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Texas Central gets federal approvals

A big step completed.

Federal officials have issued final approvals to backers of a Houston-to-Dallas high-speed rail line, clearing the way for construction of the proposed line, in a move almost certain to face challenges from opponents.

Texas Central Railroad, the company planning to operate trains from Houston to Dallas with a stop near College Station, said early Monday that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued both the Record of Decision that ends the environmental analysis and the Rule of Particular Applicability that governs the safety standards the Japanese-developed trains must use.

“This is the moment we have been working towards,” said Carlos Aguilar, CEO of Texas Central Railroad.

Railroad administration officials did not confirm the approvals, with the company saying the details and specifics of the rules will be released soon.

Company officials — who less than a decade ago expected construction to cost $10 billion, now say building it will cost “around $20 billion,” with construction possibly starting in the first half of next year.

[…]

With the two approvals in hand, Texas Central can begin final designs and construction of the project. A consortium of companies, including Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo, Central Japan Railway — builder of the Shinkansen bullet trains that will be the basis for the Texas trains — and Spanish rail operator Renfe, are all hired to handle various parts of the building and operations of the system.

Though development involves global companies, Texas Central and supporters, including elected officials in Houston and Dallas, note the company is based in Texas and the companies will hire thousands of locals to build and operate it. Some, such as Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, said new travel modes will define how the metro areas grow and cooperate.

“The construction of high-speed rail will have a generational impact, creating thousands of jobs right here in Houston and injecting billions of dollars into our local businesses,” Turner said.

Texas Central had previously hoped to start construction by the end of this year. I presume, though the story doesn’t indicate, that the COVID situation may have slowed things down a bit.

Most of the rest of the story is given to Texas Central opponents, and I think we can recite most of what they have to say by heart. I don’t expect the opposition to ease up any time soon, but the opponents are beginning to run out of tools in their bag, especially after a favorable court ruling on the “are they really a railroad” question. I’ve said repeatedly that the best thing TCR can do for their own future is to get those shovels in the ground and start constructing before the Lege has the chance to take any further action. They’ll be at the very beginning stages of that during the session this spring, so maybe this is the end of the line for serious peril.

Of course, we don’t know how demand for this kind of travel will change in a post-COVID world. One could argue that with fast boarding and roomier passenger spaces, TCR will be better placed than before to compete with the airlines. They may have a harder time competing with people driving themselves, however. All this assumes there will be the same kind of demand for mostly business travel going forward. We just don’t know what that effect will be in the longer term, but any argument that the Zoom-and-Teams world we’re in now obviates the need for big rail projects like TCR would apply to big road projects as well. We may very well make some inaccurate guesses about this. We’re going to have to live with that until we do know better. The Trib has more.

So far so good on school reopening

It’s still early, though.

For the first Houston-area school districts to resume in-person classes, the early results for COVID-19 on campus are in: so far, mostly so good.

Eight districts that brought children back to schools in August are reporting sporadic known cases of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19, but they are avoiding the kind of outbreaks that stoked the most fear headed into the new school year.

The preliminary data offer signs of hope that many schools, under the right conditions, can hold face-to-face instruction and avoid widespread transmission of the deadly novel coronavirus within a campus.

With three to four weeks in the books, those districts reported about 80 active COVID-19 cases as of Friday among the roughly 112,000 students and 29,000 staff members regularly traveling to campuses. While the source of those infections is not known, none of the eight districts are reporting several active cases at a single campus.

Most districts consider a case active if an individual spent time on district premises, later tested positive for COVID-19 and remains in recovery.

[…]

Michael Chang, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the UTHealth McGovern Medical School, said COVID-19 spread among students and staff will become more clear in the next few weeks, though rapid outbreaks have occurred in settings with large gatherings of children.

“Particularly in high school and maybe middle school, I think you’d anticipate a relatively quick signal and fast outbreak,” Chang said. “Not too many districts have had a lot of face-to-face students for that long yet. It might be a little early, especially if we have asymptomatic kids.”

The possibility of a school-based outbreak also could increase as more districts resume in-person classes.

Several districts that serve large numbers of Black, Hispanic and lower-income families — who are testing positive for COVID-19 and dying from the disease at higher rates than wealthier and white families — are just starting face-to-face classes or returning to campuses in the coming weeks. Houston ISD, the region’s largest school district, is tentatively scheduled to offer in-person classes beginning Oct. 19.

Still, the lack of immediate outbreaks suggests the use of masks, social distancing and handwashing could be helping to limit the spread on campuses.

“I firmly believe we can open up schools pretty safely,” said Jeffrey Starke, a professor of pediatrics who specializes in infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. “Is it going to be perfect? No. Are there going to be cases? Sure. But I think the impact on the community can be minimal if we do it safely.”

I sure hope so. The potential for schools to be a huge vector for COVID spread is real, and it will only take one or two outbreaks to have a big effect. My own kids are going to be back on campus in a couple of weeks, so I’m keeping a very close eye on this. The optimistic take on this is that it may finally convince some mask skeptics that wearing the damn things really does matter. The pessimistic view is more gruesome than I care to write down. Let’s hope that what we’re seeing now is what we will continue to get.

HPD adopts cite-and-release

Took them long enough.

The Houston Police Department plans to join Harris County’s cite-and-release program, fulfilling advocates’ long-running request to implement the policy they say keeps low-level offenders out of jail and saves law enforcement resources for more serious threats.

In a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety Committee, two assistant chiefs on Thursday laid out the program they would use for a set of six misdemeanors offenses. The strategy mirrors that already used by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other local departments in the county, using a program set up by Harris County court-at-law judges.

In those cases, officers now would be required to give people a citation with the time and date they must appear in court, instead of hauling them to jail, unless they meet certain exceptions. Like the sheriff’s office, HPD officers who use their discretion to disqualify an eligible offender from the program would have to get supervisor approval and list the reason in their report, according to the presentation.

“I believe cite-and-release programs are critical, not just as it relates to police reform, but addressing the prison pipeline and, quite frankly, racism in our criminal justice system,” said City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs the committee. “I reiterate that this is just one aspect of improving and making sure our city is safe for all Houstonians. We can’t be finished after cite and release.”

Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge said the department plans to adopt the program internally, as it is allowed to do under state law. It was not clear when that will be done.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, a Harris County court-at-law judge who helped design the cite-and-release program, which launched in February, said the city should not win plaudits for dragging its feet and finally succumbing to pressure.

He said the roll-out and presentation of the program was “all for show” and wasted time. The city could have opted into the program without an ordinance days, weeks, or months ago, if it wanted. The county’s cite-and-release court has processed 113 cases since the program’s launch in February. About half of those, 60, came from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, that agency reported.

“I don’t believe in applauding people for waiting six months to fix a problem,” he said. “That’s six months Houstonians had less officers on the streets. How many victims have suffered waiting for police officers to respond? How many alleged criminals have gotten away?”

See here and here for the background. I largely agree with Judge Jordan here, with two caveats. One, late is still better than never, so I do credit the city for eventually coming around. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but at least in the end they did make the right decision. And two, I do want City Council to vote on making this an ordinance, to make it harder for future police chiefs to tinker around the edges of this system if for whatever the reason they don’t like some part of it. It would also ensure that HPD doesn’t take too much time getting around to implementing this. This can, and ideally should, be part of a larger ordinance that includes other reforms. It’s a first step, not the end of the journey.

The post-Harvey flood control march

It’s a long journey, with a lot to be done. It’s going to take awhile.

Most of Kenwood, a working class, mostly Latino neighborhood, is so deep in the 100-year floodplain that Harris County engineers have concluded no flood control project could protect it from a strong storm. Instead, the county began a voluntary buyout program in Kenwood and seven other vulnerable areas two years ago, but found few takers. Under pressure to spend federal Harvey recovery aid more quickly, the county this summer chose to make the buyouts mandatory.

The extraordinary step only underscores that, more than three years after Harvey rolled ashore as the worst rainstorm in continental U.S. history — and amid a record-setting Atlantic hurricane season — progress toward reducing Houston’s greatest vulnerability has been painfully slow and piecemeal at best.

Voters passed a $2.5 billion bond two years ago, giving the county a huge injection of funding to tackle nearly 200 flood control projects. Those projects take time, often years, to complete, however. And county officials concede the cost to fully protect against 100-year storms is more than 10 times higher than what voters approved.

City Hall lacks a comparable cash infusion and so mostly is waiting on the slow-motion arrival of federal aid. Meanwhile, its voter-approved street and drainage program has been shorted by more than $260 million over the last six years, money that has been used on other city services.

The city and county did update their floodplain building standards in the months after the storm, but City Council has yet to follow Commissioners Court’s lead in strengthening storm water detention rules.

“Folks are definitely still quite dissatisfied with the level of flood protection that’s been provided thus far from the city and the county,” said Chrishelle Palay, director of Houston Organizing Movement for Equity. “When it comes to historically underserved communities of color, those are the communities where the infrastructure has been disinvested, both from street flooding and from watershed protection.”

The Houston region’s most readily available defense against future floods is the $2.5 billion county bond.

To date, the county Flood Control District has begun work on 144 of its 188 planned bond projects, but only 18 have reached the construction stage, said Deputy Executive Director Matt Zeve. A dozen projects the district funded with other revenues also have been completed since Harvey, removing an estimated 5,000 homes from the 100-year floodplain.

The bond funds are helping to accelerate long-planned projects and start new ones, Zeve said, but large infrastructure improvements cannot be engineered and built overnight.

“There are places in Harris County that are right where they were three years ago, but there are several areas where we’ve completed projects or are constructing projects right now, and those areas will have a lower risk of flooding in a future storm event,” Zeve said. “It’s not as fast as everyone wants, but we do feel like we’re making good progress on major flood damage reduction projects all over Harris County, with more to come.”

Home buyouts, though some take a year to complete, move the fastest, making the 560 repeatedly flooded homes the county has bought since Harvey among the few tangible signs of progress the city and county have made toward reducing flood risk since the storm.

Even this seemingly simple task, however, can be an arduous process fraught with difficulties and heartache for residents.

There’s progress, but it’s slow and spotty. We should acknowledge that capital projects take time by their nature, and so does relocating people. There’s a lot to be done because there was so much that hadn’t been done over the past thirty or forty years. I don’t know what else there is to say about this. We should keep a close eye on the progress of all of the projects, we should continue to demand that more is done, and we should be voting for politicians who work towards these goals, but in the end and under the best of circumstances, this is going to take time.

Cite and release for Houston

Good.

Houston is preparing a cite-and-release policy that could let people accused of certain misdemeanors off with a ticket instead of an arrest, perhaps the city’s most significant bid at criminal justice reform since the killing of George Floyd ignited a renewed national reckoning over policing.

Mayor Sylvester Turner previously has alluded to the effort, and the proposal is scheduled for discussion at the Public Safety Committee on Thursday. City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs that committee, said she has helped work on the policy.

“I’m thankful to community groups for advocating for this, and to HPD and Mayor Turner for bringing this forward so quickly,” Kamin said.

The details of the measure, which remain in the works, were not immediately available Monday, including which offenses would be included and whether tickets would be required — or merely preferred — instead of arrests. It also is unclear whether the measure would be an ordinance passed by the city council or an administration policy.

Since 2007, state law has allowed citations for all Class C misdemeanors and some others. Among them: possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana; criminal mischief (damage up to $750); graffiti; theft of up to $750; providing contraband in a correctional facility; and driving with an invalid license. In those cases, officers can give offenders a written citation with a date and time to appear in court, allowing them to await the hearing without going to jail.

Advocates and elected officials in Houston have been calling for a cite-and-release policy for years. The “Justice Can’t Wait” report, released in July by a broad coalition of Houston-area criminal justice advocacy groups, renewed calls for the policy, and five city council members echoed that in a letter released late last month.

The mayor’s own transition team recommended such a policy in a 2016 report after Turner first was elected.

See here for some background. I know some people can’t sleep at night unless everyone who has ever encountered a police officer is in a jail cell, but would you rather have those officers spend their time hauling graffiti artists and people with expired licenses off to jail, or patrolling the streets after writing them a ticket? The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February, and as far as I can tell the region has not fallen into anarchy and chaos. Keep people out of jail and keep cops on the streets. And maybe that Task Force report (due by the end of the month) will have more.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story, with some back-and-forth about whether the city should implement this now as a matter of policy, or draft an ordinance to mandate cite-and-release and implement it that way.

Houston to allow some limited events

I dunno, man. I get the impulse, but I don’t think I’m ready.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston will allow certain events in what the mayor calls “controlled environments” to resume in the city, marking his most significant move toward reopening as the spread of COVID-19 slows here.

The events still will have limited crowds, with a maximum capacity of 25 percent, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced at a news conference Wednesday. All attendees must wear masks, answer a virus questionnaire, submit to a temperature screening and maintain social distancing.

The events that received the city’s approval so far are: a drive-in tailgate Thursday for the Texans: 100 cars are allowed, with a maximum of four people per car; Houston Symphony concerts: 150 guests will be allowed in the 3,000-seat Jones Hall auditorium; and Houston Dynamo and Dash games at BBVA Stadium: the teams are preparing for up to 3,000 fans, which would be about 14 percent capacity.

The Dynamo averaged 15,674 fans at 17 home games in 2019, and the Dash garnered an average of 4,086 fans, the teams said. The schedule for Major League Soccer’s Phase 2 has not been released yet, so it is not yet clear when fans will return. The teams’ plans for welcoming fans include staggered entry times for the stadium, and “seating pods” that minimize interaction between different groups of fans.

“I think we are all wanting to open up even more,” Turner said, “but we also recognize that it is better to be cautious rather than to be aggressive, and then finding ourselves having to go right back to the very beginning.”

While transmission is decreasing, the virus continues to spread in Houston. The city has driven down its positivity rate — the number of tests that come back positive — to 6.6 percent. Turner had set a goal of getting that number, which peaked above 25 percent in late June and early July, below 5 percent by the end of August.

The national average is 5.3 percent, according to Johns Hopkins University. Some states, like New York and Connecticut, have seen their rates drop to below 1 percent. Houston has reported 66,483 cases of the virus and 906 deaths as of Wednesday.

Dr. Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious diseases and tropical medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, said the region has made significant progress, but it has not reached the point where it is in control of the virus.

“Any large gathering where there are people in close contact — particularly if you’re indoors and generating a lot of respiratory droplets, if you are yelling or screaming or singing — it’s going to increase the chance of outbreaks,” she said.

[…]

The city is requiring an extensive list of safety protocols, [Susan Christian, director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events] said. The three events approved Wednesday already had adopted most of those protocols.

“We just had to tweak it a bit,” she said. “These producers have been working on these guidelines, as we have, for quite some time now.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office said the county is waiting for its threat index to lower before it considers allowing similarly-sized events. The county remains at the most serious threat level, which “signifies a severe and uncontrolled level of COVID-19.”

“Trends are moving in the right direction right now, but we’re not quite there yet,” said Rafael Lemaitre, Hidalgo’s communications director.

I’ve stared at this draft for some time now, and I still don’t know what to say. I lean towards the county’s view, but I get what the city is trying to do. There’s got to be a lot of pressure for some return to having public events, and of course not being able to have them is a drain on city finances. You can make a risk-based assessment for either position. I just hope this works out.

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.

Mutant mosquito update

Keeping you informed on the news you can really use.

Four years ago, the Zika virus became an issue. More than 300 people were infected in Texas. Zika can cause birth defects and fetal neurodevelopmental abnormalities in pregnant women.

The vector is Aedes (rhymes with ladies) aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes. The Aedes mosquitoes transmit Zika, chikungunya, dengue and yellow fever, which prompted state and county health officials to discuss actionable solutions to control the mosquito.

Talks about releasing genetically modified mosquitoes in Houston began in 2018 between Harris County and Oxitec, a United Kingdom-based company that produces sustainable technologies or transgenic methodologies to stem the impact of disease-spreading insects. Talk also began about a similar action in Monroe County, Fla.

However, ecological concerns have been raised about the use of these mosquitoes.

“We had stakeholders there who wanted to use it,” said Kevin Gorman, head of field operations at Oxitec. “We had vector control authorities who were keen to try the technology.”

The Environmental Protection Agency stated in a May 2020 press release that it approved an experimental use permit to Oxitec to field-test its genetically engineered mosquito in the United States.

The genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are males that mate with wild female Aedes aegypti, essentially causing the offspring to die before they can reproduce due to a genetic variation.

Oxitec had two successful years of controlling the Aedes aegypti in Brazil with its current generation of mosquito and had several years of efficacy in Brazil with its first-generation, Gorman said.

[…]

A release in Florida seems imminent, but not in Texas. Despite an established relationship and much communication, it looks like the Florida Keys will be going solo.

“Although we really enjoyed a sort of really great relationship with Houston at the moment we’re in a holding pattern with Houston,” Gorman said. “And we’re unlikely to be releasing there, and there certainly aren’t firm plans to do so in the next year.”

He cited uncertainty due to personnel changes in the county government as the reason for the decision.

A statement sent to Reform Austin by Sam Bissett, a communications specialist with Harris County Public Health, said the choice to not move forward with the release was made last year by both parties.

“At this time, there are no agreements or approval in place for Harris County to work with Oxitec in 2021. While we have had discussions with Oxitec previously about a potential partnership with Harris County Public Health, those discussions were paused last year between both sides.”

See here for my previous post on Oxitec and mutant mosquitoes, from 2017. There’s a lot more to the story and it’s hard to just capture the essence of it, so go read the whole thing. Apparently, the Aedes aegypti mosquito is more abundant in the Rio Grnade Valley than in Harris County, so maybe we’re not the best place to test this out in the US. Harris County also employs mosquito traps and dragonfly armies to control the local skeeter population. Which all seems a whole lot more quaint these days, but Zike and its ilk haven’t gone away just because we’re mostly inside these days. We will be spending more time outside again, and when we do we’d like to not be at significant risk from some other emergent deadly disease, thank you very much. Maybe next time we’ll be able to work something out.

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.

What makes a mural?

I’m kind of fascinated by this.

Photo: Jon Shapley, Houston Chronicle

For two decades, passersby could easily miss Bud Adams’ vacant midcentury modern building on the Southwest Freeway near Hillcroft.

Not anymore. The low-slung, massive roof over the car dealership, formerly owned by the late NFL Houston Oilers/Tennesse Titans founder, was recently painted yellow with boxy patches of red, Luv Ya blue and white that beam like joyful sunshine.

The design isn’t recognizable unless, maybe, you know the logo of Joyride, the new Houston car leasing company that now owns the building; in which case you could imagine it as one of those magic-eye brain games. That has city sign inspectors seeing red, and it has put the company and popular street artist Sebastien ‘Mr. D’ Boileau in hot water.

The dispute escalated this week after Joyride appealed two citations for violating Houston’s sign codes and the city charged Boileau with not holding a sign painting license, painting an unlawful sign and painting a sign on a roof.

“I’m not a sign painter. I’m an artist,” Boileau said. “It’s a slippery slope for the practice of murals in Houston.”

The trouble began in late January, when a permit to install a sign with Joyride’s logo on its roof was denied. Co-founder and CEO Rick Williams still wanted to do “something fun” with 10,000-square foot surface. “The roof deserves some sort of attention,” he said. “It’s unique, pitched at a low angle, with terrific visibility from the freeway.”

Williams had hired Boileau several years ago to transform a downtown space for his previous company, Texas Direct Auto. “He took this ugly little building and turned it into a ‘colony on Mars,’” Williams said. This time, he asked Boileau to paint a mural that might cleverly incorporate his company’s colors, without text or logos, in a way that would satisfy officials.

Boileau saw an ugly roof and a massive canvas too inviting to resist. “I deliberately, extremely abstracted the imagery with the knowledge that we didn’t want to rub the city the wrong way,” he said. “It’s my artistic interpretation, which had a deliberate goal of not matching the logo — not even a curve of it.”

Inspired by Joyride’s tech-based aesthetic, Boileau pixelated the original four-color imagery, breaking it into blocks of 20 contrasting colors. His execution and materials were strictly street-art driven, he added. “I emptied 100 spray cans that I exploded with screw drivers.”

[…]

Erin Jones, a city Public Works spokesperson, said she couldn’t comment on some aspects of the issue since it goes before an appeals board next month. “I hate for Sebastien to think we’re regulating art,” she said, “but this violates the first commandment of the regulations: No signs on roofs.” Anything with a logo for a business must be done by a licensed sign contractor, she added. “Our sign guys love art. But allowing a logo sets a dangerous precedent for advertising.”

Williams, the Joyride CEO, is not backing down. “It seems obvious to me that it’s art,” he said. “This project took months to develop. It’s not some sign company rolling out vinyl. It was a labor of love.”

The story cites some other examples of murals running into issues because they included logos in them. I get the concern, but maybe there needs to be a bit more flexibility in the code. We’ll see how this shakes out. In the meantime, I feel like I need to do a drive-by and see this for myself. What do you think?

Dallas ends its scooter experiment

Over in Dallas, never started in Houston.

Photo: Josie Norris /San Antonio Express-News

Tis better to have scootered and stopped than to have never scootered at all.

That is the consensus of a handful of Houston proponents of rental scooters as they watched Dallas this week order companies to pull the devices from local streets, citing crime and other issues with their use.

“We have received complaints about scooters and would like to make substantial changes to the scooter program,” said Dallas Transportation Director Mike Rogers, in a statement. “The changes will include public safety considerations so that the city may have safe modes of alternative transportation.”

Companies have flooded some cities with scooters people can rent by the minute with a smartphone app, part of a growing micro-mobility movement. Users can grab a scooter, motor to wherever they are going within a few blocks or miles and simply leave the scooter for the next person. Advocates say the scooters reduce car travel while making moving outdoors in inhospitable places — like scorching Texas — possible.

Critics call the scooters mobile clutter, complaining they crowd sidewalks and pose a safety hazard to pedestrians and riders.

That is the point Dallas hit earlier this week. City officials told Bird, Spin, Jump and any other companies still out there to cease operations on Wednesday and remove all the scooters by Friday, bringing an end to a popular but contentious debate about dockless devices and local transportation, for now.

It is a debate Houston mostly has avoided simply by doing nothing. Regulations in Houston make deploying the scooters murky at best — much as companies such as Uber and Lyft began operating in a cloud of uncertainty related to taxi rules. The consensus was Houston’s regulations would need to be changed before scooters hit the streets for rent.

Houston was an outlier in Texas in not having scooters. Dallas and Austin were both fertile markets for the devices, at least until COVID significantly upended the business and some of the companies collapsed or cut back. San Antonio finalized its agreement with the companies in January after 10 months of public discussion, allowing Razor and Bird to deploy up to 1,000 scooters each.

[…]

Houston officials said scooter regulations remain possible, but are not a high priority compared to such efforts as Vision Zero to eliminate roadway deaths. .

“The city’s focus right now is on implementing Vision Zero and adding bike lanes across the city,” said Maria Irshad, deputy director of the city’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department. “At this time, a program is not under consideration but we are studying it and trying to figure out how it could safely work.”

Officials also are working through a number of transportation-related rule changes, including specific prohibitions and greater enforcement of illegal parking in bike lanes.

Meanwhile, use of Houston’s B-Cycle system is booming during the pandemic as bike-sharing officials ready for more expansion, including 100 new e-bikes that bring their own challenges related to trail safety.

Until I saw this headline earlier in the week, I’d completely forgotten that just over a year ago it looked like scooters, or at least some proposed scooter regulations, were about to debut in Houston. Crazy how things can change, huh? Scooters may have failed in Dallas, but they remain a success in San Antonio, as long as they keep off the sidewalk. We can only speculate at this point what their fate might have been in Houston if Lime and Bird and the rest had simply taken the Uber/Lyft approach and invaded the city first, letting the regulatory issues sort themselves out later.

Honestly, I think the main reason why scooters have taken a back seat in Houston is that the city’s attention has been much more on bikes and expanding bicycle infrastructure. B-Cycle has been successful and continues to expand, while Dallas tried and failed to go with dockless bike sharing. The city of Houston, along with Harris County and the Bayou Greenway Initiative, has been busy building out its bike infrastructure, which by the way is off limits to scooters as they are not people-powered. Also, too, we do have electric bikes in the pipeline, and they pretty much serve the same transportational niche as scooters.

So maybe this is a lot of fuss about nothing much. Or maybe the problem was that the scooter business model doesn’t necessarily work everywhere, and perhaps Dallas and eventually Houston would be served better by a non-profit scooter rental system like B-Cycle. I mean, if it really is about solving a people-moving problem that enables mobility without cars, then it shouldn’t matter what the entity behind the scooters is. I’ve said all along, I’m happy that other cities have taken the lead in working out all the kinks in this process before it comes to Houston, so my thanks to the people of Big D for their service. The Dallas Observer has more.

Back to school

How’d it go for you and your kids?

On a normal first day of school, Texas children would wake up early to cram into school buses, eager to huddle and chat with their friends in the hallways before streaming toward their classrooms.

On Tuesday, as many of the state’s biggest urban and suburban districts return for their first day of in-person instruction, there is anxiety mingled with that excitement. Many parents will not be allowed to walk their kindergarteners inside for their first day. Teenagers will be shooed away if they congregate around their lockers. Meals will be grab-and-go, often eaten in classrooms instead of raucous cafeterias. Students and teachers will wear masks, trying to stay as far apart from one another as possible even as they come together for the first time in months.

Many kids will not be entering their schools at all. Some of the state’s biggest districts, including Houston and Dallas independent school districts, will not open their classrooms for in-person learning until late September or October, and they may even ask the state for more time if the virus isn’t under control.

In-person instruction will look very different from campus to campus. Some districts will bring students back in phases, starting with those who most need in-person education, like students with disabilities or those learning English. In San Antonio’s North East ISD, no more than five students will be in each classroom this week. Other districts are welcoming back all students who opted for in-person instruction at the same time.

Only about half of Seguin ISD’s students are expected to head into classrooms Tuesday morning for the first day of in-person instruction. They will walk past thermal scanners, which can measure the body temperature of about 30 people at a time and detect fevers that may be signs of illness. Middle and high school students will sit in desks spread apart, in many cases less than 6 feet with dividers, and younger students will be separated by dividers at large round tables.

Most teachers will be simultaneously instructing 12 to 16 students in their classrooms and more at home tuning in from cellphones or laptops. Some teachers will sit in empty classrooms and broadcast lessons to 20 or 30 students. A small number who have health conditions or young children received waivers to teach virtually from their homes.

Here’s the local view.

Students in Klein and about nine districts throughout the region will get their real first taste of the new learning environment on Tuesday as those districts welcome back those who opted to come to school rather than attend online. Among them are Cypress-Fairbanks, Katy, Conroe, Spring Branch, La Porte, Magnolia and Santa Fe ISDs.

It marks the biggest return of students to school campuses in six months, after schools were closed in mid-March to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Already, students in Lamar CISD and Humble, Alvin, Dickinson, Galveston and Barbers Hill ISDs have brought some of their students back in recent weeks.

The districts are forging ahead with plans to reopen campuses despite warnings from regional health authorities and some local leaders who say it still is too early. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah recommended in August that schools remain closed until there are fewer cases of COVID-19 and less community spread. The two set benchmarks for schools to begin reopening, but with current statistics, it would take weeks to reach them.

Hidalgo and Shah only can offer recommendations, after Gov. Greg Abbott said local government officials do not have the legal authority to preemptively close campuses. Instead, he said, those decisions should be left to school districts. In some Houston-area districts, school boards, parents and some educators have argued that the benefits of face-to-face instruction, especially after such a long hiatus, outweigh potential health risks.

“We can provide a schooling online, but we can’t provide an education online,” Cypress-Fairbanks ISD Superintendent Mark Henry said at a July board meeting.

Others have opted to keep their students learning remotely for the foreseeable future, including Fort Bend and Alief ISDs. In Houston ISD, the state’s largest district, students will return Tuesday to online-only classes, which are scheduled to remain in place until mid-October.

District officials estimate that about 18,000 students still lack the computer or internet access needed for online classes. As a result, HISD is directing those students to 36 “learning centers” with adult supervision and available technology. HISD officials said they are not publicizing the learning center locations.

“It just can’t be everyone showing up,” HISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan said. “It’s truly assigned locations for students and staff.”

[…]

For those that already have opened classrooms, teachers and students still are adapting.

In Humble ISD, middle and high school students are coming into the buildings in alternating groups, with an A group coming on some days and a B group on others.

Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen said she has been surprised the elementary schoolers have not had as many issues with face masks and social distancing as some had feared.

“We’re starting to get our arms around it pretty well,” Fagen said. “Every day there are new metrics to monitor, and we hope we can get to a place for (more) in person in near future.”

For students at Klein ISD’s Mahaffey Elementary who chose in-person instruction, last Wednesday served as a crash course for their new school realities.

Staff practiced funneling students through entrances assigned by grade rather than the main doors in the front. They showed students how to keep their distance in hallways and spent class periods juggling between in-person students and those learning remotely on Zoom calls. They adjusted their cameras, helped parents troubleshoot technology problems and made sure the kids in their classrooms knew the new procedures.

It was a strange day here, as my girls started with remote learning. We’re used to that, in that we had done it before, but it was still strange to just transition from “no school” to “distance learning school”. Didn’t have that usual “first day of school” feel, you know? There were some connection issues on the HISD hub that affected Olivia’s school, but students were redirected to an alternate site that seemed to work, so no big deal. Ask me again in a week how it’s going.

For the schools that are reopening for in person instruction, I sure hope it all goes well. I hope the mask-wearing and social distancing and other protocols that are being adopted to (hopefully) keep virus spread to a minimum works as planned, not just for them but for the rest of us, who will be in the same position in six weeks. Unless it doesn’t go well, of course, in which case they’ll be in the same position as us. I absolutely want everyone to get back to school. I also absolutely want everyone to literally survive the year, with no adverse health effects lingering on. I don’t know that we can do both of those things just yet. I’m glad it’s not my kids’ schools that are the guinea pigs for that experiment, and I sincerely hope that experiment is a ringing success. I figure we’ll know, more or less, by the time it’s our turn to go back.

RIP, Luby’s

The end of an era.

Looks like the days of LuAnn platters are coming to an end. Luby’s board of directors has “approved and adopted a plan of liquidation and dissolution,” the company announced.

The plan will need to be approved by the company’s shareholders. A date for that vote was not included in today’s announcement.

Previously, Luby’s stated it would seek a sale of its assets that would pay off its debts and generate money for its stockholders. Following the liquidation plan will generate between $92 million and $123 million, according to the company’s estimates. That represents between $3 and $4 per share of its stock (approximately 30.7 million shares outstanding).

“This plan of liquidation is the next logical step in the company’s previously announced plan to maximize value of the company through the sale of its operations and assets,” Gerald Bodzy and Randolph Read, co-chairmen of the special committee responsible for the decision, said in a statement. “Our stockholders have expressed their support for seeking alternatives to continuing to operate the company’s restaurants in their current form, and we believe the plan of liquidation will allow the company to accomplish that task in the most efficient manner.”

Ultimately, the company intends to converts all of its assets into cash, resolve its debts, and then file a certificate of dissolution. Its stock (NYSE: LUB) would be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange at that point or possibly sooner according to the exchange’s rules.

While a slim possibility exists that a buyer could be found that would keep the Houston-based cafeteria chain whole — Luby’s also owns Fuddrucker’s — the more likely plan seems to be that the restaurants will close and the company’s real estate holdings and other assets will be sold. Still, the company argues that a buyer who might preserve the restaurants is possible.

I assume Fuddrucker’s will continue as an entity, just owned by some other conglomerate. As for Luby’s, well, as someone said, tastes changed but Luby’s didn’t. Life is like that sometimes, unfortunately. I don’t have the emotional attachment to the place that natives do, but I sure do know some folks that are broken up about this. Texas Monthly, Houstonia, and the Chron have more.

HISD may do remote learning on Election Day

Makes sense to me.

Houston ISD’s administration wants to hold online-only classes on Election Day this November, citing safety concerns at more than 100 campuses that are expected to be used as polling locations.

“While it is not unusual for our school sites to be used as polling locations, the COVID-19 pandemic makes the safety of our students and staff more challenging when significant numbers of voters would be entering the schools throughout the day,” district officials wrote in documents provided to the school board.

HISD trustees are expected to vote Sept. 10 on the request.

[…]

It is not immediately clear whether the Texas Education Agency will penalize HISD for not offering in-person classes on Election Day, which is Nov. 3.

Under current TEA guidelines, public school districts can keep campuses closed up to eight weeks at the outset of the school year, though they must start to offer some in-person classes after the fourth week. Election Day falls on HISD’s ninth week of classes.

Districts that violate TEA guidelines risk losing state funding. However, TEA officials have said they plan to remain flexible amid the pandemic on safety matters.

As we know there will be 808 voting locations in Harris County on Election Day, which is nearly one per precinct. Schools have always been used as polling places – the elementary (Travis) and middle (Hogg) schools in my neighborhood are voting locations, as are nearby Crockett and Field elementaries. It is completely sensible to keep the kids home on a day when these schools will be full of strangers, in this time of pandemic. I would very much hope that the TEA will see it that way, but given some of the desperate shenanigans that are being pulled right now, I will need to hear it from them before I believe it. I hope HISD has been checking in with the TEA on this, and I hope the trustees are fully informed on this when they vote. We’ll find out next week.

Politico profile of Lina Hidalgo

Good stuff.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

In late April, Lina Hidalgo stood at a microphone in the Harris County emergency operations center in Houston and pushed up the teal fabric face mask that had slipped off her nose. Her voice was slightly muffled as she spoke. Next to her, an American Sign Language interpreter translated for an audience that couldn’t see her lips. But there was no need to worry her message would be lost. Soon it would become the subject of debate across the country—and so would she.

Hidalgo, the county judge of Harris County—the top elected official in the nation’s third-largest county—announced that millions of people in the Houston area would be required to wear a face covering in public to slow the spread of the coronavirus. People who didn’t comply would risk a fine of up to $1,000. Behind her, charts and graphs told the statistical story that had led Hidalgo to this moment. Since early March, when the state’s first case of Covid-19 had been identified in Houston, the urban heart of Harris County, the number of infected people in the county had climbed to 3,800. That day, the death toll stood at 79 and Houston’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, warned that number could “exponentially increase.”

Hidalgo had been bracing for the disease for weeks. She had sought advice from officials in King County in Washington state, the nation’s first hot spot. Armed with their insight, she rallied her own emergency management and public health officials to prepare a response and on March 16 ordered the closure of bars and restaurant dining rooms. Initially, state officials followed suit. Three days after Hidalgo’s order, Gov. Greg Abbott declared a public health disaster for the first time in more than a century. Texans huddled indoors. But by early April, pressure was mounting on Abbott to end the lockdown. Hidalgo was pulling the other way.

You know what happened from there. You should read the whole thing, it’s mostly stuff you already know but it’s deeply satisfying to see someone who’s been right about the virus in all the ways that matter and who’s been the target of some vicious, racist insults as a result of her being right about it get her due. I’m going to highlight two other bits here:

“The perils of straight-ticket voting were on full display Tuesday in Harris County,” the Chronicle’s editorial board clucked. “Longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, a moderate Republican who’s arguably the county’s most respected official, was ousted by Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old graduate student running her first race.”

“We hope she succeeds,” the editorial continued, “but residents can be forgiven for being squeamish about how Hidalgo will lead the county and, by extension, the region’s 6 million people, through the next hurricane.”

I can understand the initial apprehension about a political newcomer taking over as County Judge, and I can understand some unease at it happening as part of a partisan wave. But I guess I’m just going to die mad about all the pearl-clutching over straight-ticket voting, which casts a whole lot of people as mindless automatons instead of individuals who made a choice. That choice in 2018 was to vote for change, and to vote against Donald Trump. One can admire Ed Emmett for his competence, his compassion, his deep concern for Harris County and its residents, and still disagree with him on principles and priorities, and want to see our county government move in a different direction. The sheer condescension in that first paragraph will never not annoy the crap out of me.

“I expect for some Texans it’s a little hard to take that a young Latina who earned her citizenship, as opposed to being born here, has the level of authority that she has,” one of her advisers, Tom Kolditz, told me. “She absorbs every criticism, she listens to every racial dog whistle, she puts up with ageist comments about what her abilities are or are not.”

[…]

Re-opening schools has emerged as another battleground. Hidalgo has taken a position that is consistent with her aggressiveness throughout the pandemic. On July 21, she ordered all school districts in Harris County to delay opening schools for in-person learning for at least eight weeks. Wearing a floral face mask at a recent press conference, her curly hair longer than normal due to the pandemic, she urged the community to work together “until we crush this curve.”

“Then, we can responsibly bring your kids back to school,” she said. “Right now, we continue to see severe and uncontrolled spread of the virus and it would be self-defeating to open schools.”

A familiar chorus of criticism from state and federal Republicans followed quickly. Rep. Crenshaw, among others, has beat the drum that schools must open. And a week after Hidalgo’s announcement, the Texas attorney general said that local health authorities can’t close schools to preemptively prevent the spread of Covid-19. The Texas Education Agency, which oversees public education in the state, announced it wouldn’t fund schools that closed under such orders.

Kolditz, Hidalgo’s adviser and a retired Army brigadier general, has framed the pandemic like a war that can’t be won without a common objective and unity. When Hidalgo was empowered to call the shots in Harris County the pandemic was relatively under control, he said. Since Abbott undermined that, “it’s been a disaster.”

“We’re going to wake up from this pandemic and be stunned by how many lives were wasted by bad leader decisions, and she is not a part of that,” he said.

Hidalgo has largely tried to avoid making the pandemic into a political fight, but she is not naïve about the political implications of every decision. “If we do the best we can and, politically, that wasn’t appropriate for people and I’m not re-elected in two years, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll be able to sleep at night.”

I mean, we could listen to the person who’s been consistently right, or we could listen to the people who have been consistently wrong. Seems like a clear choice to me, but what do I know?

We are not ready to re-reopen

I don’t know who needs to hear this, but…

Texas COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined the most significantly — 4,144 Tuesday, down from 10,893 on July 22 — but new cases, positive test rates, daily deaths and viral spread are all dropping. They are dropping enough that one Texas modeler, Spencer Fox of University of Texas at Austin, went so far as to say he thinks that Texas may have seen the worst of the pandemic — as long as people continue to wear masks and keep their guard up.

A number of other health experts warned against lifting restrictions, noting that the coming Labor Day weekend, the expected resumption of schools and seasonal weather changes have the potential to cause a resurgence like Texas experienced earlier in the summer. They also said the amount of transmission, although improved, is still way too high.

“I don’t want to be Debbie Downer, but we’ve been surprised before,” Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the UTHealth School of Public Health, said last Friday. “It’s a double-edged sword when things start looking better. The virus is still out there, but people think things can go back to normal.”

Troisi added that some experts are hesitant because of the state’s data reporting problems, because it’s possible some other issue will surface. Those problems include under testing, coding errors that caused backlogged results and combining positive diagnostic and antibody tests.

Chris Amos, a Baylor College of Medicine quantitative scientist, said “the timing could not be worse for rolling back.”

“Given the number who test positive reflect perhaps 10 times as many individuals who have not been tested but are positive,” said Amos, “there remains a large pool of individuals who can spread COVID-19 if they begin interacting with many others, and particularly if we allow large groups to start coming together again.”

Amos acknowledged that optimism about opening up is natural given the slowing of COVID-19’s spread. The spread is measured by a value, known as reproductivity, that suggests a slowing or growing of the virus. Over 1 means each infected person transmits it to an average of more than one person and the epidemic grows; under 1 means the virus is transmitted to less than one person and the epidemic won’t sustain itself.

The value for the state overall has been under 1 since July 20.

According to Amos’ calculations, if the state maintains the current trend, with the number around 0.87, it would take 38 days to reduce the COVID-19 burden by another 50 percent.

It’s important to keep reducing that burden before students resume in-person classes, Amos said. He and others advised against a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Not every community or county in Texas is experiencing the same burden of disease,” said Angela Clendenin, an epidemiologist with the Texas A&M School of Public Health. “In some places, it may be justified to roll back some restrictions whereas in others, it’d be ill-advised to do so. It will be critically important that rolling back restrictions does not send the message that we are somehow ‘all clear.’”

See here for the background. The basic fact remains that we are still at levels well above where we were in early June, when we first re-opened. There’s no question that if we re-reopened like we re-opened the first time around, we will get the same result. To me, three things are clear. One we shouldn’t change anything until we are back at early-June levels. Two, we should have sensible objective metrics that we can actually measure with accuracy and that we stick to, unlike the first time around. And three, give some discretion back to local jurisdictions so that the counties with a sufficiently low infection rate can be more open (though still within state guidelines) while those that aren’t ready for that kind of openness can continue to do what they need to do to get there. All of this should be screamingly obvious after what we just went through, but I see no reason to believe that Greg Abbott or Dan Patrick have learned anything from that experience.

Houston’s hottest neighborhoods

That’s temperature hot, not realtor hot.

This summer, Houston joins 13 other cities in a massive, community-driven, heat mapping project. More than 80 volunteers like Powers and her son, dubbed “street scientists” by the organizing groups, covered roughly 300 square miles in 32 different polygon-shaped areas.

The project, which is taking place when Houston and Harris County are usually at their hottest, will give scientists, public health officials and community leaders the data necessary to try to cool Houston down. Local leaders hope the heat maps will help direct policy and planning within neighborhoods for things like cooling center locations, greenspace, green rooftops and tree planting. Continuously rising temperatures within cities like Houston can usher in a host of health and environmental problems, and may disproportionately affect lower-income neighborhoods that tend to have less green infrastructure.

As the third largest county in the nation, Harris County’s efforts represent one of the biggest single-day community-led heat mapping events ever held. Scientists say Houston heat mapping has been done before, but this appears to be the first that will provide readily available, comprehensive data.

“This is something that, frankly, is a little bit overdue,” said Jaime González, Houston Healthy Cities program director at The Nature Conservancy in Texas, one of organizations participating in the project.

Indeed, last August was Houston’s second hottest on record, and experts predict it will continue to get hotter this year. By 2065, the number of days above a heat index — which is how hot it feels outside with added humidity — of 105 degrees is predicted to septuple. Houston is already at least 13 degrees hotter than nearby rural areas, according to Climate Central, a nonprofit news organization that analyzes and reports on climate science, and increasing temperatures put undue pressure on power grids.

Houston is undeniably hot, but some areas may be hotter than others. Infrastructure — treeless tracts, packed concrete apartment blocks, busy streets — can create conditions that could result in pockets with higher temperatures. Studies show that temperature discrepancies within a city can differ by 15 to 20 degrees, with more extreme heat often occurring in lower-income neighborhoods.

These heat maps will show quantitative data about urban neighborhoods, and specifically, which ones are more directly impacted by extreme heat.

This is a serious matter of public health, and it’s something that can be addressed by public policy if there’s sufficient data to inform that policy. The simple act of planting trees where they are most needed helps. Let me tell you, as someone who is responsible for walking a dog every day, I am very grateful to live in a neighborhood with a real tree canopy, because it’s the only thing that keeps me from turning into a pile of soot and ash on these brutally hot July and August days. Everyone should have such an amenity available to them. This is also a reality of climate change, in that our failure to address the causes of global warming means we have to take action to try to mitigate its effects, so we can live with them. I hope this effort is a great success.

(I should note that the “Powers” mentioned in the first paragraph of the excerpt is my friend and neighbor Rachel Powers, executive director of the Citizens’ Environmental Coalition. Nicely done!)

From the “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” department

Who’s ready to re-reopen Texas?

Gov. Greg Abbott signaled he may be preparing to roll back some emergency restrictions put in place this summer at the height of the state’s coronavirus surge.

Responding to concerns from the battered restaurant industry, the governor tweeted Monday night that new infections and hospitalizations from COVID-19 are receding, and added, “I hope to provide updates next week about next steps.”

“Since my last orders in July, COVID numbers have declined—most importantly hospitalizations,” said Abbott, a Republican.

The governor gave no indication about what steps he might take, and a spokesman did not respond to questions. Abbott has previously said he would consider allowing bars to reopen and restaurants to open further if positive trends continue.

Statewide, new daily infections and hospitalizations are declining, though they remain well above where where they were when Abbott began reopening the state in May — hospitalizations are now double, and average new daily infections are four times as high. It’s also unclear whether the rate of people testing positive, a key metric, is anywhere near where public health experts recommend before opening more businesses and allowing children back into schools.

What could possibly go wrong? See here for a statement from Mayor Turner, who unsurprisingly urges caution. You should also read this Politico profile of County Judge Lina Hidalgo, which I will blog about separately, and remember that at every step of the way in this crisis, Lina Hidalgo has been right and Greg Abbott has been wrong.

Five things we could do now for police reform in Houston

Seems like a good list to me.

Five city council members on Monday sent a letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner outlining police reforms they said Houston can implement immediately, including a “complete overhaul” of the Independent Police Oversight Board, a cite-and-release ordinance and incentive pay for officers who live within city limits.

In the letter, Councilmembers Edward Pollard, Tiffany Thomas, Jerry Davis, Martha Castex-Tatum, and Carolyn Evans-Shabazz say the oversight board, which reviews probes by the Houston Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division, needs a reboot.

“We are convinced there must be a complete overhaul of the Independent Police Oversight Board (IPOB),” the letter says. “We have no confidence in the current format. We must create a structure of guidelines that governs the function of the new board to restore public trust with public input.”

They recommended the board have complete autonomy and investigative authority, with full access to all unclassified information from HPD.

The council members also say the city could implement an online, independently-maintained dashboard showing complaints of police misconduct, HPD policies, guidelines, “and other relevant information.”

“This platform will be an innovative measure to not only hold officers accountable for misconduct, but will increase police community relations by being transparent in a data driven fashion,” the letter said.

The letter outlines 25 items they asked be included in the next contract between the city and the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

See here and here for some background. There’s a copy of the letter embedded in the story, or you can see it here. The letter does not mention any budget items and also does not contain the signature of CM Letitia Plummer, who unsuccessfully introduced an amendment to this fiscal year’s budget to redirect some funding for HPD to other services, as well as other reforms. I honestly don’t know what capacity exists to amend the city’s budget during the fiscal year, so it may be that that’s a moot point. As for who did and didn’t sign this letter, in the absence of any Council members commenting on it all we can do is speculate.

As we know, individual Council members cannot introduce an ordinance for debate on their own, so whether or not anything happens here is up to Mayor Turner. We are due to get the vaunted Task Force recommendations in the next week or two, and I’m guessing Mayor Turner will prefer to use that as a starting point for whatever he wants to achieve. You can always call his office, as well as your district Council member and the five At Larges to let them know what you think.

Can downtown survive COVID-19?

So depressing to read.

When Understory opened last summer, the stylish food hall in downtown’s Bank of America Tower quickly became the go-to lunch spot for throngs of office workers who stood in line for poke bowls, gourmet burgers and fancy coffee drinks.

Across the street, a row of taxis idled in front of Chase Tower, waiting to shuttle well-dressed business travelers to their hotels or back to the airport.

At night, lights twinkled from inside Perbacco, the glass-walled Italian restaurant across from the city’s symphony hall that had become a pre-theater staple.

But that was all so 2019.

This corner of downtown Houston, once a thriving hub of commerce and culture, has become a shadow of its former self. The food hall crowds are gone. The taxis are nowhere to be found. And the restaurants that are still open are struggling to hang on. Aside from construction projects, which have continued to move forward during the coronavirus pandemic, the Central Business District is a ghost town.

It’s not just the private sector feeling the pain. With tourists and business travelers staying home, hotel occupancy tax collections, a significant source of revenue for the city, were off 28 percent through July compared with the same period in 2019.

“You’ve got to understand,” said Tilman Fertitta, who owns Vic & Anthony’s, the high-end steakhouse near Minute Maid Park, “downtown is dead. There’s nobody in the buildings. There’s no business traveler.”

While some white-collar workers have trickled back to their jobs, the office population has plunged to less than 10 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to a survey by Central Houston, a downtown business group. Major conventions and virtually all business travel, the lifeblood of downtown hotels, have been canceled. The performing arts are on hiatus and professional sports are being played elsewhere or without fans in their seats.

The strides developers, business leaders and city officials have made in transforming the city center from a mostly commercial district into a more vibrant neighborhood with new housing, parks and schools are being threatened by the pandemic, whose economic and societal tolls may take years to undo.

I’ve lived in Houston long enough to remember when no one went downtown unless they worked there or had some limited one-off reason, like jury duty or to see a show. I’ve seen the various efforts to bring new life into downtown, from big ticket items like Minute Maid Park and the Toyota Center to Discovery Green and the resurgent restaurant scene. As a four-year downtown employee, I dodged a lot of construction and saw the culmination of many longer-term projects that made downtown a vital and thriving place. And now we see the devastation caused by COVID-19 and the lives and careers and businesses it has wrecked, and I wonder if I’ll live to see a downtown like the one I remember again. I’m hopeful by nature, but boy is this going to be rough.

We’re trending in the right direction, but…

Still a ways to go.

The number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in the Houston area have improved significantly since July, but the pandemic remains a serious threat here.

The Houston region added 1,957 cases on Saturday, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis, bringing the total to 104,650.

Texas as a whole added 4,988 cases and added 138 deaths. The Chronicle has tallied a total of 12,664 virus deaths in the state, though the true figure is likely higher.

The positive test rate fell slightly, from 12.3 percent to 12.2 percent. A troubling sign, however, was a jump in the state’s rolling average of new cases, from 4,997 to 5,369.

Statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations declined for the 11th straight day, to 4,273.

I last posted about this a few days ago, so things aren’t that much different. This story doesn’t have any charts in it, but you can go to Ready Harris and see what they have. (There’s a large blip in the Harris-not-Houston numbers for the past two days, which I’m going to guess is an artifact of test results coming in as a cluster.) As with San Antonio and Dallas and the state as a whole, the numbers are down from the peak but still well above where they were before they began that massive increase in late June. The thing that has made the difference is wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, and avoiding indoor crowds. If we can keep this up, we can get to a point where maybe having kids back in school doesn’t seem like a crazy idea. It’s just that the last time we thought we were making progress, we declared victory and totally let our guard down. Can we please not do that this time? Thanks.

NBA agrees to offer its arenas as voting centers

Nice.

“What was the plan?” was always the wrong question to ask of striking NBA players; what they wanted was to not play basketball, and they got it. But they used that time not playing to talk, to think and to make their voices heard.

But the players did get a significant commitment from their bosses: turning as many NBA arenas as possible into voting sites for November.

The league and union announced Friday that the playoffs will resume Saturday. That announcement included a concrete promise from the league. Every team-owned arena will turn into a polling place for the November election in locations where that’s still legally possible in order for voters to have a large, COVID-safe place to vote in person.

Three teams had already committed to this earlier in the summer — Bucks, Pistons and Hawks — and the Rockets made the announcement on Thursday.

Chris Paul, the Thunder point guard and longtime union president, gave an emotional interview to bubble media after the announcement.

“In 15 years in the league, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Paul said. “Everyone expects us to go out and play. I get it. But we needed some time,” he said, adding that he had spoken to Jacob Blake’s father.

We knew about the Toyota Center. I had not been aware of the other three arenas, which was apparently something that happened in early July. Here’s some more details about what this announcement means:

On Friday, the NBA and NBPA announced a three-point plan to promote social justice and racial equality, which includes converting NBA arenas into voting centers for the 2020 presidential election. The NBA playoffs will resume on Saturday in Orlando.

“1. The NBA and its players have agreed to immediately establish a social justice coalition, with representatives from players, coaches and governors, that will be focused on a broad range of issues, including increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for meaningful police and criminal justice reform.

2. In every city where the league franchise owns and controls the arena property, team governors will continue to work with local election officials to convert the facility into a voting location for the 2020 general election to allow for a safe in-person voting option for communities vulnerable to COVID. If a deadline has passed, team governors will work with local elections officials to find another election-related use for the facility, including but not limited to voter registration and ballot receiving boards.

3. The league will work with the players and our network partners to create and include advertising spots in each NBA playoff game dedicated to promoting greater civic engagement in national and local elections and raising awareness around voter access and opportunity.”

In theory, that could mean voting centers in battleground states like Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Arizona in addition the four that are already signed on. Maybe Dallas and San Antonio will join in as well. How many of these actually happen, and what kind of response the players will have if they feel the effort fell short for whatever the reason, remains to be seen. But in terms of direct action resulting from the wildcat strike the players engineered this past week, it’s pretty impressive. Well done.

(A more recent article than the NPR story I linked above suggests some other NBA teams, as well as teams in the NFL, NHL, and MLB, are taking similar action to allow their stadia to be used for voting. Not clear to me what relation these two efforts have. For sure, there are plenty of stadia, including hundreds of college stadia and arenas, that could also be used in this capacity, in all 50 states. It would be nice to say we’re just limited by our imagination, but of course we are very much limited by the ferocious opposition to this idea that those who don’t want to make voting easy and convenient would bring. What the NBA players have done is a great start. There’s a lot more that could and should be done.)

Just build the effing Ike Dike already

Enough waiting around.

As twin hurricanes converge on the Gulf Coast this week, including one with a decent chance of affecting the Houston-Galveston region, a highly ambitious proposal for protecting the area from a massive storm continues to slowly grind its way through the federal approval process.

Twelve years after Hurricane Ike leveled much of the Upper Texas Coast, federal officials are still studying the effects of a proposed coastal barrier and looking for ways to pay for a project now estimated to cost $31 billion. The next draft of a plan is due out in October.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ current plan to build a 71-mile barrier system to protect the southeast Texas coast has changed significantly since the Corps’ first proposal in October 2018. That proposal — a system of levees and gates stretching from High Island to San Luis Pass — was a close approximation of the “Ike Dike” concept first touted by William Merrell, a professor of marine sciences at Texas A&M University at Galveston, more than a decade ago.

That original plan called for the construction of levees that would run parallel to FM 3005 on Galveston Island and Texas 87 on Bolivar Peninsula but behind the dune line. This plan for harder barrier would have left thousands of homes adjacent to the beach exposed to flooding and likely required extensive eminent domain buyouts.

The backlash to that original proposal sent the Corps back to the drawing board. By late 2019, the Corps had settled on a double dune system — a field of 12- and 14-foot dunes, approximately 185 feet wide, with a runway of 250 feet of renourished beach leading to the Gulf of Mexico.

[…]

Kelly Burks-Copes, the Army Corps’ project manager for the coastal barrier proposal, emphasized the agency is working with the data that the federal budget allows for at this time. She noted the Army Corps is still studying how ship traffic would navigate proposed sea gates crossing Galveston Bay and whether the gates would allow for minimal tidal flow between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. All of that information will be in the next draft of the barrier plan.

“We still have to finish the environmental impact analysis, and the (barrier) footprints are gonna change slightly as the real estate gross appraisal finishes,” Burks-Copes said in February, referring to eminent domain buyouts that could be required to build the dunes.

See here for the background. I agree there has been a long debate about how to build an Ike Dike, with a number of possible variations and some passionate advocacy on all sides. I do want to make sure we do not have a negative effect on the environment in building it. But at some point we gotta start building. And for crying out loud, don’t come at me with concerns about cost, not after the Republicans spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for the rich and however many trillions on (very necessary and still insufficient) COVID recovery. The Ike Dike is peanuts next to that, and it’s vitally necessary. When the draft plan is submitted to Congress next May, there needs to be a funding bill attached to it. Get this done.

The bullet we dodged

We can exhale now.

Following days of warnings and calls to take Laura seriously, Houston and Harris County awoke to a typical late August day Thursday, virtually unscathed by the category 4 hurricane’s overnight landfall in western Louisiana.

The city and county saw occasional wind gusts of about 20 miles per hour but did not experience any of Hurricane Laura’s more damaging effects, officials said.

The National Weather Service said it had no reports of storm damage in Houston as of 6:30 a.m. The only noticeable effect was the occasional wind, according to Janice Maldonado, a meteorologist with the agency.

Houston’s Office of Emergency Management, which activated to maximum readiness in advance of the storm, began sending workers home overnight as the storm passed.

“From my understanding, Houston was pretty much spared,” said Cory Stottlemyer, spokesman for the agency.

Jeff Lindner, meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control District, said 90 miles made all the difference between unscathed Houston and hard-hit southwest Louisiana.

“We really dodged a bullet,” he said.

Yesterday was spent in a confusing melange of heavy relief and pervasive survivor’s guilt. We escaped completely unscathed, while much of Louisiana got leveled by the winds. It’s a complex set of feelings, but this is not the first time we’ve had them around here. It’s just a bit more intense this time, three years after Harvey and with a full appreciation of what a monster Laura was and how utterly devastating it would have been to us if it had tracked farther west. If you want to know what that all looked like, see here and here. When you’re done, go find some ways to help, and act accordingly.

Hope now, support relief efforts next

This is so, so bad. And it’s terrifying to realize how much worse it could have been.

With winds topping 150 mph, Hurricane Laura is approaching Category 5 status as it barrels toward the Texas-Louisiana border.

As of 7 p.m., the system was located about 120 miles southeast of Port Arthur, moving toward the coast at about 15 mph. It remains course to make landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border around midnight, according to the National Weather Service. A roughly 150-mile stretch of coastline from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, is expected to take the brunt of the storm’s impact.

Wind speeds and water levels are currently rising along the northwest Gulf coast. Sustained winds of 39 mph were reported at 6 p.m. along the southern-most edge of the Louisiana coast. Heavy rains also are beginning to spread onshore. The hurricane center said “possible tornadoes” were sprouting from Laura’s outer bands at 7 p.m. over southeastern Louisiana and extreme southwestern Mississippi.

Regions directly in Hurricane Laura’s path and east of the storm face catastrophic consequences from what the National Hurricane Center called an “extremely dangerous” storm expected to ravage portions of the northwest Gulf coast with “unsurvivable” storm surge, extreme wind and widespread flash flooding.

A tornado watch is expected to last through 9 p.m. for areas east of the Houston area and most of the Louisiana coast. The pressure around the storm has dropped to about 940 mb. Outer swaths of rain have been whipping across inland areas, with gusty winds and downpours expected in Liberty and Chambers counties.

How bad is Hurricane Laura? This bad:

Never good to be grouped with Katrina and Rita. And as bad as this is, shift this thing 150 miles west for a direct hit on Houston, and, well, I don’t even want to think about it. There are plenty of articles out now about how bad that would be. We need the Ike Dike ASAP, but we need more than that, too. We’re sitting on dynamite and playing with matches until we take this seriously.

We are finally making progress in getting COVID-19 under control

Good news is always welcome, but be aware of the context.

Houston-area hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients dropped below 900 Sunday, the lowest amount since the summer surge peaked in mid-July.

Some 893 people confirmed or suspected of having COVID-19 were admitted to hospitals in the nine-county area around Houston Sunday, the fifth straight day under 1,000, according to data compiled by the Houston Chronicle. The latest number represents a 67 percent decline since July 14, when hospitalizations hit a high of 2,694.

The last time the number was under 900 was June 15. The number hospitalized then was 820.

COVID-19 related patients in intensive care units also hit a post-surge low Sunday. There were 402 such patients in ICUs Sunday, down from a high of 1,057 July 18. Sunday’s amount was the lowest since June 17, when Houston-area hospitals reported 398 ICU patients.

[…]

The decline in hospitalizations continue a trend of improving COVID-19 numbers in the Houston area. Other key metrics include a TMC COVID-19 positive test rate of 6.7 percent over the past seven days, down from 8.6 percent a week ago and 16.8 percent a month ago; and the 14th straight day in which the rate of the disease’s spread was below 1.0, meaning those infected are passing it on to an average of less than one person each.

That’s all very good, and you should click over to the story to see the embedded charts. I would just note that on the first chart, which shows the daily count of COVID-19 patients in hospitals affiliated with the seven healthcare systems based in the Texas Medical Center, the total daily hospitalizations due to COVID are way down from the peak in July, it’s also more than fifty percent higher than it was in early to mid-June, at the start of the rapid increase in infections. For example, on June 5th the total number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 (ICU plus general beds) was 537, very close to what it was in mid-April. On August 22, the total number was 908. That is indeed way better than the mid-July peak that topped 2,400, but we still have a way to go and we can’t afford to loosen up just yet.

The story is similar in San Antonio.

The coronavirus positivity rate in Bexar County dipped to 9.9 percent on Monday, a measure that officials consider “very good news” when it comes to efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus.

The positivity rate – the percentage of those tested for the novel coronavirus who test positive – is considered a key indicator of how localities are faring against the coronavirus. Calculated on a weekly basis, it was at 11 percent last week, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg said Monday marked “the first time the positivity rate has been below 10 percent since early June.”

The positivity rate in Bexar County was as high as 25 percent in early July, he said.

With 109 new coronavirus cases reported Monday, the total stands at 45,364 since the pandemic began.

[…]

Local hospitalization rates continue to improve, with 473 people currently being treated at area hospitals, down five from Sunday. Of those, 207 are in intensive care and 139 are on ventilators. However, officials said the hospital system continues to be under high stress.

Four more deaths were reported Monday, raising the overall death toll to 725.

The seven-day moving average (the average number of positives within a 7-day period) in Bexar County increased only slightly to 148 on Monday, but continues to trend in the right direction, officials said.

Again, good news, but again look at the chart. This one shows the seven-day average of new coronavirus cases in Bexar County, which on June 5 was 74 and on August 22 was 137. That’s way down from the peak of 1,600, but still almost double what it once was.

I don’t want to underplay this, these numbers are so much better than they were a month ago, and the trend is clearly going in the right direction. We may get to those April/May/June levels in another week or two at this rate, and that’s excellent. But remember, April is when we were under the strictest shutdown orders, May is when the numbers were at their absolute lowest and also when we started reopening, and June is where it all started to fall apart. We can cautiously start to reopen again once the numbers are back down to these levels, but only if we stay committed to wearing masks and social distancing and avoiding large indoor gatherings. I would like to think that this time we really did learn the lessons we needed to learn to keep this virus at a manageable level, but it would be very easy for us to forget it all again, and repeat this cycle as if we knew nothing. The choice is ours.

Uptown BRT officially opens

Meet the Silver Line.

T.J. Buttons is used to a bus ride in Houston giving him plenty of time to check his phone. On that front, Houston’s first bus rapid transit route failed miserably.

“It’s so fast,” Buttons said as he bumped along on opening day Sunday of the Silver Line, operated by Metropolitan Transit Authority through Uptown.

More than four years of work — some a source of frustration for critics who called the project unnecessary along the car-centric corridor — preceded the opening, muted by COVID’s constraints on travel in the area. Nonetheless, officials and transit supporters said the opening was cause of celebration, and an indication of the changes coming as Metro plots 75 more miles of bus rapid transit in the region.

For Buttons and other riders, it means a much faster trip than the Route 33 buses it replaces along Post Oak, with fewer stops and less competing with traffic.

“It’s really like the train,” Buttons said.

That’s exactly what officials wanted with the project designed by Metro and the Uptown Houston Management District, which rebuilt the street and sidewalks as part of a $192.5 million project. Fourteen 60-foot buses will operate the route, traveling along an elevated busway along Loop 610 and then in dedicated transit lanes in the center of Post Oak.

The Silver Line operates between the Northwest Transit Center near Interstate 10 and Loop 610 through Uptown mostly along Post Oak to the new Westpark Lower Uptown Transit Center south of Interstate 69 near Bellaire. Fifteen bus routes connect directly to the service, via the two transit centers.

Metro and Uptown officials have said the buses will deliver service similar to light rail with boardings via platforms in the middle of the street. Trips will be faster, transit officials said, because the buses are not inching along in regular traffic. Compared to Houston’s light rail system, the buses might outpace trains because traffic is not in front of them or turning from the same lanes, improving both speed of trips and safety.

“If we don’t have shared left turn lanes, that knocks a lot of our issues out,” said Andrew Skabowski, chief operations officer for Metro.

[…]

Getting the timing right in Uptown, especially at key intersections such as Richmond, is critical to not having the buses obstruct others. In downtown Houston, shortly after the Green and Purple lines opened in 2015, Houston Public Works and Metro spent months tweaking the traffic signal timing to find the right routine.

Skabowski said if there is a silver lining to opening the Silver Line during a pandemic, it is that lower traffic demand because of fewer commutes and shopping trips gives officials a grace period to get things right.

“We still don’t have normal conditions, so that gives us a little window to get there,” he said. “We have the perfect time period to tweak it.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a good Twitter thread showing what the ride experience looks like. As far as that goes, it looks really good, and the service will be frequent (every ten minutes during the day) and reliable. Everything we know about transit ridership says that a comfortable and convenient experience will draw riders, so we’ll see what we get here, especially once people start returning to something like a normal routine. And as Christof Spieler pointed out, this line will connect to multiple high-frequency east-west bus lines, thus really expanding the network in Houston. Later on, this will be extended to connect to the Texas Central station. It’s an exciting development, and next up should be the BRT replacement for the Universities light rail line.

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.

No fans (at first) for the Texans

You’ll have to watch the Texans’ home opener on your teevee.

Fans will not be allowed to attend the Texans’ home opener against Baltimore because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texans play the Ravens on Sept. 20 at NRG Stadium after beginning the season Sept. 10 in a nationally televised game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Texans will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and rely on recommendations from team and NFL medical experts before they decide on fans being able to attend the second home game on Oct. 4 against Minnesota.

They’ll make a decision about Game 2 later.

Team president Jamey Rootes said they will wait before making a decision on the second home game Oct. 4 against Minnesota.

“That’s a tough decision,” Bill O’Brien said Saturday in a Zoom conference call. “I know Cal (McNair) and Jamey came to that decision because it’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our fans and where we are right now with this virus.”

The Texans have sold out every home game in team history. O’Brien talks often about the fans who give them a home-field advantage.

“It’s tough,” he said. “You think back to the Buffalo (playoff) game last year, the crowd was such a big part of that win for us. And many, many other games since I’ve been here that they’re really willed us to win. We won’t see them in September, but (we hope) to see them soon.”

The Texans developed a plan months ago for a limited number of fans to attend games. Based on Friday’s decision, the first time they’ll have a chance to implement that plan will be against the Vikings.

Well, they can always pipe in crowd noise and add cardboard cutout fans, if they want. For those of you who just have to see a game live, there’s always road games, if you can’t wait that long.

When the Texans open the regular season against the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champions plan to have fans in the stands at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Chiefs announced Monday that they plan to have a reduced capacity of 22 percent to start the season.

[…]

The Chiefs said they made their plans in consultation with the NFL, medical professionals and local government officials.

The Chiefs said they have implemented enhanced cleaning and sanitation procedures, including social distancing, hand sanitization stations, cashless pay for transactions and mask requirements except when actively eating and drinking. The Chiefs ask fans to bring their own masks upon entering Arrowhead Stadium, but will provide commemorative masks to all fans attending the first three home games.

Who could turn down that opportunity?

Some superintendents disagree about school opening delays

It takes all kinds.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Superintendents leading 10 Houston-area school districts penned a letter this week opposing Harris County’s recommendations for reopening campuses, arguing that face-to-face instruction should resume earlier than health officials suggest.

In their two-page letter, the superintendents say guidance released last week by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah will keep campuses closed too long, denying valuable in-person class time to students. Superintendents are not required to follow the county recommendations, though the guidance serves as a key document in the debate over when to restart in-person classes.

“It is clear that we all have the same goal, which is to return students to in-person instruction as safely as possible, the superintendents wrote to Shah on Monday. “We thank you for the continued efforts of your departments on behalf of Harris County. With that said, we believe that the metrics outlined in the plan you have provided are not attainable to resume in-person instruction in the foreseeable future.”

The superintendents represent Clear Creek, Cy-Fair, Deer Park, Huffman, Humble, Katy, Klein, Pasadena, Spring Branch and Tomball ISDs. Combined, the districts serve about 457,000 students.

In response to the letter, Harris County Public Health officials said in a statement that the organization “has made it abundantly clear that current indicators are not safe to resume in-person activities in Harris County due to COVID-19.”

As the new school year approached and superintendents debated when to resume in-person classes, some education leaders called on county health officials to offer guidance on reopening campuses.

Hidalgo and Shah followed through by producing several public health benchmarks that should be met before in-person classes resume at the lesser of 25 percent capacity or 500 people in a campus. The metrics included cutting the 14-day rolling average of new daily cases to under 400, bringing the test positivity rate under 5 percent and ensuring less than 15 percent of patients in ICU and general hospital beds are positive for COVID-19.

Harris County likely remains at least several weeks away from meeting those metrics. For example, the county recently reported a rolling daily average of about 1,250 new cases and a test positivity rate of 16 percent.

In their letter, the superintendents only mentioned two specific health benchmarks with which they disagreed. The school leaders wrote that the recommendations would “essentially require indefinite closure of schools to in-person instruction while awaiting a widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure or greater staffing capacity at Harris County Public Health for contact tracing.”

However, the guidance specifies that districts could start to reopen and ramp up to the lesser of 50 percent building capacity of 1,000 people on campus even without a “widely available COVID-19 medical countermeasure.” County officials did not detail what qualifies as a medical countermeasure in their written guidance, and they did not respond to written questions Tuesday.

See here for the background. As a reminder, Judge Hidalgo and Harris County have limited authority here – ultimately, if these districts decide to open, they can. It’s only when outbreaks occur that the county will have more power to step in. Humble ISD has already opened, the others have plans to have at least some students back by September 16. As the story notes, other districts including HISD, Aldine, Alief, and Spring did not sign this letter, but it was not clear if they had been invited to sign it or not.

I get the concern from these districts, and there’s room for honest disagreement. I don’t have any particular quarrel with their approach, though I personally prefer the more cautious path. As Chron reporter Jacob Carpenter notes in these two Twitter threads, the county now meets three out of seven criteria for reopening, and is trending in the right direction for the others. There’s no accepted national standard for what is “safe” to reopen – that’s a whole ‘nother conversation, of course – so one could argue that Harris County is being overly restrictive. Of course, we’ve also seen plenty of schools and universities that brought in students and then immediately suffered outbreaks that forced closures. Bad things are going to happen until this thing is truly under control, and it is not going to be under control any time soon while Donald Trump is President. That’s the reality, and all the choices we have are bad. Which ones are the least bad is still an open question.

Postal service update

Just a reminder, destroying the US Postal Service has real effects on real people.

Delays in mail sorting and processing are leaving Houston-area businesses, brides and voters wary of the coming months. Whether it’s essential medication, ballots or important letters and business items, the USPS is relied upon to deliver in a timely manner. Yet, many Houstonians are already feeling the effects of the slowdown, including month-long wait times and undelivered mail.

Melissa Palacios Gonzalez, a U.S. Navy veteran, runs an accessories and clothing shop out of her home in Spring. When customers place online orders of jewelry or sunglasses, shimmery metallic sandals or distressed baseball caps from Aesthetic Glam, Palacios Gonzalez drops them off at the U.S. post office nearby.

But over the summer, she and other Houstonians noticed shipping delays as first the coronavirus strained delivery times, then systemic cutbacks by the new postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, reduced the USPS’s delivery capacity.

A USPS Priority Mail order of flip flops, which was supposed to be delivered in one or two days, took a week to reach its destination, Palacios Gonzalez said.

“If it becomes a routine problem —” she started to explain, then stopped and sighed. “Even if I say, ‘Oh, sorry that happened, here’s a percentage savings on me,’ I’m still potentially losing money and a customer.”

[…]

Due to delays in the U.S. Postal Service, Adrienne Lynch’s baby’s clothes often come weeks late.

The East Sunset Heights resident said her 20-month-old daughter is growing so fast, she often has to order new clothes. Care packages from the toddler’s grandmother also normally come much later than originally estimated by the post office.

Lynch’s mail service is in constant flux, she said. Some weeks, she notices deliveries every day. Other weeks, the household won’t receive mail for a few days.

Lynch first noticed the delays in March and April. They have continued and worsened since then, she said.

“Sometimes our outgoing mail may not be picked up for a day or so,” she said. “Or on the package tracking, you will see that your package is out for delivery, but it’s sent back to the post office at the end of the day because the carrier’s shift is over and they can’t do overtime.”

Uju Nwankwo, 27, sent about 100 to 130 wedding save-the-dates through the mail on July 19 for her February wedding. Almost a month later, many of her Houston friends have yet to receive the letters.

“There seems to be no rhyme or reason, so I don’t really get it,” Nwankwo said of the sporadic deliveries.

When the soon-to-be bride contacted USPS, she said she was told her area was experiencing sorting delays. Now, with no way to track her letters, Nwankwo just has to wait it out.

Neither Nwankwo nor Lynch blame postal workers for the delays.

Carriers have a “really tough job” in worsening conditions, Lynch said. She’s started leaving bottles of water and thank you notes in the shade for postal workers to show her appreciation for their work.

“I think the delays we are experiencing locally are directly related to the system,” Lynch said. “Postal workers and their union want to serve the country, but their hands are tied.”

See here and here for some background. The potential consequences for some folks can be quite serious.

Operational changes at the U.S. Postal Service are causing delays in mail deliveries all over the country. A man in Humble said he had to go without his daily heart medication for a week due to the delays.

Don White, 82, said he has been tracking the package and said it remained at a north Houston mail processing facility for 10 days. He’s hoping to get in on Monday.

He said he’s irritated by the situation because his mail-order medication has never been this late before.

“There have been a few times in which it’s taken a week, week and a half, two weeks, but this is the first time I actually ran out and checking with the post office didn’t do much good, even though I had a tracking number on it,” White said.

He said in the meantime, his daughter has helped him get the medication at a local grocery store pharmacy.

Lucky for him he has someone nearby who can help him like that. Not everyone would be so fortunate.

There are lawsuits.

Let the Postal Service lawsuits begin. There are plenty of plaintiffs, including states. At least 20 state attorneys general are going to court over U.S. Postal Service delays and the threat to the November election, The Washington Post reports. “We’re trying to stop Trump’s attacks on the Postal Service, which we believe to be an attack on the integrity of election. It’s a straight-up attack on democracy,” Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, a Democrat, said in an interview. “This conduct is illegal. It’s unconstitutional. It’s harmful to the country. It’s harmful to individuals.

“We’re asking a court to make him stop,” he said. The ”we” in this case comprises Frosh’s fellow attorneys general from Washington State, the lead state in the case, as well as Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin. This suit names Donald Trump and Louis DeJoy, the postmaster general, as defendants. It and another suit from Pennsylvania, California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, among others, will argue that DeJoy and the Postal Service broke the law by making operational changes to slow service without the approval of the Postal Regulatory Commission. They will also argue that these changes, which they are seeking to reverse, will impede the states’ ability to run free and fair elections. All of the attorneys general signing on to these cases are Democrats, of course. They have all the standing they need: The Constitution gives states and Congress the power to run and regulate elections. “States have the right to conduct mail-in elections if they choose,” Frosh said. “Trump is trying to undermine that.”

Not Texas, of course. Our Attorney General doesn’t object to this kind of lawbreaking. But at least one prominent Texan finds this all disgraceful.

Austin resident Carolyn Lewis, a George W. Bush-era presidential appointee and 2009 chair of the USPS board of governors, told The Texas Tribune in a series of email and phone interviews Monday and Tuesday that she has been disturbed by reports of sweeping cost-cutting measures that led to a slowdown in the mail and raised concerns that the postal service will not be able to handle an influx of mailed-in ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Mr. DeJoy is failing to fulfill the mission of the USPS to provide prompt and reliable mail delivery at a time when that mission is as important as it has ever been,” said Lewis, who served on the USPS board of governors from 2004 to 2010, in a Monday email interview with the Tribune. “He is also destroying confidence in the organization that will only make its long-term viability even harder to achieve. If he does not change course immediately I hope the [board of governors] makes a change in leadership quickly.”

[…]

Lewis’ tenure also marked a moment of transition for the postal service. With the onset of modern technology, like email, the era marked a call for modernization in order to preserve the USPS’ mission to deliver the mail to all reaches of the country in a timely fashion while also remaining financially viable.

But DeJoy’s approach to modernization “feels different in several ways,” she said.

Alluding to a dysfunctional confirmation process within the U.S. Senate that for the last 10 years left gaping vacancies on the board, Lewis said that the postmaster general and the current board members “are very new and have none of the institutional knowledge that is usually there when you have more staggered terms of Governors.”

“Yet they seem to be rushing ahead to make changes before having time to fully understand the impact of those changes on all the stakeholders and there are many: employees, mailers, Congress and the American public,” she said.

She also has not seen “evidence that the current leadership has communicated their overall plan and goals that are driving the specific actions they are taking,” and “there is clearly not a priority on ensuring prompt and reliable mail delivery or fulfilling the mission” of the USPS.

“I do not know for certain the motivation of the [postmaster general] and the Governors, but their actions are certainly inviting questions, and legitimately so,” she added.

It took a couple of days, but this issue now has the full attention of Congress.

Houston Democratic congressional delegates on Tuesday announced they will propose legislation that would give the U.S. Postal Service an emergency loan and reverse recent cutbacks.

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced Tuesday afternoon that he would suspend all recent changes to the postal service until after the November election.

“Even with the challenges of keeping our employees and customers safe and healthy as they operate amid a pandemic, we will deliver the nation’s election mail on time and within our well-established service standards,” said DeJoy in a statement. “The American public should know that this is our number one priority between now and Election Day.”

The postmaster general’s move did not satisfy Democratic lawmakers, who said legislation is needed to ensure the postal service can continue to operate at full capacity beyond November.

“What he’s proposing is not acceptable,” said U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of DeJoy’s statement. “We need the changes to be reversed in totality forever. And that’s what the legislation is about.”

[…]

Previous legislation that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives would have provided the loan. Trump said he would block the funding.

The coming bill, also supported by U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher, would also make administrators within the postal service cease and desist from making any more cuts.

Jackson Lee said she will help oversee an investigation of the extent of recent reported actions directed by DeJoy, such as terminating mail sorting machines, reducing staffing and cutting back overtime at post offices across the country.

“We need to know whether there have been any civil rights violations or criminal acts taking place,” said Jackson Lee.

DeJoy will be testifying before Congress on Friday, and I hope it’s a painful experience for him. But clearly, simply agreeing to stop wrecking the place is insufficient. If I’m caught hauling bags of money from a bank vault, it is not sufficient for me to say “okay, fine, I won’t take any more money from the vault”. Vandals are expected to make restitution, and that should very much include Louis DeJoy. Daily Kos has more.

The rooftop park at the downtown post office

Very cool.

Photo by Houston In Pics

The company redeveloping downtown’s former post office property will open a rooftop venue early next year as part of a five-acre park and organic farm that will top the historic building at 401 Franklin St.

Lovett Commercial said the space will host open-air weddings and other events with a dramatic skyline backdrop. The property sits on the northern end of downtown near the corner of Franklin and Bagby, across Buffalo Bayou from the bulk of the city’s office and residential towers.

Houston-based Lovett purchased the 16-acre site, formerly the Barbara Jordan Post Office, in 2015 and is remaking the space into a coworking, shopping and culinary destination with a concert venue, hotel and rooftop farm called POST Houston.

Jordan was a Houston native who was the first Black woman from the South elected to Congress. Lovett said it intends to incorporate a monument to Jordan, who died in 1996, into the property.

The campus comprises a two-story warehouse with a more than five-acre footprint and a five-story administration building facing Franklin Street.

The rooftop, to be known as the Skylawn, was designed by Hoerr Schaudt, the Chicago-based landscape architects behind Houston’s McGovern Centennial Park. The 6,000-square-foot event space will be able to host up to 300 guests.

See here for the background. The photos that accompany the Chron story look delightful. I just hope we’re all able to actually experience it someday.

Where are we again with the IPOB?

Are we moving forward, or are we standing still?

A longtime member of Houston’s Independent Police Oversight Board has resigned, saying the organization’s structure prevents it from providing meaningful oversight of the Houston Police Department and should be disbanded.

In a pointed letter to Mayor Sylvester Turner dated Aug. 13, board member Kristin Anderson wrote that the civilian police watchdog “does not serve its stated purposes and it provides cover by making it appear that independent oversight is taking place.”

“In this time of radical rethinking of the purpose and function of law enforcement, someone with the courage and moral imagination beyond tinkering with the edges of reform should rethink citizen oversight in Houston,” she wrote. “If we do not act now, what a profound opportunity we will have missed.”

The resignation marks the latest criticism of the volunteer board and comes amid widespread scrutiny of law enforcement departments following the death of longtime Houston resident George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Turner said that when he appointed his policing taskforce earlier this summer, he ordered its members to review potential changes regarding the IPOB.

“Their work is ongoing, and I look forward to receiving the final report,” he wrote. “In fact, I already have sent Kristin Anderson’s letter to the chair. Ms. Anderson has served on the Independent Police Oversight Board since 2011. I appreciate her work and contributions to the City of Houston and wish her well.”

[…]

Anderson called on Turner to include members with a broader range of perspectives on the board.

“Formerly incarcerated citizens and others who have had both positive and negative experiences with law enforcement would represent the Houston community in a way that IPOB does not,” she said.

She also noted that she had never seen the IPOB fulfill one of its other charges: “to review and make recommendations on recruitment, training and evaluation of police officers; and to consider community concerns regarding the department.”

The letter is embedded in the story if you want to read the whole thing. We’ve had this discussion before, and it’s cleat there are many reforms that can be accomplished, some by Congress, some by the Legislature, some by Mayor Turner and City Council, and some by the collective bargaining process, which kicks in again this December. The Houston Justice Coalition has made three simple demands: enforcing body camera usage, more transparency with the IPOB, and giving the IPOB subpoena power. It should be noted that the Austin Police Department’s IPOB has better transparency than Houston’s and can initiate its own investigations, but the APD is kind of a mess, so these things have their limits. But all of them together would represent significant progress. We have to wait on the Lege till January, and Congress isn’t going to be able to do anything without a different Senate and a different President, but the city stuff can get moving any time.

Which reminds me, that Mayoral Task Force was formed in early June, and their report was to be delivered in three months. That means we’re a couple of weeks out from the deadline, at which time there better be a mandate to act. I just wanted to note this so we’re all ready for when it happens.