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Hurricane Harvey

Is there no way to fully close the flood bond funding gap?

Not looking great right now.

For three years, Harris County Commissioners Court members have bickered, haggled and negotiated over the $2.5 billion flood bond program voters passed after Hurricane Harvey.

Throughout all the discord over how projects should be prioritized and the order in which they should start, the group has stuck to one promise: All projects on the original list presented to voters would be completed, one way or another.

That guarantee may no longer be true, court members conceded Tuesday after Democratic Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia proposed taking funding for seven planned projects in the Cedar Bayou watershed and reallocating it elsewhere.

While Garcia postponed seeking approval of the idea after County Judge Lina Hidalgo warned it effectively would kill the Cedar Bayou projects, the Democratic majority on the court said the county should consider re-vetting planned projects to see if better alternatives are available.

Court members are in a conundrum. The list contains about $5 billion worth of flood protection projects. The bond, however, provides only half that sum. The county planned for the rest to be covered through matching federal dollars that have failed to materialize, largely due to a distribution formula used by the state General Land Office that discriminated against populous areas.

“We only have $2.5 billion, so decisions have to be made,” Garcia said.

Through June, however, the county had received $1.2 billion in matching federal funds and diverted an additional $230 million in toll road revenue for the program, bringing the total available to $4 billion. The county budget office estimates the roughly decade-long program, currently 16 percent complete, is fully funded for the next five years.

Nonetheless, while no projects have been delayed or canceled to date, that day could soon arrive. Garcia’s proposal would shift $191 million planned for detention basins and channel improvements along Cedar Bayou, in northeast Harris County, to 17 projects in the Carpenters, Vince, Jackson, Greens, Armand, San Jacinto and Galveston Bay watersheds.

See here, here, and here for more on the attempts to fill the gap, and here and here for the reminder that the mess we are in is George P. Bush’s fault. According to Commissioner Garcia, his proposal to prioritize one project over another would protect more houses, score better on the county’s rubric for the projects, and get finished faster. I’m not sure why the order hadn’t been flipped before now, but that sure sounds like a worthy idea even without the funding issues. If nothing else, it may buy some time. But in the end, assuming we continue to be screwed by the GLO, it’s as Commissioner Ellis said: The Commissioners can find a way to come up with the rest of the money, or they can admit that not all of the projects will get done and explain their actions to the public. Those are the choices.

GLO still screwing Houston on Harvey aid

This shit has got to stop.

Harris County and the city of Houston this week blasted the Texas General Land Office’s revised plan for distributing billions in federal Hurricane Harvey aid, saying that while it is an improvement over the $0 the state originally awarded the local governments, it still is woefully inadequate.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and Steve Costello, Houston’s chief recovery officer, said in a letter Wednesday that GLO’s proposal to send $750 million to Harris County and still nothing to Houston ignores what Congress wanted when lawmakers approved the aid package for Texas in 2018 — to help communities devastated by Harvey.

“It is unconscionable that the State would expect that this amount in any way represents an amount that is sufficient to address the extensive mitigation needs in Houston and elsewhere in Harris County,” the pair wrote the land office.

The city and county want at least $1 billion each, which they say is fair since that sum would be roughly half of the $4.3 billion in federal aid that GLO manages and Harris County has about half of all the residents in the 49 counties eligible for the funds.

They suggested the state could abandon its proposal to send more aid to regional government entities, including the Houston-Galveston Area Council, to free up more money for Houston and Harris County.

[…]

The dispute with GLO has enormous consequences: Harris County is counting on federal aid to help complete projects in its $2.5 billion flood bond program and Houston desperately wants to improve urban drainage so neighborhoods no longer flood before stormwater can flow into bayous.

The GLO in May announced the results of a $1 billion funding competition for the disaster mitigation aid, which completely shut out the city and county governments, despite the fact that Harris County sustained the most fatalities and property damage from the 2017 storm.

Houston Chronicle investigation found the scoring criteria GLO used discriminated against populous areas and the state disproportionately steered aid to inland counties with a lower risk of disasters than coastal ones most vulnerable to hurricanes and flooding. Land Commissioner George P. Bush claimed falsely that federal rules were to blame for the result.

After criticism from Houston-area Democrats and Republicans alike, the GLO said it would revise its plan for spending more than $1 billion in additional federal aid it has yet to distribute. Instead of holding a second scoring competition as originally planned, GLO intends to award $750 million directly to Harris County, which it can share with Houston and other cities at its discretion.

An additional $667 million would be divided amount regional government entities, including the Houston-Galveston Area Council. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development must approve the revised plan.

In a letter of its own to GLO on Wednesday, Harris County walked a fine line between thanking the state for offering the $750 million and making a case for why it remains insufficient.

Given its own need to fund flood bond projects, the county is disinclined to share its allocation with cities within its boundaries. Instead, County Administrator Dave Berry said county leaders support Houston’s request for a $1 billion allocation.

“The majority of the amount the State of Texas (federal) allocation — by far — was due to Hurricane Harvey and the documented damage suffered in Harris County and the city of Houston,” Berry wrote. “Congress clearly intended for this money to go to communities most impacted and distressed by Harvey.”

See here for my previous update, and Zach Despart’s Twitter thread for color commentary. This is the same tired bullshit from the GLO, with more insults. We’re going to need the feds to step in and apply the hammer, and then we’re seriously going to need to vote a lot of people out of office. There’s no other way forward at this point.

The Housing and Community Development mess

A review of headlines from last week, which I did not have the brain space to do anything with:

Turner fires Houston housing director who accused him of ‘charade’ bid process to benefit developer

Turner names interim housing director in wake of corruption claims by former department head

Turner orders legal review of housing deal at center of ‘charade’ claims by fired housing director

Editorial: Tell the truth, Mayor Turner. Why the ‘charade’ over wasteful housing contract?

I still don’t quite have the brain capacity to make sense of all this. None of it looks good for Mayor Turner, but how things end don’t always reflect how they began. These would be terrible headlines not just for the Mayor but for everyone on City Council if we had elections this year, but we don’t. There may be some echoes of this when the 2023 campaigns roll around, but my guess is that unless there’s something epic inside all of this we will have moved onto many other things by then. At heart, that’s one of the reasons I voted against the proposal back in 2015 to change from two year terms and a limit of three for local elected officials to four year terms with a limit of two. I know a lot of Council members hated having to run every two years, but I believed then and still believe now that there’s value to it. Anyway, here we are. We’ll see how many people remember any of this a month from now, let alone in two years.

It could have been worse

Just something to ponder, from Space City Weather.

First of all, if you can remember all the way back to Saturday, I presented three different scenarios for Nicholas’ track and eventual flooding in Houston. The first of these was the “Coast Hugger,” in which the storm remained close to the Gulf, brought 2 to 4 inches of rain to Houston and higher amounts along the coast, while keeping the heaviest rains offshore. This is largely what happened, with Nicholas remaining very close to the coast even after moving inland. If we look at satellite-derived precipitation totals for the last three days, the heaviest swath of 10-20 inches of rainfall came offshore.

A track even 40 or 50 miles further inland would have set up those heaviest rains directly across the Houston metro area, and created a much more serious flood situation. Hopefully this offers you some insight into the challenge of predicting these kinds of rain events. It was a very close call, a matter of miles, between significant inland rainfall flooding in Houston, and relatively clean bayous this morning.

The second factor is wind. Nicholas turned out to be a fairly nasty storm in terms of wind gusts, and pushed a larger storm surge—as high as 6.1 feet into Clear Lake—than predicted. This is a reminder of the power of a hurricane, even one that was “only” a minimal Category 1 storm. The truth is that the track of the storm was very nearly a worst-case one for Houston in terms of winds and putting a maximum storm surge across Galveston Island and into Galveston Bay.

It is September 14, the absolute peak of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and a time when sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are at their warmest of the year. So this morning I’m thinking about what would have happened if we had not had some wind shear over the western Gulf of Mexico yesterday, or if Nicholas had been able to consolidate a more well defined and consistent center of circulation. It would have been much, much worse for all of us had a significantly stronger hurricane made landfall last night. So while we pick up the pieces this morning, realize Nicholas could have been much more of a terror.

Not the first time this year that we averted a disaster by dumb luck. We’re four years out from Harvey, 13 years out from Ike, and we’ve had plenty of non-hurricane catastrophic floods in between, so it’s not like we’ve been living a charmed life here in Houston. Lots of people here have been hit very hard, and there’s a whole lot of talk about the trauma and stress that so many folks have experienced and still experience. This is life under climate change. There are things we can do to keep it from getting worse, and there are things we can do to make it better for those who have had the hardest time. But we can’t wish it away or ignore it, and we absolutely can’t deny it. It’s up to all of us.

Zombie trees

We are still experiencing the effects of the freeze.

Never turn down an opportunity to reference a Rush song

Zombies are in your yard, in parks and along roadsides and other green spaces throughout Texas.

They’re trees that are partly dead and partly alive, struggling to move forward and waiting for the next big thing — even hotter temperatures, a drought, a hurricane — to seal their fate.

Count zombie trees as one more lingering effect of February’s winter storm.

Arborists and other tree experts say that in the months to come, the state could lose thousands if not millions of trees ranging from tall Mexican or California fan palms to a wide range of hardwoods such as lace bark elm, Chinese tallow and water oak. This would be the most dangerous threat to Texas’s tree inventory since the 2011 drought.

Trees with lots of dead branches and new green sprouts shooting out of the center are likely zombie trees. Even tall palms with new green fronds on top could be zombies, because you can’t see the potential damage inside of their lanky trunks.

Matt Petty, assistant district manager and a certified arborist at the Davey Tree Expert Co., said that the International Society of Arboriculture is calling for a two-year watch on trees damaged in the freeze.

“The zombie tree concept comes from trees that, from a distance, appear to be normal or healthy and as you get closer, you see the differences. They’re dead and we don’t know it yet,” Petty said, noting that the trees could have been struggling before the freeze. “Trees that lost their leaves from the freeze have sprouted out and, in many cases, look like they have recovered. As temperatures heat up, though, we’ll have trees that die.”

Petty said that he’s seen sycamores, rain trees, Chinese tallow, elms and water oaks suffering damage, but live oaks and magnolia trees — both popular shade trees in the Houston area — are doing well.

[…]

David N. Appel, a Texas A&M professor and a specialist in tree pathology noted that “zombie tree” isn’t a horticultural or agricultural term and showed restraint in using it.

He said that most trees with dead-looking branches and new shoots coming from the center could be zombie trees, but not all are. They’re certainly damaged trees, some of which will live and some of which will die, and it’s fairly obvious which branches should be pruned back.

“I’ve been from the Rio Grande all the way up to Wichita Falls, and I have talked to a lot of arborists and one thing is clear: The damage was remarkably similar, it’s just that the species were different depending on where you are,” Appel said. “In one place you hear a lot about lace bark elms, but in another place it might be some of the oak species. In Wichita Falls it was the Japanese black pine and Mondell pine.”

Appel said Texas will lose hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of trees.

“The picture has become much clearer than it was two months ago, but we still (won’t know the fate of) a lot of these trees for a long while,” he said. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, and that’s not a tree joke.”

The story references the 2011 drought, which was hell on trees in Houston and around the state, and Hurricane Harvey, neither of which is a great comparison for arborial life. Some trees, like palms, were recognizably dead following the February freeze, but for others it may not be certain for another year or two. For those of us who live in neighborhoods with older trees, it is worth the time and expense to have an arborist look at the trees around your house, because dead branches are a real threat in a big storm. Hope for the best, and do what you can to take care of the trees on your property.

It’s the quick intensification of the hurricanes for me

New things to keep you up at night.

It’s a nightmare scenario that keeps forecasters up at night: A tropical cyclone strengthens quickly over a 24-hour period.

It happened last year close to home with Hurricane Laura, which evolved from Category 1 to a more devastating Category 4 before striking near Lake Charles, La., sweeping buildings from foundations and killing seven people with surf and falling trees.

Researchers in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agree it’s likely that the tropical cyclones that formed over the past four decades increasingly went through such a period of rapid intensification. They also say a greater proportion of future hurricanes will very likely be Category 4 and 5.

Coastal communities need to prepare, experts say.

The trend toward a greater frequency of storms getting stronger fast may continue, according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. Unexpected high winds and storm surges can cause disaster. Strong winds leave communities powerless and storm surges kill.

But evacuating vulnerable areas requires time; doing so too hastily can be dangerous.

“That’s really the nightmare scenario for forecasters and emergency managers,” said Robert Rogers, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who studies storm intensity changes. “Imagine a tropical storm that’s approaching landfall, maybe a 55 mph tropical storm, and it undergoes rapid intensification to become a 130 mph monster at landfall. That’s really what keeps the forecasters up at night. That’s really what a lot of our effort is going toward trying to better understand.”

[…]

Area residents may not have five or six days to prepare for and evacuate from a storm, said Jeff Lindner, meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control district.

Three-quarters of storms that struck Texas developed and hit within 60 hours, he said. Rapid intensification can add pressure to that timeline. Hurricane Humberto in 2007 famously went from tropical depression to tropical storm to hurricane in 19 hours, hitting east of High Island.

Other memorable storms intensified rapidly too: Ike’s winds in 2008 went from tropical storm-level to Category 4 in a 24-hour period when it formed, according to satellite estimates, but weakened before hitting Galveston with deadly surge. Harvey in 2017 rapidly strengthened to a Category 4 before striking near Rockport and later drenching the Houston area, unleashing catastrophic flooding.

What terrifies environmental attorney and longtime climate advocate Jim Blackburn is the scenario where people feel equipped to handle what they think is coming and are caught off guard when it becomes something else. He worries about coastal residents dying because they prepare to ride out a small storm — and a much stronger one hits.

“People have assumed or have fallen into routines based on the past,” Blackburn said, “and that’s the whole point of climate change. You cannot depend on the past to predict the future.”

I don’t really have much to add to that. Have your emergency kit stocked and ready, know what your plan will be, and hope like heck forecasting ability continues to improve. And yeah, build the Ike Dike.

Actually, I do have one more thing, as I had drafted this a few days ago: Be ready to donate to Hurricane Ida relief funds. Louisiana will need all the help it can get.

GLO defends P Bush in Congressional hearing

Dude couldn’t be bothered to show up himself, so he had someone else there to defend him.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush did not play a role in the process that left Houston and Harris County without any federal aid for flood mitigation projects, according to a top disaster official with the General Land Office who defended the agency’s scoring criteria during testimony to a congressional committee Thursday.

Bush, who is challenging incumbent Attorney General Ken Paxton in the upcoming Republican Party primary, has received bipartisan backlash over the GLO’s allocation of $1 billion in flood project funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, none of which went to the 14 projects sought by the city or county. Bush since has announced that he will ask the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department to direct $750 million to the county.

“For the record, the Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush was by design recused from the scoring committee and the scoring process,” Heather Lagrone, the GLO’s deputy director of community development and revitalization, told members of a House Financial Services subcommittee. “The commissioner was informed of the competition result only after the projects had been through eligibility review and scored in accordance with the federally approved action plan.”

U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, accused the GLO of using a “rigged formula” to distribute the relief money, defining the process as “the hijacking of a federal mitigation appropriations process.”

“I think that the time has come for a course correction,” Green said.

See here for the background. Didn’t you hear the lady, Rep. Green? LEAVE GEORGE P. BUSH ALOOOOOOOOONE!

It was a chicken move for P Bush to not show up and explain himself, but that’s hardly surprising. And let’s face it, had he been there himself, we’d have gotten the same lies about the ridiculous GLO formula and the “red tape” that was actually in place under Trump, and we never would have gotten a rational explanation for why their formula made any sense.

While coastal communities bore the brunt of Harvey, the GLO disproportionately sent the $1 billion in aid to inland counties that suffered less damage and, by the state’s own measure, are at a lower risk of natural disasters, a Houston Chronicle investigation found last month.

Houston Public Works Director Carol Haddock noted during the committee hearing that the GLO declined to award a penny in mitigation funds to Aransas and Nueces counties, where Harvey made landfall, nor to Jefferson County, which saw the heaviest rainfall during the storm, nor to Houston and Harris County, which saw the most damage from the storm.

“The Texas General Land Office’s process for allocating granted zero dollars to all of these localities, and it was only after bipartisan political pressure that the GLO retroactively requested $750 million for Harris County,” Haddock said.

The GLO process got the result it intended. Everything else is details, and a reminder of why you cannot put bad faith actors in positions of power.

Testify, George P!

I’m ready for this.

A congressional panel is set to review the Texas General Land Office’s denial of federal flood mitigation funding to Houston and Harris County, the latest in an ongoing spat over more than $1 billion in aid approved by Congress and doled out by the state.

The Democrat-led House Financial Services Committee wants Land Commissioner George P. Bush to testify about the decision during a hearing next week, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, a Houston Democrat who chairs the panel’s oversight and investigations subcommittee. It’s unclear yet if Bush will appear at the July 15 hearing.

[…]

Green said he wants Bush to explain the initial denial, as well as why it has taken so long to get the federal funding out. The funding is part of a relief package that Congress approved in 2018 after Hurricane Harvey.

“This is pretty serious, when you look at the time that has lapsed … then not to have the money spent on people who are still suffering and waiting to have the relief and the money is in the hands of GLO,” Green said. “I think GLO should explain.”

These are all good questions, and we deserve to hear answers to them. We should also recognize that in the tradition of the Trump administration, there’s a decent chance that Bush just blows this off. If that happens, then Congress needs to do the stand-up thing and subpoena him, and hold him in contempt if he continues to defy them. Do not wimp out on this. Either there’s accountability or there isn’t, and enforcement is a key part of that. If he’s not there willingly, make him be there, or else.

Let’s try again to fix that flood bond deficit

Hope this works.

Harris County on Tuesday [unveiled] a new plan to address a funding gap for its flood bond program, which will rely more heavily on diverted toll road revenue instead of federal aid that may never arrive.

The goal is to give the county greater control over its own flood control future instead of waiting on unreliable state and federal partners. To that end, the Commissioners Court also is expected to approve a new, permanent fund for flood control purposes and give priority to the most vulnerable areas to receive aid from it.

The plan still leaves approved projects $950 million short, however, raising the possibility that a new bond or flood control tax increases may be needed in the future to pay for all planned projects, according to budget office documents. Additional money would not be needed for about five years, according to the budget office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey said the fund, called the Flood Resilience Trust, is a good idea because it allows the county to stockpile money for projects in advance.

“It allows the county to, in a very effective way, set aside money every year, and that money will be there when they make any federal or state applications,” Ramsey said. “With a trust, we can move forward with a project while anticipating those (matching) dollars will come in.”

[…]

Because the Harris County Flood Control District purposefully underfunded some bond projects in anticipation of receiving federal aid, the snub resulted in lopsided spending across the county’s 23 watersheds. In March, the county announced that some of the watersheds with the wealthiest communities, such as White Oak and Buffalo bayous, had their projects close to fully funded.

Watersheds with some of the county’s poorest neighborhoods, such as Halls and Greens bayous, had less than half the necessary dollars. That angered the commissioners who represent those areas, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia, because the court agreed in proposing the bond three summers ago that funds would be spent equitably.

The new plan aims to fix that. First, it would direct Harris County Toll Road Authority revenue — a lump sum of $230 million plus $40 million annually — to a new Flood Resilience Trust. This account would be used to plug funding holes in projects where federal aid failed to arrive.

Projects would be eligible based on their scores on the county’s prioritization framework, which considers factors such as how many structures would benefit from a project, how frequently a target area has flooded and the socioeconomic makeup of the residents there. This “worst first” framework, approved in 2019, initially dictated only the order in which projects were started.

The two Republican commissioners on the court, Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, voted against the equity language; Cagle said he saw no connection between social factors such as education or poverty and flood risk.

The county budget office estimates that if no other federal or state aid comes, the Flood Resilience Trust will be able to make up bond project shortfalls until about 2026. After that, the commissioners may need to issue a new bond to cover the remaining costs.

See here for the background. This was a preview story, published before the Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. I presume this was passed, but the meeting ran late, and so as of Wednesday afternoon there wasn’t an updated version yet. I think this is a reasonable plan, and if it can buy them five years (and hopefully some real progress in getting projects done) before having to do another bond, then that’s a good outcome and the odds of having that bond passed will improve. It also allows for some time to un-screw the federal fund distribution, which would make all of this a lot simpler. For now, this will do.

It wasn’t just Houston and Harris County that got screwed by P Bush and the GLO

Every time I read something new about this, I get madder.

Disasters have not fallen evenly on Iola and Port Arthur. Hurricane Harvey flooded almost the entire coastal city on the Louisiana border, which was damaged by Ike and Rita before that. Iola, a tiny Grimes County community 100 miles inland, largely is insulated from tropical storms.

Both cities applied for federal Harvey disaster aid distributed by the state. Iola pitched a wastewater system that would serve 379 people. Port Arthur proposed the replacement of century-old storm water pipes to help 42,000.

The state funded Iola’s project. Port Arthur got nothing.

“With our susceptibility to being affected by hurricanes, if those places got money, you know it wasn’t fairly done,” said Port Arthur Mayor Thurman Bartie.

A Houston Chronicle investigation found the $1 billion in aid distributed by the Texas General Land Office in May disproportionately flowed to inland counties with less damage from Harvey than coastal communities which bore the brunt of the storm.

The GLO also steered aid toward counties with a lower risk of natural disasters — by the state’s own measure — and sometimes to projects that help far fewer residents per dollar spent than unfunded projects in more vulnerable counties.

The lowest-risk counties that received awards, like Grimes, were only eligible because of the GLO’s decision to add them. And in some cases, the state funded projects in these places even though they scored worse than applicants in the highest-risk counties, according to criteria the land office set.

Aransas and Nueces counties, where Harvey made landfall, did not receive a dime. Neither did Jefferson County, which recorded the highest rain totals. Same for Houston and Harris County’s governments, even though the county suffered the most deaths and flooded homes from the storm.

“To get goose-egged is really disappointing,” said Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales. “The coast is going to get battered first. … How do you come out of $1 billion and Nueces isn’t even on your radar?”

It’s a great question, one for which Land Commissioner George P. Bush has no good answer. I’ll say this again, this does not happen by accident. Even if it were possible to accidentally create a system that prioritized low-risk, low-population areas over high-risk, high-population areas, there was plenty of time to catch and fix the error, especially since the GLO was explicitly warned about it. They knew which places got which awards well before the information was released, and either didn’t think anyone would have a problem with it or didn’t care who said what.

I don’t blame these low-risk places for applying for the federal funds. They were playing by the rules. The GLO and their deliberately jacked-up scoring system are the problem. As the story notes, the belated offer by P Bush to award $750 million to Harris County (by as yet unknown means), which came about in the face of intense bipartisan criticism, doesn’t do anything for the likes of Nueces or Aransas or Jefferson, or any of their cities. (It leaves Houston out in the cold as well.) At this point, the only sensible and equitable solution is to throw this entire pile of trash away and start over, this time with a scoring system that makes sense and ideally is overseen by someone other than P Bush. I don’t know how to make that happen, I don’t know if it’s possible to make that happen, but it’s the best way forward I can see. Maybe having Congress re-appropriate money directly to the screwed-over localities could work, if it’s possible to get that through Congress and the Senate. All I know is this is totally FUBARed, and there’s no good way forward. We have to go back, and we have to start over. And yes, we should be extremely pissed off about this.

Harris County and Houston appeal to HUD for flood funds

Hope this helps.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday asked U.S. Housing Secretary Marcia Fudge to set a 30-day deadline for the Texas General Land Office to formally request $750 million in federal flood control aid that Land Commissioner George P. Bush recently said he would seek.

“Given this matter involves funds allocated in February of 2018, the rules were promulgated in August of 2019, and hurricane season has already begun for 2021, HUD (the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department) should require the GLO to submit this amendment within the next 30 days,” Hidalgo and Turner wrote.

Since late May, when the GLO announced its plan to distribute an initial round of about $1 billion in mitigation funds approved by Congress after Hurricane Harvey, Houston-area officials have hammered Bush for not directing a penny of the aid to the city or the county. In response, Bush said he would ask HUD, which oversees the federal relief money, to directly send $750 million to Harris County — essentially bypassing the GLO’s criteria for scoring flood project applications.

Hidalgo and Turner have said the $750 million falls well short of the $2 billion they believe the city and county should receive — $1 billion apiece — to fund projects aimed at mitigating the effects of future storms. In the letter to Fudge and at a congressional hearing Friday, they sought HUD’s help in securing roughly that amount from the $4.3 billion that Congress allotted for Texas after the 2017 storm.

“We’re asking that HUD approve this amendment (for $750 million) … as a down payment toward an equitable share for all governmental entities within Harris County,” Hidalgo said.

Turner noted that Houston still has not been promised any flood mitigation relief because Bush has said he plans to ask HUD to send the $750 million directly to Harris County. Bush said the county, which faces a $1.4 billion funding gap for its $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018, could then decide how much to give the city.

The city and county collectively applied for $1.34 billion to cover 14 flood projects: five from the city and nine from the county.

See here for the background (there are more links to previous posts in that one). I don’t know what is likely to come of this, but the goal is to get more funding for the region, and for both the city and the county to have their own projects funded, rather than have the city depend on the county to give it a share of its allocation. We’ll keep an eye on this. The Texas Signal and the Press have more.

Flood Control District director to resign

Interesting.

Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe submitted a letter of resignation to Commissioners Court on Friday, saying he plans to step down July 2.

Poppe, 45, said the demands of the job, which have grown significantly since Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and the passage of the historic $2.5 billion flood bond program the following year, had grown too great.

“While I greatly appreciate your continued support for making Harris County more resilient with natural disaster, the growing expectations associated with these efforts have adversely affected the quality of my personal life to a point I can no longer sustain,” Poppe wrote.

His departure comes at a precarious time for the agency, which is attempting to close a $700 million funding gap in its flood bond program. Poppe is due to present a plan to Commissioners Court June 29 to ensure all planned projects can be completed.

Poppe, who has worked as an engineer for Harris County since 2005, became head of the flood control district five years ago.

The rest of the story recaps the history of those five years, from Harvey to the 2018 bond referendum that is now massively underfunded thanks to a miscalculation in how federal matching funds would be allocated, the relationship Poppe has had with the Democratic-majority Commissioners Court, and the current mishigoss with the General Land Office and George P. Bush. HCFCD may have been a sleepy place when Poppe got there, but it’s on everyone’s radar now.

We can speculate as to the reasons why he is leaving now, but none of that really matters. What does matter is who and what comes next. The next director will have a full plate and a lot of directions to be going at once, with a state government that is outright hostile to the county. I hope whoever that is enjoys a challenge, because they’re going to get one. Best of luck to Russ Poppe in whatever comes next, and let’s all light a candle for his successor.

The Chron debunks P Bush

You love to see it.

In recent days, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has said his office is not to blame for failing to award Houston or Harris County a single penny of $1 billion in flood mitigation funding last week.

Bush and his spokeswoman alternately blamed the snub on criteria Texas was forced to use by President Donald Trump’s housing department, complex regulations by the Biden administration and the failure of the city and county to submit better applications.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of the Department of Housing and Urban Development flood mitigation program revealed a different reality: Not only does the federal government grant states significant discretion to decide how to spend their funds, but the criteria Bush’s General Land Office developed discriminated against populous areas.

The state agency ignored advice from the city of Houston, which warned in a January 2020 letter that its rules effectively would penalize urban areas for having large populations. And several scoring metrics the GLO designed drew criticism from engineers, who said they do a poor job evaluating the merits of a particular flood protection project.

“To miss it in the development of the criteria is one thing,” said Melvin Spinks, a past president of Houston’s American Council of Engineering Companies. “But then to receive the applications and not let it dawn on you how flawed they are is the other part that we go on scratching our heads. Who could be that senseless?”

After heavy criticism from local Republican and Democratic elected officials, whose constituents rank flood protection as among their top issues, Bush on Wednesday said he had “heard the overwhelming concerns” and would ask HUD to allocate $750 million directly to Harris County. He provided no clarity, however, on how long that would take nor where that money would come from. HUD officials in Washington said they could not comment on a proposal Texas had yet to formally make.

For now, the funding landscape remains the same: Despite Harris County having a greater population than the other 48 eligible recipient counties combined, GLO last week awarded just 9 percent of its $1 billion here, for projects in the municipalities of Pasadena, Galena Park, Jacinto City and Baytown.

“Right now, the city is under the assumption we have no money for any of our projects,” said Steve Costello, Houston’s chief recovery officer.

See here, here, here, here, and here for the background. At a high level, there’s nothing here we didn’t already know. The metrics were designed to screw Houston and Harris County, the GLO was warned about it, they failed to take any opportunity to correct course even though they would have seen the results before releasing them, and their excuses are a steaming pile of crap. This story goes into the details, and for that it’s worth your time. It also gave us this lovely tweet thread from reporter Zach Despart:

That thread is a good summary of this story if you don’t want to read the whole story. But you should, it’s good and you will feel a burning desire to vote against George P. Bush at your next opportunity. Check it out.

What are P Bush’s pledges worth?

Something less than $750 million would be my guess.

When Republican Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced Wednesday evening that he would ask federal officials to send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid, he told Houstonians the move was a response to their “overwhelming concerns” over his agency’s decision to deny the city and county any relief days earlier.

Bush’s announcement, however, raised new questions about where the money would come from and how it would affect future rounds of funding. Local leaders, who are not guaranteed any money until federal housing officials sign off on Bush’s plan, said the amount remained well short of the $1.3 billion they had sought from the Texas General Land Office for a range of projects intended to mitigate future floods.

County officials are particularly worried that in accepting the $750 million, they would be disqualified from future funding competitions. And Mayor Sylvester Turner questioned why Bush would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to make the payment, effectively ensuring the money will not arrive for months, instead of allocating it himself.

Houston, meanwhile, remains shut out. A GLO spokeswoman said the county could consider sharing its allotment, if it arrives. But Harris County may be reluctant to do so because it is trying to close a $700 million gap in its flood bond program without raising taxes.

“I see this as a failed attempt on (Bush’s) part to try to pit the city and county against each other,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

Turner called it “foolishness” for Bush to not request any mitigation aid for the city. The mayor’s appointed chief recovery officer, Steve Costello, said city officials would continue to seek funding for the city that aligns with their share of the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

“Right now the city is under the assumption we have no money for any of our projects,” Costello said.

See here for the previous entry. If this is taken seriously and pursued, it would take up to 90 days for the money to come through. It’s hard to see why Harris County and especially Houston would take this seriously, with there being so many unanswered questions. This has the feel to me of Bush just scrambling to find something that will take the heat off. It doesn’t look like Houston or Harris will take the bait, so either Bush figures out a way to undo the colossal mess he created or it remains awfully awkward for the foreseeable future.

P Bush tries to make amends

What a joker.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said Wednesday he would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to directly send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid related to Hurricane Harvey, days after his agency declined to award the county any money for their proposed projects.

The snub sparked an intense and immediate backlash from Houston-area Democrats and Republicans, who demanded that Bush revise the General Land Office’s metrics for doling out $2.1 billion in federal relief for flood projects. The officials noted that Houston bore the brunt of the historic hurricane, yet had failed to secure one cent from the initial $1 billion round of funding.

In a statement, Bush blamed the situation on federal “red tape requirements and complex regulations” that he described as a “hallmark” of the Biden administration. He said the Land Office, which administers Texas’ federal disaster relief, had been delayed in distributing the Harvey funds by the U.S. Housing Department, which did not publish rules regulating the use of the money until two years after Harvey. That happened under the administration of former president Donald Trump.

Bush said he had directed GLO officials to “work around the federal government’s regulations” by seeking the direct allocation, though he did not say which regulations had prevented the agency from awarding the money to Harris County itself.

A GLO spokeswoman said the $750 million, if approved by HUD, would go directly to Harris County. The county could then decide to send some of the money to the city for its own mitigation projects.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Bush’s plan would still leave the city with only a fraction of the $4.3 billion approved by Congress in 2018 to help Texas prevent future flooding. Turner and other local officials have long insisted Houston and Harris County should receive roughly half of that amount, which they say would align with their initial share of Texas’ housing recovery aid and the proportion of damage taken on by the Houston area during Hurricane Harvey.

“Harris County should receive $1 billion and the City of Houston should receive $1 billion,” Turner said. “All Commissioner Bush has to do is amend his state plan to provide that direct allocation to the city of Houston and to Harris County.”

[…]

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development disputed the Land Office’s account, saying state officials have “full responsibility and jurisdiction over who gets the money.” While HUD must sign off on the GLO’s plan for distributing the funds, there did not appear to be any HUD guidance that required the state to use the criteria opposed by the city and county.

See here, here, and here for the background. A succinct summary of this saga:

Also, too, the $750 million is a bit more than half of the $1.34 billion Houston and Harris County had asked for, and the GLO did not say if this would be the total amount Houston and Harris would get or if this would somehow be carved out of the initial $2.1 billion allocation, and if so what would happen to the grants that had been made. But other than that, great job, Bushie! The Trib and Campos, who knows what the “P” in “P Bush” stands for, have more.

State Reps to P Bush: Reconsider

Nearly all of the Harris County State Reps have written a letter to Land Commissioner George P Bush asking him to reconsider the ridiculous process that completely shut Houston and Harris County out of federal flooding funds.

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers on Tuesday asked Land Commissioner George P. Bush to reconsider his agency’s move to deny Houston and Harris County any funds out of a $1 billion federal pot of flood mitigation aid stemming from Hurricane Harvey.

In a letter to Bush, 22 state representatives — the entire Harris County delegation, aside from state Reps. Briscoe Cain and Mike Schofield — wrote that they found the decision “disappointing” and asked that the General Land Office “work to rectify this situation.”

The GLO, which Bush oversees, is responsible for disbursing more than $4 billion in federal aid to fund flood mitigation projects across southeast Texas. In the first round of aid payout last week, four smaller municipalities in east Harris County were awarded $90 million, but the city and county received nothing for the more than $1.3 billion in applications they submitted for various projects.

“We recognize there have been disagreements between local and state leaders on how to allocate various sets of federal funds around mitigation and recovery since Hurricane Harvey,” the lawmakers wrote. “(H)owever, no reasonable person could believe that the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development intended or … envisioned a scenario where a county of 4.7 million people and the fourth largest city in the United States, after experiencing three consecutive years of flood disasters, would not receive any of this $1 billion allotment.”

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the letter. As noted, the two Republican County Commissioners have also complained to P Bush about this. I’m not surprised that Briscoe Cain didn’t sign on to this – he’s a complete waste of space – but Mike Schofield’s omission is intriguing. I know things will change with redistricting to strengthen his position, but I thank him for providing the campaign fodder nonetheless. Whether this will make any difference or not I have no idea, but it was the right thing to do regardless. Kudos to Jon Rosenthal, the county delegation chair, for organizing this and to all of the members who did sign it.

P Bush tries to deflect blame on flood funding fiasco

You can run, but you can’t hide, George P. Bush.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush blamed local leaders Friday for Houston and Harris County’s failure to secure a single penny of roughly $1 billion in federal flood mitigation funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, though a county commissioner said Bush privately pledged his support for giving Harris County future aid directly rather than forcing it to compete for the money.

The Texas General Land Office, which is responsible for allocating U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development flood mitigation dollars, told city and county officials Thursday they would receive nothing of the more than $1.3 billion they had sought for 14 mitigation projects.

Mayor Sylvester Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo blamed the result on certain project scoring criteria that disadvantaged urban areas.

A General Land Office spokeswoman said the agency was required to use the criteria developed by federal officials at the Housing and Urban Development Department.

HUD disputed that Friday evening, laying the blame squarely on Bush’s team.

“HUD has not prevented Texas from awarding CDBG-MIT funds to Houston or Harris County,” agency spokesman Michael Burns said in a statement. “The formula for allocation was created by the state of Texas. They have full responsibility and jurisdiction over who gets the money that was allocated to the state for flood mitigation.”

Burns did not say whether HUD would intervene. The agency’s comments capped a whirlwind two days where Bush visited areas that received awards. In all, the GLO awarded about $1 billion for 81 different projects across 40 counties, including $179 million in Galveston County.

See here for the background. The embedded image is a statement from Republican County Commissioner Tom Ramsey, so this isn’t just Democratic carping. (UPDATE: Commissioner Jack Cagle calls the GLO’s decision “shocking” and says it “mocks common sense”.) This isn’t and shouldn’t be just about formulas and algorithms. It also has to be about the goals, which should then be reflected by the formulas. As I said last time, it should be obvious that the city of Houston and Harris County need and deserve a significant portion of this funding. We suffered the most from Harvey, we have the greatest amount of current and future need, and this was the intent of Congress when that money was appropriated. There’s no world in which giving zero dollars to Houston and Harris County is rational, efficient, or just. The GLO was given the responsibility to distribute these funds – over the objections of the city and the county, by the way – and so it is entirely on them to ensure an outcome that made sense. Which is the opposite of what we got.

Bush, who on Friday toured those areas and others to announce award recipients, said “constituents have to start asking the City of Houston and Harris County who exactly are filling out these applications, and are they being effective in representing their constituents,” according to KTRK-13.

He did not specify what errors the city and county made that prevented them from receiving any funds. City and county officials said GLO staff never informed them of any mistakes on their applications nor asked for any additional information during the scoring process.

GLO spokeswoman Brittany Eck said she could not confirm nor deny Bush’s comment that cast blame on local leaders for Houston’s lack of mitigation funds, but suggested the city and county should have acted more strategically by submitting fewer projects, perhaps even offering a joint application to strengthen their chances for approval by increasing the number of people who would benefit.

GLO had capped the maximum award application at $300 million, however, regardless of the applicant’s population. That discouraged the city and county from submitting mega-projects for consideration.

[…]

Turner said the snub was just the latest attack by Republican state officials on the Democrats who run the state’s largest cities and counties.

He said while politicians may be the intended targets, the lack of flood protection funding hurts average residents.

“This is not about some paperwork; this is not about not scoring as high,” Turner said. “This is about state leaders intentionally deciding not to allocate one single dime to local communities that were substantially impacted by Hurricane Harvey.”

Steve Costello, the city’s chief recovery officer, said GLO staff failed to understand “the difference between urban drainage and regional drainage” when setting their scoring criteria.

“Our projects were neighborhood revitalization projects,” Costello said. “If you think about urban drainage, we were servicing 100 percent of the people in the service area of the urban drainage project. And yet, when you divide it by 2.2 million people in the city, you get this detrimental impact on the fact that it’s not enough people being served.”

In January 2020, Turner emailed Bush, recommending the GLO revise the metric that considered the share of residents who would benefit from the project for that very reason.

“The system is flawed. The evaluation was flawed,” Costello said. “Commissioner Bush should have read his email.”

This was a screw job, but it wasn’t a screw up. This was the intended outcome. Any assurances from Bush that he’ll personally help us out with the next distribution are extremely hollow. Just look at what he did to us this time around.

GLO to Harris County: Drop dead

Hard to see this as anything but a hatchet job.

Houston and Harris County officials said the Texas General Land Office informed them Thursday they would receive nothing from the more than $1.3 billion in applications they submitted for federal flood mitigation funding the state is disbursing.

Instead, about $1 billion in U.S. Housing and Urban Development funds the GLO is managing will flow to other local governments in 46 Southeast Texas counties that are eligible for the aid. Four smaller municipalities in east Harris County — Pasadena, Jacinto City, Galena Park and Baytown — will receive about $90 million combined.

The snub, delivered by GLO staff in meetings this week, surprised local leaders, who had expected the city and county to receive hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I would like to tell you the meeting was informative and productive. Unfortunately, the meeting was ridiculous,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who suggested the state had political motives for its decision. “The GLO is saying today that the largest county in Texas, the county home to the most significant elements of our state, local and national economy, does not merit the fair share of billions of dollars.”

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said it was “unconscionable” that federal funds Congress intended for Hurricane Harvey recovery would not flow to the Houston area, by far the most populous affected by the storm.

“Our community needs this federal funding and we have already begun the process of reaching out to the Biden Administration to identify alternatives — including a potential review of the process for this allocation and a direct carve-out going forward,” Hidalgo said.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration said the city was preparing a letter Thursday evening in which it would ask the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to intervene. In a statement, the mayor called on the federal agency to “immediately halt the distribution” of the funds until it could review the situation.

“For the state GLO not to give one dime in the initial distribution to the city and a very small portion to Harris County shows a callous disregard to the people of Houston and Harris County,” Turner said. “And it is unfathomable that the state GLO would redirect most of these dollars to areas that did not suffer much from Hurricane Harvey.”

[…]

An appropriation from the state is crucial to closing a roughly $900 million funding gap Harris County has for its flood bond program. Without it, the county faces the prospect of issuing a new bond, diverting toll road revenue or scaling back the size or scope of flood projects.

Russ Poppe, the Harris County Flood Control District executive director, said he struggled to understand how roughly $300 million in applications his engineers prepared failed to secure a single dollar. He said he thought the county’s projects exceeded the criteria for awards.

“We’re curious to see how the GLO scored our projects, and why they declared us ineligible,” Poppe said. “I just don’t know until I see the numbers.”

See here and here for some background. I’d like to see those numbers too, because I cannot envision a scenario in which absolutely none of Houston or Harris County’s requests made the cut. Hell, if it had been looking likely along the way that Houston and Harris County were coming up short, you’d think it would make sense for the GLO to give them a heads up so they could maybe shore up their applications. Indeed, the exact opposite appears to be the case.

One might argue that the fix was in from the beginning.

It should be self-evident why the state should want Harris County to get its fair share of these funds. For that matter, the same is true for the federal government. As such, I hope Mayor Turner’s letter to HUD has an effect. I know George P. Bush has a primary challenge to run, but there are other concerns to deal with. The Press and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Said letter to HUD, signed by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Rodney Ellis, can be seen here.

UPDATE: Judge Hidalgo sent her own letter to HUD as well.

Commissioners Court partially fills the flood bond funding gap

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court took initial steps this week to plug a $1.4 billion funding hole for its flood bond program by diverting revenue from the county’s toll roads system.

Court members also laid out a “backstop” plan to use Harris County Toll Road Authority debt for drainage projects in case federal matching funds, distributed by the state General Land Office, do not arrive.

“The hope is that GLO comes in before we have to use either of those,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “If they don’t, we’ll look at HCTRA funds first, and then, worst comes to worst, we’ll look at the road and bridge funds.”

Repurposing the toll road revenue, which court members unanimously approved Tuesday, ensures that $535 million worth of drainage projects across all four commissioner precincts are fully funded and can be completed in the next three to five years.

That will allow the Harris County Flood Control District to provide a modicum of immediate protection to neighborhoods while the county searches for money to complete larger, longer-term projects. The 91 projects will protect about 45,000 homes, according to the district.

The court transferred $230 million in surplus toll road revenue, which largely was derived from last year’s refinancing of Harris County Toll Road Authority debt. The sum will be divided evenly between the precincts.

In addition, Commissioners Court approved using $315 million in toll road revenue, road debt or funds from other county sources to complete the drainage projects in case federal help never comes. Toll road debt must be used for a transportation purpose, and therefore can only be used for flood control projects that in some way involve a road or bridge.

That will free up $115 million in flood bond money that was intended for this purpose. That money now can be used to fill massive funding shortfalls in several watersheds, including Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River.

See here and here for the background. There was a Chron story from a couple of days before this that went into the experiences of the neighborhoods that were the most affected by the way the funding was structured for this. I drafted a post for that but didn’t get to publishing it before the Court acted. Fine by me for that to become obsolete. There’s still more to be done to fix this, but we’re off to a good start.

Where HISD stands today

In a holding pattern, waiting for direction.

In the winter of 2019, two committees composed of Houston ISD employees, parents and advocates issued recommendations for how the district should tackle two of its thorniest issues: campus funding practices and access to magnet programs.

Some of the proposals would require sacrifice, committee members warned, including the potential closure of low-enrollment campuses and the elimination of magnet funding to elementary schools. Yet other recommendations, such as staffing all schools with essential support personnel and expanding magnet programs to all neighborhood middle and high schools, would offer more opportunities to students with the greatest needs, they said.

Two years later, HISD administrators and school board members have implemented few of the proposals, let alone discussed them at length publicly.

The inaction, local leaders and advocates said, speaks to a pattern in the Houston Independent School District of avoiding difficult but potentially consequential reforms in recent years, leaving the state’s largest school system mired in a status quo that holds back lower-income children of color.

Despite receiving numerous studies, investigative reports and committee proposals, HISD administrators and board members have not moved swiftly to address multiple challenges. The festering issues include inequitable distribution of resources and programs, declining student enrollment, inadequate support of students with disabilities, lagging employee pay and the long-term viability of small campuses.

The reasons for the paralysis are numerous — a fractured school board, a reticent administration, the ever-present threat of a state takeover, and once-in-a-generation natural and public health disasters — but each reflect how a $2-billion bureaucracy can become stagnant in the face of calls for reform.

“It feels like HISD has been in a holding pattern, and any type of substantive change hits a wall pretty quickly,” said Jaison Oliver, a community advocate who has urged HISD to implement multiple educational and social justice reforms.

The article delves into the reasons and the prognoses from there, and you can read the rest. Broadly speaking, while the district continues to perform well overall, racial and economic gaps exist, special education is still a mess, the magnet program remains controversial, and the school board is still divided. Harvey, coronavirus, and now the freeze have caused enough disruption to make anything beyond crisis management nearly impossible to attain, and oh yeah, there’s no Superintendent but there is a continuing threat of state takeover. In some ways it’s a miracle the district is performing at all. Maybe there’s some light in the tunnel now, we’ll see. Read the story and see what you think.

Chron analysis puts freeze death total at 194

Sobering, to say the least.

The deaths of nearly 200 people are linked to February’s cold snap and blackouts, a Houston Chronicle analysis reveals, making the natural disaster one of the worst in Texas this past century.

The tally, which is nearly double the state’s official count, comes from an investigation of reports from medical examiners, justices of the peace and Department of State Health Services, as well as lawsuits and news stories.

The state count, which is preliminary, has yet to incorporate some deaths already flagged by medical examiners as storm-related.

The 194 deaths identified by the Chronicle so far include at least 100 cases of hypothermia that killed people in their homes or while exposed to the elements, at least 16 carbon monoxide poisonings of residents who used dangerous methods for heat and at least 22 Texans who died when medical devices failed without power or who were unable to seek live-saving care because of the weather.

Sixteen deaths were from other causes, such as fires or vehicle wrecks, while the remaining 40 were attributed by authorities to the storm without listing a specific cause.

“This is almost double the death toll from Hurricane Harvey,” said State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas. “There was no live footage of flooded homes, or roofs being blown off, or tidal surges, but this was more deadly and devastating than anything we’ve experienced in modern state history.”

The toll is almost certain to grow in coming weeks as death investigators in the state’s most populous counties clear a backlog in cases from the cold snap. The Travis County medical examiner alone is investigating more than 80 deaths between Feb. 13 and Feb. 20.

The deaths come from 57 counties in all regions of the state but are disproportionately centered on the Houston area, which at times during the crisis accounted for nearly half of all power outages. Of the known ages, races and ethnicities of the victims, 74 percent were people of color. Half were at least 65. Six were children.

The previous count released by the state was 111, but as noted then and in this story that is sure to go up. There’s no central database for this kind of thing, only 14 counties have a medical examiner’s office, and not all county data is currently available. As with COVID deaths, there are likely some cases where one could argue whether the freeze was the actual cause of death or whether it was just proximate. The main point here is that the freeze was responsible for a lot of misery around the state and by any count more deaths than there were from Hurricane Harvey. It remains to be seen if the Legislature and the Public Utility Commission (which currently has no members) are taking adequate action to prevent this from ever happening again.

The infrastructure bill and the Ike Dike

This is encouraging.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan sure seems to be considering building the Ike Dike.

His $2 trillion plan includes improving and strengthening infrastructure in coastal areas most vulnerable during hurricane season.

Biden pitched part of the American Jobs Plan on Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

The Biden Administration’s plan includes investing in improving “coastal resilience to sea-level rise and hurricanes.” While specific projects were not named in the plan, the Biden administration says the American Jobs Plan will “protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure,” which could include funding the Ike Dike.

[…]

State Rep. Gene Wu, who represents part of Houston, circulated a letter to Biden last week requesting federal support for the Ike Dike. Mayor Sylvester Turner and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee have also expressed support for the coastal spine.

The Houston Chronicle’s Benjamin Wermund reports that Biden’s plan also includes $50 billion to improve infrastructure strength against hurricanes and other natural disasters, especially in lower-income areas. Biden’s administration used the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey as an example of the need for increased federal support and infrastructure development.

“People of color and low-income people are more likely to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other climate change-related weather events. They also are less likely to have the funds to prepare for and recover from extreme weather events,” a statement from the White House says. “In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Black and Hispanic residents were twice as likely as white residents to report experiencing an income shock with no recovery support.”

I’ll have more to say about the infrastructure plan, which is not yet a bill but an outline and a list of priorities right now, because if it is realized in its full form it would truly do a lot for Texas. That definitely includes the Ike Dike, mostly because it would solve how to pay for it, which I noted a few weeks ago.

To its credit, the Lege is at least thinking about that issue.

A proposed bill in the Texas Legislature would create a regional district with the authority to tax and issue bonds to raise money to build and maintain a $26 billion storm surge barrier on the southeast Texas coast.

The bill, SB1160, is sponsored by state Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, with a companion bill in the state House sponsored by Rep. Dennis Paul, R-Houston. The bills would establish the Gulf Coast Protection District, an entity comprised of members from Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties.

The district would be empowered to operate the long-proposed coastal barrier, once known as the “Ike Dike,” as well as issue bonds and impose taxes to maintain the project. It would also have eminent domain power to seize property or land “for the exercise of the district’s functions,” according to the bill’s text.

During a Monday meeting of the Senate Water, Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee, Taylor noted that the bill is vital to the Army Corps of Engineers’ proposed coastal barrier project, which aims to protect the region from the kind of catastrophic storm surge experienced during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

“This is a very important bill, and not just not just for the state of Texas, but for our country,” Taylor said. “The number one supplier of military aviation fuel is in this area. So if you’re talking about national security, this area gets wiped out and we don’t have the aviation fuel, that would be a security problem. It’s our number one military port. And it’s our number one petrochemical complex.”

[…]

A final report on the coastal barrier study will be completed in April, according to the Texas General Land Office, which is co-sponsoring the study. The report will released to the public in September and submitted to Congress for final approval.

The Gulf Coast Protection District would be governed by a board of 11 directors appointed by the governor in consultation with the respective commissioners courts from each county. Each of the five counties would have one representative except for Harris County, which, because of its larger population, would have two. The district would also include one representative for the regional ports; one representative for the environmental sector; one representative for the regional industrial complex; and one representative for the cities within the five counties.

The district would have to hold a vote among its member counties before it began collecting property taxes, but will be able to issue bonds.

I don’t know how likely this bill is to pass, but I tend to agree with Campos that this is at best an unwieldy mechanism for funding it. Read that last paragraph and ask yourself how likely it is that the member counties of this district are actually able to raise property taxes for this purpose. For more on what’s in the Infrastructure Plan That Is Not Yet A Bill, see Slate and the Trib.

Winter storm death count now at 111

A revision of the numbers. Expect this to happen at least once more.

At least 111 Texans died as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to updated numbers released Thursday by the state Department of State Health Services.

The newly revised number is nearly twice what the department had estimated last week, and will likely continue to grow. Some of Texas’ larger counties, such as Tarrant County, have yet to report any storm-related deaths.

The majority of people died from hypothermia, but health officials also attributed deaths to “motor vehicle accidents, carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, exacerbation of chronic illness, lack of home oxygen, falls and fire.”

[…]

Harris County reported 31 storm-related deaths, the largest share in the state. Travis County followed with nine deaths.

Health officials will continue to update their preliminary findings weekly.

According to DSHS, the data is compiled from forms that certify deaths are related to a disaster, notification from death certifiers and analyses of death certificates from state epidemiologists.

See here for the background. As a reminder, there were 103 deaths attributed to Hurricane Harvey, so the February freeze event (I’m sorry, I’ve not adopted the new paradigm of naming winter storms, so I have not and probably will not again refer to this as “Winter Storm Uri”) has now surpassed that total. And will likely put some more distance between them when the next month’s data is available.

There has been a bit of legislative action on this front.

A bill that would overhaul Texas’ energy industry — including mandating weatherization for natural gas and power generators — was approved by a Texas Senate committee on Thursday.

The sweeping Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Republican state Sen. Charles Schwertner of Georgetown, includes a number of reforms that have been floating around the state Capitol since last month’s deadly winter storm left millions without electricity during freezing temperatures. While the Texas House earlier this month approved a package of similar, standalone bills, Thursday’s vote represents the first substantive action on the issue by the upper chamber.

“This is an important issue to get right for the people of Texas, for the future of Texas, for the economy of Texas,” Schwertner said.

Chief among the bill’s provisions is a requirement that all power generators, transmission lines, natural gas facilities and pipelines make upgrades for extreme weather conditions — a process known as weatherization. Many power generators and gas companies were ill-suited for the freezing temperatures in February, which led gas pipelines to freeze and power transmission to falter.

The measure would delegate rulemaking authority to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industries, and the Texas Public Utility Commission, which regulates the electric and telecommunication industries. If a gas or energy company fails to comply with the weatherization rules, it would face a fine up to $1 million for each offense. The bill does not address funding to pay for the required upgrades.

A Texas House committee earlier this month passed a similar weatherization bill. But the requirements only apply to electric companies, not natural gas companies. In public testimony before the Legislature, Railroad Commission Chair Christi Craddick largely dodged talks of winterizing the natural gas supply chain.

There’s more, so read the rest. I don’t know enough to offer a general critique of these bills, but I would certainly argue that natural gas companies should have the same weatherization requirements. All of these bills are sure to change as they move from one chamber to the other, so we’ll need to see where they wind up.

Winter storm death count at 57

This is likely to rise as we get better data.

At least 57 people died in Texas as a result of last month’s winter storm, according to preliminary data the state health department released Monday.

The largest number of deaths — at least 25 — occured in Harris County, the Texas Department of State Health Services reported.

The deaths occurred in at least 25 counties between Feb. 11 and March 5, the state agency said. The majority of verified deaths were associated with hypothermia, but health officials said some were also caused by motor vehicle wrecks, “carbon monoxide poisoning, medical equipment failure, falls, and fire.”

The preliminary data is “subject to change” as state disaster epidemiologists gather additional information and additional deaths are verified, the agency said. The information will be updated weekly, it said.

For purposes of comparison, there were 103 deaths in Texas attributed to Hurricane Harvey, 68 to direct effects of the storm and 35 more in the aftereffects. The financial costs of the freeze were higher. Just keep all that in mind when you see Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and others play the blame game.

Flood funding shortfall

Still trying to understand this.

Harris County on Tuesday revealed a $1.4 billion shortfall in funding for flood control projects under the bond program voters approved in 2018, a massive miscalculation that threatens to cause construction delays and cost taxpayers more than expected.

Budget Officer David Berry told Commissioners Court that projected funding from state and federal partners, which was supposed to supplement the $2.5 billion investment by county taxpayers, has not materialized. As a result, the county has committed to doing more work than it currently can afford to do.

“The hope after Hurricane Harvey that federal and state partners would really be focused on Harris County, where we saw the worst damage, has not altogether turned out to be true,” Berry said.

Berry said the county believes it can secure an additional $100 to $500 million from the state and federal governments, but that still leaves “a substantial gap.”

Projects in several watersheds are close to fully funded, though planned improvements in three — Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River — have less than half the necessary dollars. Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe said no projects will be delayed so long as the funding gap is closed by the end of this year.

The bond program currently is projected to be completed around 2028. The flood control district has spent money to design some projects in anticipation of receiving matching funds to begin construction.

[…]

Poppe said the shortfall dates back to early 2018, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act. The measure provided a collective $66 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA to help the country recover from the previous year’s destructive storm season, which included hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Harris County and the city of Houston in 2019 received $1 billion each from HUD to repair and rebuild Harvey-damaged homes; the county received an additional $225 million from FEMA for buyouts.

Poppe said the county planned on receiving an additional $1 billion from HUD for flood control projects.

“The logic was … the federal government can get a level of protection on that investment they just made,” Poppe said.

That funding flowed from Washington through the state General Land Office, however, which decided instead to ask Texas cities and counties to apply for individual grants. Poppe said his office has made $900 million in requests, which he hoped would be decided later in the spring.

What’s not clear to me from this is how much of it was an over-estimation on the part of Harris County in putting together the 2018 referendum how much money from the feds and the state would be available, how much is money that we should have reasonably expected that wasn’t appropriated by the feds, and how much is just sitting there in the Land Commissioner’s office waiting to be handed out to cities and counties. All three can be addressed in one way or another, but getting the Land Commissioner to get off his ass and give us the money we’ve applied for would be the most direct. I fully expect there to be a massive infrastructure bill taken up (and hopefully passed) by Congress later this year, which can certainly include more funds for flooding projects (and maybe even the ever-elusive Ike Dike), but that depends on things that are out of our control right now. Commissioners Court has directed th flood control district to come up with a plan to secure more funds by June 30, and the commitment is there to complete the project list one way or another, which is what the voters were promised. Whatever the underlying issue is, let’s figure this out and get this moving forward.

The freeze was hard on the bats

Dammit.

The bat colony under the bridge at Waugh Drive in Buffalo Bayou Park, a beloved staple of the city, was severely impacted by last week’s winter storm.

While the full extent of the damage is still unknown, many of the Mexican free-tailed bats that usually emerge from under the bridge at dusk were killed by unusually frigid temperatures, according to Buffalo Bayou Park officials.

A small number of surviving bats were taken to a rehabilitation facility to be nursed back to good health, said Trudi Smith, director of programming for Buffalo Bayou Partnership. Officials asked park-goers and dog-owners to stay away from the area for safety reasons and to allow time for clean-up on Monday.

Diana Foss, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and coordinator of the Houston area bat team, examined the colony Monday and was still making assessments of the loss by evening.

[…]

The Waugh Bridge colony was also killed off in droves during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. The flood waters submerged the Waugh overpass and the bats couldn’t fly out, drowning many. Residents saved some of them, but tens of thousands were displaced or died during the storm. Before Harvey, there were around 300,000 living in the bridge. After the storm Foss reported seeing around 100,000.

Many of the bats took up shelter in nearby structures, like the America Tower, after Harvey and it wasn’t clear if they would return. But the bats migrated back to their home and repopulated the bridge over time.

See here for the background. This is a small thing, obviously, much less important than the human misery that the freeze brought. We can still feel bummed about the bats without losing sight of the bigger picture.

Why is Greg Abbott doing so little to help Texas recover from the freeze?

If this Politico story doesn’t make you mad, then either you’re a Greg Abbott shill or you really need to check your priors.

Assessing the effectiveness of disaster response is a famously fraught political game. What looks like a master class in bureaucratic crisis management from inside an emergency operations center can seem laughably insufficient to the people bundled in blankets outside an overwhelmed food bank. But all sorts of Texans, from shivering private citizens to frustrated public officials, say that Texas’ state leaders failed them.

In the face of a monstrous storm Abbott’s response was tepid, at best. He didn’t deploy the National Guard in any sizable numbers before, during or after the storm. There are no state aid facilities handing out water or food. In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, Abbott asked for direct financial assistance and help with emergency services. Normally, governors, including Abbott, request military help, money for local governments and hazard mitigation to make sure properties are habitable, and even social services. But not not this time. His request was comparatively minuscule. His office in Austin did not respond to a request for comment.

The storm revealed an uncomfortable power-play between GOP leaders in Austin and their mostly Democratic counterparts in the state’s big cities. In Texas, examples of local autonomy routinely run afoul of a governor who jealously guards his prerogatives to override everything from plastic bag bans to mandatory mask orders. But when the cities are in crisis, the sense is that it’s their problem to sort out, not his. Millions of Texans have nearly frozen in the dark and have been on a boil-water notice, without running water in days.

“The state government must provide emergency assistance to repair water infrastructure, or we risk millions being without water for a week,” Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary, pleaded on Twitter. Abbott “failed to prepare for this storm, was too slow to respond, and now blames everyone but himself for this mess.”

[…]

In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, it was what the governor didn’t ask for that stuck out. He asked for no military help with logistics or aid distribution. He didn’t ask for disaster unemployment insurance, money for local governments, not even hazard mitigation for damaged homes, not even food or water. He asked for no military assistance. Abbott asked only for direct financial assistance for individuals and help keeping emergency services going until the storm passed.

In sharp contrast, Abbott asked for and got massive federal help before Hurricane Harvey even came ashore in August 2017. At his request, FEMA pre-positioned people and supplies, linking up with the Texas Emergency Management Agency, bringing in over 1 million meals, 3 million bottles of water, blankets and cots, and providing medical services to more than 5,000 Texans. The federal government even brought in 210,000 pounds of hay for livestock, according to FEMA’s 2017 after-action report. The Air Force flew 30 missions, mostly ferrying supplies. Abbott activated all 30,000 members of the Texas National Guard. But none of that happened this time.

Abbott was in a different political situation. On the one hand there was a Democratic president in office, not his old ally Donald Trump. On the other hand, Abbott’s biggest threat, as he prepares to run for reelection in 2022 and possibly the presidency in 2024, isn’t to his left but to his right. Florida transplant Allen West chairs the Texas GOP and is even calling for secession.

“My sense is that Abbott is calibrating his relationship with a Democratic president,” said James Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Despite the human toll, Abbott, say, doesn’t want ads in 2022 portraying him as hat-in-hand to Biden. “The Republicans just want to do the bare essential here, and they don’t want to do too much. Plus, Abbott doesn’t want this storm to be the focus of another news cycle.”

“Federal assistance is needed to lessen the threat of disaster, save lives, and protect property, public health and safety,” he wrote to Biden without mentioning the long tail of the storm, prolonged lack of water, and the likelihood of continuing financial turmoil about how to pay bills as simple as essential as next month’s rent. And potentially worse: the rising specter of hunger in the poor parts of San Antonio and all of South Texas.

With little help from the state, the aid task has fallen on the local government, private citizens and local charities. Bexar County here was one of dozens forced to issue boil-water notices. Now, the city is still distributing water bottles for 14 days straight. Firefighters and fire department cadets loaded 31 pallets in cars at the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake University on Sunday, Feb. 21.

“We still have lots of people without water,” said the firefighter in charge, who would only identify herself as Bertha. “As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve seen nothing like this.”

[…]

So, FEMA has shipped generators, for example, but there is little need for them now that the power is back on. The usual National Guard and active military response is almost completely absent. At FEMA’s direction, the Air Force has been ferrying water from Joint Base Charleston, S.C. and Joint Base Travis, Calif., aboard C-17s to Texas, according to military officials. Marines in Fort Worth and Army troops here in San Antonio have handed out water on the order of local commanders. But that’s it. That’s all the military help there is.

Asked if the lack of military help, which was out in force during Ike and Harvey before, wasn’t coming because the governor hadn’t asked, a Defense Department official sheepishly responded: “I didn’t want to say that but yes. Usually, the governor asks for help.”

Critics of the governor see Abbott’s political ambitions at play. He is running for reelection and said to be eyeballing a presidential run. And so, the less he asks of the federal government the more he can claim in 2022 or 2024, that he doesn’t ask Washington for help. He can’t seem beholden to Washington, pressed from his right by hard-liners West, or his powerful right-wing lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick.

“Abbott doesn’t want to be seen with both hands out to the government,” said Henson, at the University of Texas. “If Republicans can get away with doing the bare minimum, they can have their cake and eat it, too.”

Absolutely infuriating. I didn’t know any of this before I read this story, and as much as I can’t stand Greg Abbott, it had never occurred to me that he wouldn’t ask the feds for all the help he could get. I still can’t quite fathom it. However angry you are at Greg Abbott, you need to be angrier, and you need to make sure everyone you know is angry at him. This cannot stand.

Now we get to worry about food

Because the supply chain also suffered from the massive power outages.

Now would be a good time to donate

The state’s week of weather hell started with a deadly 133-car pileup outside of Fort Worth. A winter storm unlike any Texas has ever seen quickly followed, and seven days later, millions are without power and reliable water.

And now Texans are running out of food. From farm to table, freezing temperatures and power outages are disrupting the food supply chain that people rely on every day.

Across the state, people are using up supplies they had stockpiled and losing more as items start to spoil in dark refrigerators. Some are storing their remaining rations in coolers outside, and trips to the grocery store often do little to replenish pantries.

“It was out of meat, eggs and almost all milk before I left,” Cristal Porter, an Austin resident, said about her local Target which she visited Monday. “Lines were wrapped around the store when we arrived. … Shelves were almost fully cleared for potatoes, meat, eggs and some dairy.”

Two days later, one of Porter’s neighbors went to that same Target, and the store was completely out of food, with no sign of additional shipments arriving or employees restocking shelves.

With grocery stores across the state shuttered for lack of power, supermarkets that remain open have seen supplies dwindle, shortages that ripple over to food pantries that count on grocery store surplus to keep their own shelves stocked.

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable crops in the Rio Grande Valley have frozen over in what The Produce News described as a “Valentine’s Day produce massacre.” School districts from Fort Worth to Houston have halted meal distributions to students for the next several days, and Texas Department of Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller said dairy farmers around the state are pouring $8 million worth of milk down the drain every day because they can’t get it to dairies.

Celia Cole, the CEO of hunger-relief organization Feeding Texas, said that so far, eight food banks have asked the state for extra help feeding their communities. Several food banks affiliated with Feeding Texas have also started providing food supplies to emergency warming shelters in the state’s major cities. Wednesday afternoon, the Central Food Bank of Texas canceled its deliveries scheduled for Thursday in Austin and Rockdale.

“The Food Bank’s fleet, equipment, facilities and operations have been adversely impacted by the extremely low temperatures, and hazardous road conditions are hindering our staff and volunteers from getting to our building safely,” the organization announced in a media alert. “These conditions are also keeping us from distributing food safely.”

[…]

Between the current strain on grocery stores and the potential for huge damages to the state’s agricultural sector, this storm could hamper food access for weeks to come. Miller and Cole emphasized that it’s impossible to know the extent of the losses until power returns, but the food supply will continue to drain unless farmers and stores get electricity back soon.

“They’ve been very, very badly hit – the agricultural sector, generally —by the pandemic, so they’re already struggling,” Cole said. “And so I think although the impact if the power gets restored quickly might not be huge in absolute terms, it’s hitting a sector that’s already reeling from the pandemic.”

There’s likely not much that we could have done about the effect the weather had on the crops and animals themselves. But the loss of power, and the extreme disruption it has caused not just in people’s daily lives but in the food supply chain, that’s a risk that cannot be considered acceptable. I’ve gone into this plenty of times now and won’t repeat myself here, but it’s important to keep the human misery factor in mind as much as the actual dollars-and-cents cost of this past week. That’s as good a segue as any to this reminder that the Houston Food Bank needs all the help it can get right now to meet the need caused by the storm and the blackouts.

Like many others in Harris County, residents at Big Bass Resort in Jacinto City had run low on groceries by Thursday. After the winter storm iced roads and kept millions holed up without water and power, Texas officials anticipate major food shortages in the days and weeks to come, prompting the Houston Food Bank to kick start mass food giveaways that are already ramping up through the weekend.

Calls from residents in need have led the food bank to expect long lines at facilities where its partner groups distribute their food. The food bank has a massive reach across southeast Texas, with 159 million meals provided across 18 counties during the past fiscal year, according to spokeswoman Paula Murphy.

“The food bank and all the partners we work with, we’re almost like the last resort,” said Brian Greene, president and CEO of the organization. “It can, for a lot of households, be the difference between getting by and tragedy.”

Aside from any issues grocery stores might have restocking their shelves, most food shortages equate to income shortages, Greene said. Families who were already struggling financially – some still recovering from past floods and others laid off during the pandemic – might be experiencing rougher situations after losing a week’s worth of income due to an inability to work during the freeze.

Some money that was spent on food before the storm likely went to waste, as a lack of electricity caused refrigerated or frozen items to spoil, Greene said. And unforseen expenses from building damage can make affording food difficult.

Greene expects food shortages to mirror experiences during hurricanes. A large number of households need aid in the first few days after a storm, and then the number trickles down to low-income households that sustained significant damage, he said.

Because of the anticipated needs, Harris County officials have urged out-of-state supporters to donate to the food bank.

“Even as the lights come back on, we’re facing a food and water crisis in Harris County, Texas,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo tweeted Thursday.

If you’re not Ted Cruz and are looking for a way to help go to and make a donation or sign up to volunteer. Direct your out-of-town friends and family who want to help there as well. This really is like the immediate after-effect of a hurricane.

Why can’t we get our jail population down?

I found this story from Thanksgiving weekend frustrating.

Harris County’s efforts to reduce its jail population have flatlined, despite more than $7.5 million aimed at alleviating systemic burdens so that the county could attempt to reduce its inmates by a targeted 21 percent.

Even after creating programs to lessen the population and reduce racial disparities in jail, criminal caseloads mounted and the facility returned nearly to capacity, county officials said. When Harris County in 2016 joined the nationwide Safety and Justice Challenge – meant to help retool the use of lockups – more than 8,789 people were in jail. On Nov. 23, that number was 8,724 — a decrease of less than 1 percent. To meet the program’s goal, the population would need to have fallen under 7,000.

County leaders next week will reapply for a final round of funding from the MacArthur Foundation to sustain progress made in the challenge overseen by the nonprofit Justice Management Institute. It remains to be seen whether how much the county will receive given the struggle to reduce the jail population.

Even if the county receives the full amount, achieving its goal remains distant, said Thomas Eberly, Harris County’s site coordinator for the challenge and program director of the Justice Management Institute, which works with localities to improve justice systems.

“I do think that the odds are not in Harris County’s favor because of past performance,” said Eberly. “We’re five years into this and the change that was expected hasn’t been achieved, and it’s quite honestly not even close.”

Some county leaders remain positive, however, citing implementation of a series of programs as part of the challenge. They include hiring a “fairness administrator” to address racial inequities and a community engagement outreach coordinator, as well as creating a cite-and-release program and a Reintegration Impact Court to divert those who have low-level cases from jail.

The MacArthur Foundation could award up to $660,000 for one year of sustainability and $500,000 for a second year.

The foundation has already provided $4.25 million to the county since 2015, and county commissioners in 2016 allocated more than $3.3 million from general fund reserves to help pay for reforms.

“We remain optimistic that we’re going to have some breakthroughs,” said Jim Bethke, Harris County’s director of justice administration.

It’s a long story that goes in a number of directions, so go read the whole thing. The main explanations cited are the damage to the courts caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, as both have contributed to long delays in resolving cases. The changeover in the courts due to the 2018 election plus the effort put into the bail reform program was also cited, though it’s not clear to me why that would contribute to the problem – the whole point of bail reform was to have fewer people rotting in jail while they wait for their trials. I needed more information to understand what that had to do with it.

Later in the story, the HPD cite and release program was listed as a potential mitigating factor going forward. It’s only been in effect since September – the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February. Diversion programs by the DA’s Office were also cited. I would have liked to know more about how much these could help, or more to the point could have helped if they had been in place longer. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one simple way to have fewer people in jail is to out fewer of them in jail in the first place. It’s very much in our power to arrest fewer people for minor non-violent offenses, with marijuana possession being at the top of that list. Circumstance can explain some of this problem, but our choices are a big part of it as well. There’s plenty we can do to change that.

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.

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.

More like Ike than Harvey

Not sure this is a choice I want to have to make, but here we are.

Hurricanes are expected to blow through Texas more quickly during the last 25 years of this century.

A study led by Rice University researcher Pedram Hassanzadeh found that climate change will make future hurricanes fast-moving storms like Ike in 2008 rather than slow-moving rainmakers like Harvey in 2017.

“We find that the probability of having strong northward steering winds will increase with climate change, meaning hurricanes over Texas will be more likely to move like Ike than Harvey,” Hassanzadeh said in a news release.

Hurricane Harvey caused an estimated $125 billion in damage, matching 2005’s Katrina as the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, according to the news release. Ike’s coastal flooding and high winds caused $38 billion in damage across several states. In 2008, it was the second-costliest U.S. hurricane. It has since moved to sixth.

The study is here. Ike cost less than Harvey, though that’s partially an accident of geography – had Ike stayed a bit more to the west it would have made a direct hit on Houston, in what has been described as a “worst case scenario” (at least pre-Harvey) for our town. Point being, neither is a good option. Maybe we ought to, I don’t know, do something about climate change so we don’t have to face choices like this in the future. Just a thought.

So how’s Greg Abbott doing post-mask order?

Greg Abbott consistently polls as the politician with the highest approval rating in the state. He was basking in adulation a few weeks ago when things were reopening and the coronavirus numbers still looked good. How are things going for him now that he’s had to shut down the bars and require masks and we’re all worried about the hospitals overflowing? Well, there’s this:

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office says it will not enforce Gov. Greg Abbott’s order requiring most Texans to wear masks when they’re in public.

In a statement, the agency said it “will take NO actions to enforce” the order, arguing that it is unenforceable because it doesn’t allow law enforcement to detain, arrest or jail violators.

“This language strips law enforcement of the necessary tools to enforce compliance with the law,” the agency said.

[…]

The sheriff’s office argued the order could subject it to civil liability if deputies stop someone for failing to wear a mask and it is misconstrued as a detention. The agency said “holding someone for the purpose of issuing a citation related to a fine is a legally defined detention under current Texas law.”

“We are in a public health crisis and we will use this opportunity to educate our community while still respecting individual liberties,” the sheriff’s office said.

They did say they would respond to a call from a business who had a customer who refused to wear a mask upon entering. Sheriffs from a couple of other Republican counties have made similar statements as well. I mean, I can kind of see their point here, and as we know Greg Abbott basically destroyed the legitimacy of any kind of enforcement mechanism for mask and stay-at-home orders in the Shelley Luther debacle. It’s still a bit stunning to see a Republican sheriff say publicly that they won’t do what Abbott wants them to do. They appear to have no fear of political blowback.

Which leads us to this:

The Ector County Republican Party voted Saturday to censure Gov. Greg Abbott, accusing him of overstepping his authority in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, while state Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, called for a special session so lawmakers could have a say in how Texas proceeds amid soaring caseloads.

The party executive committee in Ector County, home to Odessa, passed the censure resolution 10-1, with one abstention and three voting members who were not present, according to the chairperson, Tisha Crow. She said she was among those who supported the resolution, which accuses Abbott of violating five party principles related to his exercise of executive power during the pandemic.

While the resolution asks that delegates to the state convention later this month consider — and affirm — Ector County’s action, Crow said consideration is “not guaranteed,” and one precinct chair, Aubrey Mayberry, said the resolution “doesn’t have any teeth” for now — but that it was important to send a message about what they consider Abbott’s overreach.

Mayberry, who voted for the resolution, said he was working with precinct chairs in other Texas counties to get similar resolutions passed ahead of the convention.

That’s a pretty direct slap in the face, and with the state GOP convention almost upon us, the potential for this to become A Thing is substantial. Will that represent some steam that has been blown off, or will it be the first step towards a serious rebellion? That’s an excellent question.

[State Sen. Charles] Perry wrote Saturday on Facebook that he is “deeply concerned about the unilateral power being used with no end in sight.”

“This is why I urge Governor Abbott to convene a special session to allow the legislature to pass legislation and hold hearings regarding the COVID-19 response,” Perry said. “It should not be the sole responsibility of one person to manage all of the issues related to a disaster that has no end in sight.”

In the upper chamber, state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, has also called for a special session, as have several House Republicans.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer had previously called on Abbott to work with the Legislature on COVID response instead of acting so unilaterally, though he’s a Democrat and I didn’t see the words “special session” in that article. As I have said repeatedly, the extent of the Governor’s emergency powers is a subject that really demands further discussion, and so far all we’ve gotten is a bunch of Hotze/Woodfill lawsuits, which is the worst possible way to come to a decision about what Abbott and whoever succeeds him can and cannot do. Among other things, I think this is exposing a real weakness in our 20-weeks-every-other-year legislative calendar, precisely because there’s a lot of things that the Lege can and should be doing right now, but is unable to because they’re not in session. The same was true in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, though at least there everyone understood what the emergency actions were for and there was a clearer metric for when they would be lifted.

I would argue that legislators need to think about proposing some constitutional amendments to 1) more clearly define the parameters of the Governor’s executive power, and 2) maybe automatically trigger a special session under certain crisis conditions. I obviously haven’t thought this all through, and I don’t want to see legislators rushing forth with half-baked ideas, but I am serious that we need to take a look at this. The current model of “Governor hands down orders from on high that no one knew were coming and then gets sued by a couple of crackpots from Houston so that the courts can eventually sort it all out” doesn’t seem like it’s sustainable.

Meanwhile, the jail is filling up again

We really need to do something about this.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Harris County Jail population has been steadily rising since late April and is now approaching its pre-pandemic capacity despite early efforts to curb crowding, according to the sheriff’s office.

With an influx of inmates anticipated during the summer months, the jail is facing a “serious crisis,” according to a report Tuesday that a sheriff’s representative classified as “sobering.”

The update about the jail population came in a study the county commissioned from the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to make their courts and jails more efficient.

“The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey,” Tom Eberly, the organization’s program director announced in video testimony before Harris County Commissioner’s Court. “Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system is on the verge of collapse in your county.”

If the anticipated pace of bookings follows previous patterns, the county could reach 10,000 inmates by Labor Day, according to the nonprofit group’s calculations. And the courts were already backed up before the virus, officials said.

[…]

The lawyers challenging the county’s bail system, who lost a bid for an injunction to order coronavirus releases, said thousands of felony defendants are stuck at the jail awaiting trial simply because they can’t pay cash bail. The vast majority of the population is made up of up pretrial felony detainees.

“Their constitutional rights are being violated, and their health and safety are being jeopardized by COVID-19, which is rampant at the jail,” said Neal Manne, of Susman Godfrey, who works pro bono on the bail cases. “Though Sheriff Gonzales wants to solve the problem, he can’t solve it by himself. No one else is doing anything other than talking about it, week after week, month after month, as COVID-19 surges.”

In the meantime, coronavirus infections have continued to increase, with 993 inmates testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has cramped the jail’s holding capacity, which changes day to day depending upon how many people are quarantined and how much the jail staff must space them out on the cell blocks to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, 835 inmates who have had the virus and remain in custody have now recovered. But 778 are being kept in observational quarantine, meaning they are not showing symptoms, but they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Another 600-plus people are housed in what the jail calls “buffer quarantine” because they are new to the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. And nearly 300 convicted inmates are ready to be transferred to state prison but Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not accepting them during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the jail population is increasing by 115 inmates per week and as of May 1, the county had more than 36,000 pending felony cases, Eberly said. If no new felony arrests were made in the coming months, it would still take 13 months to dispose of the backlog, he said.

However, if the system keeps shuffling along as is, it will take 4½ years to catch up, the study found.

Statewide, jail populations also decreased in the first months of the pandemic and have begun rising going into the summer, a normal trend outside of the unusual circumstances this year, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Population spikes at county jails largely stem from backlogs in the courts, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent on Harris County to manage its jail population properly,” Wood said.

You have to wonder how much worse this would be if there were a bunch of misdemeanor inmates awaiting trial because they couldn’t make bail as well. There’s basically three things we can do here. One is to release a bunch of the low-risk inmates who couldn’t come up with the cash for bail. That’s on the judges and the District Attorney, and while there’s been some movement on that, there could be a lot more. Two is to get the courts to the point where they can make a dent in that backlog, which is going to be a hell of a challenge given the fact that the court buildings are still suffering from Harvey, and oh yeah, that global pandemic. Maybe just consider dropping a bunch of low-level charges, divert as many drug charges as possible, and offer as many deferred adjudication deals as possible. There’s some risk to this approach, but what we’re doing right now is not sustainable. And three, maybe now is a good time to just stop arresting people on low-level drug possession charges. Turn down the incoming spigot, and stop adding to the problem. I don’t know where this ends, but the direction we’re going right now doesn’t lead anywhere good.