local advocacy group that has organized some of the opposition to the project.

First of all, you can never “keep the politics out” of an inherently political process. I cringe at this because the implication here, one that is widely made and shared, is that by keeping “politics” out of this process you are somehow keeping it “clean” and “fair”, because “politics” is dirty and tainted. But “politics”, as a process, is all about engaging communities and getting consensus. You can’t do that if key communities are being excluded while others that have a lesser stake in the outcome are given power over the process. The people whose homes, neighborhoods, jobs, and lives are going to be directly affected by the I-45 project need to have a seat at that table. It’s just wrong that they don’t.

Second, maybe the reason Houston-area officials haven’t been putting such a “positive light” on this project is because we don’t see it as being all that positive. Certainly, plenty of people who live in Houston don’t see it that way. Maybe the problem isn’t branding but the product itself.

And look, none of this would be a problem now if the people who will be the most affected by this project had truly been heard along the way. They’ve been airing the same complaints about the I-45 rebuild because so many of their key concerns are still there. You may say there’s no way to do this project without setting aside most of those concerns. We would say that’s exactly the problem, and should call into question the fundamental assumptions about this project in the first place. If you can’t do it without causing significant harm, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County and Houston health authorities on Friday ordered all public and non-religious private schools to delay opening for in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8 — a date likely to be extended unless the region sees a significant reduction in its COVID-19 outbreak.

Flanked by their respective health authorities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the region’s novel coronavirus outlook appears too dire to allow the restart of face-to-face classes before Labor Day. Most Houston-area public school districts already had pushed back their in-person start dates to Sept. 8, though a few remained on track to hold on-campus classes in August.

“The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick-and-mortar representation of the American dream,” Hidalgo said Friday. “But right now, we’re guided by human life.”

With the decision, officials in all five of the state’s largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — have ordered the closure of public schools through at least Labor Day.

None of the Greater Houston region’s other large counties — Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria and Galveston — have issued closure orders. However, Montgomery County public health officials recommended this week that their school districts delay their start dates or remain online-only through Labor Day.

The Harris County order comes four days after Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah issued a non-binding recommendation that campuses stay closed until October at the earliest. While county and city officials held off Friday on mandating closures through September, Hidalgo said reopening buildings immediately after Labor Day “is still likely too soon.”

County and city officials said they will need to see a significant decrease in multiple measures, including case counts, rate of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths, before they OK the reopening of campuses. Local health officials, however, have not set specific COVID-19 outbreak benchmarks that must be met.

“If we want our schools to reopen quicker in person, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to do that,” Shah said.

See here for the background. This was done in part so that HISD would be in compliance with the TEA’s current guidelines. We all want our kids to get back to school in a safe manner as quickly as possible. That means not flattening but crushing the curve, getting coronavirus infections way down to much more manageable levels. We have the month of August to make that happen. Are we going to take this seriously – face masking, social distancing, self-quarantining as needed – or not? The choice is ours.

How bad is it going to get in Houston?

I’m worried, y’all.

The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Texas continued to reach record highs over the weekend while new cases also climbed in the Houston area.

The new figures come as County Judge Lina Hidalgo and leaders in other urbanized counties have issued orders mandating that businesses require customers wear face masks. Hidalgo’s order goes into effect Monday, though the latest local trends indicate masks “won’t be enough,” said vaccine researcher Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

“My observations if this trajectory persists: 1) Houston would become the worst affected city in the US, maybe rival what we’re seeing now in Brazil 2) The masks = good 1st step but simply won’t be enough 3) We would need to proceed to red alert,” Hotez said Saturday on Twitter.

[…]

Texas on Sunday reported a 5 percent increase in hospitalizations, bringing the cumulative total to a record 3,409 patients — a figure that has more than doubled since Memorial Day. Also on Sunday, a batch of 2,726 new cases became the sixth-highest single-day increase in Texas, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis. Over the previous two days, the state reported its largest and third-largest single day increases, respectively.

The Houston region has experienced a similar trend with rising case figures. Houston Chronicle data shows that Harris County is averaging 610 new cases per day over the last week, compared to 313 new cases per day the previous week.

That’s also more than triple where we were in May. The new face mask order should help, but we may need to go into lockdown again. What are the odds Greg Abbott will acknowledge that? Even if he did, would people be willing to go along with it? This was the problem with “reopening” when we did and the way we did. We didn’t have the pandemic under control. We were moving in the right direction, but we weren’t there yet. And now we’re worse off than we were before. Who could have seen this coming?

There’s also this:

Hidalgo noted an increase in county hospitalizations last week when she issued her face covering order. Leaders of other Houston area counties continue to stay away from similar measures, despite concern from local health officials.

“Galveston County will not be issuing such an order,” Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said Sunday in a lengthy Facebook post. “Individuals and businesses need to take personal responsibility in following the recommended best practices in slowing the spread of COVID-19… If you find that a business doesn’t appear to have taken steps that have been recommended in Governor Abbott’s reopening plan, then don’t reward them by doing business with them. It’s that simple.”

Galveston County reported its highest single-day case increase on Saturday with 142 new cases, followed by 83 new cases on Sunday. More than half of its new cases have been reported after June 1, health officials say.

In a news release, the Galveston County Health Department said the “alarming” increase is related to a lack of social distancing, not wearing face coverings and spreading the virus in families and households.

“Galveston County is at a critical juncture,” the release said, adding, “The health district strongly recommends Galveston County businesses require patrons and employees to wear a face covering, and to make face coverings available for those customers who do not have one.”

Brazoria County also has seen a major uptick in new cases, reporting three of its largest single-day increases over the last four days. Health officials reported 52 new cases on Sunday, bringing the overall total there to 1,215.

Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta as of Sunday had not issued a mandatory mask order for businesses.

We went through this back in March, too, where suburban areas around big urban centers had a very different response to the early stages of the pandemic. Please tell me we’ve learned something since then.

But don’t worry. Greg Abbott is right on it.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday struck a newly urgent tone about rising coronavirus numbers in Texas but said “closing down Texas again will always be the last option.”

“To state the obvious, COVID-19 is now spreading at an unacceptable rate in Texas and it must be corralled,” Abbott said during a news conference at the Texas Capitol in Austin.

However, he stopped short of introducing any new policies or pulling back on the reopening of Texas businesses, instead emphasizing long-established voluntary guidelines encouraging people to stay home if they can, use hand sanitizer, keep six feet of distance with others and, if they cannot, wear a mask. He also promised Texas has strategies to address the rising numbers “without having to return to stay-at-home policies.”

Those strategies include stepping up enforcement of current guidelines in places like bars where large crowds have gathered, “surging testing in areas that may be hotspots” and working with hospitals to ensure they have capacity for coronavirus patients. He continued to describe hospital capacity as “abundant.”

At the same time, Abbott held open the possibility that Texans could see new restrictions to get the virus under control. He said so while speaking in front of three poster boards showing the rapid rise of daily new cases, hospitalizations and the positivity rate, or the ratio of confirmed cases to tests.

“In each of these three categories, there’s been pretty much a doubling of the numbers in those three categories,” Abbott said. “If we were to experience another doubling of those numbers over the next month, that would mean we are in an urgent situation where tougher actions will be required.”

[…]

At the same time, Abbott continued to resist the idea of a statewide mask mandate, saying there needs to be flexibility for different parts of the vast state. He has restricted local governments from mandating individuals wear masks but recently clarified that they can order business to requires customers to wear masks.

Whatever. You had your chance to allow local governments to enforce your own orders, and you blew it. We’re still cleaning up after that. See Zeach Despart on Twitter for more.

Reopening the beaches

Galveston has opened its beaches again.

Galveston beaches were reopened to pedestrians Monday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. after being closed for nearly a month due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. The Galveston City Council voted 4-3 on the partial reopening on April 23, allowing people to surf, swim, fish and access the jetties during these hours. The beaches will remain closed all other hours. Vehicular traffic and the setting up of chairs, tents or beach picnics will still be prohibited, with beachgoers required to maintain at least 6 feet of social distancing.

Ever since the city of Galveston closed its beaches on March 29, many residents have complained about no longer having a vital outdoor recreational space, especially since the city also shut down local parks and playgrounds in an effort to limit the spread of the new coronavirus. The fact that the city acted to close beaches independent of coastline managed by Galveston County or other localities like Jamaica Beach created scenarios where Galveston residents who wanted a day of surf and sand could still hop the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula or drive across San Luis Pass to Brazoria County, where beaches also remained open.

The staggered beach openings came to a head on Saturday and Sunday, when traffic for the ferry to Bolivar Peninsula extended from the ferry landing all the way to the seawall and peninsula beaches were significantly more crowded as a result.

Darrell Apffel, a Galveston County commissioner whose precinct includes Bolivar Peninsula, said local law enforcement had eight two-person teams patrolling the peninsula and enforcing social distancing. He said he was not concerned about keeping peninsula beaches open while Galveston beaches are closed because law-enforcement officers are well- equipped to handle crowd control on beaches.

“These large crowds are still not to the tune of Jeep Weekend or Memorial Day,” Apffel said. “They’re large crowds in the sense that people got out and enjoyed the beautiful weather.”

You can get a peek at what Bolivar looks like here. As with eating in restaurants, I’m not ready to hit the sands any time soon. However, I have sympathy for the people who want the outdoors outlet, especially if other parks are closed at this time. Henry Grabar makes the case for beaches as a low-risk way to let people be outside again, with the mental and physical health benefits that brings.

Until we are able to halt widespread community transmission and begin testing and contact tracing, it’s too soon to “reopen” the economy in the way Donald Trump envisions. But we can get more Americans—and even businesses—safely outdoors.

Those Florida beaches aren’t so different from Central and Prospect parks in New York City. Frederick Law Olmsted’s two “green lungs,” the American city’s quintessential public health infrastructure, are offering New Yorkers critical physical and mental respite during their city’s darkest hour. And why not?

“I would not worry about walking by someone,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University. “Even in a health care setting, contact is defined by being near someone for a certain amount of time. I would not worry about these fleeting encounters. The virus isn’t airborne—droplets need to get from one person to another.”

The issue, Adalja added, is that beaches tend to be places where people don’t keep their distance. Any additional open spaces where people interact even in passing, he added, create the potential for new cases.

But what little we know about the coronavirus suggests you have little to fear from brief encounters with other human beings outside. Dr. Edward Nardell, an airborne-infection specialist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said outdoor transmission was “possible but improbable.”

“It bugs me to see these restrictions on people being outside,” Nardell said. “Mental health means something as well, and I can’t imagine you’re in a better place than outside if you’re going to have any contact anywhere.” Nardell, who survived a recent battle with COVID-19, said that if he were in Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s shoes, he would go ahead with opening the state’s beaches—but with strong signage reminding people to keep their distance and under park ranger supervision.

Nardell’s colleague Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist, wrote a more general case for public spaces in the Washington Post last week.* “Closing parks and public gardens should be a temporary, last-resort measure for disease control,” he and his co-authors wrote. “The science could not be clearer: The benefits of getting outside vastly outweigh the risk of getting infected in a park.” Wear a mask, keep your distance, have a ball.

Grabar spoke about this and added some more data on a recent episode of The Gist. What stood out to me was his statement that contact tracers basically ignore people’s encounters with passersby on the streets, in part because they have no way of tracking them down short of ubiquitous cellphone location tracking, and in part because they deem the risk of transmission to be negligible. As I said, it’s not for me at this time, but I buy the idea that this is worthwhile, as long as social distancing is still being observed.

Driving may be down, but traffic fatalities are not down as much

It’s a bit of a conundrum.

I don’t miss this

COVID-19 can keep millions of Texans at home and cut vehicle travel roughly in half in many cities, but cannot keep hundreds from dying on state roads — continuing a stubborn trend of carnage unabated for nearly two decades.

With many reports likely still finding their way into the state’s crash recording system maintained by the Texas Department of Transportation, police last month logged at least 241 fatalities on state roads as of Monday. That is a decline of 21 percent from the 305 in March 2019, at a time when people are driving only about half as many miles.

“I would have expected the number to go down more,” Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said. “But we tend to have a bad driving culture in our region and less traffic doesn’t mean safer drivers are out, sadly. We still see people taking unnecessary trips, and the fact we are still seeing high numbers (of fatalities) is worrisome.”

In Harris County, 32 people died on roadways last month, 14 more than killed by the new coronavirus, based on crash reports to the Texas Department of Transportation and health department statistics.

As is typical, most deaths occurred in urban counties, according to the tallies to date. Dallas County, which reported 29 fatalities, surpassed its 2018 and 2019 totals for the month. Harris County’s 32 reported deaths was more than the 31 in March 2018, but below the 37 in the same month last year. The five deaths so far in Galveston County represent increases over March totals in 2018 and 2019.

[…]

Among those deaths, pedestrians are becoming a larger share, with both Harris County and Bexar County surpassing 2018 and 2019 deaths for March. In Harris County, the 11 pedestrian deaths reported is four more than March 2019, something Gonzalez attributed potentially to bad habits along mostly desolate roads.

“Everybody that takes to the roadways thinks there is nobody out there and there are bicyclists and pedestrians,” he said.

Crashes overall, however, have declined for the Harris County sheriff’s department, internal department statistics show. The previous two Marches, the agency responded to 3,035 and 2,574 crashes. Last month, deputies handled 1,725.

Freed from stop-and-go traffic, Gonzalez said he worries speed — already a major problem along Houston area roads and a contributing factor to crashes — is worsening.

“Some of the habits do not break whether there is a pandemic or not,” the sheriff said.

See here for some background. I too would assume that fewer vehicles on the road means the ones that are out there are driving faster than usual, because that’s what we do. I’ve taken advantage of the lesser traffic to let my elder daughter do some driving practice, and many cars whiz past us on the highways; to be fair, my daughter likes to stick to the speed limit, which as we know is for chumps in this town. It would be nice if we could reap the full benefit of fewer cars on the road, but it’s clearly not realistic.

That was a statewide stay-at-home order

And we’re under it now, even if you don’t want to call it that.

Be like Hank, except inside

Gov. Greg Abbott released a new video Wednesday clarifying that his executive order issued on Tuesday “requires all Texans to stay at home” except for essential activities.

“Now, I know this is a great sacrifice but we must respond to this challenge with strength and with resolve,” Abbott said in the 48-second video.

Abbott’s order goes into effect at midnight on Thursday morning.

With that, Texas now joins 37 other states that have enacted statewide stay-at-home orders. Mississippi, Georgia and Florida were among those to join that list on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Abbott intentionally avoided using the phrase “stay at home” during a briefing while describing his executive order, leading some to believe he had stopped short of ordering Texans to stay at home.

“In short, what this provides is that Texans are expected to limit personal interactions that could lead to the spread of COVID-19, while also still having the freedom to conduct daily activities such as going to the grocery store, so long as you are following the presidential standard of good distance practices,” Abbott said Tuesday.

Abbott also said on Tuesday he didn’t want to call his order a “stay at home strategy” because he thought that would mean you cannot leave your home under any circumstances.

But on Wednesday he issued a press statement just after 4 p.m. directing the media to the video that makes clear his order requires Texans to stay at home except for essential activities. His executive order makes clear those who don’t follow his decree face up to 180 days in jail and a fine of $1,000.

People are allowed out for basic exercise like running, bicycling or hunting, but must maintain distancing guidelines. The public can also go to grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores and the like.

See here for the background and here for the video, which is also embedded in the Chron story. As noted before, this order explicitly exempts churches from the restrictions, to appease sociopathic nihilists like Steven Hotze. Who, by the way, in addition to filing that writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court is also planning to file lawsuits in district courts in Montgomery and Galveston counties to challenge the stay-at-home orders there. Because this is exactly the type of person we need to be appeasing right now. Be that as it may, stay home. If we’re all diligent about this, we can truly hope for a different story in May. The Observer has more.

Younger people get coronavirus, too

Because that’s how viruses work.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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