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Hurricane Harvey

Still rough times for oysters

Continuing from earlier in the year.

Tuesday marks the start of Texas’ commercial and recreational oyster season, but the bulk of the state’s oyster reefs are already closed for harvesting. This follows last year’s season during which the majority of reefs were closed by mid-December, leading to a clash between industry stakeholders and state wildlife officials over how to manage the resource.

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) closes reefs if samples come back with too many small oysters or too few oysters overall. The idea is to give oysters time to recover and repopulate.

This year, 20 of the state’s 29 oyster harvesting areas are closed for the start of the season on November 1.

“What we as an agency have tried to do at the start of this season, with some of these thresholds, is to find a balance between understanding the economic hardship that this causes, but also doing what’s best to conserve the oyster population for the future,” said Christopher Steffen, a natural resource specialist with TPWD.

Oysters grow about one inch a year, and have to reach three inches before they can be legally harvested. Steffen said though there weren’t enough oysters above market size in their samples to open the reefs, the samples showed oysters have been recovering.

“We’re pretty fortunate in the sense that we do have quite a bit of undersized oysters, which is good for the future,” Steffen said. “We are seeing a lot of spat, which are the small oysters that settle on the substrate. And then some of the spat leftover from last year that’s grown into that two to three-inch size range.”

Oysters are extremely sensitive to changes in water quality, and Steffan said the drought in much of the state could put further pressure on them in the coming months.

In the past decade, Texas oysters have endured multiple hurricanes, drought, and heavy rainfall.

“It just takes time for those populations to rebound,” said Steffen, adding that they serve important ecological functions, such as preventing shoreline erosion and filtering water.

See here for some background. There are actually a few more harvesting areas open now than there were at the beginning of 2021, though that’s probably not much of a comfort to the fishers. Hope for better conditions, and remind the incoming Legislature that climate change is a problem we’re going to deal with one way or another whether they want to or not, I guess. The Chron and the Observer have more.

Army Corps ordered to pay $550K to reservoir flooding victims

This could turn into a lot more if it is upheld.

More than five years after their homes and businesses were flooded, residents above the Addicks and Barker dams are learning how much money the federal government owes them for damage from Houston’s overflowing reservoirs.

A federal judge last week ruled that the owners of six upstream properties flooded during Hurricane Harvey should collectively receive nearly $550,000. The six were chosen — jointly by Justice Department lawyers and attorneys for hundreds of property owners — as test cases in a massive case initiated just moths after the historic deluge.

The decision could open the door to thousands more judgments for property owners and could result in the government paying out tens of millions more dollars, attorneys for the flooded residents said Wednesday.

The case falls under a special jurisdiction that oversees so called “takings” cases, involving allegations the government temporarily took control of private land for a legitimate purpose. If the court’s ruling survives anticipated appeals by the Justice Department, it could become the largest government takings case in U.S. history, according to attorneys representing property owners.

A ruling is still pending for separate group of residents and business owners whose properties flooded when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers opened the Addicks and Barker floodgates. The downstream property owners saw their claims dismissed in 2020, but in June a federal appeals court reversed the dismissal and remanded it to the lower court for further proceedings.

[…]

After the storm, more than 1,600 businesses and homeowners sued the Army Corps in the specialized U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Washington, D.C., contending the government intentionally planned for the reservoirs to flood their land. In 2019, U.S. Judge Charles F. Lettow ruled government officials had knowingly and intentionally used private property to store rising floodwaters.

Then, in separate hearings, Lettow set about assessing how much money these property owners were owed. On Oct. 28, Lettow ruled on damages, laying out explicitly how much some property owners were owed for decreases in their property values, the damage or destruction of their personal property and the costs of being displaced by the floods.

“The plaintiffs are entitled to just compensation for the permanent flowage easement the government took through its construction, maintenance, and operation of the Addicks and Barker Dams,” Lettow wrote.

The six property owners included homeowners and owners of rental properties. The decision in these test cases will trigger a process for Lettow to assess how much compensation property owners might be owed in thousands of other complaints. If Lettow’s standard is applied to all the upstream homes and businesses believed to be flooded, the total compensation would top $1 billion, according to Daniel Charest, a lead attorney for the upstream plaintiffs.

Charest said he expected the Department of Justice to file an appeal within the next 60 days and will likely challenge property owners’ rights to damages.

See here for the previous update, and here for more on the other lawsuit. I have no idea what will happen with this on appeal, but note that we are five full years out from Hurricane Harvey, and the appellate process hasn’t actually started yet. Settle in the the long haul, is what I’m saying.

The nightmare hurricane scenario

Sorry, but we have to think about it.

Eric Berger, meteorologist, Space City Weather editor and senior space editor at Ars Technica, said when it comes to hurricanes there are three principal threats to worry about: storm surge, winds and rainfall.

“Typically, with a hurricane you might get one or two of these threats in a particular area,” Berger said.

Ian is different though.

“The reason I say this is a nightmare storm is because for a sizable chunk of Florida it brought all three threats,” Berger said.

He said it is absolutely possible for this kind of storm to hit the Houston area.

“The odds of it happening in any given year are pretty low — probably one in 100. But absolutely it could happen in any given hurricane season,” Berger said.

Surges generally only affect coastal areas or areas within 10 to 15 feet above the water’s surface level. In Houston, those would be places like Galveston and Seabrook, Berger said.

Unlike storm surges, wind can have a wider effect. Wind damage can extend 100 miles inland in the Houston area, Berger said. He noted Hurricane Ike in 2008, when winds were enough to take down the power grid for about two weeks.

For Ike, he said there was a fairly large storm surge along the coast and there was some wind damage, but inland rainfall wasn’t a major issue. For Harvey, he said there was not much wind or storm surge issues in Houston, but there was about 50 inches of rainfall. Houston has yet to see a triple threat like Ian with a damaging storm surge, powerful winds and heavy inland rainfall.

Berger said a storm like Ian would be the worst case scenario for Houston.

“It would really change our community forever,” he said.

He said the immediate impacts would be devastation to parts of Galveston island, Bolivar Peninsula and coastal communities, along with wind damage at least up to Interstate 10. Wind damage would rip roofs off buildings, knock trees down and cause power outages lasting weeks to months. A storm surge threatens to cause environmental catastrophe since many chemical facilities along the Houston Ship Channel are only built up to about 15 feet, meaning there could be facility flooding with toxic leakages in the environment, Berger said. All of this would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

“It would be very difficult for this population to come back as vibrant as it is now,” Berger said.

We hope that the long-awaited Ike Dike will help mitigate the effect of a large storm surge. Wind and rain, there’s only so much we can do and most of it is in planning and construction – engineer buildings to withstand high winds, and don’t build things in areas prone to flooding. Maybe there’s more than that, but it feels like mostly hope to me. And if something has a one percent chance of happening in a given year, then over a fifty-year span the odds it will happen at least once are about 40%. Not the most comforting thought.

We keep on building homes in the floodplains

It’s how we roll.

When Hurricane Harvey devastated the Houston region with a deluge of rain, one of the places where the water escaped its bounds was near a Spring Branch floodway known as Brickhouse Gully, satellite data shows. There, it filled a golf course, which federal maps indicated had a high risk of flooding.

Today, that golf course has been turned into a 115-acre master-planned community built on newly created hills above its neighbors. A series of man-made lakes double as detention ponds, meant to prevent heavy rains that previously had pooled onto the golf course from impacting neighbors or those living downstream.

The story of how it was built encapsulates the tensions between those seeking to build more safely in the floodplains and those who believe such practices will not protect against the heavier rains predicted in the future — and who would prefer such land to remain undeveloped to allow stormwaters room to flow.

Four months before Harvey made landfall, the Arizona-based homebuilder Meritage Homes announced it planned to build roughly 800 single-family homes on what had been the Pine Crest golf course. The master-planned community would be named Spring Brook Village.

One out of every seven residential building permits issued in Houston since Harvey were located in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s 2009 Flood Insurance Rate Maps. While some were for pre-existing, flood-damaged homes that homeowners had decided to rebuild, many were for new homes that have put an increasing number of people in areas predisposed to flood. One of the highest concentrations of such permits was in Spring Brook Village.

After both Tropical Storm Allison and Hurricane Harvey, standards for building in floodplains were tightened. Homes are now required to be built higher and with more detention. Meritage Homes, which said no one was available for comment, was building to the updated standards. But it also had done something else — started the process of having the floodmap changed.

Since Harvey, a sweeping federal floodmap update called Atlas-14 has been underway. Anticipated to be released this fall, it will look at rainfall data up to and including Hurricane Harvey. An early analysis indicated that the size of Harris County’s floodplains would grow because the expected rainfall in a flood event had been revised upward.

But a number of small, manual changes to floodplain maps have been taking place. Developers can submit applications to the Harris County Flood Control District and FEMA arguing that the flood designation for their communities should be changed, often because of flood mitigation steps taken. Until floodmaps are updated to reflect new rainfall averages, these one-off revisions have had the opposite effect: On paper, the county’s floodplains have been shrinking.

The changes often mean that homeowners in the area will not be required by their lenders to purchase flood insurance — which makes buying a home in the new community more affordable but puts homeowners who opt out of the expense at risk if the area does flood.

What could possibly go wrong? It’s a long story, part of the Chron’s ongoing coverage of Hurricane Harvey’s five-year mark, so go read the rest. And maybe double-check the flood map your home is in.

Harris County officially gets its $750 million from the GLO

With hopefully more to come, as well as something for Houston.

Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved an agreement Wednesday with the Texas General Land Office to receive $750 million in federal flood mitigation funding, and called on the agency for an additional $250 million the county had expected to receive.

The funding from the Texas General Land Office — the state agency charged with distributing Hurricane Harvey relief from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — comes more than a year after the GLO awarded the county and the city of Houston zero dollars in its first round of grants even though the area accounted for half the damage from Hurricane Harvey.

The county last year revealed a $1.4 billion gap in funding to supplement the $2.5 billion flood bond approved by voters in 2018. County officials attributed the shortfall to expected funding from state and local partners that had not materialized.

The new funding from GLO will help narrow that gap, which now is down to $400 million, according to Harris County Budget Director Daniel Ramos. However, Ramos said the county’s plans were based on the assumption it would receive $1 billion from the GLO.

“We’re building billions of dollars worth of new infrastructure and it costs money to maintain it,” Ramos said.

County officials said they will continue negotiating with the GLO for the remainder of the money they expected.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo called the $750 million allocation good news, but not enough.

“When the bond was passed, it didn’t account for increases in cost,” Hidalgo said. “It didn’t account for increases in maintenance costs. So, we need additional funds to make sure we can complete everything.”

See here for the previous update. As noted in the Tuesday preview story, this is the same $750 million that the GLO offered to Harris County after initially allocating zero to both Harris and Houston. Houston is still getting a goose egg – to their credit, all of the Commissioners spoke about the need for Houston to get what it’s due, about $1 billion – but there is still money to be disbursed, and there is still that HUD finding that the GLO used a discriminatory process to screw the city. I don’t know when the next appropriations are to be made, but if we’re very lucky Jay Kleberg will be in charge of the process by then.

Maybe we shouldn’t pave over our best rain-absorbing wetlands

Just a thought. Even just paving over less of them might be wise.

At the far west end of Houston along the Katy Freeway, where the concrete city gives way to bigger sky and taller grass, signs advertising new master-planned communities greet you before anything else, pointing left and right to new neighborhoods going up where prairie used to be.

While Harris County officials say the new development is not happening in the floodplain — since it is built atop mounds of fill — and will not increase flood risk downstream because of drainage requirements, such as detention ponds, the fact remains that development covers the prairie sponge with concrete.

Prairies serve as natural flood mitigation, absorbing more water than other types of land, retaining water in their natural depressions and slowing down the flow with their tall grasses.

The Houston region used to be covered in that type of vegetation, back when the state’s coastal prairie was 9 million acres of grass and wetlands. Less than 1 percent of coastal prairie remains in Texas, much of it in the Katy prairie — an area difficult to define these days since it continues to shrink, but in the 1990s was roughly bounded by the Brazos River, U.S. 290, Highway 6 and Interstate 10.

After Hurricane Harvey, then-Harris County Judge Ed Emmett took a strong position on the prairie in an opinion piece published in the Houston Chronicle.

“Officials at all levels should commit to preserving the Katy Prairie as a national or state park or nature preserve,” Emmett wrote. “That single act might do more to protect our community than any other. It will not only reduce future flooding, it will send a clear signal that we have a new attitude — that we recognize the value of maximizing natural green space and we understand the importance of allowing waterways to function without interference.”

That has not happened.

In the five years since Harvey, thousands of new homes have been built on the prairie and former rice farms above the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.

The reservoirs operated as intended in Harvey, but homes upstream and downstream of Addicks flooded anyway, prompting lawsuits that still are being litigated. The flooded homes were not a surprise to those who predicted development within the reservoir and upstream of it — combined with extreme rainfall — would lead to disaster.

Today’s new development continues a trend that has been underway for decades.

Between 2010 and 2020, nearly 100,000 people moved into the Harris County portion of the Addicks Reservoir watershed — a 138-square-mile area that drains into the reservoir — increasing the population there from 295,694 to 390,402, according to the Harris County Flood Control District.

In the Katy prairie area, from 2001 to 2019, 60,404 acres changed from having no pavement to some amount of development.

You can read the rest, there are lots of pictures from Harvey and earlier times to help you visualize it all. Harris County took some small steps towards discouraging development in flood plains, but as long as the county is growing and builders are looking for new tracts of land on which to build, this is what we’re gonna get.

Rockport, Dickinson, Port Arthur: Five years after Harvey

Yeah, we’re at “five years after Hurricane Harvey made landfall” time. Here’s a long story about how three smaller towns that were in its path are doing now.

Each day, Gary Billy drives past the empty corner lot where his restaurant once stood. Sometimes, he looks over at the scrubby grass, the crumbling foundation and the fading blue sign for JJ’s Little Bay Café.

“We put our hearts and souls into that business, into that property — expanding and doing things,” he said. “Sometimes it hits you and you’re just like, ‘Man, you miss it.’ But life just keeps going.”

The restaurant was among hundreds of buildings that were destroyed five years ago when Hurricane Harvey made landfall in this small Gulf Coast city.

Now, residents and elected officials here say they are recovering from the devastation, mirroring other small towns affected by Harvey. That said, they still have more work to do to bring displaced residents back home and get their infrastructure ready for future storms. The city also is facing an affordable housing shortage, a wave of ongoing construction projects and the lingering emotional toll from the disaster.

The Southeast Texas community of Dickinson has its challenges, too. Homeowners there remain skeptical that the city’s mitigation efforts are enough to prevent other disasters.

In Port Arthur, near Louisiana, the largest mitigation projects await federal funding approvals before they can get off the ground.

“The challenge is preparing for the next storm,” said Aransas County Judge C.H. “Burt” Mills, Jr. “There’s going to be one — we just don’t know when. (We’re) trying to prepare to where we don’t have near the disaster that we had with Harvey.”

[…]

The past half-decade has been trying for the city of Dickinson, which saw about 85 percent of its land mass go under water during the hurricane. Some people packed up and left, but most rebuilt, banding together in love of their community. Since then, however, they’ve taken on a particular, more despondent brand of resiliency: They eye the city’s ongoing mitigation efforts and fear that they are sitting ducks.

[Paster William H.] King meets those residents often. Leaving the church that day, he drove his truck through town and descended into the Bayou Chantilly neighborhood, cornered in by I-45 on one side and Dickinson Bayou on another.

It used to be a lovely place — lush and well-kept, homeowner Gayann Corbin said. Now, it’s dotted with “for sale” signs, displaying people’s slow exodus from the neighborhood.

She and her husband, Bob, met King on their corner along with a half-dozen neighbors. Most people in Dickinson know of King, since his church serves about 60 percent of the community and became a distribution center during Harvey. (He was also a city councilman for 21 years, and he’s running for county judge.)

The conversation turned to the city’s disaster response, and the gaggle erupted into overlapping speech. The most visible project to date is the widening of West Gum Bayou and the construction of several detention ponds to expand the capacity for floodwater. They weren’t buying it.

“I don’t have a degree in engineering … but I believe if we had a pump station pumping water out of the bayou into the contributory of the Galveston Bay, that would be better than widening the area,” Arthur Francis said. “It doesn’t matter how deep you have it and how wide it is. The water has nowhere to go.”

The city also is turning to voluntary buyouts and acquisitions, programs that allow it to buy people’s homes in flood-prone zones and either demolish them entirely or rebuild them higher. Corbin and Francis said they don’t expect many people to bite.

Francis said he hasn’t seen Dickinson keep a “pulse” on its people, and Noel Larsen added that she feels the city sat on its hands for years after the storm. In 2019, she saw some of her neighbors remove some obstructions from the bayou in order to aid water flow, frustrated that the city hadn’t done so itself.

Jon Junemann, who has lived in his home since 1975, jabbed his fingers in a fury.

“It takes a quarter of an inch of rain to absorb in this gumbo clay in one hour,” he said. “Where is the water going to go? It’s going to be right here in Lake Chantilly again.”

City Manager Theo Melancon took the helm in 2021 after a period of tumult among Dickinson’s leadership. He said residents in any city tend to feel hopeless when it takes years for the biggest projects to get underway, and King added that he feels Dickinson residents feel a particular apathy toward their local government.

Even then, Melancon said Dickinson officials haven’t been sitting around — they earmarked $70 million in state and federal funds for mitigation, with more in the application process. Already, the West Gum Bayou widening is underway, and about 110,000 square yards of dirt have been moved in ditch cleanups.

Dickinson also plans to construct a diversionary canal that reroutes floodwater and deposits it further east on Dickinson Bayou, and city leaders are exploring a pumping project at Benson Bayou.

“As dirt starts moving and turning, I believe people will see,” Melancon said. “I don’t think a lot of people understand the size and scope of the projects.”

Melancon agreed that the buyout programs might not have enough takers, especially since people worry whether they can find other, similarly priced homes in Dickinson.

There’s a lot more, and much of it zooms in on individual stories. I found the Dickinson stuff particularly interesting – my wife’s grandmother still lives in Dickinson, in a house that was completely flooded by Harvey and has been at least somewhat rehabilitated. I would not want to live there for a variety of reasons, but the concern that people won’t be able to find a replacement house they can afford is legitimate. I have no idea what can be done other than to throw a whole lot more money at the problem. Dickinson is in Galveston County, and since the story mentions it here’s the William H. King III for Galveston County Judge webpage. He’s not going to win, but if you live in that county you should at least know who he is.

GLO threatens to take away more Harvey relief funds from Houston

Oh, hell no.

The state General Land Office says it may have to take over more of the city’s Hurricane Harvey housing relief programs, citing what it says is consistently sluggish progress on a slew of the initiatives.

The land office said in a July 1 letter to city officials that it has “little confidence” Houston will be able to rectify its issues and complete the programs. The state agency said it will consider adjustments necessary to get those programs across the finish line, which could include removing funds from the city’s portfolio. The exact remedy, though, is not yet clear, and the GLO stressed that any money taken from the city’s portfolio would still go to victims in Houston.

City officials say the letter fails to account for progress they say they have made in recent months, and they are preparing a formal response to address the specific points outlined in the letter.

The warning marks the latest development in a years-long dispute between state and city officials involving billions of dollars in relief money, which was approved by Congress after Hurricane Harvey to replenish housing stock in the region. The city got about $1.3 billion of that money from the land office to rebuild and reconstruct single family homes damaged in the storm, construct new and affordable apartment complexes, and buy out flood-prone properties, among other programs.

You can read on for the details, and there’s a later story with more of them. Normally, I’d highlight those details and try to assess their validity, and weigh the various actions and counterproposals and so on and so forth, but not this time. That’s because the GLO, under soon-to-be-former Land Commissioner George P. Bush, has proven itself to be a completely unreliable and untrustworthy source, both of the truth and of the funds. I don’t believe a word they say, I don’t give them any benefit of the doubt, and I refuse to accept their authority. If a year from now the next Land Commissioner – hopefully Jay Kleberg, but I’ll give Dawn Buckingham a chance to prove she’s not a total shill – is still complaining about Houston’s capabilities, then we can talk. Until then, I call bullshit.

We are getting serious about the flood tunnel idea

Now the question is how could we pay for this?

Japanese flood tunnel

A network of eight massive storm water tunnels that drain upstream of and into the Houston Ship Channel could be the key to alleviating flooding in Harris County, flood control engineers announced this week. The scheme looks at how storm water management has traditionally worked here and re-imagines, at a steep cost, how the system could be drastically expanded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, formed in 1937, has long dealt with flooding in two ways: Engineers built channels to move water away and dug detention ponds to store it temporarily. But those methods are increasingly challenging to implement, they say, because so much of the area has been developed. Texas prairie is covered with asphalt, concrete and buildings.

Climate change is also broadening the scale of what the region faces: Rains are likely to be more intense. Hurricanes are likely to be stronger.

And so Flood Control staff for several years studied how tunnels might work to lessen the storm water buildup that accompanies heavy rainfall. On Thursday, the agency released its findings in a detailed report that explains why a $30-billion, 130-mile network of tunnels could be worth the investment. The team says it has more research to do before committing to the idea fully, but the concept checks out so far.

“We have determined that a large-diameter underground tunnel system would significantly reduce flood risk and the number of instances of flooding,” said Scott Elmer, assistant director of operations for the flood control district. “And, as we consider expanding our current flood damage reduction toolkit by investing in a tunnel system, we would gain an additional tool to use in the many areas of our county where the land is densely populated.”

A question ahead is whether people here will support it. Residents and advocates recently called for consideration of a tunnel below Buffalo Bayou instead of a vehemently-opposed federal proposal to dig the bayou deeper and wider. The flood control district’s proposal, of course, takes the tunnel idea much further, marking a shift toward massive, costly solutions that could protect Houston better from worsening weather. It raises familiar issues of risk and environmental harm. It highlights the same complexities of how planners prioritize who to help.

A case in point is the project plan finished last year and making its way through Congress that would create the so-called Ike Dike, featuring a series of towering gates that would cross the mouth of Galveston Bay to defend against hurricane storm surges. Advocates in that case lament the lack of attention to nature-based solutions and the reliance on a band-aid fix to the real issue of human-fueled climate change.

Both the Ike Dike and the tunnel system would require some federal funding and take years to build.

See here for some background, and go read the rest, there’s a lot more to the story. I will note that Austin and San Antonio have similar albeit much smaller tunnels, so this concept is not new or untested. Paying for this would be a challenge – look how long it’s taken to get federal funding for the Ike Dike, which is still not yet assured – and as with the Ike Dike there are questions about how long it would take to build this, what its environmental effects might be, and what other things we can and should be doing right now regardless of whether this thing eventually happens. (For a discussion of that in re: the Ike Dike, listen to this recent CityCast Houston episode.) I’m intrigued by this idea, I think it has promise, but we all need to hear more, and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Whatever we do, let’s get moving on it.

Harris County ponders a bond election

First one in awhile.

Harris County leaders will begin discussions Tuesday about whether to add a bond election to the November ballot.

The bond would be a hybrid measure to raise money for roads, parks, flood control, and public safety. It’s unclear how much the bond would be for, but Commissioner Adrian Garcia’s office said it could come in the ballpark of $1 billion.

Garcia, who asked the county budget office to look into the possibility of a new bond, said Commissioners Court will first have to hear from the office on whether the county’s finances can sustain new borrowing.

Garcia, a Democrat, is up for reelection this fall.

“I’m in favor of putting it on the same ballot that I would be on,” he said. “I think it’s important to show the folks that we’re working on their behalf, we’re making investments, and we need their support to make the investments that they want to see done.”

[…]

Garcia’s office says the commissioner is flexible on the bond amount, as he’s hoping to win bipartisan support from his fellow commissioners to put it on the ballot.

There was the post-Harvey $2.5 billion flood bond election in 2018, a bond package in 2015 that passed easily, and the 2013 joint inmate processing center referendum that just barely passed (the “save the Astrodome” item on the same ballot went down). That was a sort-of sequel to a series of bond issues in 2007 that included one for jail construction, which was defeated. So yeah, there’s room for a new issue. Obviously, what would be in it needs to be defined, and it would need to be approved by Commissioners Court for the ballot by mid-August or so. We’ll see what they come up with. The Chron has more.

Now I know the difference between those two Army Corps of Engineers lawsuits

Some good timing for me here.

A federal appellate court on Thursday reversed an earlier decision that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was not to blame for flooding homes downstream of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs after Hurricane Harvey.

The ruling brought new hope for thousands of people after U.S. Judge Loren A. Smith of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims passionately dismissed their lawsuits in 2020.

“These were flood waters that no entity could entirely control,” he wrote at the time.

The case will return to the lower court, according a news release from the McGehee, Chang, Landgraf, Feiler law firm, which represents the plaintiffs.

The lower court will again consider if the Corps is liable for the flooding that occurred after the Corps opened the gates on the dams, sending water pouring down Buffalo Bayou.

So yesterday’s post was about developments in the upstream lawsuit, in which as we know the Army Corps of Engineers was found liable. I must have not seen the 2020 story about the dismissal of the downstream lawsuit. It’ll be interesting to see what the judge makes of it now. Hopefully the next time there’s news about it I will catch it.

What does the Army Corps of Engineers owe reservoir flooding victims?

We’ll soon find out.

Christina Micu sat on the witness stand and tearfully explained how she’d made a list of everything she lost when Hurricane Harvey flooded her four-bedroom home. Her son’s toys. Her kitchen stove. A rocking chair her mom had given her.

She threw it all away — and wants to be paid back for it.

“A lot of things were taken from me when we were flooded,” Micu said. “A lot of them are irreplaceable. I’ll never have them back, from heirloom items to baby pictures.”

Micu gave her testimony in Houston Tuesday as the long-awaited trial kicked off before the U.S. Court of Federal Claims to determine what the government owes her and her neighbors for flooding their homes.

Senior Judge Charles F. Lettow, who is presiding at this week’s hearing, found the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers liable following a previous proceeding three years ago. The Corps held water behind two dams west of town to lessen flooding in central Houston when days of rain drenched the region in 2017. The vast majority of residents behind these massive earthen dams did not know they lived in the reservoirs.

After delays caused by the pandemic, the judge will consider what is owed to Harvey victims by examining a handful of individual flooding cases as examples. The outcomes will set criteria for what happens for thousands of others.

“Plaintiffs suffered at the hands of the government in order to save downtown Houston,” said attorney Daniel Charest, as photos of the flooding flashed on computer screens. “They only want to be made whole.”

This was the residents’ only chance to be paid back for their lost private property rights, Charest argued. And not only had they lost property, the value of the homes would drop as a result of the flooding the government inflicted, he said.

Representing the U.S. government, attorney Laura Duncan said the neighborhoods where homes flooded are still desirable. The real estate market wasn’t impacted, she argued.

There were two lawsuits filed over this. In 2019, the judge ruled that the Army Corps was liable – it’s not clear to me whether this is the outcome of one of those suits or if they were combined – and we are now at the damages portion of the trial. I don’t know what to expect at this point, but it seems likely to me that the homeowners will get something. It’s a question of how much.

UPDATE: This Chron story from Thursday afternoon, in a fortuitous bit of timing, answers my question about which lawsuit this is about. Tune in tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!

Is there any chance the GLO won’t screw Houston this time around?

I mean, maybe. Things can happen. I just wouldn’t count on it.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday commended the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for ordering Texas to fix a Hurricane Harvey recovery plan that the federal agency concluded “disproportionately harmed Black and Hispanic residents.”

HUD told the state’s General Land Office in the letter, dated Monday, it had 10 calendar days to become compliant by coming to a resolution. The federal department had found GLO discriminated against minority residents when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

To date, Houston has not received any funds, Turner said, “despite the city and the county incurring 50 percent of the damages from Harvey.”

“This is a step in the right direction. I appreciate HUD for ordering the GLO to bring its Hurricane Harvey Recovery Plan into compliance within ten days, or HUD will refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice,” Turner said in a statement. “This is about equity and fairness. It is time for the GLO to allocate a fair (or proportional) share of the federal funds to allow our communities to have adequate climate change mitigation and resilience resources. I urge the GLO to do the right thing for our most vulnerable communities.”

See here for the background. I use the embedded GIF in these posts as a reminder to everyone, including Chron editorial writers, that what the GLO has been doing isn’t “bungling”, it isn’t “a mistake”, it isn’t a matter of the GLO “getting its act together”. It’s all been a deliberate choice by the GLO, which knows what it’s doing and why it’s doing it. The solution to that isn’t trying to get them to see the error of their ways, it’s to take the job away from them because they don’t have any interest in doing it correctly.

Along those lines, this is the right attitude to adopt.

“We intended for the people who were suffering to get the money. But if you decide that you’re going to take it from the poor and the people of color and send it to areas where you don’t have a lot of people of color, then I think there’s reason for HUD to continue with this and I think HUD will,” said [US Rep. Al] Green. “That money was not sent to Texas so that it could be distributed to people who were not impacted by the hurricane.”

[…]

Green says he has talked to the General Land Office. And he’s held hearings where GLO representatives testified.

The Democrat says problems arise after the federal government sends money to the states, because once distributed, the states ultimately decide how it’s spent. And he says Texas has had problems in the past with diverting federal funds away from the intended purpose.

“And this is not just peculiar to this circumstance. It’s happened with money that was for education, not spent as we assumed it would be,” he said.

Green says lawmakers and HUD are waiting to see specific guidelines for the next round of funding distribution. He says it is possible for HUD to step in and take action against the state.

Meantime, the Houston Democrat says he’s looking into ways to “overhaul” the system. And he says lawmakers will consider adding a “clawback provision” to any future legislation.

“If a state declines to adhere to the intentionality of Congress, we can claw that back, claw the funds back and hold onto those funds. We should not allow states to receive funds and then disregard what Congress intended,” Green said.

That’s at least providing the proper incentives. We’ll see what happens next.

The editorial notes that bypassing the GLO and allocating the federal funds directly to the affected localities is an option and that the city is prepared for it, but that the city’s past track record with distributing Harvey funds isn’t good, either. That was the GLO’s rationale for stepping in as the middleman, though the city claims it was existing GLO bureaucracy that caused their problems in the first place. Be that as it may, I’d rather take my chances with the city than the GLO because at least I know the city will try to do right by Harvey victims. I can’t say that for the GLO, not as it is currently governed. Give me a different Land Commissioner and then we can talk, though really it would be nice to have made more progress by then. The bottom line is, George P. Bush cannot be trusted with this. Once that is accepted as the reality, we can figure out what the best way forward is.

GLO prepares to screw Houston again on Harvey recovery funds

Gird yourselves.

Of the more than 300,000 homes in Texas damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, none were in Coryell County.

Located 220 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this small agricultural county was not the place Congress had in mind when it sent Texas more than $4 billion in disaster preparedness money six months following the storm, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.

“We wanted to help people who were hurt by Harvey and had the potential to be hurt again, as opposed to people who were inland and not likely to have suffered great damage,” Green said.

Nevertheless, Coryell is slated to receive $3.4 million under the plan by the Texas General Land Office and its commissioner, George P. Bush.

After the land office awarded $1 billion of the aid last year, giving the city of Houston nothing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development accused Bush’s office of discriminating against Black and Latino Texans. The land office had an opportunity to correct these inequities as it developed a new spending plan.

But an analysis by The Texas Tribune found that the land office is on track to follow a similar pattern as it prepares to allocate the next $1.2 billion of the federal aid. The agency’s revised plan will once again send a disproportionately high share of money to inland counties with lower risk of natural disasters.

Residents in the counties that will benefit most are also significantly whiter and more conservative than those receiving the least aid, an outcome some Democrats view with suspicion as Bush competes for the Republican nomination for attorney general this month.

[…]

John Henneberger, co-director of the low-income housing advocate Texas Housers, whose complaint set off the federal investigation, said the land office is failing to meet the most basic requirement for the money: to spend disaster aid in the areas at highest risk for disasters.

“Why does some community 200 miles from the coast get a new water system when you’ve got neighborhoods that have flooded four or five times in the last decade in a coastal community?” Henneberger said. “It’s a very cynical — and we think illegal — use of the funds.”

Numerous studies have shown poor people and people of color are most likely to be impacted by disasters, said Kevin Smiley, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. Planning for future calamities should address that disparity rather than make it worse, he added.

“It’s weird to think about disasters as one of the fundamental mechanisms widening social disparity in the United States, but they are,” said Smiley, whose research focuses on Harvey recovery efforts. “And it’s through nitty-gritty governmental processes that are disbursing mitigation funds that are partly doing it.”

See here for the previous update. The key thing to understand here is that this is not a mistake, it’s not an accident, it’s not the result of a good faith difference of opinion, and it’s not something that can be corrected by reasoned persuasion. It’s a deliberate choice, one that has now been made multiple times. Unfortunately, this time around they had a little help.

The land office’s new proposal for determining which counties would get funding, submitted in August, eliminated its old scoring metrics and instead opted to give $1.2 billion to nine regional councils of government, which would decide how to spend it within the HUD and state counties. These groups are political subdivisions of the state that help plan regional projects like infrastructure.

The land office argued the revisions would allow aid distribution to be tailored more closely to regions’ different mitigation needs. But although the strategy is different, a Tribune analysis of the plan found a fundamentally similar result: far lower spending per capita in the counties with the highest disaster risk.

The funding has not yet been allocated, but the state’s methodology all but guarantees the less disaster-prone counties selected by Bush would still end up with two to four times more funding per resident than the more coastal counties chosen by HUD.

This is because a sizable chunk of the councils of government’s $1.2 billion will flow inland. Even if the land office spent all of it in HUD counties — the plan only requires the councils to spend half their allotment there — it would still not close the per-person spending gap created by the initial funding competition.

Including the awards from the first funding competition, two councils composed of state-picked inland counties that rank no higher than 66th on the disaster index will end up with $752 per resident under the new plan.

The council which includes Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties — HUD-selected counties on or near the coast that rank in the top 8 for disaster risk — will receive $441 per resident.

When federal investigators reviewed the original plan, these kinds of outcomes were a problem. HUD’s fair housing office on March 4 concluded that the initial scoring competition discriminated against Texans on the basis of race and national origin, since the coastal areas it steered aid away from have high concentrations of nonwhite residents.

Of the nine states that received disaster mitigation funding from the same federal appropriation, only Texas has received such a sanction. HUD gave the state two options: Enter into a voluntary agreement to correct the disparity or face a civil rights lawsuit from the Department of Justice.

And then, two weeks later, HUD approved the Bush team’s new spending plan.

In a letter to the land office on March 18, HUD Office of Block Grant Assistance Director Jessie Handforth Kome said the agency was required to approve the new plan because it was “substantially complete.” She warned, however, that HUD would closely monitor how Texas spends the rest of the aid and could address new violations by requiring the state to give money back.

The advocacy groups who pushed HUD to investigate possible discriminiation were shocked. They felt the best strategy would have been to withhold approval of the plan until Texas had demonstrated future aid distribution would be fair to Black and Latino residents in communities most at risk for disasters.

“HUD is making this harder on themselves,” said Maddie Sloan, an attorney who works on disaster recovery issues for public interest nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It would make much more sense to ensure the money gets where it’s needed in the first place instead of doing a retroactive look at where it went and whether that violates the law.”

The mixed messaging from HUD, however, creates the impression that Texas can simply ignore the agency’s discrimination claims and spend the aid as it sees fit.

The land office has since shown few signs it is open to compromise. In a blistering 12-page letter in April responding to the discrimination findings, attorneys for the agency called HUD’s objections “politically motivated” and “factually and legally baseless” and noted that HUD had approved the state’s plan for distributing the money.

How thoroughly HUD may vet the new land office plan is unclear. If investigators apply the same rigor they did to the original, said Texas Housers Research Director Ben Martin, they will likely conclude it also violates federal civil rights laws.

“The jurisdictions that were hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey remain the jurisdictions at the highest risk of future disaster,” Martin said. “They’re being severely underfunded by GLO.”

I don’t understand what HUD is doing either. At this point, it may be best to bring on the civil rights lawsuit. And vote in a Land Commissioner that won’t do this sort of thing again.

From Harvey to Ukraine

Good story.

The former Marines from Houston had no idea what to expect what then they finally arrived at the Polish-Ukrainian border.

What the members of the CrowdSource Rescue team found was “a heart-wrenching mess” — a miles-long caravan of Ukrainians attempting to flee their home country and a similar mob from across Europe trying to shuttle supplies to beleaguered cities.

For weeks following news of Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against Russian forces, members of the Houston volunteer rescue group tried to figure out how to best help, just like they had dozens of times before.

“We have to do something,” CrowdSource Rescue founder Matthew Marchetti recalled thinking. But almost instantly, he doubted the instinct, telling himself: “That is a terrible idea.”

The DIY rescue organization was born in the torrential downpours of Hurricane Harvey, when good Samaritans from across the region banded together to rescue stranded neighbors. The impromptu rescuers then formed an organization to help during natural disasters and emergencies, including other tropical storms, last year’s deep freeze and the COVID-19 pandemic.

So when Russia began bombarding Ukraine in February, members of the volunteer rescue organization immediately began brainstorming ways to help beleaguered residents there, Marchetti said.

His volunteers didn’t speak the language or know the region. And while some have combat experience, they’d be entering Ukraine as civilian rescuers, not as heavily armored soldiers.

“We have a unique set of skills,” he said. “We’re combat vets who understand war zones, really adept at search and rescue, and have medical experience, and we have folks who understand the finer points of communications security.”

Eventually, a trio of volunteers — former Marines who’d served in combat deployments and then responded to multiple hurricanes — decided to travel to Ukraine to work with a local group to help evacuate disabled residents having trouble getting out of dangerous spots.

They packed go-bags with a few days of clothes, portable phone chargers, flashlights, emergency blankets, gas masks, and other sundries. And they filled other luggage with donated medical supplies.

“We’re just some stupid Marines who decided we wanted to make difference,” Christopher said. “People have been kind enough to give us a purpose again.”

There’s more, so read on. You can follow their exploits on Twitter. As you might imagine, this kind of self-appointed effort is not without some criticism, to which they have responded here. I wish them well in their efforts and hope they can make a difference for whoever they can.

HUD approves updated GLO proposal for Harris County

Interesting, but there are still a lot of moving pieces out there.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday said it would accept the Texas General Land Office’s proposal to give Harris County $750 million in federal flood mitigation money, 10 months after Houston and the county were shut out of a state competition for post-Harvey disaster funding approved by Congress.

The announcement does not amount to an approval of the GLO’s overall plan for distributing some $4.3 billion in federal flood mitigation funding, a HUD spokesman said in an emailed statement.

“Let’s be clear: all the amendment taking effect means is that Texas submitted all information required to avoid disapproval,” the statement said. “This does not constitute, and should not be seen as, approval of the state’s implementation of the activities in the plan.”

HUD earlier this month issued a ruling that the GLO violated civil rights law and discriminated against minority residents when it it awarded the $1 billion in Harvey funds following a competition that did not give Houston or Harris County a penny, even though the area suffered more deaths and damage than than any of the other 48 counties declared as disaster areas.

HUD urged Texas to voluntarily find a way to distribute funds in a way that resolves the alleged civil rights violations — a request that could redirect millions of flood relief dollars to Houston. “If a voluntary resolution cannot be obtained, HUD may initiate administrative proceedings or refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice for judicial enforcement,” the spokesperson said.

[…]

In an emailed statement, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo promised “to apply this substantial influx of dollars fairly, equitably, and quickly.”

She also called out the GLO for originally awarding none of the funds to Texas’s hardest-hit county. “As the third largest county in America, ground zero for Harvey damage and vulnerability to flooding, and home to the nation’s energy industry, there’s simply no excuse to have been shut out from these infrastructure funds in the first place.”

[…]

On Friday, as HUD approved the amendment sending $750 million to Harris County, its spokesperson said it would consider the current civil rights violation allegations in the future when Texas receives disaster grants, and may place conditions upon such grants to “mitigate risk.”

“HUD will closely monitor and pursue any and all enforcement actions against Texas as necessary to help the state provide equal access and opportunity through its mitigation funds,” the spokesperson said.

This is the followup to that story from January in which HUD halted the distribution of $1.95 billion in aid awarded to Texas essentially because of a paperwork error on the Land Commissioner’s part. All this story is saying is that that error has been fixed. It does not have anything to do with the civil rights complaint about how the GLO determined the way it would distribute funds. There’s no clear indication when that might either be resolved or taken to the next level of enforcement on HUD’s part. There’s still another half of the money to be awarded, so this story is far from over. (HUD also basically told H-GAC to go pound sand, which was the appropriate response from them.)

There was still a fair bit of complaining following this story.

Mayor Sylvester Turner criticized the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s approval of an amendment to the Texas General Land Office State Action Plan as a sanctioning of “discrimination.”

Turner expressed his disappointment in the Friday decision to accept GLO’s plan to send $750 million to Harris County in flood mitigation, just 10 months after both the city and county were barred from receiving any of the $4.3 billion post-Hurricane Harvey flood aid.

“Only a few weeks ago, HUD found that the GLO discriminated against Black and brown communities when it initially denied federal Hurricane Harvey funds to Houston and Harris County,” Turner stated, citing a March 4 HUD report that found discrimination in the GLO’s Hurricane Harvey State Mitigation Competition to distribute flood aid.

In a a joint press release, U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Sylvia Garcia on Saturday called for Justice Department intervention, citing discrimination against the Houston residents if any aid is spent under the current distribution system.

[…]

The issue is not with the other areas who received the funding, but rather, the fact that Houston received nothing, Jackson Lee said Friday night.

“I support all of the dollars that were given to our local jurisdictions. I don’t have a quarrel with any of that. What I have a quarrel with is that Houston got zero,” Jackson Lee said. “That’s a glaring, glaring, glaring act of malfeasance on the part of the General Land Office. The housing and urban development, through their decision that came out today, indicated that there are problems with how the GLO handled this.”

I basically agree with everything they’re saying here. It’s just not clear to me that HUD is finished here. It may very well be that they will need to hand this off to the Justice Department for a larger stick to use against the GLO. I don’t trust anything that office does right now. It’s just not clear to me yet that they have been unable to persuade the GLO to take any corrective action. I wouldn’t wait too long on this, but I’d like to hear HUD say unequivocally that option has failed first.

As for the Harris County reaction, we got this from County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Friday:

We’ll see what that means. The end goal is correct, we just have to find a way to get there.

Keep your hands off of the Harvey money, H-GAC

Seriously. You’ve done enough already.

First, a regional council of government officials left Harris County and most of its cities out of a plan to distribute $488 million in federal flood mitigation funds stemming from Hurricane Harvey.

As justification, the Houston-Galveston Area Council — a regional planning board covering 13 counties — cited a separate, $750 million allotment proposed for Harris County itself.

Now, H-GAC wants to control that $750 million, as well. The council’s board voted Tuesday to ask the Texas General Land Office, which manages the relief money, to route the $750 million to H-GAC instead, allowing it to divide the pie among the broader region.

The resolution has no practical effect, unless the GLO decides to grant the request. It would require the GLO to submit an amended plan for federal approval, a process that often takes months. The GLO has been waiting for approval of its latest amendment, including the $750 million allocation to Harris County, since November.

[…]

Houston At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who represents the city on the board, was the lone vote against the resolution. She said the entire debate is moot until the GLO addresses the HUD decision, which likely would change the amount of funds headed to Houston and Harris County. She said the mitigation funding has shown that “the HUD-to-GLO pipeline is broken.”

“We’re not talking about the right pot of money. We need to wait until the GLO deals with the issues presented in the (HUD) letter,” Alcorn said. “The city and county were originally planning on both getting a billion…. We’re going to try everything to get the money we deserve. It’s too bad it’s taking so long.”

The city’s other representative, At-Large Councilmember Letitia Plummer, did not attend the meeting.

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who represents the county, also was absent, but sent a scathing letter about the resolution. He said he was not sure “whether my attendance would be welcome, anyway.”

“The resolution considered today serves no practical purpose other than to send a message. And I am not sure it is the message H-GAC wants to send,” Garcia wrote. “The message HGAC will be sending, loud and clear, will be to (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), and it will be that HGAC is a willing partner in the GLO’s scheme to deprive the most impacted, most racially diverse jurisdictions of funds that Congress intended.”

[…]

Last month, H-GAC, citing the $750 million allotment, scrapped Harris County and all of the cities it includes from its plans to distribute a separate $488 million allotment the GLO gave the regional council. City and county officials lambasted that move, as well. H-GAC’s decision was based on the assumption that Harris County would share the $750 million among cities within it.

The council now is saying it wants to add the $750 million to the $488 million it originally received, and then divide that $1.2 billion among the broader region with a formula that does include Harris County, Houston and other cities within county limits.

That formula would leave Harris County itself with $266 million, about a third of what it is set to receive in the direct allotment. Houston, currently slated to receive nothing from the GLO and about $9 million from H-GAC to address parts of the city outside Harris County, would get $445 million. Those two numbers together add up to $711 million, still short of the direct allotment.

Smaller allocations to other cities in Harris County — including about $25 million for Pasadena, $8 million for Bellaire — would bring the total sum within Harris County to about $790 million. H-GAC argues that means its formula would represent an increase of about $40 million for the entire county.

It would, however, take decisions about how to divide the money out of the county’s hands and put that power in H-GAC, instead.

See here for the background, and here for a reminder that the process that the GLO used to award that $750 million to Harris County and zero to Houston was found to have been discriminatory. H-GAC’s new math here is an illusion and an insult, and once again I question why Houston and Harris County remain a part of this unrepresentative organization. I’m sure it had a useful purpose in the past, and as a theoretical matter we certainly need regional coordination and cooperation. But that ain’t what we’re getting here. What we’re getting here is screwed, and we can and must do better.

HUD finds the GLO’s process to screw Houston out of Harvey funds “discriminatory”

Good. Now get us the funds we deserve.

In a decision that could redirect millions of dollars in flood relief to Houston, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found the Texas General Land Office discriminated against minority residents and ran afoul of federal civil rights protections when it denied flood mitigation aid last May to the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey.

At issue is the process used by the state agency to dole out more than $2 billion in federal funds, awarded to Texas in early 2018, to pay for projects aimed at tempering the effect of future storms. Because there were not enough funds to cover every project sought in the 49 eligible Texas counties, the GLO held a competition and developed scoring criteria to find the best applicants.

Though Houston and Harris County expected to receive roughly half the funds, matching their share of the damage, the land office — led by Land Commissioner George P. Bush — initially awarded nothing to the city and county. Bush, facing bipartisan criticism from Houston-area officials, later asked federal officials to send Harris County $750 million in flood mitigation aid. The total still fell short of the funding sought by local officials, however, and it remains unclear when the money will arrive.

Prompted by a complaint filed last year by two local advocacy groups, the Biden administration investigated the GLO’s distribution of the Harvey funds, focusing on the complaint’s allegation that Bush’s agency “discriminated on the basis of race and national origin through the use of scoring criteria that substantially disadvantaged Black and Hispanic residents.”

In a 13-page finding, HUD said the exclusion of Houston and Harris County “caused there to be disproportionately less funding available to benefit minority residents than was available to benefit white residents.” The federal agency singled out a scoring metric that effectively penalized large jurisdictions, such as Houston, by measuring what percentage of an applicant’s residents would benefit from a project.

“The City of Iola applied for a project benefitting 379 people. This project received 10 points out of 10, because Iola has only 379 residents,” the finding raised as one example. “The City of Houston applied for a project benefitting 8,845 people in the Kashmere Gardens neighborhood. This project received 0.37 out of 10 points, because Houston has approximately 2.3 million residents.”

[…]

HUD also said the GLO unfairly divided the competition into two uneven categories: the most impacted and distressed areas as defined by HUD, an area that included Houston and Harris County; and more rural counties that also got a presidential disaster declaration.

Both categories fought for separate pots of essentially equal money. That meant about $500 million was available for residents in the most distressed areas, and $500 million available to counties added by the state.

The most distressed areas, though, had eight times as many residents as those identified by the state. They also had 90 percent of the minority residents in the entire eligible population.

“Specifically, approximately $458 per resident was made available to State MID applicants, while just $62 per resident was made available to HUD MID applicants,” HUD wrote. “Put differently, State MID areas were eligible for seven and a half times the funding per resident than HUD MID areas.”

See here for the background on the complaint. This has been a screw job from the beginning, and I really hope this finally brings some accountability to the GLO and the overall process. I mean, it’s been 4.5 years since Harvey, and there are people still waiting to be made whole. It’s beyond shameful that it has taken this long. It may take even longer from here, as P Bush’s attack poodle spokesperson is threatening that the office will file a lawsuit against HUD. Given that will just add further delays, it’s hard to see such action as anything but vindictive and retaliatory. But not unexpected, not even a little. Please pay attention to the Democratic primary runoff for Land Commissioner and support whoever wins, because that’s likely going to be the fastest path to actually getting this resolved. The Trib has more.

Et tu, H-GAC?

WTAF?

Houston is slated to get just 2 percent of the regional council’s $488 million tranche for storm mitigation, angering city leaders who say the city consistently has been shorted when it comes to the federal money.

The Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional group made up of representatives from local governments, voted Tuesday to proceed with a funding plan that skirts Houston over the opposition of city officials. The plan still needs state and federal approval, along with a lengthy public comment period, before moving forward.

“This is not the end,” said At-Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn, who represents the city on the regional body.

[…]

The dispute centers on federal funding distributed after Harvey and other storms to help state and local governments finance infrastructure to mitigate the risk of future disasters. Last year, the Texas General Land Office announced Houston and Harris County would get none of an initial $1 billion funding round for communities. The agency later reversed course and said it would give Harris County a direct allotment of $750 million. The city is not slated to get any of that money. The city and county had expected to receive about half of the $4.3 billion in total funds, or $1 billion each.

H-GAC then removed Houston and other Harris County cities from its plans to distribute $488 million to local governments. Commissioners said those cities stand to benefit from the separate, $750 million GLO tranche. It is not clear, however, whether any of the money will reach the city’s coffers. The county faces a $900 million funding deficit for its bond program alone and is unlikely to send some of its money to the city, although it may work on joint projects.

“We’re basically penalizing Houston and other cities in Harris County because we might get some benefit from the Harris County money,” Alcorn said. “And we don’t know that yet.”

Houston, which makes up about 30 percent of the regional council’s population base, would get about $9 million under the regional council’s plan, or 1.9 percent.

Chuck Wemple, H-GAC’s executive director, said the board felt Houston would see some of the $750 million headed for the county. He emphasized that there will be time for public comment, and the plan is not yet final.

“I would offer that the complication we have before us today is a result of that $750 million allocation to the county, without any definition of what the expectation is for that money,” Wemple said. “That makes all of our jobs more difficult.”

As the story notes, Galveston and Fort Bend counties will combine to receive about $170 million. Houston had asked for $148 million, in line with its share of the total population in the H-GAC region, and it was voted down. Which means that the other ten counties – Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Liberty, Matagorda, Montgomery, Walker, Waller, and Wharton – get to split up the remaining $300 million. Pretty damn sweet deal for them.

Let’s be clear, that explanation given by Chuck Wemple is absolute self-serving caca. Let me count the ways:

1. Whatever portion of that $750 million that Harris County was given as a consolation prize by the GLO is still a lot less than what Houston as well as Harris County had requested. It doesn’t come close to meeting the need the city has.

2. While I fully expect some of that $750 million that Harris County is getting to be spent inside Houston, the city has no control over where and when it will get spent, and if Harris County decides that a greater portion of its need is outside the city’s boundaries, well, that’s just tough.

3. But even if the city hadn’t been screwed by the GLO, and both it and Harris County were being given a proper share of the relief funds, that still doesn’t make this right. Houston is a part of H-GAC – it’s right there in the name! – and any process that doesn’t allocate these funds in a rational and equitable manner is just wrong. This is not difficult, and the proposal made by CMs Alcorn and Plummer were eminently reasonable.

This is another screw job, and it’s even more disheartening coming from an agency whose entire mission is to serve this region. Part of the problem, as I understand it, is that H-GAC’s governing structure is more like the US Senate than the House, which means that Houston and Harris County get as much representation as the small counties. It’s not hard to see how that math works against us. This is the right response:

Turner, Houston’s chief recovery officer Stephen Costello and other council members also urged a revision, and Turner last week went so far as to question the city’s involvement in the council.

“We got zeroed out by the GLO, and it seems as though we are getting almost zeroed out by the H-GAC,” Turner said last week, when Alcorn broached the issue at City Council. “If they’re going to operate at the exclusion of the city of Houston, then the city of Houston needs to reevaluate its relationship with H-GAC going forward.”

What’s even the point of being in H-GAC if H-GAC is not going to serve Houston’s interests? If they don’t make this right then yeah, let’s get the hell out.

Houston’s preparations for the next freeze

We learned from the experience, which I hope will serve us well for the next time.

The grid’s near collapse last February had drastic consequences for local governments, none more acute than the challenge water systems confronted in trying to keep taps flowing without power. In Houston, the outages and difficulties with back-up generators resulted in a four-day boil-water notice. In Texas, providers to nearly two-thirds of the population were unable to send clean water to customers.

Public Works has done test runs, called “black starts,” for years at its main water plants, but now has expanded the practice to eight other critical facilities. The department also has provided CenterPoint with an updated list of critical infrastructure, hired new contractors for generator maintenance at pump stations, pursued an $8 million grant for wastewater plant generators, stocked up on chemicals to treat water and roadways and drafted protocols to distribute bottled water.

“We are more prepared than a year ago, but still not as prepared as we want to be and need to be,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has managed responses to seven federally declared disasters in his six-year tenure. “It’s a constant work in progress.”

During the freeze, workers scrambled to fix generators, maintain pressure in the system, and account for chlorine shortages and spare supplies of bottled water.

The prolonged power outages proved more daunting than those in Hurricane Harvey or any other event of the last 15 years, said Drew Molly, who leads drinking water operations for Public Works.

“This one took the prize. This was a bad situation,” Molly said. “As rough as it was, I think there’s some things … that are going to make Houston more resilient going forward.”

The most substantial generator failure in the city’s network occurred at the northeast plant, where machines tripped offline during the switch to back-up power and led to an hours-long outage. Molly said Public Works is working on a procedure to proactively switch to generators before the power goes out to avoid that scenario in future storms, though it may require state approval.

[…]

John C. Tracy, director of the Texas Water Resources Institute at Texas A&M, said those kinds of common-sense adjustments often are the most prudent system upgrades after severe events.

“You cannot prevent this from happening, all you can do is prepare and respond,” Tracy said.

Texas should include the risk of weather events like hurricanes and winter storms in its water plan, drafted every five years to address the state’s water needs. Currently, it only accounts for droughts, Tracy said. The change could help make billions of dollars available to cities and water authorities for a broader array of projects through what is called the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas, which provides low-cost financing to help communities develop water infrastructure.

You can read the rest to see more about what the city is doing – Harris County has a more limited role since the county doesn’t manage a water system – and overall it seems like they’re doing sensible things. You don’t really know until you’re actually tested, but doing good prep and some regular drills and simulations should help.

Of greater interest to me is the bit in that last paragraph about the use of SWIFT funds. The House passed a bill last spring that would have done exactly that, made $2 billion available from that fund for weatherization projects. That sounds like a decent idea, but the bill (and an accompanying joint resolution for a constitutional amendment, which I presume was necessary because SWIFT was established via amendment) was never taken up in the Senate. You remember all that talk from Greg Abbott about how everything is now peachy with the electric grid? This is exactly the sort of thing that could have been done to improve things, but it wasn’t. You tell me why this didn’t happen, or better yet have Dan Patrick tell me, because this died without a peep in the Senate, and that’s his fiefdom.

By the way, the last I’d heard of SWIFT since the 2013 referendum vote was in 2017 following Hurricane Harvey, when there was briefly some talk about tapping into SWIFT funds for flood mitigation projects. Far as I can tell, that went nowhere as well, though it’s possible that federal relief funds obviated the need for it. I don’t know enough to say one way or the other. What I do know is that I have no idea how SWIFT has been used since it was set up in 2013, which sure seems less than optimal to me. Some dashboards and a searchable database, that’s all I’m asking here.

Bypass the GLO

Heck yeah.

All five members of Harris County Commissioners Court signed onto a letter Friday asking the local congressional delegation to ensure that future disaster relief bypasses the state government and goes directly to large counties.

The letter is the latest round of bipartisan outrage in Houston triggered by the Texas General Land Office’s decision last May to initially shut out the city and the county — the epicenter of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey — from $1 billion in flood control dollars later awarded to Texas after the 2017 storm.

The letter suggests that Congress or a federal agency require future disaster relief go directly to counties with at least 500,000 residents, instead of being administered by state agencies.

The court’s two Republicans, Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, joined the court’s Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — in signing the letter. Cagle and Ramsey had been sharply critical of fellow Republican George P. Bush, who runs the GLO, after the agency declined to award any money to the city or county.

In the letter, the five court members wrote that a direct allocation of federal aid would “bypass potential bureaucratic delay caused by various Texas agencies and by other entities that will harm our ability to have quick and efficient implementation.”

They did not mention the GLO by name, though the letter was sent to Harris County’s nine-member congressional delegation one week after federal officials halted the distribution of nearly $2 billion in flood control funds to Texas because, they said, the GLO had failed to send in required paperwork detailing its plans to spend the money.

I mean, based on past experience, why would we want to do it any other way? The GLO isn’t just not adding value here, they’re actively reducing it. It’s not a surprise that even the Republican commissioners signed on to this.

On a more philosophical note, a lot of federal relief funds that are targeted at cities and counties and school districts and whatnot have had to go through the state first. For the most part, with COVID funds, the Lege mostly rubber stamped it without much fuss. I know there had been concerns with the pace at which Harvey recovery funds had been spent and homes were being repaired – indeed, there are still a lot of unrepaired homes after all this time – but it seems that a big part of that problem has been having multiple layers of government involved, which led to conflicts and delays and issues getting funds to the people who needed them the most. Indeed, that story also cites issues with the way the GLO interacted with the city of Houston. With COVID relief there were issues with unemployment funds having to go through rickety state systems, no direct way to get other relief funds to people who didn’t have bank accounts, and so forth. There are bigger issues, having to do with underlying infrastructure, that are a big part of this. But even factoring that out, putting states in charge of distributing federal relief funds to localities has been a problem. More so in some states than in others. I don’t know what we can do about that, given everything else going on right now. But we really should do something.

Feds halt Harvey relief funds over GLO error

The continuing saga.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday halted the distribution of $1.95 billion in aid awarded to Texas after Hurricane Harvey because it said the state has failed to send the federal agency required paperwork detailing its plans to spend it.

The delay is the latest in a series of hold-ups; almost four years after Congress approved $4.3 billion in HUD aid for Texas, about half of it remains unallocated.

HUD said in a statement its formal action gives the Texas General Land Office 45 days to submit the missing document, which the agency said is an analysis explaining how the state’s proposed list of disaster mitigation projects helps the most vulnerable residents.

“We look forward to receiving and reviewing Texas’s submission of the additional information needed for approval,” the HUD statement said. “We are hopeful that Texas will take the steps needed to begin much-needed, forward-looking mitigation projects in the state.”

The decision prevents Texas from distributing $1.2 billion in flood mitigation grants to local governments it had selected through a funding competition, as well as $750 million to Harris County, which was awarded nothing from that contest.

HUD in 2020 signed off on the GLO’s plan for the funding competition, which selected 81 projects, and said it welcomed the subsequent proposal for Harris County. The agency on Friday, however, said moving forward with those plans depends on whether GLO provides the missing report.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she looked forward to GLO completing the paperwork. She said county staff are prepared to answer any questions from HUD about how its planned projects will help vulnerable residents. Hidalgo still is hoping for additional aid.

“This $750 million is a start, but more is needed since Harris County and the city of Houston took over 50 percent of the damage from Hurricane Harvey, and because millions of residents remain vulnerable to natural disasters,” Hidalgo said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner raised the same point about the unequal distribution of aid. He said he was pleased with HUD’s action Friday, and awaits the response from the Land Office.

We’ve been down this road before. The reason this is a problem for the GLO, and why they reacted so bitterly to HUD’s letter, is that they don’t have a good explanation for why they did the funding formula that they did. It was designed to screw the big Democratic cities and counties in favor of the rural Republican counties. That’s not the explanation HUD is looking for, so here we are. Tune in later in February to see how they try to wriggle out of it.

Maybe flood tunnels really are the answer

Time for another study.

Japanese flood tunnel

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is revisiting the idea of constructing a large, underground tunnel beneath the city of Houston — part of its efforts since Hurricane Harvey to alleviate the potential for flooding around the Addicks and Barker reservoirs and along Buffalo Bayou.

Engineers plan to spend two more years studying the possibility and other alternatives, the agency announced Wednesday. It will use $1.8 million in federal funds to do so; an additional $3.4 million from two Harris County county commissioners will further local study of the concept, which community advocates have supported.

The project extension and potential re-imagining of how flood control works here comes after earlier possibilities that the Corps proposed elicited major public backlash. Engineers in an interim report last year suggested digging Buffalo Bayou wider and deeper, or building a third dam and reservoir on the Katy Prairie.

Local advocates have long fought to protect the bayou in its natural form. And environmentalists rallied around the prairie, which supporters consider a necessary, natural way to address flooding and improve water quality.

The agency announced Wednesday that engineers will spend two more years analyzing the tunnel option and other alternatives. The Corps will use $1.8 million in federal funds to continue the study.

An additional $3.4 million from two Harris County commissioners will support complementary research at the county level.

The Corps previously considered tunneling floodwater under the city to be too expensive, with an estimated cost of $6.5 to $12 billion. Engineers envisioned a tunnel some 150 feet below ground, starting at the reservoirs to the west and perhaps following the bayou’s path to the Houston Ship Channel.

Yet the agency noted Wednesday that it had received “substantial” community input. The Corps now hopes to release a draft report and environmental impact statement for what it calls the Buffalo Bayou and Tributaries Resiliency Study next fall. It would then accept more input and issue a final report, aiming to complete the study by December 2023.

“We are very committed to this important, monumental project,” Commander Col. Tim Vail of the Galveston District said in a prepared statement, “and we have heard the public’s feedback.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. As the story notes, and which I don’t think I realized, Austin and San Antonio have similar tunnels, though they are much shorter than Houston’s would be. Look at the map in the story – these suckers would go all the way from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs to either Buffalo Bayou or the Ship Channel. Honestly, that price tag is not really that high, if there’s federal investment in the project. I say study away and let’s see where it takes us.

We are making progress on the flood bond projects

Let’s not lose sight of that.

Three years into Harris County’s historic $2.5 billion flood bond program, progress can feel maddeningly slow. After decades of underinvestment in flood protection, however, any completed project is a welcome improvement for nearby residents.

Through October, 16 percent of the planned projects for detention basins, channel widening and other infrastructure was complete. All 181 projects are underway in some capacity, from design to construction, and each is on schedule.

“Our project life cycle is three to five years, and in some cases that cycle has just started,” Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Alan Black said. “But at least they’ve all been started. And on top of that, no project has been delayed due to lack of funding.”

Several completed works already are providing better flood protection for hundreds of thousands of homes, Black said.

Those include major maintenance along Cypress Creek and Spring Branch Creek, as well as the first phase of the Aldine Westfield detention basin project

In Kashmere, local officials heralded the progress of a $100 million Hunting Bayou channel improvement project that will remove more than 4,000 homes from the floodplain.

[…]

Whether the bond program is completed as originally planned remains an open question. Commissioners Court sold the bond to voters — who approved it overwhelmingly in 2018 — as, essentially, a buy-one-get-one-free deal. If voters agreed to pay $2.5 billion, the county predicted it could secure another $2.5 billion in federal matching dollars, bringing the total pot to around $5 billion.

So far, that plan has had mixed success.

You can say that again. I’m not going to rehash all of that – the article does so, you can keep on reading. The fact that we’re getting stuff done for flood mitigation is good. The fact that there’s so much more to do, well, that’s the reality.

[County Judge Lina] Hidalgo blamed some of the funding woes on the previous Commissioners Court, which she said was far too conservative in proposing a $2.5 billion bond. Flood control experts peg the total cost to protect Harris County against 100-year storms at more than $30 billion.

“Everybody will tell you, it should have been a much bigger number,” Hidalgo said. The leaders at the time thought it was a politically expedient number to select $2.5 billion.”

I think, if we had to do it all again and we knew that P Bush and the GLO were going to screw us on the federal funds, the Court at that time probably would have proposed a larger bond issue. I also think that the top number was going to be strictly limited by whether or not it would require a tax increase, even a small one. Maybe $30 billion is an overestimate of how much we need to spend to truly mitigate our flood risk. For sure, it’s more than $5 billion, and at some point we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that we’re going to need to pay up for that.

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.