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hurricanes

Another floodgate proposed

Third time’s the charm, right?

Academic leaders have long beseeched government officials to learn from the damage caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008 and harden the upper Texas coast against future threats.

Finally, on Monday, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush announced an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to study the feasibility of projects to limit flood and storm surge damage.

“It is time to take action,” said Bush, who came into office in January. “This has been a priority of mine since the campaign.”

That effort will build upon several previous studies, including one to be released Tuesday, which have found that a gate system in Galveston Bay, costing less than $3 billion, could provide protection from future hurricanes for $37 billion in chemical and other facilities along the Houston Ship Channel, as well as$9 billion in residential property.

These academic studies, funded by the Houston Endowment and managed by academic leaders from Rice University, the University of Houston, Texas A&M University at Galveston and other institutions, have presented a range of options to protect the coast.

The latest possibility calls for building a floodgate across the Ship Channel near San Leon.

This “mid-bay” gate would be tied to an extensive network of man-made reefs and island berms, most of which already exist, to safeguard not only industry along the Ship Channel but also homes in rapidly developing areas such as League City along the west side of Galveston Bay.

See here, here, and here for the background. Credit where credit is due, Bush is the first public official to get behind this idea, and if he can take it somewhere it will be a good thing. Cost has always been the main obstacle, but as the Trib reminds us, it’s not the only one.

Everything about the $2.8 billion plan from the Severe Storm Prediction Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED, screams compromise.

The proposed location is roughly halfway between the upper-bay Centennial Gate and the lower-bay Ike Dike — and borrows certain features from the latter, including some new levees and elevated roadways. Its estimated price tag also falls somewhere in the middle, but closer to the $1.5 billion Centennial Gate than the $4 billion to $8 billion estimate for the Ike Dike.

The “mid-bay” plan — contained in the first of three annual reports from the center, and so far lacking a catchy moniker — calls for installing a storm surge-deterring gate as tall as 25 feet across the nearly 700-foot-wide Houston Ship Channel near the community of San Leon. The manmade channel connects the Gulf of Mexico to the Port of Houston, the busiest seaport in the U.S. by some measurements.

SSPEED Center officials say sophisticated storm modeling shows the structure would — in a Category 3 hurricane with wind speeds about 15 percent higher than those during Ike — “significantly reduce storm-surge flooding in both the Houston Ship Channel and in the heavily populated west Galveston Bay communities that are difficult to evacuate.”

That’s a direct response to the main criticism levied against the Centennial Gate, which coastal residents argued shielded the refineries along the ship channel at the expense of surrounding neighborhoods. (As for the Ike Dike, it has been criticized for its high cost and potential environmental impact.)

The mid-bay plan “is a much superior alternative in my mind at least than what we had previously looked at,” said Rice University professor Jim Blackburn, noting that “the consensus was that the Centennial Gate did not offer sufficient protection to the public and so we went back to the drawing board.”

Sometimes compromises satisfy everyone, and sometimes they piss everyone off. If this is more the former than the latter, then there ought to be some consensus to move forward, however slowly, towards a funding mechanism. If not, I figure we’ll see another story about another floodgate being proposed sometime next year. We’ll see how it goes.

Your annual “don’t get complacent about hurricanes” warning

You should know the drill by now.

It’s been seven years since a large hurricane – Hurricane Ike – threatened the Gulf states, and increasingly there’s talk among scientists that the Atlantic Ocean may be moving toward a more “quiet” period.

Hurricanes tend to come in bunches, and since about 1995 the Atlantic Ocean has burned hot with storms, spawning monster years in the 2000s when hurricanes like Katrina, Rita and Wilma pounded Florida, Louisiana and Texas.

Before then, in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, the Atlantic was comparatively quiet, with fewer named storms each season.

Now, after a 20-year, frenetic period, the cycle may be swinging back down. For the first time in a long time, sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic where hurricanes commonly form are cooler than normal. Seasonal forecasters predict fewer than 10 named storms this year, far below the 15 or more storms that have formed in most years since 1995.

[…]

[Chris Landsea, a senior scientist at the National Hurricane Center] says we need a few more hurricane seasons to know whether we really have entered a quiet period. Phil Klotzbach, a Colorado State University scientist known for publishing seasonal forecasts for hurricanes, is a little more confident.

The hurricane cycle is known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, or AMO, and it reflects changes in sea surface temperatures from the equator to the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic Ocean. Periods of increased hurricane activity correlate to warmer sea temperatures, and slower periods correspond to cooler temperatures.

Klotzbach tracks the AMO closely, and it has essentially been negative – cooler than normal – since 2012.

“I would say at this point that my confidence that the AMO has flipped to negative has grown somewhat,” he said. “If this hurricane season ends up being as quiet as we are predicting, that would make three below-average seasons in a row. The odds of three below-average seasons in a row in a positive AMO would be quite unlikely.”

You can see the NHC’s 2015 forecast here. As the story and the NHC scientists take pains to remind us, it only takes one storm to make a given season a catastrophe. Hurricane Alicia in 1983 hit during a similarly “quiet” period. So remember the lessons that have been drilled into us all over the years – have bottled water at hand, know your evacuation route or be prepared to shelter in place, and stay on top of the news. And if you live in Katy, run for your lives.

It’s hurricane season prediction time

And this year’s forecast is for a fairly quiet summer.

On Thursday, forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released their seasonal outlook for 2014, predicting eight to 13 named storms would form. This means, most likely, the Atlantic season total will fall below the normal 12 tropical storms and hurricanes during a given year.

Like NOAA’s, other seasonal forecasts issued this spring have predicted 75 to 90 percent of normal activity levels this year. The season runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

[…]

Principally, they expect El Niño to develop this summer in the Pacific Ocean. El Niño, a rise in tropical Pacific sea temperatures, has global weather effects including stronger wind shear in the Atlantic tropics, which reduces the number and intensity of tropical systems.

“Atmospheric and oceanic conditions across the tropical Pacific are already taking on some El Niño characteristics,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal forecaster.

Other factors are suggested as well. A number of signs suggest water temperatures in the area of the Atlantic Ocean where storms most commonly form, between Africa and the Caribbean Islands, will be a bit cooler than normal later this summer.

“Cooler water means less heat content available for hurricanes to intensify, resulting in fewer strong hurricanes than normal,” said Chris Hebert, a hurricane forecaster with ImpactWeather, a Houston-based company.

See here for the official NOAA forecast page. Last year’s prediction of a busy season didn’t work out so well, but even the best are going to strike out now and again, and if the process is sound then the results will be there more often than not. Of course as noted even in an otherwise very light season, all it takes is one hurricane to hit where you are and the rest doesn’t matter. So be prepared and remember that if you live in Katy it’s never too early to start evacuating.

What happened to the hurricanes?

This had been predicted to be one of the busier hurricane seasons of recent years. It turned out to be one of the quietest. What happened?

“A combination of conditions acted to offset several climate patterns that historically have produced active hurricane seasons,” explained Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead seasonal hurricane forecaster. “As a result, we did not see the large numbers of hurricanes that typically accompany these climate patterns.”

[…]

Prior to the beginning of this season, which started June 1, forecasters were expecting to see higher-than-normal water temperatures and lower-than-normal pressure in the deep tropics, where most tropical systems form. Forecasters also expected water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean would remain in the cool or neutral range through the season.

All of these factors tend to boost hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

And during this season all of these things happened. And yet, there were no big storms.

“It turns out that there is an additional parameter that was not generally considered when making seasonal predictions,” said Chris Hebert, a hurricane forecaster with ImpactWeather, a company based in Houston.

Hebert said earlier this year, after it became obvious that the Atlantic activity would be well below normal, he searched for other factors at play and discovered that moisture levels in the midlevel of the atmosphere, about 18,000 to 25,000 feet above the surface, were well below normal.

I forget who said it, but as someone once said, true scientific advancement comes not with “Eureka!” but with “That’s funny…” This was one of the latter experiences, and with it the science of hurricane forecasting has advanced. This is how it’s supposed to work. Failure is a great learning experience. SciGuy has more.

Ike floodgate update

Call it Ike Dike 2.0 if you want.

Five years after Hurricane Ike devastated the upper Texas coast, a group of Houston scientists presented details Tuesday about a proposed gate to protect the Houston Ship Channel and much of the Bayou City’s industrial base during another hurricane.

Meeting at Rice University, the scientists generally agreed that a large gate at the entrance to the Ship Channel would provide a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to the Ike Dike.

Preliminary designs suggest the 600- to 800-foot-long gate, located either at the Fred Hartman Bridge or Morgan’s Point, would cost about $1.5 billion.

The question faced by the scientists now is: How best to move the concept of the “Centennial Gate” from academia and into a physical reality?

“We really need to find ourselves a political champion,” said Phil Bedient, a Rice University civil engineer and one of the gate’s chief proponents. “That’s what we’re going to do during the next few months.”

[…]

Hanadi Rifai, a University of Houston environmental engineer, has been studying how chemical industries along the Ship Channel would be affected had a stronger version of Hurricane Ike hit about 25 miles farther south along the coast, which would have pushed a much larger storm surge into Galveston Bay.

She found that if a Hurricane Ike with just 15 percent stronger winds hit near San Luis Pass, it would have devastating effects on the Ship Channel industries.

Tallying up losses to facilities, downtime, productivity and environmental charges, such a storm would produce an estimated $148 billion in economic losses to the Ship Channel.

“The question is not whether we need to do something, the question is what do we do,” Rifai said.

The first mention of this alternate idea was two years ago; see here and here for the previous incarnation. When you put it in the context that Prof. Rifai does, it sure does seem like a worthwhile idea. SciGuy goes further than that.

A gate, frankly, is a no-brainer. It is the lowest of low-hanging fruit for this region when it comes to better preparing ourselves for a large hurricane.

But I’m told by organizers of the Centennial Gate concept that Harris County officials — that would be commissioners and the county judge — have yet to express much interest in a gate.

The implication from this apparent disinterest is that it’s more important to ask the public for $217 million to repair a building whose best days are behind it than addressing the ship channel’s vulnerability. Someone needs to show some leadership and cobble together a coalition of public money, industry investment and federal funds to build a gate that would protect the region’s economy and environment. Such a gate would also very likely increase industrial investment in the ship channel, knowing that facilities built there would be hardened against the region’s sole major natural disaster.

As Ben Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” The problem with building the Centennial Gate is that it requires government officials to be proactive, rather than reactive.

To be fair, they have to come up with a way to finance the thing – $1.5 billion is a lot less than $148 billion, but 1) it’s still a lot of money; 2) the risk of a multi-billion dollar loss due to hurricane damage is hard to quantify – it’s not nothing, but it’s hardly inevitable, and; 3) the voters still need to be convinced. This is a process, and these things take time, just as the Astrodome referendum was years in the making. It’s just that in the matter of the Ike floodgate, the question of time is a bet. See the SSPEED homepage and the floodgate brochure for more.

Welcome to hurricane season

Today is the start of hurricane season for 2013, and we should expect a bumpy ride for the next few months.

NOAA predicts an above normal, and possibly a hyper-active hurricane season:

  • 13-20 named storms
  • 7-11 hurricanes
  • 3-6 major hurricanes

This is about 50 percent more activity than occurs during a normal season. The main reason is higher-than-normal sea surface temperatures in the region of the Atlantic where hurricanes typically form, and no external factors that might dampen tropical activity.

[…]

Since 1950 there have been an average of 12 tropical storms, seven hurricanes and three major hurricanes during the Atlantic season.

So forecasters clearly expect a busier season.

However seasonal forecasting is far from a hard science. It’s difficult to predict meteorological conditions across the Atlantic, and their effect on a storm season, four months before the busiest time of a hurricane season begins.

Still, a recent analysis by a reader here found that the seasonal forecasts issued by NOAA — which will come out next month — is correct about twice as often as chance would predict. That’s not a perfect record, but it wouldn’t stop me from making reasonable preparations for hurricane season now.

Know whether you need to evacuate. Know what you will bring. Have a plan for where to go. Be prepared to protect your house. The simple steps you take now can make a big difference if a storm does indeed threaten Texas this year.

You can enter the annual Hurricane Prediction Contest here. And, of course, if you live in Katy, run for your lives.

Busy hurricane season predicted

Start stocking up on batteries and bottled water.

Hunker down, y’all

Forecasters agree: The coming Atlantic hurricane season looks like a busy one.

A number of factors, principally higher-than-normal temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean where most tropical storms form, indicate this season will see a flurry of tropical activity.

“A wild season is on the way,” predicted Joe Bastardi, a noted hurricane forecaster with Weather Bell, a weather website.

That viewpoint was affirmed Wednesday when longtime seasonal forecasters William Gray and Phil Klotzbach, of Colorado State University, issued their first numerical prediction for the upcoming season, which begins June 1.

They are calling for 18 named storms, nine of which will be hurricanes and four of which will develop into major hurricanes. That’s about 50 percent more activity than during a normal season.

Klotzbach said the only potential check on activity this year is the slight chance that an El Niño might develop in the tropical Pacific, which would tend to limit Atlantic hurricane activity.

“I would say that we have moderate confidence in an active season at this point,” Klotzbach said. “There’s still a lot that could change with El Niño. If the tropical Pacific and tropical Atlantic look similar at the beginning of June to the way that they do now, I would say that our confidence would grow significantly.”

This season follows three years in which an anomalously high number of named storms – 19 – have formed.

The good news from our perspective is that the storms are likely to head north before entering the Gulf. That’s potentially very bad news for a lot of other people, though, and as well all know it only takes one big storm to make it a bad year. Not much else we can do except be prepared and hope for the best. SciGuy and Hair Balls have more.

Do July showers bring August hurricanes?

So we had a nice, wet, not too hot July that among other things help erase the drought in Harris County. What could possibly be bad about that? Increased risk of hurricanes, that’s what.

[Impact Weather forecaster Chris] Hebert studied the 20 wettest and 20 driest Julys on record for Houston and found a striking correlation with hurricane activity.

After 40 percent of the wettest Julys a major hurricane struck Texas or Louisiana during the remainder of that year’s hurricane season, Hebert said. But there were no major hurricane strikes after the driest Julys.

That’s in large part due to the location of the high – if it’s over southeast Texas, it’s going to steer storms away. If it’s not, prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

“This year it looks like the upper Gulf coast will be open for business as we enter the busiest part of hurricane season,” Hebert said.

It’s always something, isn’t it? The good news is that we’re likely to have a short hurricane season thanks to El Niño. But it only takes one to make it a bad hurricane season, which is now officially underway, regardless of duration. SciGuy has more.

Here comes El Niño

Our hurricane season could be short.

The formation of Tropical Storm Debby last weekend in the Gulf of Mexico brought the tally of Atlantic storms to four this season, the earliest that’s ever happened.

But despite the quick beginning, scientists say this season may have a much quicker end, with an El Niño system likely to ride to the rescue later this summer.

“I’m becoming fairly confident that we will have a weak to moderate El Niño by the peak of this year’s hurricane season in September,” said Phil Klotzbach, a seasonal hurricane forecaster at Colorado State University.

Scientists have long understood that El Niño, a natural warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, tends to suppress hurricane activity in the Atlantic.

But now, through a combination of research techniques, they’re beginning to gain a much deeper understanding of not only why but how El Niño changes the tracks of Atlantic storms and, crucially for Houston, how it may affect activity in the Gulf of Mexico.

[…]

Studies have found that, during the last 60 years, when an El Niño pattern prevailed during the Atlantic hurricane season, only one-quarter of those seasons had more activity than normal. During La Niña years, when Pacific tropical temperatures are cooler, two-thirds of years had more activity than normal.

El Niño years also produced fewer than average major hurricanes as well as fewer landfalling hurricanes.

Read the story for the technical details. Bottom line is that the early signs are for a less active hurricane season than usual. All it takes is one big one, of course, but I’d rather have the odds in our favor. As long as this doesn’t also presage another abnormally dry summer, it’s all good.

Friday random ten: Hurricane season

We are officially in hurricane season now, and though Texas missed out on TS Debby, we know there’s more to come. So here are ten storm songs to get you through.

1. Full Force Gale – Van Morrison
2. Ready For The Storm – Gordian Knot
3. Ill Wind – Lonette McKee
4. Stormy Weather – Julie Murphy
5. Hurricane Season – Trombone Shorty
6. And The Rain Crashed Down – Eddie From Ohio
7. Texas Flood – Stevie Ray Vaughan
8. Who’ll Stop The Rain – Creedence Clearwater Revival
9. Let The Wind Blow – Beach Boys
10. Storm Front – Billy Joel

No, I don’t have “Riding The Storm Out” or “Rock You Like A Hurricane” in my collection. Just assume they’re appropriate for any storm-related purpose. What do you listen to when it’s time to hunker down?

Calculate your storm risk

That hurricane risk calculator is now ready for your input.

Using the Storm Risk Calculator produced by the city of Houston and Rice University, users can enter an address and learn the risks for rainfall, power outage, storm surge and rain damage.

For example, Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s house in Midtown has a low risk of power outage and wind damage, and no risk of storm surge or rainfall with a Category 2 hurricane.

Users can adjust the strength of the hypothetical storm from a Category 1-5 to see how the risks increase and decrease depending on the size of the hurricane.

The goal is to keep Houstonians from leaving unnecessarily and creating the kind of mass reaction that followed Hurricane Rita in 2005, when tens of thousands evacuated for no real reason, causing highway congestion and panic, said Dennis Storemski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security.

Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice, said the best way to get people to do something is to give them the information they need to make an educated decision.

Fair enough. The risk calculator can be found at risk.rtsnets.com. You can see the result of my calculation in the graphic above. I agree with the rainfall risk – our street has never flooded, though some nearby ones did during TS Allison – but I’m skeptical of the power outage risk. Our house was only without power for a day after Ike, but some folks a block away were down for more than a week. There’s a lot of trees in our neighborhood, and with trees come the risk of power lines being taken down. Regardless, now I know what the experts think, and you can too. See the Mayor’s press release for more.

How bad would a big hurricane be to Houston?

Very bad. I trust you are not surprised by this.

When a really strong hurricane next blows through Houston, its winds – not its waters – pose the greatest threat to inflict damage unimagined by most living here.

Tropical Storm Allison produced a virtually worst-case flooding scenario in 2001, racking up $5 billion in damages. Hurricane Ike produced a destructive surge of water, and its U.S. damages came to $29.5 billion.

Such water damages, however, are nothing compared to the threat of a mighty blow, which Houston has not truly experienced since 1915.

A new, but unpublished, study reveals the true scope of damage Houston could sustain from a major windstorm if a hurricane were to strike Galveston Island and barrel on through Harris County.

According to the analysis by Civil Tech Engineering, a Category 4 hurricane moving northwest at 10 mph would cause $309 billion in property damage and $65 billion in business interruptions.

The study predicts nearly 800,000 homes in Harris County would be severely damaged or destroyed – 80 percent of the total housing stock – along with 50,000 commercial buildings.

“That’s just wind damage,” said Melvin Spinks, president of Houston-based Civil Tech. “It doesn’t include flooding from rain or surge.”

[…]

“We’ve always known there was significant risk from some of these much larger storms,” said Sharon Nalls, the city of Houston’s emergency management coordinator.

What isn’t clear, she said, is whether residents understand that risk.

That’s partly why the city commissioned the study. Since its completion in May 2010, the results have been used to prepare better tools for home and business owners to assess their risks.

In the next couple of weeks the city will roll out two new websites, Nalls said.

One is an update of its “Houston Hide from the Wind” website, offering real-time estimates of wind speeds, by ZIP code, based upon National Hurricane Center forecasts. The website will now include information for Harris and surrounding counties, not just the city.

Secondly, the city will launch a website on which residents can enter an address to view the potential wind, flooding and surge threats to their property from various strengths of storms.

After the regional evacuation from Hurricane Rita produced a massive traffic jam in 2005, city and county officials launched a campaign to better inform residents about who should go and who should stay.

The new wind damage data, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, doesn’t change the basic message – run from the water, hide from the wind.

I’m pretty sure Judge Emmett meant to say “hunker down” from the wind. He must have been misquoted. Be that as it may, I’m not really sure how much value this has. I mean, I agree it’s better to know what you might be up against than to be ignorant about it, but what’s missing from this story is what if anything we plan to do about this. That’s a non-trivial question because anything we did do now, such as raise building code standards for unincorporated Harris County, would not affect any current structure. Individual property owners are of course free to take whatever action they think is worthwhile, but I have my doubts that a report like this will do much to spur anyone to action. It’s a matter of risk assessment: Clearly, massive hurricanes are (thankfully) very rare events for Houston, so any investment made to fortify oneself against them may well be wasted. Against that, the failure to be adequately prepared if one does come our way will have devastating consequences. Pick your poison, I guess.

The Ike Floodgate

We have a recommendation for how to prepare for a future Hurricane Ike.

A giant floodgate at the entrance to the Houston Ship Channel, coupled with a 130-mile wetlands recreation area, should be built to protect Houston from hurricane storm surges, a research team from five Texas universities recommended Monday.

The two-year study led by the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters Center, or SSPEED, at Rice University also recommends a 20-mile levee along Texas 146 and another to protect the bay side on the eastern end of Galveston, already protected on the Gulf side by a sea wall.

The proposals are on a much smaller scale than the Ike Dike concept, which envisions a storm gate between Galveston Island and the Bolivar Peninsula coupled with a massive levee protecting both barrier islands.

“We have looked very carefully at the Ike Dike proposals,” said Philip Bedient, a professor of engineering at Rice University. “We at the SSPEED Center don’t think it has a chance of getting built in our lifetime.

“We’ve gone with four proposals that we think have a better chance of being funded and built in a much shorter period of time.”

Jim Blackburn, environmental law professor at Rice University, said each proposal can be undertaken separately.

The full report is here, and you can see some background on this here and here. The real question is not whether this is the best or the most cost-effective solution. The question is whether this or any solution can be funded by our dysfunctional Legislature and Congress. If we believe those who claim there isn’t the money to build some mitigation now, what will we believe when we need to rebuild everything after a catastrophic storm? Swamplot has more.

Hurricane season is mostly behind us

Normally, this would be considered good news.

Ironically, even as the Atlantic tropics reach their peak and Texas marks the anniversaries of 1961’s Hurricane Carla on Sunday and 2008’s Hurricane Ike next Tuesday, chances of a hurricane making landfall on the state this year are falling.

“Historically, hurricanes rarely impact the Texas coast after mid-September, and I don’t think that this year will be any different,” said Chris Hebert, a hurricane forecaster with Houston’s ImpactWeather.

After Sept. 24, just three storms have made landfall at hurricane intensity along the Texas coast during the last 150 years. And the next two weeks look to remain quiet off the Texas coast.

“The persistent ridge of high pressure which has dominated Texas through the summer will be returning late this weekend,” Hebert said. “With that ridge in place, it will be hard to get any tropical moisture into Texas.”

Long-range models don’t indicate any possible tropical threat to Texas, nor do they offer the region any hope for rain over the next few weeks, Hebert said.

But when you’re in the middle of a historically bad drought, one that may stretch on for months, if not years, the prospect of a hurricane doesn’t sound as bad as it usually does. For better or worse, we’re unlikely to get one this year.

Friday random ten: Blowin’ in the wind

Those of us here on the Gulf Coast are quite familiar with hurricanes and all they can bring with them, so we have much sympathy for those on the East Coast who are in the path of Hurricane Irene. Whether you hunker down or get out of town, we wish you all the best as this storm approaches. Here’s a little playlist to help get you through the weekend.

1. Mr. Hurricane – Beast
2. Ill Wind – Lonette McKee
3. Ready For The Storm – Gordian Knot
4. Storm Front – Billy Joel
5. Stormbringer – Elton John
6. Stormy Blues – Billie Holiday
7. Stormy Weather – Julie Murphy
8. Couldn’t Stand The Weather – Stevie Ray Vaughan
9. Full Force Gale – Van Morrison
10. Hasten Down The Wind – Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon

Stay safe, y’all.

Time for the annual “Are we ready for a big storm?” story

The answer, of course, is no, not really.

After Tropical Storm Allison’s devastating floods, the Houston area widened its bayous and hardened its infra­structure. After Hurricane Rita’s deadly gridlock, the state revamped storm communications and evacuation plans.

Yet since Hurricane Ike’s enormous surge wiped out coastal communities and its $30 billion in damages dwarfed those of the other two storms, not much has happened.

Which is to say that [Wednesday] — the first day of a new hurricane season that’s expected to be quite active, and nearly three years after the costliest storm in Houston history — the region remains as vulnerable as ever to storm surge.

In Ike’s wake the state formed the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District, which includes Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, Harris, Jefferson and Orange counties, to study storm surge remedies and possibly put them into effect.

But so far, the district has no federal or state funding.

State funding? Don’t make me laugh. Rick Perry has actually been using the prospect of a hurricane as a justification for not using more of the Rainy Day fund, even though that’s never been the fund’s intended use. As for federal money, there was probably a brief moment in 2009 when something like that could have been part of the stimulus package – Lord knows, we should have aimed to spend a ton more on infrastructure projects. That moment is long gone, and even if our ridiculous Republican members of Congress wanted to push for this, the only way the rest of the Republican majority would let it happen would be if the Democrats would agree to pay for it by cutting services elsewhere, much as they insisted on doing so for tornado relief. Meanwhile, a bunch of white swans are swimming by, but no one is paying attention to them.

As for what could be done, we’re familiar with the Ike Dike, but there’s another possibility out there.

“An environmental and industrial disaster that will put the Ship Channel down for months is my biggest fear,” [Phil Bedient, a Rice University civil engineer who studies flooding] said.

He said most facilities in the port area are protected from about a 14-foot surge, with some facilities a bit higher. Had Ike come ashore 25 miles down the coast, at the west rather than the east end of Galveston Island, it would have pushed a surge of up to 19 feet up the Ship Channel, Bedient said.

As a result of these concerns, Bedient and colleagues plan to propose putting a large gate at the entrance to the Ship Channel.

Such a gate would cost far less than the so-called “Ike Dike” proposal, and would cause less concern among environmentalists.

As it happens, Prof. Bediant had an op-ed in the Chron on the same day, also sounding the alarm about storm preparedness. Unfortunately, he didn’t go into any detail about the Ship Channel gate. I suspect it’s laid out in detail in this report on Hurricane Ike, which is on the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center‘s website. Read it and be prepared to take a short quiz on it for next week.

Time for the annual “We’re in for a busy hurricane season” forecast

And indeed, forecasters say we are in for another active year, as was the case last year. Here’s SciGuy with some discussion.

[S]easonal forecasters did a pretty good job of calling last year’s extraordinarily active season. So while there’s no way we can say precisely where storms might make landfall this year, it’s a fairly safe bet to say we’re in for an active year.

Here’s some discussion , from Chris Hebert with ImpactWeather:

  • One of the primary seasonal predictors we examine is the presence of an El Niño or a La Niña in the Tropical Pacific. An El Niño typically results in less favorable conditions for development and fewer named storms in the Atlantic Basin. A La Niña generally results in more favorable conditions for development and more named storms. For 2011, the La Niña of 2010 appears to be fading to what we call “neutral” conditions this summer and fall. Neutral conditions alone would not significantly reduce the number of named storms this season. The 2005 hurricane season with 28 named storms was a “neutral” year.
  • Long-range models are predicting that surface pressures across the Subtropical Atlantic will be significantly higher in 2011 as compared to 2010. This suggests a stronger Bermuda High that is located farther south and west than in 2010. A stronger Bermuda High would impact the season in several ways. It would result in stronger easterly trade winds in the deep tropics east of the Caribbean. Stronger trade winds would mean increased low-level wind shear compared to last season, which should result in fewer named storms.
  • More significantly, a stronger Bermuda High would not allow as many hurricanes to turn northward or “recurve” east of the Caribbean and east of the U.S. This would significantly increase the risk of a hurricane entering the northern Gulf of Mexico and striking the Southeast U.S. Coast.
  • Atlantic sea surface temperatures (SSTs) remain quite a bit above normal this spring. These above-normal SSTs are forecast to persist through the hurricane season. Warmer water increases the amount of heat energy available, resulting in the generation of more intense hurricanes. The Gulf of Mexico is particularly warm this spring, indicating an elevated risk of a major hurricane in the Gulf for 2011.

You know the drill. Stock up on hurricane supplies, be prepared to hunker down, and if you live in Katy, run for your lives.

Amicus briefs filed in Galveston beach case

Good for you, Vince Ryan.

Harris County today joined other public agencies and activists in urging the Texas Supreme Court to reconsider a recent opinion that critics contend blocks public access to most beaches on Galveston island.

County Attorney Vince Ryan filed a friend-of-the court brief on behalf of the county and the Texas Conference of Urban Counties. The brief supports a request by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott for a rehearing on a Nov. 5 decision he says amounts to the overturning of the state Open Beaches Act, which voters made part of the Texas Constitution last year.

[…]

Similar briefs have been filed by the city of Galveston, environmental attorney Jim Blackburn and former legislator A.R. “Babe” Schwartz, who helped write the Open Beaches Act. Kendall County was expected to file an amicus brief today.

So far all the amicus briefs filed since Nov. 5 support the attorney general, who is defending Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson in a lawsuit brought by San Diego attorney Carol Severance that led to the state Supreme Court decision.

[…]

Terry O’Rourke, first assistant Harris County attorney, said that every beach in Texas eventually will be hit by a storm.

“If you read the opinion as written, you are looking at the end of public beaches,” O’Rourke said.

The decision created private beaches on Galveston island and the frequency of storms eventually will render all public beaches private, O’Rourke says.

The vagueness of the decision allows beachfront property owners to point to the last storm and declare their beach private, Blackburn says in his brief.

I still don’t quite understand why the 2009 amendment that basically added the Open Beaches Act to the state constitution doesn’t moot this ruling, but clearly it didn’t, so here we are. I also still think that the best solution here is going to be a legislative one, perhaps another amendment, which ought to be doable given the support for overturning the Court’s decision from the likes of Patterson and Abbott. Someone will need to step up and sponsor a bill or joint resolution first, though.

Patterson on the Open Beaches ruling

I must say, I enjoyed Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson’s op-ed on the recent Open Beaches ruling by the State Supreme Court. The man can bring the snark, I’ll give him that. Two points of interest besides that:

Texans, you see, can be such a hard-headed lot. Most of us ignorantly thought passing the Texas Open Beaches Act in 1959, and voting overwhelmingly to enshrine this right in the state’s Constitution in 2009, would keep the beaches open. With this public access came opportunities for public money.

I don’t quite understand how there could be a constitutional issue with something that was added to the Constitution. Isn’t something in the Constitution by definition constitutional? Perhaps the issue is that the litigation predated the amendment, or perhaps the amendment wasn’t on point, I don’t know. I have not seen it discussed anywhere. If someone who understands this better than I do could tell me what I’m missing, I’d appreciate it.

The Open Beaches Act isn’t dead. Breemer’s brag that the “law won” for his side is deceptive. The Texas Supreme Court affirmed that submerged lands, between mean low tide and the mean high water mark, are owned by the state. Breemer lost that argument. The Supreme Court opined that a rolling beach easement does exist in Texas common law. Breemer lost that argument too, which answers, in part, two of the three questions the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals had for the Supreme Court.

I wouldn’t expect Patterson to note this, but someone needs to say that it was an all-Republican Supreme Court that handed this ruling down, both the parts that Patterson is touting and the parts that he thinks were wrong.

State Supreme Court asked to reconsider open beaches verdict

Good luck with that.

Galveston has joined key state agencies in pleading with the court to reconsider a ruling that favors private property rights over public access to Texas shores.

“I think the Supreme Court really needs to understand the impact of its ruling. It’s not just a theoretical question — they just changed Galveston Island’s ability to nourish its beaches,” Mayor Joe Jaworski said.

“These are Texas’ beaches,” he said. “It’s ironic that the Supreme Court has essentially said it’s every man for himself.”

Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner, said he canceled the beach project because the court ruling removed the guarantee of public access to the area, which extends west of Galveston’s seawall to 13 Mile Road . The Texas Constitution forbids spending public money to benefit private property.

“Our hands are tied now,” Patterson said at the time.

[…]

Late last week, Galveston County joined a motion by Patterson and Attorney General Greg Abbott that asked the Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling as unwise, unsound and unworkable.

The motion for rehearing argued that the ruling disregarded the state’s long-valued tradition of public beach access. The court also ignored its own precedents and the policies of “every other branch of Texas government” when it declared that the public beach easement lasts only until the next devastating storm, the brief said.

The motion also warned that the ruling threatens other beach-restoration projects, not just the canceled Galveston effort.

“In the absence of a clear public easement, the state also lacks any clear authority for pursuing the kind of essential beach-renourishment projects on which the local economies of our coastal communities depend,” the brief said.

See here for more. I don’t have a whole lot of faith that the court will take any action, but it’s worth a shot to ask them. You’d also think, if Abbott and Patterson are on board with this, that it ought to be possible to get a constitutional amendment to correct the court’s erroneous ruling through the Lege. I hope someone is thinking about that.

The cost of closing the beaches

The recent Supreme Court ruling predictably leads to the enrichment of a lucky few.

Although Carol Severance’s lawsuit killed the largest beach resanding project in Texas history, her four Galveston beach properties won’t suffer.

Instead, she could walk away with more than $2 million from the sale of her hurricane-damaged houses at pre-storm prices.

The money comes from a federal program to buy houses in hazardous areas. Twenty-five percent of the buyout will be paid by the Texas General Land Office, the same agency she sued in a case that led the Land Office last week to cancel a $40 million project that would have placed fresh sand on six miles of beach west of the Galveston Seawall.

“It’s an ironic result that someone who has been at the trough has also caused the loss of all these public resources to the west end beach front,” said Galveston city Councilwoman Elizabeth Beeton.

Severance, a lawyer living in San Diego, Calif., says she brought her lawsuit because she believes in private property rights.

Heck of a job, State Supreme Court! I’m imagining an attack ad that would run against the justices who are up for re-election in 2012 that speak in ominous tones of how they gave millions of your tax dollars to a bunch of California lawyers that lost their fancy beach houses to Hurricane Ike. What I have a much harder time imagining is a funding source for such an ad. Alas.

Is this the end for truly open beaches?

From last week:

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday the state cannot take private property for a public beach when a storm moves the vegetation line landward — a decision that may lead to restricted access along the coast.

Texas law allows anyone to place a blanket on the beach, right up to the vegetation line, even if it’s an intrusion on the privacy of a seaside home.

But in a split decision, the court found that the state’s policy of “rolling easements” – the ever-shifting border between public and private land – does not apply when the vegetation line is moved by a storm.

The boundaries may move because of erosion, which is a gradual occurrence, but “the state cannot declare a public right so expansive as to always adhere to the dry beach,” Justice Dale Wainwright wrote in the court’s 6-2 opinion.

“This could divest private owners of significant rights without compensation,” he wrote, “because the right to exclude is one of the most valuable and fundamental rights possessed by property owners.”

Justice David Medina, who wrote the dissent, argued that the court’s vague distinction between gradual and sudden changes to the Texas coast jeopardizes the public’s right to open beaches, “recognized over the past 200 years, and threatens to embroil the state in beach-front litigation for the next 200 years.”

I’m not qualified to judge the legal merits of these opinions, but philosophically speaking I have very little sympathy for the plaintiffs here. I do believe that the public’s right to the beaches outweighs their right to build wherever they want to, and I believe that they should have known the risks of building so close to the vegetation line. Hurricanes happen, and I say they don’t deserve any special consideration for them. Justice Medina is right, and this ruling is badly misguided.

Jim Suydam, a spokesman for the General Land Office, said the state agency would not comment on the decision until after its attorneys had more time to review it.

“The opinion raises a lot of questions” about how the state enforces the Open Beaches Act, Suydam said.

The 50-year-old state law guarantees public access to every inch of the 367-mile Texas coast, from Sabine Pass to the Mexico border. It’s so popular that more than 80 percent of Texas voters decided last year to include the Open Beaches Act in the state’s constitution.

Just curious here. Given that the Open Beaches Act is now in the Constitution, what exactly are the legal implications of this ruling? Why wouldn’t that override the issues in this lawsuit? Any lawyers want to address that? Thanks.

House committee hearings on emergency preparedness in Houston on Friday

The House Select Committee on Emergency Preparedness will be holding some hearings in Houston on Friday at the George R. Brown Convention Center. From the email I got about this:

Those testifying at the hearing include Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, Galveston Mayor Joe Jaworski, representatives of the GLO, RRC, TCEQ, the Harris County Sherriff’s Office, Houston Office of Emergency Management and Rice University.

The committee will be talking about evacuation plans, terrorist attacks on petrochemical plants, the possibility of an Ike Dike sea wall, the possibility of a deepwater horizon type event, and using social media to warn people about impending disaster.

Here’s a rough run down of proceedings.

9am-11am approx.
HSCEP s/c Hurricanes, Flooding and Evacuations – Hamilton (Chair), Taylor, Frost Focusing on hurricane preparedness – specifically evacuations, early warning systems and storm surge mitigation

11am-1:30pm approx.
House Select committee on Emergency Preparedness (full committee) Focusing on how infrastructure, law enforcement and emergency planners prepare for major industrial accidents and homeland security threats relating to transnational criminal activity

1:30pm-3pm approx.
HSCEP s/c Continuity of Government, Communication and Infrastructure Dutton (Chair), Strama, Lewis Focusing on judicial continuity in the aftermath of a hurricane, government communication during emergencies, and the recovery of critical infrastructure after disasters

All events will be in room 351. The official notices are posted here. These hearings will not be streamed but a recording will be made available at a later date. My thanks to committee clerk Benjamin Wright for the heads up.

Active hurricane season predicted

Hurricane season officially begins today, and it looks like it will be a busy one.

As we have previously discussed, there’s ample reason to expect a very active hurricane season this year.

And so it wasn’t too surprising this morning when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Hurricane Center, released an especially bullish forecast. They’re predicting:

• 14-23 Named Storms

• 8-14 Hurricanes

• 3-7 Major Hurricanes

• An ACE range of 155%-270% of the median.

Heretofore the general consensus has been around 15 named storms, however NOAA has significantly upped the ante with what is essentially a prediction of 18.5 named storms. That’s an incredibly active year considering, over the long-term, the Atlantic basin sees about 10 named storms a year.

It may have been a cold winter here, but it was pretty darned warm everywhere else, so this should not be a surprise. Don’t count on a repeat of last year. And while you’re stocking up on bottled water and batteries and whatnot, now would also be a good time to review your insurance. Better to know what you’ve got before you need it.

The end is near for hurricane season

One of the better things about the onset of fall is the threat of a hurricane greatly diminishes.

To be fair, more than two months remain before the official end of hurricane season on Nov. 30, and the seas remain plenty warm for low pressure systems to spin into tropical storms.

But for Texas the threat of a meaningful collision with the tropics is rapidly diminishing. Since the 1850s, only three hurricanes have made landfall in the Lone Star State after today’s date, although this is the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Rita’s landfall east of Sabine Pass.

And as high wind shear continues to dominate the Gulf of Mexico and inhibit the formation of tropical storms as it has all season, ImpactWeather’s lead hurricane meteorologist, Chris Hebert, doesn’t see that changing.

“Given the current pattern across the U.S. and the climatological record, it appears unlikely that the Texas coast will see any hurricane activity for the remainder of the 2009 season,” he said. “Houston is probably in the clear.”

It’s been an especially quiet season to begin with, so the trepidation level was lower than usual, but this is still nice. And though Rita will remain an object lesson in not relying too much on the calendar, I feel pretty good about our prospects for remaining unscathed, at least till next year.

Locke’s crimefighting plan

In the past week or so I’ve had several Mayoral candidate issue papers hit my inbox. As there was one from each campaign, I thought I’d try to do a little analysis of each of them. We’ll start today with Gene Locke‘s Seven Point Plan to Keep Houston Safe, which you can see here. Locke’s issues page is a bit light in comparison to his opponents, and this was the first such release I’ve received from his campaign, so it was with no small amount of interest that I took a look. As with Annise Parker’s plan, I’d say the priorities Locke highlights are good ones, ones for which there’s a fairly broad consensus. Not to put too fine a point on it, but six of the seven items Locke highlights can be found in Parker’s plan as well, and almost as many can be found in Peter Brown’s plan as well. That’s what I call a consensus.

(Interestingly, one thing Brown doesn’t mention that Locke and Parker both do is a promise to put more cops on the street. Of course, neither Parker nor Locke say how they plan to pay for those extra cops, so perhaps it’s just as well. And as noted before, while both Locke and Parker support the idea of closing the city’s jail and folding it into the county’s system, Brown opposes the idea. So it’s not all Consensusville here.)

Locke’s page here has fewer details than those of the other candidates, so there’s only so much for an armchair quarterback such as myself to quibble with. One place I really wish he had gone into greater detail is the matter of the city’s jail, for which Locke claims credit as the originator of the idea to close it. The city’s jail has been in the news quite a bit lately, especially with that story from Monday about a possible TIRZ deal with the county to pay for a replacement facility. What does Gene Locke, or Annise Parker or Peter Brown, think about this? Whoever wins in November will inherit this deal that the city makes, so it would be really nice to know where they stand. I figure I’ll get statements from one or more of their campaigns now that I’ve posted this, but frankly this should have been in the story. At this point, getting comments from the three of them on anything newsworthy that Mayor White and/or City Council is doing ought to be standard operating procedure.

The one point of Locke’s plan that’s unique to him is this:

HOMELAND SECURITY With the growing importance of Houston to the economy of the nation and the world, Gene knows we need to take special care to protect institutions like the Port of Houston. Gene will lead the way in developing a regional plan to prevent, protect, respond to, and recover from an act of terrorism or any other type of catastrophic event. Safeguarding our engines of economic development will make Houstonians safer in their homes and communities.

The City of Houston currently has an Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, while Harris County has an Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management. The former is more focused on crime, while the latter is more about hurricanes, at least going by their web pages. I’d like to know more about what Locke thinks about these current setups, and how his plan enhances or adds to them. I’d also like to know how he sees the role of the federal government in all this, since this clearly falls under the rubric of the DHS. I think this is a good issue to highlight, I just need to hear more.

That’s all I’ve got for this one. I’ve got Parker’s education plan and Brown’s energy plan in the works as well.

Too quiet?

It’s been very quiet on the hurricane front so far this year – not a single named storm in the Atlantic as yet. The good news, as SciGuy notes, is that this means the projections for the number of named storms we’ll eventually see have been revised downward. The bad news is that as usual, we’re not out of the woods yet. In fact, we’re really just entering them. Click over and see for yourself. Oh, and take a look at County Judge Ed Emmett’s August newsletter, too, which is all about hurricane preparation advice.

Hurricane season quiet so far

That’s nice, but it doesn’t mean we’re in good shape.

Although the first Atlantic named storm typically forms by July 10, the real activity doesn’t usually begin until August, and a lull in early season activity doesn’t necessarily presage a weak overall season.

The 2004 season, for example, didn’t see its first storm until Hurricane Alex began developing on July 31.

Yet after Alex the season rapidly ramped up, finishing with 15 storms and 6 major hurricanes, including Hurricane Ivan. A storm the size of Texas, Ivan was one of the 10 most intense hurricanes ever in the Atlantic basin before striking Gulf Shores, Ala., and causing $19 billion in damage.

And while El Niños may suppress overall activity, such years can still produce savage storms. One of the three most-intense storms at a U.S. landfall, Hurricane Andrew, developed during an El Niño in 1992.

So have some of the most famed storms ever to strike Texas and Louisiana: Alicia (1983), Betsy (1965) and the great storm of 1900, which came during a severe El Niño, said Jill Hasling, president of Houston’s Weather Research Center.

“There might be fewer storms during an El Niño,” she said. “But it only takes one.”

Yeah, that’s been my mantra of late – it’s not how many hurricanes there are, it’s how many big ones there are, and one of them is plenty. Conditions this year are such that there’s also the possibility of a storm forming in the Gulf of Mexico and striking land quickly, as was the case with Hurricane Humberto in 2007, or more scarily the Hurricane of 1932. So, you know, keep those emergency supplies in stock, and don’t rest easy.

Hot enough for ya?

Yeah, it’s really hot out there.

Houston’s relentless heat wave prompted the National Weather Service today to declare a “Heat Emergency,” a designation that air temperature and humidity is a potential health threat for all people and is particularly dangerous for high-risk groups.

The emergency designation is expected to last through Friday, said Houston health department spokeswoman Kathy Barton.

Barton said the health department has accordingly invoked its heat emergency plan, which involves working with Metro to bring people to designated cooling centers, such as libraries, and generally urging people to take extra precautions to stay inside.

It is not uncommon for the weather service to declare a heat emergency in Houston, though it didn’t happen last summer. Such an emergency is declared when the heat index, a computation of air temperature and humidity, reaches 108 degrees on two more consecutive days.

The index reached 108 Wednesday and is expected to reach that level today and Friday. Houston’s actual temperature hit 104 degrees Wednesday, the hottest it’s ever gotten in June.

It’s pretty much a given that any time there’s an extra cold winter day somewhere, the global warming deniers point to it as evidence that it’s all a hoax. Here’s a recent example of that, from someone who unfortunately was in a strong position to emasculate the just-passed climate change legislation. This kind of thinking is stupid on many levels, not the least of which is that if a bit of unseasonably cold weather means global warming is a myth, then what does a record heat wave imply? Not that logic is a strong suit for the head-in-the-sand crowd, but you’d think this sort of thing might have occurred to them. Ah, well. At least so far there’s no evidence that this means a worse hurricane season is in store. I’ll take my silver linings where I can find them.

Time to replace that portable TV

I don’t have a portable TV, so I hadn’t given the matter of their obsolescence due to the digital transition any thought, but if you have one, you ought to be aware of it.

Though Americans were given four extra months to prepare for the nationwide switch from analog to digital signals, the conversion date last week coincided with the advent of this year’s hurricane season, creating challenges for those like Clanton, who depend on battery-operated sets during emergencies.

Because digital converter boxes are plugged into the wall, on-the-go analog TV sets won’t function during a blackout. The audio from analog TV broadcasts received on radios are now tuned out, as well.

In September, former Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin warned of a possible shortage of battery-operated digital TV equipment and called on groups such as the Consumer Electronic Association to encourage their availability.

FCC spokeswoman Edie Herman said the agency was both concerned and prepared from the outset for residents who rely on portable sets during emergencies.

“The question of battery-powered TVs came to our mind very early on,” she said, “and so the people trying to help and educate consumers with the change were aware of the issue, too.”

The only portable analog sets that have the potential to be kept alive are ones with an antenna port, typically absent on older or smaller models. These TVs must be combined with supplemental devices to get a picture.

Apparently, there are battery-powered digital TVs available, but they’re more expensive and early models weren’t very dependable. The article suggests an NOAA weather radio as a cheaper alternative.