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September 12th, 2008:

The last men on the island

I do not understand this.

About 1,000 prisoners and a full jail staff remained in the Galveston County Jail on Galveston Island this morning, even as the island began to be battered by the onslaught of Hurricane Ike.

The reason for not evacuating the prisoners is a security issue and cannot be discussed, sheriff’s spokesman Maj. Ray Tuttoilmondo said.

“The prisoners and their safety and well-being are paramount and it will be handled,” Tuttoilmondo said.

Any decision to move the prisoners would be kept secret for security reasons, as happened before Hurricane Rita in 2005, he said.

“We did this during Rita and no one knew until it was absolutely done,” Tuttoilmondo said.

The prisoners were in the jail as of 10 a.m. today, leaving little time to transfer them to the mainland. Hurricane-force winds are expected to strike the island later today, making exit across the causeway to the mainland difficult.

Tuttoilmondo declined to say how many deputies were at the jail, but said a full jail staff and relief shifts remained on duty at the lockup at 57th Street and Broadway.

He also declined to discuss measures the Sheriff’s Office would take to make sure the prisoners and jail staff remained safe if a storm surge floods the jail.

The subject came up in today’s SciGuy chat. Barring an unlikely sharp turn east, the entire island is going to be under water. Even if the jail can withstand the wind and the storm surge, there will be no power for the foreseeable future, there may be no potable water, and there may be no way to get food and other supplies in for days, if not longer. I understand the security concerns, and I certainly don’t envy these guys the task, but how is it possible this is a good idea? I can only say that I hope they did get out while they still could.

Now, according to Tom, some 25-40% of Galveston’s residents (10-20,000 people) did not heed the mandatory evacuation order and have remained on the now-almost completely flooded island. If so, that’s certainly a bad idea, one I cannot understand, as well. But at least some of those folks likely had a choice in the matter. The inmates did not. I just hope this all works out for them.

Fearing the worst for Galveston

I’ve been trying to stay at least somewhat optimistic about what Ike will do to Texas. That isn’t easy, and it’s getting harder. Here’s SciGuy’s latest:

Ike’s expected to produce a massive, destructive surge far up the Texas coast and into low-lying areas of Louisiana.

A more northward turn, which might spare Houston the worst winds and Galveston Island a catastrophic storm surge, has not yet happened. And with landfall due to occur in less than 18 hours, time is running out.

In fact, if the track comes even 10 miles to the southwest of the forecast location, across the far West End of Galveston, the across the island will be considerably worse than depicted on the maps above.

The National Hurricane Center, which is not prone to hyperbole, had this to say (pardon the ALL CAPS nature of it, that’s just how they do it):




If that’s not scary enough for you, take a look at these pictures the state put out to depict what might happen to Galveston. The official landfall may still be hours away, but Galveston is already starting to flood, and the bayous farther inland are elevated. I hope everyone is prepared for a large number of people to be displaced for a long time, as was the case after Katrina. Galveston may never be the same again.

The DA that did the judge

I have not been following the Charles Dean Hood case, in which the presiding judge and the District Attorney have finally admitted under oath that they had a long-term sexual affair – you can get some background here, or just Google around. But I would like to point out this awesome rant that Evan Smith has on it from a correspondent of Hood’s.

Well, good people of Texas, I hope you like having people from the rest of the country laugh at you, because they’re going to be whooping it up in the next few days. Yes, it turns out that Judge Verla Sue Holland, who presided over the 1990 capital murder trial of Charles Dean Hood, was indeed sleeping with D.A. Tom O’Connell while the case was going on (and for some time before and after). They admitted it at a court hearing today and yesterday in Collin County; by the end of the day the CCA had stayed Hood’s execution (his sixth stay). Ah, Texas justice: adjudication before fornication. Where habeas corpus REALLY means show me the body. The state where it’s not only okay for your lawyer to fall asleep on you in a death penalty case, it’s okay for your judge and your prosecutor to sleep together! Ha ha ha ha! Apres le petit morte, le grande morte! Here come da judge! Bwa ha ha ha!

People around the Collin County courthouse have known about the affair for years — yet no one, and in particular neither of the two lovers, came forward and did anything about it. Hood’s attorneys first found people who talked anonymously about the affair back in 1995, but they couldn’t get anything firm enough to attack the conviction with. Salon published a story in 2005 naming a couple of sources for the affair as well as including a couple of anonymous sources. And this past June Hood’s attorneys found a former assistant district attorney, who said the affair was “common knowledge” around the courthouse back then. Still, the CCA wouldn’t stay Hood’s execution, which was set for June 17. He survived that execution only because his lawyers kept badgering the district court, the CCA, and the Supreme Court with these allegations. The CCA bulled past them, getting the okay to execute Hood about 11:05 pm. But the state ran out of time and Hood was spared. Good for him.

I think we all need to contemplate what should happen to O’Connell and Judge Holland now that they have finally come clean about this. I say what they did is such an outrage and an affront to decency and justice that at the very least, they should be held liable for every penny that Collin County and the state of Texas have had to pay defending the appeals in this case. Frankly, I’d like to include everyone who knew about this affair but chose not to blow the whistle on them, but I don’t know how to account for them. So, just put it on the two lovebirds. Total up the costs, split them evenly between them, then hand them a judgment and start freezing assets and garnishing wages. Oh, and by all means disbar them as well. Let them flip burgers to pay off this debt if they have to. Maybe that will make future Abelards and Heloises think twice before hopping in the sack like that.

Endorsement watch: DMN for Sam Houston

The Dallas Morning News, which has been the early bird of endorsements these past few seasons, makes its recommendations for the State Supreme Court, picking Democrat Sam Houston for Place 7.

Democratic challenger Sam Houston has built solid reputation defending clients against lawsuits and would bring some new ideas to the court. He argues that no one likes lawsuits, but sometimes they are necessary to ensure justice, and that justice is good for business. Mr. Houston, 45, would bring some welcome – and not token – philosophical diversity to the court.

The incumbent in this race says all the right things about being fair and balanced, but Republican Dale Wainwright does not adequately answer criticism about his work ethic. In the last full year statistics were available, for example, he wrote just four signed opinions – the second fewest of any justice on the court and the lowest among the three justices seeking re-election this year. Two of his most recent opinions date to cases heard in 2004.

Justice Wainwright, 47, says there are complex reasons for this, but lives are often on hold waiting for these opinions, and such delays are unacceptable. Justice Wainwright, previously a district judge in Harris County, has a sharp resume, but voters should send a message to the court that long backlogs will not be tolerated by electing the respected and fresh-thinking Mr. Houston.

I feel pretty confident that the Democratic slate for Supreme Court will get at least one endorsement from most of the newspapers, with Houston and/or Linda Yanez leading the way. Judge Jim Jordan, for whom the DMN had some nice things to say, probably won’t do as well against Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson. But you never know.

This reminds me that it’s about time to make predictions about who the Chron will be endorsing when they get around to it. I’ll have more on that soon.

Assessing the Dems’ chances in the Lege

Recently, the Statesman analyzed the state of the Legislative races and suggested a reason why the Republicans may retain control in the House:

As Democrats pin their hopes on changing demographics, Republicans are betting that the Democrats will trip over the same hurdle that the GOP did in the 1990s: redistricting.

During the 1990s, the Republicans became the state’s dominant party, winning statewide elections and a Senate majority, but they struggled to crack the Texas House.

Over that decade the GOP slowly increased its share of House seats from 57 to 72 by four or five seats each election cycle. In 1998, it stalled at 72 seats — four short of a majority — for four years because the Democrats had drawn the districts to favor their party.

The closer the GOP got to a majority, the harder it was to find the marginal Democratic districts they could win.

Only in 2002, after Republicans created legislative districts that favored them, did the GOP win control of the House with a net gain of 16 seats. That dramatic increase was rooted in a gamble: A lot of those districts were drawn with thin GOP margins susceptible to changes in population or voters’ moods.

“The goal was to maximize the number of seats for Republicans, not to make them safe for Republicans,” said Royal Masset, the state GOP political director during the late 1990s.

That, as much as anything, helps explain the fading GOP majority in the House even as Republicans continue to win statewide elections.

“I get the impression that the low-hanging fruit has been taken,” Masset said. “There probably aren’t many more winnable seats out there” for Democrats.

Martin said he disagrees, saying the right mix of candidates with the right message can make a difference.

“People who are not Democrats necessarily are willing to give us another look or listen,” he said.

Two points:

1. It’s not clear to me that if the legislative districts were kept the same from 2000 to 2002 that the Republicans would not have gained a majority, which they may have still retained to this day. Looking at the Secretary of State results page for 1998, I see two cases where an incumbent Democrat was knocked off by a Republican challenger, in HDs 46 (Rick Green def. Alec Rhodes) and 68 (Rick Hardcastle def. Charles Finnell), 15 competitive open seat races in which Dems must have won two seats back, and a whole lot of uncontested seats. In other words, perhaps just a bad recruiting year for the GOP, which may have been more focused on running up the score for George W. Bush’s re-election than on the downballot campaigns. As for 2000, why run in for a seat drawn to elect a D when in two years’ time it’ll be re-drawn to elect an R? It’s for that reason that I think if the Dems don’t win the House this year, the next realistic chance they’ll have will be 2012. That assumes they have a seat at the Legislative Redistricting Board’s table, of course; without the Speakership, the Dems had better win something statewide or else.

Point being, just because the curve flattened out at the end of the decade, that doesn’t mean it would have remained flat. The trend was clear, and the wind was strongly at the Republicans’ back in 2002. If there were a way to replay 2002 with the same legislative boundaries as in 2000, I’d still bet money on them winning a majority. Maybe not 88 seats, but definitely more than 76.

2. The definition of “low-hanging fruit” depends to a large degree on the results of the last election. HD52, the focus of that Statesman article, is a top target thanks to it being an open seat won by Mike Krusee with an uninspiring 51% in 2006. But in 2004, Krusee had only a write-in opponent, and that same person, running as the Democratic nominee in 2006, wasn’t given a chance by any mainstream pundit. Bill Zedler, who is in deep trouble against Chris Turner, cruised to a 60%+ re-election in 2006, and was on no one’s short list of endangered incumbents in 2006. Robert Talton was unopposed in 2004 and lightly challenged in 2006, but his open seat is a top pickup opportunity this year. You get the idea. What makes fruit hang low is its ripeness. Some seats just weren’t ripe before, and now they are.

I’m certainly not saying that the Democrats will cash in on any or all of these chances, and I’m not saying they don’t have some vulnerable seats of their own, because they surely do. I’m just saying they haven’t run out of places to look. Link via South Texas Chisme.

The dinosaur mummy

Time for something a little bit lighter as Ike bears down on the coast. This sounds way cool.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science, in association with the Judith River Foundation, will develop and tour a world premiere exhibition featuring Leonardo, the most perfectly fossilized plant-eating dinosaur ever discovered–with almost all of his skin still intact. Dinosaur Mummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation opens Sept. 19, 2008.

“Leonardo’s discovery was groundbreaking for the world of paleontology because it provided extensive detail regarding what plant-eating dinosaurs actually ate – details that could only be theorized before,” said Joel A. Bartsch, president of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. “We’re thrilled to present Leonardo to the public for the first time at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, where they can get up close and personal with the real Leonardo, the best preserved, plant-eating dinosaur mummy fossil ever discovered.”


Leonardo is a 77 million-year-old adult duckbilled dinosaur, known scientifically as Brachylophosaurus canadensis. His remains are 90 percent covered with fossilized skin, on which the pattern of his body scales are evident. The term “mummy” is used in reference to Leonardo to denote the fact that much of the dinosaur’s soft tissue, such as its skin and internal organs, appear to have been fossilized as well, along with the bones.

What makes Leonardo even more extraordinary is that he has given scientists a rare peek “inside” a dinosaur. With modern technology, scientists have analyzed Leonardo using a forensic approach to studying this fossil–and the site where it was found–to determine how he may have lived and died. Using this method, the dinosaur is the “victim,” and the scientist has to figure out how it was killed, and by whom. Additional discoveries, such as stomach contents, provide a more complete picture of the ecosystem in which the dinosaur lived – as indicated by the type of plants it ate.

You can see some video previews of this here, including clips from a Discovery Channel special set to air on the 14th. Olivia is a big fan of dinosaurs – she has a dinosaur jigsaw puzzle that she loves to do (usually as a stalling tactic before bedtime, but still) and she can name most of your better known dinos. I’m thinking she’ll love this. And, you know, I’m pretty sure I will, too.

Texans game postponed till Monday

The Astros have postponed their games tonight and tomorrow night with the Cubs. The Comets have postponed their game tonight with Sacramento – the email they sent to season ticket holder suggested it might be canceled altogether, which is my guess. Various area colleges have rescheduled, relocated, or canceled their football games this weekend. And now the Texans have moved their home opener to Monday night at 7:30.

The game will be televised on local CBS stations in the primary and secondary team markets: Houston, Beaumont-Port Arthur and Bryan.

The Monday night game between the Eagles and Cowboys at Texas Stadium will be shown at its regular time on ESPN.

The NFL announced late this afternoon that, in conjunction with the Texans and Ravens, the game should be postponed for a day to help the city deal with the fallout from the hurricane that’s expected to make landfall early Saturday morning.

I second what Stephanie says: If the city is in good enough shape to allow this to happen, we should all be grateful.