Sunday, September 03, 2017

Harvey will and should affect future individual and political decision-making on the Gulf Coast, but is no excuse for governmental mandates to preempt those processes

In response to my post from Friday afternoon regarding the long history of continuously on-going debates, going back to Houston's founding in 1836, about flood risks and flood control, commenter mg wrote:

So many places in America are built in flood zones. These places will continue to flood until they move.

Continuous rebuilding is insanity.

That's a succinct version of an absolutely valid and near-universal concern I'm seeing in both national and local media as a result of Hurricane Harvey. I certainly don't disagree with the assertion that continuous rebuilding can be, and often is, insanity. I do think it's important, though, to put that concern into its appropriate historical, economic, and governmental contexts.

Of course there is second-guessing, after a catastrophe like this one, of the recent and continuing choices made by people who choose to live in or around Houston, or in or around any similar coastal flood plain. And as this comment implies, some of them have certainly made, and are continuing to make, decisions that are comparatively riskier than other people could endure.

As long as the choices are fully informed ones, however, I'm generally okay with that. Flooding is only one type of catastrophe. Other Americans choose to live in places where there are frequent blizzards, or where there is a comparatively high risk of forest fires, or earthquakes, or mudslides — and yes, even volcanos. Mother Nature and her planet have a wide range of methods they can use to remind us, periodically but emphatically, of our limits and our mortality as a species.

In general, I much prefer that those choices be left to the lowest levels possible:

  • individual homeowners & businesspeople in the first instance, making free-market transactions whose terms reflect their respective evaluations of risks and benefits;
  • local and county governments and flood control & water districts interacting with those decision-makers to address problems of scale;
  • state government only becoming involved when problems of scale exceed those the smaller governmental units can handle; and
  • the federal government only on a few well-defined subjects with interstate or international ramifications (Army Corps of Engineers & FEMA being the obvious ones).

That pyramid of authority crowd-sources the decision-making; better ensures the transparency of those decision-making processes; allocates responsibility preferentially at the levels at which inadequate public servants are easiest to spot and replace; and preserves as much economic and personal liberty as possible consistent with collective public safety. And indeed, that's pretty much the model on which Houston and the rest of the Texas Gulf Coast generally operate. Harvey isn't going to change that much, although it might occasion some re-definitions of responsibility along the margins — and that's appropriate as we learn from every new challenge like this.

A friend of mine who lives in Fort Bend County was telling me about an internet debate going on among residents there on the county emergency management's website. Some homeowners were claiming to have been surprised, or even affirmatively misled, about the long-term flood risks of their subdivisions. One of the county officials pointed out that to gain physical entry to these subdivisions, anyone and everyone quite literally has to drive up, over, and down these same levies that are containing the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs. Those are the man-made structures intended, and now still serving, to contain, temporarily, the run-off from directly upstream of Houston. And thus they're the ones from which these "controlled releases" are being deliberately made — despite the grim and utter certainty that they will indeed flood a limited number of neighborhoods — to avoid Katrina-scale failures that would produce thousands of deaths. You can't fail to know that your subdivision faces potential flood risks associated with those reservoirs unless you drive home with your eyes shut.

But some people have nevertheless had their minds closed to that possibility, regardless of what their eyes were seeing, and they will now have had their literal and figurative viewpoints adjusted by this flooding. Some of them will indeed proclaim, "No more! ­­¡Nada mas!" Accordingly, they'll sell — into a real estate market that is now hyper-aware of these risks, so depending on their urgency, they may incur relatively greater financial losses — and they'll relocate. But in every market there are — grim pun warning! — bottom-fishers who will hope to profit from others' panicky decisions. There will be buyers who are as tickled to buy, at some price, as these sellers are to sell. Both will end up comparatively "richer," given his or her individual evaluation of both tangible and intangible components of being "rich," after the transaction, including the fellow who's been made poorer by Harvey's floods. Time will tell whether in any individual transaction, the buyer or the seller made the best deal, but that's true in all such transactions, hurricanes or no.

I'm likewise okay with that. My ex, whose house in Meyerland once again did not flood, despite being severely menaced by rising waters of not only Harvey but other recent flash flooding in the neighborhood (including the "Tax Day" flood), commented to me that now, if she wanted to sell her house, she can truthfully represent that it "survived Harvey untouched and unflooded," when others four blocks over didn't. Her house's value relative to others in her subdivision has just gone up, actually — although the whole subdivision's average and cumulative values have surely gone down, at least for the present. Yet the things that have caused property values to rise continuously in that subdivision — convenience to downtown and the medical center, some of the best public schools in HISD (including Bellaire High School, from which all four of our children graduated), and a congenial community of relatively well-educated and diverse residents willing and eager to support the neighborhood's merchants and services and restaurants — are still present. They'll continue to play a part in people's future economic and personal decisions. Flood risk versus being zoned to really good schools: There are subjective elements to that comparison, and objective elements that affect some people but not others, and therefore there is no one "right" answer, no one size or one discount rate or one set of calculations that would work equally well (or at all) for all potential actors.

Independent decisions whether to move into or out of Meyerland, or Cinco Ranch, or Rockport, or any other afflicted neighborhoods and towns throughout the Texas Gulf Coast, should now and hereafter factor in all of the data and experience generated by Harvey. Harvey will have affected the price-point at which those decisions should flip if people are making rational economic decisions. But those individual decisions will still vary widely depending on individual risk tolerance, and on individual assessments of the compensating benefits which might justify a knowing assumption of those risks.

And likewise, as part of that process, those decision-makers should factor in the possibilities and probabilities of further short-, middle-, and long-term flood control prospects to guard against future storms and floods. Some of the houses in Fort Bend County that have been flooded by the controlled releases actually demonstrated before those releases that nothing short of a storm like Harvey will flood them, which in turn suggests that they're at relatively low future risk during "ordinary hurricanes," if there is such a category. But the chance of eliminating the risks associated with living next to those reservoirs is zero in the short and middle term. In Meyerland, by contrast, there are surely already engineers and planners crafting and computer-modeling short- and middle-term civic improvements, ranging from minimalist but important ones (keeping storm drains righteously cleared) to big ones (constructing new drainage waterways or deepening existing ones). Houston and Harris County politics are about to get a lot more intense, and lots of people who've been ignoring them are going to now be watching them and, yes, more actively participating in them, and not just on election day.

I'm all in favor of continuing the continuing study of and debate about Houston's flooding problems; that's normal, natural, and essential, and it's a continuation of what we've been doing before, but now with additional data that must be accommodated and given due weight.

I'm not in favor of some sort of sweeping, top-down, and especially federally-imposed mandates that would preempt those normal economic and political processes. But I worry — because we live in an era in which many politicians and special interest groups insist that no big crisis should be allowed to go to waste (i.e., no opportunity to demagogue using people's misery should be missed) — that such mandates are exactly what some folks would like to see imposed. Some of those folks will be motivated by a belief that their decisions would be best for everyone, and others will be motivated more cynically, by the recognition of emotional vulnerabilities that can be tapped to raise money for favored causes and to elect favored candidates that have little or nothing to do with flood control or mitigation.

I'd likewise argue for the rights of those Americans who choose to live near volcanoes to make those choices for themselves, even though that's not a choice that I find either appealing or even tolerable for myself. But the ability to make free choices is essential if we expect people to take personal responsibility, and to make better decisions because they've undertaken that responsibility.

We're a better society, a freer society, if we do expect people to drive home with their eyes open.

Posted by Beldar at 02:40 PM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (17)

Friday, September 01, 2017

Flood risks and flood control aren't new topics of debate in Houston

Today's Wall Street Journal contains this article about a neighborhood very close to me, Meyerland, where my ex and two of my adult kids live: "Flooded Again, a Houston Neighborhood Faces a Wrenching Choice." The subhead reads: "After three floods in three years, Meyerland, a thriving community of 2,300 homes, weighs deep ties against risks of rebuilding." Many of the images of spectacular flooding last Saturday night and Sunday, before and just after Harvey first made landfall, were shot in Meyerland. A friend of mine on Facebook noted that the TV newscasters were jokingly referring to the freeway exit from Loop 610W onto Beechnut (which runs through Meyerland) as "The Beechnut Boat Ramp," because that was indeed where many rescue boats were being launched and recovered.

To its credit, this article avoids the flaw of most I'm reading in the national media now, and of even more woefully uninformed commenters from the public on social media and blogs — the assumption (or presumption, really) that everyone in Houston has somehow been caught off guard by the very notion of flooding during hurricanes and heavy storms.

It's annoying to me and many of my fellow Houstonians when outsiders don't credit us with having recognized our recurring flooding and drainage problems, as if Houston has just been blithely ignorant of them. In fact, people have been debating, and then acting upon, flood control/flooding issues in the public sphere pretty much continuously since the Allen Brothers founded the city on the banks of Buffalo Bayou in 1836. It's always been subject to flooding, with varying consequences.

And we certainly were aware of that little incident in nearby Galveston in 1900 — the one which still stands as the greatest natural disaster in American history, with 6k+ killed. That turned Galveston from a mighty port and leading Texas city into the much more modest tourist-focused place it is today, and it turned Houston's slightly inland location into an important comparative feature that worked to our frank advantage at Galveston's expense. Seal_of_Houston _TexasWe billed ourselves as "The City Where Seven Railroads Meet the Sea" — a major port that's nevertheless only connected to that sea by the Ship Channel, built out along Buffalo Bayou downstream from downtown. (That's why there's a railroad locomotive on the Official Seal of the City of Houston, by the way, and not a steamship.)

Flood risk, flood control, and the complications of both from further building and development, are all legitimate issues of public debate on which reasonable people can have, do have, and have always had legitimate grounds for disagreement. Obviously we have a bunch of new data to incorporate in those ongoing discussions and debates, political and otherwise; obviously this event is going to affect things like real estate prices and construction costs going forward.

But as Mayor Turner is correctly quoted as saying in this article:

"You cannot significantly mitigate flooding and drainage on the cheap," the mayor said. "And a lot of people don’t want to pay, but you’re going to pay sooner or later."

Who pays, how much, and for what: All of these are important questions — but they're not new questions, and while you may not like the results of the past debates, you can't deny that they've taken place.

These aren't simple questions either, nor are the answers unambiguous or clear. And the "right" answer for some places and some people isn't necessarily the "right" answer for other places and people situated cheek-by-jowl — although our situations are also certainly interdependent to a considerable degree.

Right now, the neighborhoods being flooded in west Harris County and Fort Bend County include new, affluent, and well-planned subdivisions that were built with full knowledge of the flooding and drainage problems of the area, and likewise in full knowledge of the continuing likelihood of further development that would affect all their assumptions. During the storm itself, despite record rainfalls, those neighborhoods fared quite well. The choices made by their developers were sound. What's now happening to them isn't the result of bad planning by the people who designed and built them so much as a black swan event — a flood so severe and widespread that as it drained toward the coast, the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs would be threatened with massive (Katrina-scale) failure, but for the "controlled releases" which have now been reluctantly decreed even though they are flooding those neighborhoods.

If Harvey had happened in a lot of other places that are less flood-prone (and flood-experienced) than we are, but that pride themselves on their civic order and zoning and whatnot, those places would assuredly have flooded too, and probably worse than we have, because (as this article reflects) we've been actively working to become less vulnerable because we are indeed so focused on these risks. My ex's house in Meyerland survived Harvey without flooding, just barely; but without the serious drainage improvements that had just been completed there within the last two years (some of them within the last six months), this storm would definitely have flooded her house. 

Posted by Beldar at 05:54 PM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (12)

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Harvey has created untold heroes from ordinary people responding magnificently

Americans and people the world over are watching heart-grabbing, jaw-dropping, eye-watering videos and stories from Harvey via a combination of the national TV news networks and the major news websites, plus their own social media platforms, with their customized profiles based on their particular histories, preferences, settings, etc., influenced directly and indirectly by their respective locations and sets of friends.

Houstonians like me who've not been much directly affected by Harvey are watching those same national media, of course. Many of us are supplementing the national networks, or deserting them, for local TV news stations, whose coverage and performance is in every respect superior to their national counterparts. Local reporting is more in depth, of course, and more knowledgeable, of course, and better connected to history, of course. But it's also showing significantly better perspective and judgment, with less hysteria, less ratings-pandering, less sensationalism, and vastly more critically useful factual information.

Moreover, and less obviously: My Facebook feed, customized to my set of friends and contacts, is giving me a constant, steady set of more granular news in parallel to what I'm seeing on TV (local or national) or other general internet sources.

So to my friends in, say, California: I'm seeing the heroic stories you're seeing. But I'm also seeing dozens of individual people I know — neighbors, relatives, law colleagues and judges, old friends from college, people I've "met" only online — engaged in quiet, effective, and almost completely unreported heroism. There's no reason why FB would be or could be curating this sort of thing effectively for the vast set of people who aren't living in Houston or on the Gulf Coast or otherwise involved in the rescue & recovery efforts.

But these smaller, less flashy rescues, these bunking arrangements, these boat loans and sandwich deliveries and "I heard from your cousin, she's alive!" messages that I'm seeing pass among my fellow Houstonians through the particular lens of my set of FB friends — these things, individually and especially cumulatively, are awe-inspiring. These decent acts, these attempts to be useful and helpful, are more striking to me precisely because unlike the heroes I'm seeing on TV, these particular acts of heroism are being performed by people I already know. And I think it's a very reasonable inference that millions of other Houstonians in my approximate position are likewise seeing a different set of people who they know, who are being similarly heroic during Harvey — but of whom you and I are utterly unaware, and always will be.

My eyes are red. I've been choked up in admiration so many times in the last 72 hours — most often about small bits of sanity and kindness and extraordinary calm and love that no one, or no more than a handful of other people, will ever see, or know about, or remember. 

I can't cut and paste those stories or copy those photos here, of course. I'm sure it would be against FB's fine print, and a complete breach of trust with anyone who's shared those communications with me on the assumption that they'd not be redistributed beyond his or her FB friends. So you're just going to have to take my word for it, I guess, or the word of others here in Houston while this is going on:

There are thousands, indeed tens of thousands, of bona fide and unsung heroes for each one we're seeing on TV. The ones on TV are genuinely representative, and I'm glad their deeds are being sung. They are inspirational without contrivance.

But to borrow a phrase from Twain: you can't swing a dead cat without hitting one of the unsung heroes in Houston right now — whether it's someone in any of the relief areas, someone coordinating resources and people on the internet, or someone showing up to work today to restock a grocery store shelf or clean up some debris piles. 

Inevitably in time, more controversy will ensue, and some of it will be incited. Too many take seriously that stuff about not letting a good crisis go to waste, and this is a doozy. That may, and probably will, inevitably tarnish, at least in the perception of some people, the pride and goodwill that's so abundant in Houston today, as we fight back against this chaos.

But controversy won't eliminate those memories, nor unwrite this history of ordinary people responding magnificently, heroically in ways big and small, under extraordinary circumstances.


UPDATE (Weds. Aug. 30 @ 11:40 pm): I don't actually have permission to re-post this photo, but since it's of my niece Liana Dyer James' husband David, I'm going to post it here anyway, since he was one of the many, many people I had in mind when I wrote the original post.

David (white shirt & reversed ball cap) looks like a Navy SEAL, but he's actually a broker and financial advisor in his day job, a devoted husband & family man, and a leader in his hometown community and his church. He and a friend hitched up their boat and drove down from Palestine to help in the rescue efforts. No one told them to, or asked them to. They aren't being paid or reimbursed. They don't have FEMA name tags or a Coast Guard helicopter. But they just couldn't not do it — like so many of the others who're volunteering in these relief efforts.

In this photo, they're using their boat to transport a flooded-out family to safety, but part of that process requires negotiating some shallow standing water by foot — a scene repeated hundreds of times in dozens of places all over the Houston area today. And they're not just grimly toiling, but rather, they're deliberately doing their very best to lighten the mood, to find some humor, and to celebrate these kiddos' "first-ever boat rides! Whee!" so that perhaps these kids can someday remember the Hurricane Harvey rescue they needed as something that was noble and redeeming, instead of something unrelievedly sad and tragic. 

David James doing rescues

I could strip my FB feed for probably twenty other photos like this of Texans I personally know and love, ordinary people, who're doing exactly this kind of thing, but whom you won't see on TV. But this one magnificent photo will suffice to make my point, I think.

Posted by Beldar at 08:49 AM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (25)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tap, tap, tap — is this thing still on? Hurricane Harvey has Beldar blogging at least briefly

I don't know whether I'll ever return to regular blogging. Since its inception in 2003, and despite several long periods of inactivity, I've kept this blog online to preserve its content, for it is indeed a personal online journal for the times that I have been regularly blogging. And I continue to refer back to it myself, to remind myself of details regarding the various events and topics I've written about here. Sometimes I leave links to those past posts in comments I leave on other media, along the lines of, "As I argued in 2009, yada yada ...."

Hurricane Harvey has been an impetus for me to leave lots of comments elsewhere — some on one of my old favorites and continuing daily reads, Patterico's Pontifications, and many others on Facebook. (I have a personal policy against arguing about politics on Facebook, however: My FB friends include a lot of people who don't share my politics, and I'd rather not argue "in public" with them in front of other FB friends, just as a matter of personal preference and boundaries.) This seems like a good place, and for some purposes a better place, to collect my current and recent written thoughts about this epochal event I'm still living through.

So I'm going to republish here, in the next few minutes, a series of nine lightly edited comments or posts I've left elsewhere — for now, limited to my personal observations and experiences with Hurricane Harvey. (I've backdated the publication dates here to match the dates and times on which I posted on the original media.) Click here if you want to start with the earliest of the posts in their original chronological order.

Any such series must start with my grateful acknowledgement and disclosure, the very happiest of spoiler alerts:

So far, I'm safe and dry, having suffered no worse than worry and mild cabin fever during Hurricane Harvey; likewise my ex and our adult kids. We are incredibly fortunate. But like almost every Houstonian, we also have dear friends who've been flooded out of their homes, and who're looking at extremely grim prospects for the short and middle term as they try to replace their losses, to the extent that's even possible, and to re-build their lives.

For anyone who finds his or her way here — or in the case of a few extremely kind folks who've been at least occasional readers when I blogged regularly, his or her way back here — I hope you'll find this at least mildly interesting and less than a complete waste of your time and bandwidth.

I'm going to re-open comments at least briefly on these posts, but my tolerance for suffering fools and abusers is likely to be pretty limited, so please behave appropriately if you choose to comment. And notwithstanding the last post that preceded this new series — a satirical post written in October 2015, when I thought Donald Trump had little to no chance of winning the GOP nomination, much less the White House — I'm not yet inviting discussion on that post, Trump, the 2016 elections, or other matters political. Perhaps that will change with future posts, if any; we'll see.

Posted by Beldar at 10:28 PM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (15)

Context to appreciate the miraculously low death toll (so far) from Hurricane Harvey

[From a post I left on Facebook at 3:01 p.m. on Tuesday, August 29, 2017:]

The Galveston Hurricane of 1900 is, by far, the worst natural disaster in American history as measured by numbers killed. Even at the low end of the estimations, at least 6000 died, and it might have been twice that. The 1906 San Francisco fire & earthquake and 9/11 are the next-runners-up, at around 3000 deaths. But so far, the death toll from Harvey seems to be in single or very low double digits.

Front page, San Francisco Call, Sep. 10, 1900

The property damage being created by Harvey is simply mind-boggling, and with it the emotional toll — which ranges from the mild exhaustion felt by those of us (like me) who've been comparatively unaffected otherwise, to those of us (like some people I know) who've lost everything they own, including all their most precious keepsakes, and who are now having to contemplate rebuilding their entire lives.

And each of the deaths we have had — most recently, to the collective shock and horror of our city, 60-year-old Sgt. Steve Perez of the HPD, drowned while trying to report back to work — are tragic, not to be minimized or forgotten in looking at the big-picture statistics. For the Perez family, the low overall casualty figures are very poor consolation, except insofar as they reflect the combined bravery of Sgt. Perez and everyone else like him who are involved in the rescue & recovery efforts during this crisis.

HPD Sgt. Steve Perez, Fallen Hero: Requiescat in pace

But compared to most other recent large-scale natural disasters — Hurricane Katrina in 2005 jumps out immediately in our memories, with 1833 fatalities attributed to it — it is nevertheless ASTONISHING that the Harvey casualty tolls are so small, especially given the vastly greater population involved and at risk.

We aren't past this by any means. The death toll will rise, for much risk remains and some rivers and bayous are still rising, and there may already have been some deaths that haven't yet been discovered. But there is already SO MUCH that we have to be grateful for and appreciative of! Take heart from that, and let it buoy your spirits (pun definitely intended) as you continue to view the heartbreaking images from this event.

Posted by Beldar at 03:01 PM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0)

Highly localized yet widely distributed pockets of disaster in Houston

[From a post I left on Facebook at 2:04 a.m. on Tuesday, August 29, 2017:]

Network and local TV tonight are showing lots of video from the George R. Brown Convention Center on the east side of downtown, where something close to 10,000 Houstonians are temporarily sheltering, roughly five times as many as there were last night. Kudos to the City personnel who're handling that.

But consider: The George R. Brown Convention Center is an easy five-minute drive or 15-minute walk, less than a mile, from Buffalo Bayou, which has left its banks to utterly flood parts of downtown Houston, including the area on the northeast side of downtown that contains most Harris County buildings (including the Civil Courts Building).

Brown Conv to Civil Cts Bldg

That vividly illustrates just how incredibly LOCALIZED yet DISTRIBUTED this disaster is. Some of the greatest disaster scenes are only a few hundred yards away from some of the beacons of shelter and safety. That's just the nature of this flood. The good news is that evacuees don't have to flee half-way across Texas to be safe, or even half-way across Houston (for there are other shelters more convenient than the Brown for many other evacuees).

Posted by Beldar at 02:04 AM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 28, 2017

More non-catastrophic pix from Houston during Hurricane Harvey

[From a post I left on Facebook at 8:08 p.m. on Monday, August 28, 2017:]

Cyber & I took a quick walk just now to snap some photos of non-catastrophe — and one (but only one) of us took the opportunity to go swimming, on purpose!

There are indeed tens of thousands of Harvey victims in and around Houston who are flooded, or have been flooded, or who may still be flooded — and that might still include me later tonight or tomorrow. Everyone's appropriately fixated on these victims' tragedy, and we're all eager for this to be over so we can begin putting things right again. But:

There are also hundreds of thousands of folks who are doing okay — better than we were during, say, Hurricane Ike — even while this surreal and record-setting catastrophe is playing out, at least for this moment. Lots of us haven't been flooded, and we still have power. We're still hunkered down, we're trying to help our less fortunate neighbors, but we're not all 30 seconds away from needing a helicopter rescue, which you might mistakenly conclude from watching the national news.



Our short walk reassured me about my immediate neighbors' well-being, but it also demonstrated the continuing wisdom of staying put, out of your vehicles and off the roads! While my own street in Sharpstown is in good shape, I wouldn't be able to drive three blocks without hitting dangerously flooded intersections, any one of which might get worse even after I'd already decided to turn back.

SO HUNKER LIKE YOU MEAN IT, friends and neighbors! Help your neighbors according to your capacities and their needs, but for most of us, the best thing we can do is stay home, out of the way of the well-equipped helpers (with boats and monster trucks and the like), where we won't end up adding to the total of people needing rescues.








UPDATE at 3:30pm on Tuesday: Cyber & I took another walk about two hours ago, and the intersections that were lightly flooded in these photos are all clear now, blacktop exposed (albeit still wet from continuing sprinkling).

I then drove a few blocks, to the intersection of SW Freeway & Fondren, where I indulged in the guilty pleasure of a fast food run at Burger King. I'd chatted a while with the manager last Friday, as she was still juggling staff and making preparations to close early so her folks could get home safely. Today she gave me a huge grin and thanked me for coming to see them now that they'd re-opened; she plans to send her employees home before dark, but right now they're making burgers as fast as they can. (I don't normally tip at fast food restaurants, but today I asked her to share my $20 tip on a $10 order among her staff.)

The Shell station next door was doing normal business, right down to the half-dozen folks sitting on stools playing those supposedly-not-gambling slot machines. The ice cooler was nearly full of 8# bags of ice.

The whole scenario was shocking in its normality, although it's a normality colored by the knowledge that we wouldn't have had to go very far to find a shockingly different scene of flooding and devastation.

Posted by Beldar at 08:08 PM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0)

Beldar spots what he hopes is the end of the beginning of the Hurricane Harvey disaster

[Reprinted, as edited & expanded, from a comment I left on Patterico's Pontifications at 11:57 a.m. on Monday, August 28, 2017:]

It’s official: Day 4 of Harvey, and with very rare exceptions, the people of Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast are responding magnificently to this catastrophic event. The death and injury rates are amazingly small overall. So far today, during relatively lighter rains, thousands of stranded people and people who’ve been flooded are being relocated. The civic mechanisms and preparedness are working reasonably well even though these are uniquely difficult challenges, but as always, the citizenry — helping themselves, helping each other — are picking up all of the considerable slack.

In terms of storm damage, this is going to end up being a much less severe hurricane than several I’ve seen in Houston since moving here in 1980 — much less than Alicia or Ike, for instance. Instead, most of the consequences in Houston and its immediate environs are from flash flooding. Saturday and Sunday the flash floods were from heavy rains that didn’t have time to run off. Hereafter it’s going to be flash floods mostly from upstream drainage, and our rivers and bayous, which were already out of their banks, are going to continue to rise and remain dangerous for several more days at a minimum. It thus more resembles past storms like Claudette (which I experienced from Galveston Island in 1979) and Allison (which set the previous rainfall records, but will be eclipsed by Harvey).

The very substantial silver lining, though, as compared to Ike or Alicia, is that we still have many facilities and many neighborhoods that still have power and that are (at the moment) safe to use. People who have to evacuate — including from some very affluent and newly constructed suburban areas that are now about to be deliberately flooded as the Corps of Engineers makes controlled releases from the Barker and Addicks Reservoirs (along the tops of which I’ve cycled dozens of times, it’s a mix of parkland and upscale new subdivisions) — don’t necessarily have to navigate hundreds of miles of dangerous and obstructed roads to somewhere like Austin or Dallas. Instead, most of them can find temporary housing here in the parts of Houston that aren’t affected, among friends or if not, in the short term, in government and charitable organization shelters.

Last night we started getting some much more favorable forecasts in terms of the intensity of the rainfall expected today and for the rest of the week. I’m seeing confirmation of those predictions in the skies today. There are good prospects that the intensity, if not necessarily the duration, of the rainfall may lessen.

I’m still dry and haven’t lost power, water, or internet for more than a few seconds so far. My ex and two of my adult children are sheltering at her house in Meyerland. Earlier tonight, I was watching national newscasts showing boat rescues from the Knob Hill Apartments, which are perhaps 300 yards from my ex’s house — but which same 300 yards put those apartments too close to Braes Bayou as it escaped its banks. But thankfully, the flooding on her street has now drained off sufficiently to see the blacktop again, after coming all the way up to (but not quite over) her front porch in the wee small hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning. My other two adult kids are also hunkered down safely at their respective apartments, well prepared and provisioned. As for our closest friends, though: while many of them are in the same good circumstances we are, almost everyone in Houston knows someone who’s been flooded out or who’s facing mandatory or highly-advisable evacuations from their particular neighborhoods.

But although many of us have been spared injury and major property damage so far, this event is turning the lives of everyone in the Houston area upside down in important ways. The bayou on which the Allen Brothers founded Houston in 1836 and that runs through downtown — Buffalo Bayou, which continues from downtown to the Ship Channel and Galveston Bay — is preposterously out of its banks. To appear in court today, I would literally have needed scuba gear. But of course there was no court today, and won’t be this week.

Harris County Criminal Justice Center at 1201 Franklin St. downtown on Sunday, Aug. 27, 2017

I am nevertheless cautiously optimistic that we’ve seen the worst of this one. To borrow from Churchill, this isn’t the end, or the beginning of the end. But I think we’ve now seen the end of the beginning. 

Posted by Beldar at 11:57 AM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Keeping perspective is as important as keeping aware, folks

[From a post I left on Facebook at 5:29 p.m. on Sunday, August 27, 2017:]

This one will set some records. But as in prior Houston floods — and I've experienced every one of them since August 1980 — what's happening in one neighborhood, or on one block, or to one house, may be entirely different from what's "typical" or "average" or "normal."

There are shocking, stunning videos sweeping the TV networks and the internet right now. They're stunning to us Houstonians too, those who are able to watch them, because we recognize those places!

But I haven't seen a photo of a "normal" Houston street on the TV for at least 24 hours. I'm not fussing at them for that, because normal isn't "news" at any time, and they're still doing a valuable public service in suppressing the number of people getting out and moving around right now. Except for PD & FD & other first responders, medical personnel, etc. — bless every one of them! — those people out on the streets are bad gamblers, self-identifying as Darwin Award candidates.

But there are many, many houses and streets and subdivisions that are, by and large, still unharmed and unflooded. At the moment I'm lucky enough to be sitting in one such house, although I'm as horrified as everyone else by the video I'm watching from not very far away. I may be tempting fate by posting this, but here's the view from my front porch a couple of hours ago. My view hasn't changed since then; it might change dramatically in an hour; and it might look completely different from someone's only a few hundreds of yards away from me in the same subdivision.


I hear talking heads arguing already about, "Should such-and-such have been done?" Friends & neighbors, let's wait until the event is mostly over before we even start that, okay? Those discussions will happen, but they require completed and objective data to be meaningful, and that's not remotely in yet.

But if you're in the middle of this: Keep your wits and your sense of proportion. Keep your situational awareness, as they say in the military. Don't get spooked into something foolish because you're overreacting to what you saw on TV if your own conditions are still different.

And if you're not from here, but just worried about friends and loved ones and fellow human beings in the most diverse city in the U.S. — of whom I'm so incredibly extra proud at the moment — thanks for your good wishes, remember your charitable organizations, and don't presume that everyone's undergoing the worst of what you just saw on the TV news. Yet, anyway.

Posted by Beldar at 05:29 PM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proportion and the media during Harvey

[From a comment I left at Patterico's Pontifications on Sunday, August 27, 2017:]

Reporting from Houston’s Sharpstown neighborhood at 1:45pm Central:

Wherever you’re watching from, don’t completely freak out from watching the media. For some people this is genuinely catastrophic, although mostly in terms of property damage rather than injuries and deaths.

For a great many other people, though, this has so far been nothing worse than cabin fever — we’re the lucky ones. So far, “the lucky ones” include me & my dog, my ex and our kids, and our closest friends and colleagues scattered around the city.

The danger now to Houston and its environs is from flash flooding prompted by continuing rains. We’re on the “dirty side” of the eye still, meaning Harvey is still lifting moisture from the Gulf and dumping it on us. There are many reports of tornadoes, but those have been isolated and transient; wind and storm-surge damage aren’t the big problems now. Note well, and be thankful: Power outages are worse, and harder to fix, during heavy wind. As a consequence, there are an awful lot of people in Houston who still have AC and lights and internet — but we’re watching all the media reporting with one eye, and the fluctuating water levels on our streets and yards outside with the other.

The media coverage is of course lopsidedly (but appropriately) slanted to show the disastrous rather than the unchanged. There’s no shortage of breath-taking visuals and testimonials. The local TV coverage would make me crazy if I watched it continuously, so I’ve been alternating with old movies I’ve DVR’d (yes, that was also part of my storm prep). Social media — Facebook in particular — is also serving a genuine public service in this natural disaster, as a means for people to keep track of large crowds of friends and loved ones without swamping the telephone lines.

So yes, Harvey’s a disaster, very much so for some people — but not (yet) much at all for many others. It’s the proportions, and where they’ll settle out, that are still at issue.

Throughout this, I’m immensely proud of my fellow Houstonians and Texans overall. There’s lots of genuine concern leavened with experienced good humor and fellowship, but very little whinging and an astonishingly small amount of genuine panic.

Thanks for the thoughts & positive thinking, though! That certainly can’t hurt, and there are lots of less lucky folks on the Gulf Coast who need all the help of whatever type they can get.

Posted by Beldar at 01:45 PM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 25, 2017

Better than just filling the tub if a hurricane threatens your water supply

[From a post I left on Facebook at 1:54 p.m. on Friday, August 25, 2017:]

If you live somewhere hurricane-prone and don't already have one of these, they're a modest and prudent investment for next time, I highly recommend the WaterBOB


It works exactly as you'd think from the photo, and stores 100 gallons without worries about contamination or leakage. It beats the heck out of trying to seal your bathtub drain with Saran Wrap or its regular stopper. At $22.70 from, it's well worthwhile just for your peace of mind. I've given several to relatives and friends, and one is filling one of my bathtubs at this very moment.



UPDATE (Thursday August 31 @ 1:35 a.m.): I reviewed this product in slightly more detail and considerably more drama at Writing from Houston during Hurricane Harvey: I'd give this product SIX STARS if I could! Brilliant!.

Posted by Beldar at 01:54 PM in Current Affairs, Technology/products, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0)

Houston Hurricane Hunkering Team

[From a post I left on Facebook at 11:55 a.m. on Friday, August 25, 2017:]

During my last-minute Hurricane Harvey preparations and errands this morning (for inevitably, as landfall approaches, there's something else you think of that you might like to have), I had brief face-to-face encounters with probably three dozen strangers. These were just fellow Houstonians I saw while out and about, including cashiers, other customers, people returning shopping carts in the parking lot, and so forth. Just "folks," all doing what I was doing, or (in the case of those at work still) helping us do it.


Without a single exception, everyone with whom I made eye contact smiled, and 90% of them spoke (or replied to me) with some word of greeting and encouragement. "Stay safe," I heard perhaps a dozen times. Us old-timers practically radiated calm and fellowship toward each other and anyone else in earshot and smile range.

"Hunkered down?"

"Yup, how 'bout you?"

"Yessir! Stay safe!"

"Y'all stay dry, okay?"

This is all so genuine, so spontaneous — and so typical of Houston. It put me in a very mellow good mood, one that might surprise people who are high and dry but worried about their Texas Gulf Coast friends right now.

Posted by Beldar at 11:55 AM in Current Affairs, Texas | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Yes, I knew about the hurricanes before I moved here!

[Reprinted from a post I left on Facebook at 11:09 p.m. on Thursday, August 24, 2017, as Hurricane Harvey approached the Texas Gulf Coast:]

I was on Galveston Island for Tropical Storm Claudette in July 1979, which washed out the bridges to the mainland and forced a mid-trial recess in the jury trial I was helping out on as a summer law clerk.

Hurricane Allen greeted me a couple of days after I moved full-time to Houston in 1980; it was a record-setting Cat 5 over the Gulf and parts of Mexico but had diminished, fortunately, by the time it got here.

Buffalo Bayou flooding near downtown after Hurricane Alicia in August 1983

I had a jury deliberating in Judge Hugo Touche's 129th District Court in the old Civil Courts Building well into the late afternoon hours, as Hurricane Alicia approached on Thursday, August 18, 1983, with its eye already predicted — accurately, it turned out! — to pass directly over downtown Houston at about midnight. We'd done our closing arguments the prior afternoon, and our jury had started deliberating that morning at 9:00 a.m. Now we were the last folks in the courthouse; all the windows were taped, and some were boarded with plywood. But the edges of the blinds on some of the courtroom's windows still flashed red and white in crazy patterns — from the cherry-tops on the law enforcement vehicles parked to block the streets outside: Downtown Houston had been evacuated and its entrances barricaded by uniformed HPD officers.

The jury sent out a note which asked, pithily: "What happens if we don't reach a verdict before the Hurricane?"

Judge Touche wrote a reply which said, "If you cannot reach a verdict today, I will discharge you until next Tuesday." Being quite literal, the jurors interpreted "today" to mean "on this calendar day" — in other words, that he was planning to kept them deliberating until midnight! In fact, he was willing to let them go as soon as they wanted to, since it was already after 5pm. But with this incentive, we had a verdict in about four minutes. The time pressure helped move a holdout from the 9/3 vote in my client's favor that they'd been stuck on since noon, to the 10/2 required for a valid civil verdict.

Alicia was a lady to me, as Frank Sinatra might have said, or sung, if he'd had a jury out in a hurricane.

Allied Bank Plaza nka Wells Fargo Plaza, after Hurricane Alicia in August 1983

I tried to visit my office that Sunday, but downtown was still cordoned off, and the streets were covered for blocks with fine, sharp-edged shards of deep green glass — formerly the curtain wall of what was then Allied Bank Plaza (now the Wells Fargo Plaza), whose glass would've been fine except for the gravel roof on the Tenneco Building across the street: Alicia turned those bits of roofing gravel into 100 mph projectiles. It was surreal. All judicial deadlines in state and federal courts around Houston were extended across-the-board, no questions asked, for two weeks IIRC, and more than a few lawyers I knew had had the entire contents of their offices sucked out into the storm.

I've survived all the other storms 'tween then and now, and I've been consistently lucky. I've avoided being conspicuously stupid in any of those past storms and floods. I know the drill for sheltering in place. My tank's full, my provisions are in place, I have fresh batteries and my devices are charged, etc. Houston is home, and hurricanes are part of living here. Beats earthquakes and tornadoes IMHO, but YMMV.

Posted by Beldar at 11:09 PM in Current Affairs, Texas, Trial Lawyer War Stories | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Retrieved from the near future: Donald Trump's exit speech

Last night when I went to bed, my mind was still swirling with impressions from the third GOP Presidential Primary Debate. In my dream, I found myself transported into the relatively near future — exactly how near, I'm not sure, but it was certainly a date somewhere within the coming five or six months — and in this dream, my future self was watching a Donald Trump press conference.

I can't remember much else about the dream, but when I awoke, I found the following transcript beneath my pillow:

I have an important announcement to make. This is gonna be YUUUGE. Your ratings, I'm telling you now, your ratings are going to go through the roof on this broadcast, and you're going to kick yourself that you weren't as nice to me as you should've been, because if you had been, just a little nice, then I would have probably tipped you off about this in advance. And you could have pre-sold the ad time for $375,000 a minute, easy. But anyway:

I have an announcement! I'm withdrawing from the race because — get this, are you holding your breath? — I'm withdrawing from the race because I just finally realized that: Hey, I've already won!

No, seriously — I've already won, why keep running? Really!

Look, I only got into this race because I love America and I thought America was headed down the crapper — pshoosh! — and I started talking about the really important stuff, like how to get us turned around, and management, and lots of other really nice things, the sort of things you will be really really proud to see, you will be so proud, you will thank me. You will try to kiss me on both cheeks, except you probably better not because my security guys aren't always so nice, ya know? If someone is nice to me, they are nice to them. They're very nice men, but don't mess with them. I'm just tellin' ya.

So now all the other candidates are talking about exactly the things I wanted them to talk about. Me, Donald J. Trump. They are all reading in unison from my menu now. Now you tell me: How's that NOT winning, huh? HUH? Ha-hah!

(And oh — by the way, that Charlie Sheen guy, when he says "Win" or "Winner!" or whatever it is he says, I just want you to know: he got that from me. I did that first, he saw me, we were at a party and he saw me and he said he thought it was funny, and then the next thing I know I see him use it on TV. I didn't sue him or anything, although there were some really big-time lawyers, the best lawyers, who were begging me to let them take the case, and Charlie never apologized, but he knows, he knows what he did — and I won't forget.)

So anyway, I'm thinking to myself this morning: What do I wanna be the President for? Only a schmuck would actually want to have to DO that job! Do you know how many people watched Obama's last press conference? Three! No, seriously, it was three, or maybe four. And for the Republican debates, after I got in the race? Millions! Do you know how many Twitter followers I have now? I can't tell you, but you would be amazed. Your jaw would drop. So I have more power already than Obama, except for the nuclear weapons codes, and I could talk someone into giving me those, if I really wanted them for some reason, because you know, if you've read my book, "Trump: The Art of the Deal," ....

Pretty spooky!

Posted by Beldar at 06:08 PM in 2016 Election, Humor, Politics (2015) | Permalink | Comments (9)

Sunday, September 08, 2013

In 2011, Obama freed NSA from restraints on domestic spying that Dubya requested in 2008

You will search this WaPo story, entitled "Obama administration had restrictions on NSA reversed in 2011," without success for any mention of the Forty-Third President of the United States of America, even though his administration did not depart the White House until January 20, 2009. And yet:

The Obama administration secretly won permission from a surveillance court in 2011 to reverse restrictions on the National Security Agency’s use of intercepted phone calls and e-mails, permitting the agency to search deliberately for Americans’ communications in its massive databases, according to interviews with government officials and recently declassified material.

In addition, the court extended the length of time that the NSA is allowed to retain intercepted U.S. communications from five years to six years — and more under special circumstances, according to the documents, which include a recently released 2011 opinion by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, then chief judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

What had not been previously acknowledged is that the court in 2008 imposed an explicit ban — at the government’s request — on those kinds of searches, that officials in 2011 got the court to lift the bar and that the search authority has been used.

I think my post's headline above ought to have been the Washington Post's headline too — but surely somewhere in this report, they ought to have at least acknowledged the contrasting positions of the only two post-9/11 administrations.

Posted by Beldar at 03:40 PM in Global War on Terror, Law (2013), Mainstream Media, SCOTUS & federal courts | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)