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June 25th, 2007:

Keeping the gas stations stocked

Among the many task forces that were convened after the Hurricane Rita evacuation fiasco was one to deal with the issue of depleted gasoline supplies along evacuation routes. Here’s the report.

Surprisingly, until Rita hit Sabine Pass on Sept. 24, 2005, fuel supply had been omitted not only from the state’s nearly 200-page evacuation plan but from many local ones as well.

“What we know now is there was no fuel plan,” said Jack E. Little, former Shell Oil Co. president and CEO, whom Perry tapped to oversee his Task Force on Evacuation, Transportation and Logistics. “Every company was on their own. The problem arose when the voluntary evacuation was overlaid on top of the mandatory evacuation and the roads were clogged.”


When evacuation discussions finally were held in city halls and among county commissioners courts, gasoline makers found themselves outside with the public. There was no heads-up to prepare gas stations, which were operating like it was any other day in Texas, with underground reserves at a quarter to half-full.

“Rita occurred and there was really no fuel desk,” said Wade Upton, the retired Valero Energy executive credited with crafting the resulting evacuation fuel plan.

Together with [Texas Emergency Management Chief Jack] Colley, Upton and the fuel committee agreed on a series of benchmarks that would activate certain responses.

No longer will gas stations, as they had before, operate with half-full or less storage tanks during an evacuation. Typically, gas stations keep anywhere from 10,000 to 18,000 gallons of fuel on hand.

“We didn’t know that before,” Colley said.

Now, when storm winds are five days from Texas’ shore, fuel trucks will be filled and positioned in pre-selected staging areas known only to the industry and the state.

From there, trucks will be directed to gas stations along the coast, particularly those in urban centers such as Houston, where underground tanks will be filled to the 65 percent mark.

When storm winds are two days away, fuel distribution will move from the coastline to stations along the state’s key northern and western evacuation routes.

It’s this key 48- to 72-hour window that Colley thinks will change evacuation for the better.

“It’s absolutely essential to this fuel piece,” he said.

Sheriff’s deputies will escort the fuel trucks, guiding them around evacuation routes so they don’t get stuck in traffic.

Once the storm passes over land, Colley and fuel strategists will concentrate on redirecting distribution in coastal cities, so that when people return to their homes, they can get back to work and those with power outages will have plenty of fuel for generators.

Seems like a reasonable plan – certainly, it’s better than no plan. I think any Rita-sized evacuation is going to severely tax the system no matter what we put in place, but this ought to handle most situations well enough.

The task force thought of some other things, too:

Colley smiles when asked about some of the smaller, more irksome items such as stoplights in small towns on evacuation routes and trains.

Despite the Rita emergency, many smaller towns along evacuation routes kept stoplights timed as if it were just another day, helping slow millions of fleeing motorists to a crawl.

No one even considered asking train companies to delay or reroute their operations.

“You know that train track in Giddings?” he asks, referring to the town that sits on U.S. 290 that all Houstonians must pass when they take the northwest route to Austin.

“There will not be a train going through that town next time. Stoplights in the town will not be on.”

Good to know. Houstonist has more.

We still need a special master for the crime lab

I agree wholeheartedly with Patrick McCann.

When Police Chief Harold Hurtt, Mayor Bill White and Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal were quoted as agreeing that there needs to be in-depth review of hundreds of criminal convictions based upon the frankly non-existent science practiced at the Houston Police Department lab, they were absolutely right. When they all solemnly intoned that a special master, a “czar,” if you will, was not needed despite the recommendations of the former Justice Department official who conducted the lengthy investigation into this horror show, they were flat wrong.

Let’s be fair. Chief Hurtt and the mayor were not the ones who caused this mess, and Chuck Rosenthal’s office has done a solid job of conducting and helping to retest DNA in many questionable cases. However, together, they certainly outnumber the presence of the Innocence Project (the only ones speaking for the folks who were convicted by the bogus reporting of this lab) on the “Committee of Stakeholders,” and frankly, with due respect to those gentlemen, it is not in their own self-interest to conduct this investigation with the vigor it deserves.

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. It’s almost like appointing a guardian ad litem. It has to be someone’s sole purpose to make sure that every reviewable case actually gets fully reviewed. It’s the nature of projects that in the absence of a dedicated project manager, things fall by the wayside. It’s basically the 80-20 rule – most of the effort goes into the big, obvious wins, and the rest gets dealt with on an as-we-have-time basis, because hey, we got most of it done and I’ve got other stuff that needs my attention and wasn’t this project supposed to have finished by now? Either it’s somebody’s job or it’s nobody’s job, and it needs to be somebody’s job.

Rick Noriega’s record of accomplishment

Over at Draft Rick Noriega, Vince takes a look at Rep. Noriega’s recent legislative record.

We’ll start this week with some of his accomplishments during the 80th Session of the Texas Legislature.

State Rep. Rick Noriega has several sessions of important legislative accomplishments.

During the 80th Legislature, much of Rep. Noriega’s attention was focused on education, environmental issues, public safety and veterans’ affairs. This, of course, was in addition to his service on the House Appropriations Committees–one of the most sought-after legislative assignments, but also one of the most time-consuming and important in either chamber.

It’s a thorough look at what Rep. Noriega did in Austin this past spring. Those of us who already know him know much of this stuff, but it doesn’t do much good if nobody else knows about it. Take a look, and see what you think – there’ll be more to come.

Meanwhile, Rep. Noriega spent the weekend in San Antonio and South Texas. See The Walker Report, Half Empty, and A Capitol Blog for news and photos.

Where the votes are these days

Let me introduce you to Harris County Precinct 697. It’s a very Democratic precinct, but it doesn’t get a lot of turnout, at least not compared to some of its neighboring precincts. Here’s what happened in Precinct 697 last year:

Precinct RVs Votes Turnout Harless Khan Pct Sharp Pct ================================================================== 697 5198 1108 21.32 323 704 68.6 710 69.0

Yes, Precinct 697 is in HD126, which means it’s out in a part of the county where Democrats don’t do much in the way of campaigning. It’s also the single biggest precinct in that district, and as you can see it performs very well from a Democratic perspective. If it were in Democratic turf, it would be a prime target for GOTV operations, especially as part of a coordinated county campaign like we’re expecting to get in 2008.

The reason why I’m introducing you to this precinct is that I believe we have to rethink our notion of where Democratic voters are, and where our turnout efforts need to be, if we really are serious about turning Harris County blue in 2008 and beyond. We know how to fish in the friendly waters, but we’ve got to be willing to venture beyond them, because the data tell me there’s a lot of opportunity to better Democratic performance if only we’d expand our aim a little.

Let’s take a closer look at HD126, which is very much a Republican district, but not a monolith. Here are all of the precincts in HD126 where Democrats ran well:

Precinct RVs Votes Turnout Harless Khan Pct Sharp Pct ================================================================== 468 3792 841 22.18 245 548 68.3 535 68.2 520 3977 715 17.98 249 405 61.9 419 64.1 613 2614 564 21.58 155 379 71.0 389 72.7 614 4133 1177 28.48 446 654 59.4 667 60.7 697 5198 1108 21.32 323 704 68.6 710 69.0 757 3712 590 15.89 187 363 66.0 382 68.2 873 729 144 19.75 34 102 75.0 108 78.3

(“Sharp” is Jim Sharp, the top votegetter among Dems in Harris County last year.) I submit to you that if I showed you these numbers, and you didn’t know where these precincts were, you’d agree with me that they’re ripe for a turnout improvement plan. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to take these 60%+ Democratic precincts and try to drive their turnout up. That’s where the votes are, after all. Yet every one of these precincts had lower turnout than every single other precinct in HD 126. Overall turnout was 33.96%, and only two Republican precincts came in at under 30%.

Putting it another way, total turnout in the Democratic precincts of HD126 was 21.28%; in the Republican precincts, it was 39.00%. By my rough calculation, had the Dem precincts turned out at that level, Democrats would have netted about a thousand extra votes. When you realize that Mary Kay Green missed being elected by less than 7000 votes, that’s really something.

Now, I know it’s easy to be seduced by the lure of GOTV as a cure-all for electoral woes. Turning out voters, especially voters who aren’t habitual voters, is hard. So let’s take a look at how these precincts performed in 2002 for comparison purposes:

Precinct RVs Votes Turnout Dewhurst Sharp Pct ====================================================== 468 3538 1007 28.46 345 593 63.2 520 4084 856 20.96 399 414 50.9 613 2643 750 28.38 221 503 69.5 614 4085 1349 33.02 609 689 53.1 697 4064 1181 29.06 395 728 64.8 757 2193 360 16.42 143 187 56.7 873 652 212 32.52 66 136 67.3

Here, “Sharp” refers to John Sharp. Peggy Hamric ran unopposed, so I’m skipping that race. Note two things here: Turnout was better in every precinct in 2002, and Democratic performance was better in every precinct in 2006. Maybe some of that was Republicans being more likely to stay home last year, but maybe these precincts, especially 520, are getting even bluer. In 2002 at least there was a rudimentary GOTV operation in the form of a high-dollar TV advertising campaign. Whatever the merits or flaws of the Democratic statewide effort of that year, there was nothing remotely like it this last time around.

What I’m saying is simply this. I believe there are a lot of precincts like the ones I’ve documented here – blue dots in red areas. (I’m going to review the other Republican HDs as well to try to prove that.) I believe that Democrats in Harris County have not expended much, if any, effort in targeting the voters in those areas. I believe we are not maximizing our efforts to win countywide if we are not targeting those voters. I believe we need to give some thought as to how we do this – certainly, mail needs to be a part of it, but being on the ground has to be a part of it as well. Ideally, there’d be a State Rep campaign to be the focal point of the latter. Point is, almost anything we might think of is likely to be better than what we’ve been doing.

I’ll report on more of these areas in the coming weeks. Let me know what you think.

UPDATE: Here’s Precinct 697.

A piece of The Stables lives on

This is a sweet column by Lisa Gray about what happened to some of the folks who were stranded by the demolition of The Stables restaurant.

How stable was The Stables? So stable that the staff didn’t leave for new jobs; they died or retired. So stable that a waitress didn’t take an order when one of her regulars appeared. She’d know that he wanted the same thing as always: prime rib, most likely, and one of the bar’s big, stiff martinis. If she was away on vacation, the customer might stumble, unsure how to order in her absence. What kind of salad dressing? How should he know? When his waitress was there, the iceberg lettuce simply appeared, unbidden, with the dressing whose name he’d forgotten years ago.

Late last year, word got out that The Stables’ old red-barn building on South Main would give way to some shiny new piece of the Medical Center. Both the customers and the staff were distraught. There was talk that maybe The Stables would reopen somewhere new; surely it couldn’t just die. Customers wrote down their phone numbers, telling waiters and waitresses to call when they landed new jobs.

The lot is still empty, in case you’re curious. The remaining palm trees are still standing, and I’ve seen no sign of any impending activity. I’m not even sure if the property has been flipped yet to whoever will do the eventual construction. These things take a lot of time, I guess.

Anyway, about the fancy-schmancy new restaurant where three former Stables waitstaff wound up:

At REEF, they’re called “the three D’s.” Like the younger waitstaff, David, Dianna and Debi dress all in black, but with their small-town haircuts and honeyed Southern accents, they seem like a different species.

Taken as a whole, REEF’s waitstaff echoes its retro-modern food, dishes such as “roasted grouper, pecan-shallot cracklins, braised collards, pot licker jus.” The sleek kids seem born to serve truffled polenta and seared triple tail to the stylish set that feeds on such things. But the three D’s stand for pecans and pot licker.

Dianna approves of the way the owners chat up the customers, just like at The Stables. She tells the young waiters not to blow their money, to save some for their rent. And she’s proud that she figured out the computer.

Now that the restaurant has been open three weeks, she and David think it’s time to start calling their old customers. They wanted to wait until they were sure they’d stick around, sure that the restaurant would be worthy of their people. But already they’re thinking long-term. On the first day of summer, David was imagining Christmas, and how beautiful downtown would look through the restaurant’s big front window.

Even without phone calls, some of the old Stables crowd has found the three D’s. David steers his long-timers toward the rib-eye, a comforting island of beef in an ocean of seafood. Dianna gets excited to see her people’s kids and grandkids.

After one Stables regular heard Dianna surfaced at REEF, he asked his college-aged granddaughter to take him there.

You figure the young woman probably looked more suited to the stylish restaurant, with its open kitchen and pearly tabletops, its of-the-moment Portuguese wines.

But her grandfather came back five nights in a row. Like the three D’s, he’d found a surprising new home.


When CEOs blog

This is interesting.

The rest of the world got a glimpse into the personality of John Mackey, Whole Foods Market Inc.’s chief executive, last week and learned what Austin has known for a long time: He is anything but subtle.

In a blog posting on the Whole Foods Web site, the full force of Mackey’s personality was laid bare as he attacked the Federal Trade Commission for trying to stop his company from buying rival Wild Oats Markets Inc.

For openers, Mackey accused the FTC of acting in “a biased, adversarial and arrogant manner” and of using “bullying” and “unethical” tactics.

Mackey, an outspoken, competitive Libertarian who despises government interference with business, is in the middle of a court battle with the FTC over the biggest purchase in his company’s history.

At a July 31 federal court hearing, a judge will decide whether to grant a preliminary injunction to stall the merger while the lawsuit goes forward.


[M]any antitrust experts, Whole Foods shareholders and analysts are wondering whether Mackey has gone too far, possibly damaging his company’s chance to buy Wild Oats.

His 14,000-word blog included a letter he sent to the Whole Foods board of directors outlining reasons to buy Wild Oats, including a comment that it would “forever” eliminate the threat of a rival supermarket chain buying Wild Oats to compete against Whole Foods, and attacks against the FTC, calling it “arrogant.”


“I’ve been writing about business for over 20 years, and something like this is pretty unprecedented in my experience,” said Sam Fromartz, the author of “Organic Inc.” “Corporations generally don’t sock it to the government.”

Erik Kulick, a Pittsburgh-based attorney and self-described Whole Foods fan who has owned stock for five years, said he thought Mackey never should have been allowed to publicly post his comments.

Mackey “seems to be a good businessperson, but I think he went off the rail a little bit regarding this FTC hearing,” Kulick said. “The repercussions are potentially serious.”

Darren Bush, a University of Houston law school professor and antitrust expert, said the comments might not hurt Whole Foods’ case because recent history has shown it is rare for a federal judge to challenge a proposed merger.

But it definitely won’t help, he said.

If Mackey’s comments conflict with statements he provides during depositions in the lawsuit, that will be damaging, Bush said. The FTC will pore over the blog with a “fine-tooth comb,” he said.

“One does not want more ammunition pointed at you,” Bush said. “Why don’t you just hand them a gun and say, ‘Take a few shots at me’?”


Mackey has promised more blogs in the coming weeks.

“His attorneys are drinking a lot of Maalox, or the natural foods equivalent,” Fromartz joked. “Lawyers hate this. They just want to play by the game, by the rules, and he is not playing by the rules.”

As we know, listening to one’s attorney is frequently good advice. The blog post in question is here. We’ll see if this turns out to be wise or stupid.