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evacuation

Coronavirus and hurricane shelters

Two things we have to be thinking about today.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Busy day yesterday

There were a lot of bills passed yesterday by one chamber or the other. My mailbox is full of press releases touting them. I’m going to go ahead and print them beneath the fold as a roundup. A few bills that got notice in the media:

– The Tim Cole Act passed out of the House.

Texans wrongfully convicted of crimes will get a much larger paycheck from the state for their incarceration under a bill tentatively approved by the state House today.

Wrongfully convicted persons currently are paid $50,000 in two installment payments. The new proposal would pay $80,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. An identical measure by Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, is pending in the Senate.

“Think for a few moments about walking in their shoes,” Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, one of the authors of HB 1736, told his colleagues.

[…]

The measure is known as Tim Cole Act to honor a former Texas Tech student wrongfully convicted of sexual assault. Cole died in prison from an asthma attack in 1999 – about halfway through a 25-year sentence.

“This bill cannot make people whole. But we can do better,” Anchia said.

The measure passed on a voice vote without opposition and prompted applause in the chamber.

The record vote on third reading (PDF) was 136-1. I noted Anchia’s bill last month. We’ll see if it passes muster with Governor Perry. Grits has more.

– Ignoring a mandatory evacuation order for a hurricane and then needing a rescue may cost you in the future.

More than 20,000 people stayed on Galveston Island last year despite a mandatory evacuation order as Hurricane Ike approached the Texas coast. Allison Castle, spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Pery, said there were 3,540 rescues in the region by state and local authorities, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

“They have that right to remain if they choose to,” said bill author Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. “But they stay at their own peril, and they stay with the possibility that if recovery is necessary to preserve their lives, they’d pay the related cost.

“And that’s potentially a lot of money.”

The cost of a helicopter rescue is about $4,400 an hour.

I believe the bill in question is SB12, which passed unanimously on third reading. I agree with the principle of the bill, though I wonder what mechanism will be used to collect the fees from the people who will need such rescues. What if they claim they tried but were unable to get out? There will be an interesting legal battle over this some day, I expect.

– Not a bill, but the Senate budget conferees were announced. No word yet on the House contingent.

There were more bills passed, and we can expect a lot more action in the coming weeks. Click on for the press releases.

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