Category Archives: Latest

As a result of Hurricane Harvey, 600 more Texas prisoners getting AC

Here's a look at an aerial view of flooding from Hurricane Harvey at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Terrell and Stringfellow units in Brazoria County on Aug. 30,  2017.

Thanks to Hurricane Harvey, about 600 more Texas prisoners are set to get a break from the sweltering Texas heat.

The inmates had been evacuated from the flood-prone Stringfellow Unit ahead of the storm. But Texas prison officials, scrambling to get the inmates to safety, sent them to the notoriously hot (though dry) Wallace Pack Unit in Navasota.

Once there, a judge ruled, the prisoners were made eligible to join a special class of heat-sensitive inmates subject to a federal lawsuit over hot conditions that have been blamed for nearly two dozen deaths over the last two decades. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice will now have to find cooler beds for them.

“The risk of harm to these individuals when they are housed in dangerously hot areas has not changed,” federal Judge Keith Ellison wrote in his order, which was made public Friday.

Department of Criminal Justice lawyers had requested that the temporary order be lifted for these prisoners because they were evacuated to the Pack Unit in an emergency situation. Ellison denied the request. Department spokesman Jason Clark said sending them to the Pack Unit was appropriate given the other options as Harvey was bearing down on the Houston area.

The non-air-conditioned prison in Navasota had largely been emptied because of the federal court’s July order to move any medically vulnerable inmates at the prison into temperatures that remain below 88 degrees.

“The alternative was for buses to pass the near empty facility and continue on dangerous roadways and place those offenders in another facility’s gymnasium,” Clark said in an emailed statement. “We stand by our decision to keep offenders out of harm’s way.”

Inmates return to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Ramsey and Terrell units from the Estelle Unit on Sept. 16. Prisoners were evacuated from state prisons in Brazoria County during flooding from Hurricane Harvey.
Inmates return to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Ramsey and Terrell units from the Estelle Unit on Sept. 16. Prisoners were evacuated from state prisons in Brazoria County during flooding from Hurricane Harvey. Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Jeff Edwards, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said the department moved the inmates into the Pack Unit “without regard to their medical conditions or their heat vulnerability.”

“The consequence of TDCJ violating the court’s order is that another 600 heat vulnerable inmates will no longer be endangered by the high temperatures,” Edwards said. “They did it with full knowledge that they were violating the court order.”

The judge’s ruling came just as most of the Texas inmates who were evacuated from flooded prison grounds are being sent back to their original units this weekend. All told, about 6,000 prisoners were evacuated to escape Harvey’s wrath. About 1,400 were already sent back to the Vance and Jester 3 units last Monday.

The 600 heat-sensitive inmates sent to the Pack Unit — including the elderly, obese and diabetic — were among more than 1,000 evacuees from the Stringfellow unit in Brazoria. Ironically, Stringfellow isn’t air-conditioned, either, but it doesn’t have the cursed status of the Pack Unit.

Not yet, anyway.

Almost 75 percent of Texas prisons and state jails have no air conditioning in the inmates’ living areas, and at some prisons, like the Pack Unit, temperatures regularly get above 100 degrees, according to the judge’s July ruling. The lawsuit filed by prisoners at the Pack Unit cites at least 23 heat-related deaths in Texas prisons since 1998 and argues that housing should be kept at a maximum of 88 degrees. The lawsuit covers all Pack unit inmates, regardless of their length of stay.

In a scathing July order, Ellison said TDCJ was “deliberately indifferent” to the risk of harm the inmates at the sweltering prison face. Because of the ruling, more than 1,000 inmates housed at the prison were moved in August to 11 other prisons with air conditioning.

TDCJ has appealed the court’s July order and says the department does enough to combat the heat without providing air-conditioning in housing areas, such as unlimited ice water, personal fans and air-conditioned “respite” areas in the prisons where inmates can go to escape the heat.

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Trooper fired for Sandra Bland stop: “My safety was in jeopardy.”

Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia

Former Texas Department of Safety Trooper Brian Encinia said he feared for his personal safety after pulling over Sandra Bland in Waller County on July 21, 2015.

“My safety was in jeopardy at more than one time,” said Encinia, during an interview by the agency’s Office of Inspector General, when asked if he was scared during the traffic stop.

Audio from the interview, which took place three months after Bland was found dead in her jail cell, was recently released to KXAN-TV. Encinia has never been questioned in a criminal or civil court or spoken publicly to explain his actions that day.

Encinia stopped Bland, 28, in Prairie View for failing to signal a lane change. Their interaction quickly became heated and she was ultimately arrested on suspicion of assaulting a public servant. She was found hanged in her jail cell three days later.

After her death, dashboard camera video of the arrest gained national attention and contradicted Encinia’s official report of the incident. He was fired from DPS and indicted on a perjury charge for lying in his report, but the charge was dropped after Encinia agreed to give up his police license and never seek another job in law enforcement.

In the audio recording, Encinia said he became concerned by the way Bland was acting and her movements inside her car as he watched from his patrol vehicle while writing her a warning citation.

“I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know if a crime was being committed, had been committed or whatnot,” said the trooper.

When asked what crime he believed Bland was committing, or about to commit, Encinia responded: “I had a feeling that anything could’ve been either retrieved or hidden within her area of control. My primary concern was with that purse, with her console, as far as being any kinds of weapons or drugs or, it’s unknown to me. I don’t know what happened, but something did, and to me that was the reasonable suspicion.”

But when investigators asked why he didn’t order Bland out of the car at that point, or ask what she was doing, Encinia said he had no answer.

In a newly released DPS use-of-force report from the arrest, Encinia’s supervisor says the trooper was rude when asking Bland why she seemed irritated and when he asked her if she was done after she stopped talking. The report also says he did not follow procedure when he didn’t tell Bland what action he was going to take and the situation had already gotten out of hand.

The interaction was tense almost immediately, and escalated after Encinia asked Bland to get out of the car when she refused to put out a cigarette. When she didn’t comply, he opened her car door, threatened to drag her out and told her, “I will light you up.”

“I think things could’ve been handled differently, yes sir. I still did have a concern for the area of her control that I didn’t know what was there, but I do agree that things could’ve been done differently,” said Encinia, when asked if he could have de-escalated the situation by telling Bland she was only being given a warning for the traffic violation.

When asked why he did not initially tell Bland why she was under arrest, Encinia said, “I don’t have a reason for that, no sir.”

Encinia denied racially profiling Bland, a black woman.

Encinia said Bland had driven through a stop sign as she left the Prairie View A&M campus, but the trooper admitted he was unsure if it was on private or public property.”I was unsure at the time if that stop sign was located at a public or private roadway,” said Encinia.

Knowing he could not ticket Bland for failure to stop at the sign, Encinia went on to explain why he followed her. “I was checking the condition of the vehicle, such as the make, the model, had a license plate, any other conditions.”

KXAN reached out to Encinia, but he declined an interview request. When asked if DPS had a comment, a spokesman for the department pointed out that DPS terminated Encinia.

Encinia’s statements during the DPS administrative investigation were criticized by the San Antonio-based attorney who helped represent the Bland family.

“First of all, the grand jury didn’t believe it. They indicted him. Secondly, the DPS didn’t believe it. They fired him. And thirdly, the family doesn’t believe it and I certainly don’t believe it,” said Bland family attorney Tom Rhodes. “It’s just nonsense. It was justification made up by him, in a not very intelligent way, to justify his illegal use of force against her.”

Additional material from Jolie McCullough of The Texas Tribune.

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Mysterious sea creature that washed up on Texas beach after Harvey identified

Photos of a mysterious sea creature that washed up on a Texas beach after Hurricane Harvey have gone viral.

The photos were posted on Twitter on Sept. 6 by Preeti Desai, a social media manager at the National Audubon Society.

Desai captioned the photos by saying, “Okay, biology twitter, what the heck is this?”

Okay, biology twitter, what the heck is this?? Found on a beach in Texas City, TX. #wildlifeid pic.twitter.com/9IUuuL65qh

— Preeti Desai? (@preetalina) September 6, 2017

Preeti said she spotted the creature on a beach about 15 miles outside Galveston.

She traveled to Texas with other conservationists to assess the damage from the storm.

The photos immediately went viral and garnered several responses from her followers and others on social media.

Desai told BBC News someone told her to contact Kenneth Tighe, a museum specialist who works in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Tighe said he believed the creature was a fangtooth snake-eel, or possibly a garden or conger eel, according to the BBC News article.

Tighe told Earth Touch News Network those eel species occur off the Texas coast and live in burrows 100-300 feet down.

Desai did not say how long or big the creature was but according to Fishbase.org, a male fangtooth snake-eel can reach a maximum total length of 84 centimeters.

After taking the photos, Desai told BBC News that she left the creature alone to let nature take its course.

She tweeted on Wednesday that the creature wasn’t frightening, colossal or a monster, just a sea creature trying to live its life.

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Within days, this Austin company hopes to start legally growing marijuana

If everything goes according to plan, Compassionate Cultivation will be an operating medical marijuana dispensary in Austin before too long. CEO Morris Denton, left, and Director of Processing Chris Woods step into a small room where the extraction of cannabidiol will take place.

The winding road that leads to Compassionate Cultivation could easily be mistaken for a dead end. It takes several seconds before drivers get off the main road and end up at a warehouse immediately surrounded by a dirt lot.

In a few months, however, scientists and manufacturers working out of this warehouse in Austin will begin legally growing marijuana.

“Soon we’ll have a variety of products that’ll be available that’ll tailor to the different needs of our patients,” said Morris Denton, the CEO for Compassionate Cultivation.

This comes after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a measure in 2015 to narrowly allow for the growing or sale of marijuana. The Texas Compassionate Use Act legalized the selling of a specific kind of cannabis oil derived from marijuana plants for a very small group of customers: epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication.

The law allows for the sale of oils with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive element in marijuana, and high levels of cannabidiol (CBD), a non-euphoric component known to treat epilepsy and other chronic medical conditions. The Compassionate Use Act tasked the Texas Department of Public Safety with licensing at least three dispensing organizations by Sept. 1, 2017.

Two weeks after that deadline, only one dispensary has received final approval. Two other dispensaries — Surterra Texas and Compassionate Cultivation — are still “under review for statutory compliance,” according to DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.

“We’re in a matter of days before securing our license,” Denton said. “Assuming we comply and pass the on-site inspection, we’ll receive our final license within about 24 hours of that visit.”

Denton said he’s following the 19-page checklist from DPS to a tee: The building is armed with 71 security cameras and several badge readers to ensure maximum security. And the room that’ll store the medicine has two separate cameras and five different locks on it, even though it won’t be used for at least four months, the time it takes hemp seeds to produce plants from which CBD oil can be derived.

“This is where everything starts,” Denton said. “Both for us and for the the people with intractable epilepsy who need this medication.”

Twenty-nine states, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico now allow for comprehensive public medical marijuana and cannabis programs, according to the National Council of State Legislatures. Texas is one of 17 states to pass a law allowing for the use of “low THC, high CBD” products for medical reasons in limited situations.

On Sept. 1, Cansortium Texas became the first dispensary to receive final DPS approval. Along with completing a lengthy inspection report, the dispensary also paid an annual fee to the state of more than $400,000.

“Cansortium Texas is both humbled and honored to have earned a license as a low-THC dispensing organization,” the company said in a statement. “Suffering patients are one step closer to achieving the medical relief they so desperately seek and Cansortium Texas is ready to fulfill this need.”

“We essentially are growing marijuana in here”

As it awaits its state license, Compassionate Cultivation employees gave the Tribune a tour of its dispensary and explained how they plan to create the cannabis oil that they hope a small number of Texans will be able to purchase by January.

The process starts with planting hemp seeds, which are already legal in Texas, in a vegetation room where they will be grown and monitored at a specific temperature and humidity. After a plant has gone through a growing period of several days, it will be brought into a flower room — Compassionate Cultivation has four — where it will finish out the remainder of its growth cycle and later mature into a cannabis plant.

Denton said that, per state regulations outlined by DPS, the three dispensaries are not allowed to have any cannabis containing more than 0.5 percent THC at any time in their facilities. (For context, strains of marijuana legally available in Colorado can have THC levels as high as 28 percent.)  To ensure the plants stay within those limitations, Denton said scientists in his facility will test every plant during each step of the process.

“We’re essentially growing marijuana in here,” Denton said.

Different strains of cannabis have different THC levels.

“Just like wines come from different regions and have different grapes, cannabis has different strains which produce different cultivar,” Denton said. The strain the dispensaries are most interested in are the ones known for producing a high concentration and high potency of CBD.

“We get a strain of a plant that we know is capable of producing strong amounts of CBD, and then we have to grow that plant and put it through its maturation phase, which is typically about 80 to 95 days,” Denton said.

Surrounded by fertigation tanks, Compassionate Cultivation CEO Morris Denton looks into a vegetation room where marijuana plants will begin their growth process.
Surrounded by fertigation tanks, Compassionate Cultivation CEO Morris Denton looks into a vegetation room where marijuana plants will begin their growth process. Laura Skelding for The Texas Tribune

Next up comes the harvesting process, Denton said, which entails cutting and drying the plant. That takes another week.

When all the moisture is removed from the plant, it’s then pulverized and turned into “what almost looks like bags of tea,” Denton said. Once the plant particles have been pulverized, it’s put into an extraction machine that Chris Woods, the director of procession for Compassionate Cultivation, compared to “making a broth or a stew.”

The plant goes through the extraction process until oil is dispensed, which takes about 10 to 12 hours. But the oil needs to be tested, processed and manufactured before it can be used in the products Compassionate Cultivation will sell to its customers. The testing and manufacturing process takes another several days, Denton said.

“Once we have that oil, we test it to make sure it’s exactly what we want it to be, and then that oil can get infused into whatever the products are that we’re going to produce on behalf of our patients,” Denton said.

Denton said his dispensary uses as much of the plant as possible to yield the greatest amount of CBD, and whatever is not used is then pulverized and turned into mulch.

“None of the plant matter is thrown away in any way whatsoever. It can turn into soil,” he said.

A small population seeking relief

Despite the time and effort each dispensary will take to get licensed and begin producing cannabis oil, each will only be serving a select group of individuals.

According to Sindi Rosales, the CEO of the Epilepsy Foundation of Central & South Texas, roughly 160,000 Texans have intractable epilepsy — only 0.57 percent of the state’s total population.

“Even if this ends up only benefiting a small number of people, I think they’re grateful that they have this opportunity,” Rosales said. “Even if it’s a small number, why not provide this medicine if it’s available?”

Other advocates, however, point out that while Texas is making strides in the right direction, an even smaller group — epilepsy patients whose symptoms have not responded to federally approved medication — will be allowed access to the medicine.

“This is kind of a bittersweet time for those of us who are advocating for reform,” said Heather Fazio, a spokesperson for Texans for Responsible Marijuana Policy. “We’re happy the process is moving along, but it’s such a limited program and we know there are so many other people who could benefit from this if the program was more inclusive.”

Despite the small population of Texans who will actually able to use the medicine, advocates agree that the dispensaries could be life-changing for those who benefit from it.

“We’re just asking for another tool in our toolkit that we can offer people who are desperate and that’s what this is,” Rosales said. This may or may not work, but it should definitely be offered.”

“I think there’s a great deal of compassion in the Compassionate Use Act, and I think that’s very great and very encouraging,” she added.

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Former officer accused of stealing $2,400 from dead man indicted on theft charges

A former police officer was indicted for felony theft Wednesday.

Linnard Crouch, 41, turned himself in to the Galveston County Sheriff’s Office at about 3:15 p.m.

A former Texas City Police Department officer, Crouch is accused of stealing more than $2,400 worth of Christmas money from James Mabe, who authorities said was dying or had just died while driving home near 4000 Loop 197.

The crime, recorded on a body camera, happened days before Christmas in 2016.

“Unfortunately, I have seen all too many times officers who take advantage of situations,” said civil rights lawyer and the Mabe family lawyer Randall L. Kallinen.

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135,000 gallons of sludge released into Galveston Bay after equipment failure, officials say

Equipment malfunction is to blame for the release of 135,000 gallons of partially treated aerated sludge into Galveston Bay on Tuesday, according to the city.

At about 10:15 a.m., the City of Galveston Main Wastewater Treatment Plant at 5200 Port Industrial Road released 135,000 gallons of sludge after authorities said a unit failed.

The city has removed the unit where the failure happened.

The city will send water samples for testing.

No adverse impacts to aquatic life have been noted, but the city will continue to monitor the bay closely.

The release has no impact on the city’s drinking water supply.

The city said people should avoid contact with the waste material, soil, or water potentially affected by the spill.

Fishing in the area affected by the spill is strongly discouraged.

Anyone with questions or concerns can call the City Public Information Office at 409-797-3546.

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Post-Harvey, Houston officials hope Congress is up for funding Ike Dike

HOUSTON — Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday gave his strongest endorsement to date for constructing a physical coastal barrier to protect the region from deadly storm surge during hurricanes.

Though such a barrier system would not have guarded against the unrelenting and unprecedented rain Hurricane Harvey dumped on the area, Turner — one of the region’s last leaders to endorse the “coastal spine” concept — said at a Tuesday news conference that he believes it is crucial.

“We cannot talk about rebuilding” from Harvey “if we do not build the coastal spine,” he said.

With Harvey — which was downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it reached Houston — “we again dodged the bullet.”

Constructing such a system has been a point of discussion since 2008, when Hurricane Ike shifted course at the last minute, narrowly sparing populated communities like Clear Lake and the Houston Ship Channel — home to the nation’s largest refining and petrochemical complex — from a massive storm surge. Scientists have modeled worst-case scenario storms that make clear the potential for devastation, which The Texas Tribune and ProPublica detailed extensively in a 2016 investigation. They also have urged local, state and federal elected officials to pursue infrastructure solutions, which they expect the federal government to fund.

Last year those scientists and officials told The Texas Tribune and ProPublica that a catastrophic storm likely would have to hit Houston before they could convince Congress to fund such an endeavor — estimated to cost some $5.8 billion for the Houston area alone and at least $11 billion for the entire six-county coastal region. Such an ambitious public works project has never been built in anticipation of a natural catastrophe.

Turner and other leaders are clearly hoping Harvey fits the bill.

They have suggested that the federal government could provide funding for a storm surge barrier — often referred to as the “Ike Dike,” a proposal first offered up by Texas A&M University at Galveston in 2009 — and a variety of other storm protection measures as part of an overall Harvey relief package.

But the $15 billion Congress has approved for Texas so far can’t be spent on a coastal barrier; the money can only go toward rehabilitating flooded areas. That means local and state officials will either have to depend on Congress to fund something completely separate — a scenario many are doubtful of — or cobble together other funding. (Efforts to do so during this year’s legislative session fell short.)

At both the state and federal level, talk of protecting the Houston area from big storms has in recent years been dominated by the coastal barrier concept.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush have been leading an effort to secure federal funding for the coastal spine; in April, they and other officials, including Turner, wrote to President Trump urging his support. On Tuesday, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick named new chiefs of a joint House-Senate committee formed in a few years ago to study the feasibility of the project; The panel has met only twice.

But the Ike Dike would only protect coastal areas from catastrophic storm surge; it would do nothing to prevent flooding damage from torrential rain, which is almost entirely responsible for the damage Houstonians suffered from Harvey.

Other flood protection ideas — either underfunded or long-abandoned — have received renewed attention since Harvey.

On Tuesday, Turner joined local officials in expressing support for a long-delayed reservoir project that experts say would’ve saved thousands of Houston homes from flooding during Harvey, along with three bayou widening projects estimated to cost a combined $130 million.

Turner said the city shouldn’t have to choose one over the other as it seeks federal funding.

“I don’t think we need to pick one,” he said. “… We know we need another reservoir. We just need to step up and do that — the same thing with the coastal spine.”

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul said Tuesday that the Austin Republican “has been working with FEMA, Gov. [Greg] Abbott and local officials to identify options for flood mitigation to protect Houston and the surrounding areas from future flood disasters.”

McCaul may hold extra clout as chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. But Adrian Garcia, a former city councilman and Harris County sheriff, said he’s not optimistic Texas will get much funding for these projects from Congress beyond the multi-billion dollar short-term aid package.

“They thought [the Ike Dike] would be the answer to a lot of these problems,” Garcia said. “And obviously it is not.”

Turner’s advocacy for the coastal barrier concept is relatively new.

Early last year, amid the Texas Tribune/ProPublica investigation, Turner declined an interview request to discuss the need for such a barrier. Instead, the city sent statements dismissing the potential impacts — and not indicating whether Turner supported such a project, which dozens of area city councils had enthusiastically endorsed.

“Only a small portion of the city of Houston is in areas at risk for major storm surge,” the statement said. “Consequently, hurricane-force wind poses the major threat for the majority of the city.”

Reminded of a climate change-driven storm scenario FEMA presented in 2014 — in collaboration with the city — that projected a 34-foot storm surge that put downtown Houston underwater, Turner’s office provided a follow-up statement acknowledging that the issue “continues to be a concern.” It also placed the onus on the federal government to take the lead on a coastal barrier project.

A few months later, in August 2016, Turner wrote to state leaders studying the coastal barrier concept and said he supported it.

On Tuesday, Turner spoke passionately about the impact Hurricane Ike could have had — and the impact Harvey did have — on the region’s industrial complex and the national economy.

“When Hurricane Ike hit in 2008 there were $30 billion in damages,” he said. “If Ike had hit a little bit further to the [south] we could have lost refineries, jet fuel and the entire Houston Ship Channel, not only destroying the jobs of many Houstonians, but there would have been an impact on the nation as a whole.”

During Harvey, Turner said, “the Houston port did close and business was shut down and the country as a whole was impacted.”

“That was a tropical storm,” he added. “Can you imagine if Hurricane Harvey had come closer, what the devastating effects would be?”

Disclosure: The General Land Office was a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune in 2011. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Ex-husband strangled Baytown realtor while children in next room, prosecutors say

The ex-husband of a 37-year-old Baytown woman appeared in court Tuesday after being charged with murder.

Officials said Steven McDowell, 44, was charged in the death of 37-year-old Crystal McDowell.

Prosecutors said Steven McDowell strangled Crystal McDowell while their children were in another room.

He appeared to be crying near the end of his court appearance.

Chambers County sheriff’s detectives and Texas Rangers said they found her body in a wooded area not far from her home. Officials said she was last seen in Baytown on Aug. 25. She had been missing for two weeks.

 

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Pizza Hut manager threatened workers evacuating for Irma

A Pizza Hut manager in Florida threatened to punish employees who missed shifts by evacuating too early for Hurricane Irma.

In a memo, the manager said workers at the Jacksonville restaurant have a “responsibility and commitment” to the community, and that employees who needed to evacuate would get only a 24-hour “grace period” before the storm.

Pizza Hut manager threatens employee during Irma evacuations

“You cannot evacuate Friday for a Tuesday storm event!” the notice read. “Failure to show for these shifts, regardless of reason, will be considered a no call / no show and documentation will be issued.”

It also said that employees would be required to return to the city within 72 hours of an evacuation.

Pizza Hut said its “local franchise operator has addressed this situation with the manager involved.”

“We absolutely do not have a policy that dictates when team members can leave or return from a disaster, and the manager who posted this letter did not follow company guidelines,” the company said in a statement.

The company added that all stores in Irma’s path had been shuttered and wouldn’t reopen “until local authorities deem the area safe.”

Pizza Hut declined to say whether the manager involved has been disciplined.

Jacksonville authorities issued the first evacuation orders for parts of the city on Friday. On Monday, the sheriff’s office tweeted to people in evacuation zones: “Get out NOW.” Up to 4 feet of water covered some streets.

FEMA is advising people in the storm’s path to “only return home when local officials say it’s ok.”

The Pizza Hut notice spurred resentment on social media.

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The Road to Huntsville

ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL HIRSHON

The metal sculptures are still there as you ease your way east on Highway 21 through Caldwell. You pass under a train trestle and look left on the upward slope as welded pieces of iron appear, at least a dozen looming over the highway in their rusty glory, fanciful and solid. I don’t know when I first saw them. It could’ve been in 1977, when I first was transported to Huntsville while chained to another man, or on any of the dozens of trips since — some driving myself, some handcuffed again. I don’t know whether the artworks anchored into the East Texas landscape induced terror or wonder. But they mark my memory, and seeing them as I drive with my brother to a relative’s graduation from Sam Houston State University (SHSU) in Huntsville soothes me. I am going home.

I crank down the windows to invite the warm breeze in. My brother complains and I ignore him, reveling in the freedom to operate my own window, my own seat, fiddle with the radio. I’ve loved driving long distances ever since my father and I drove from Dimmitt in the Texas Panhandle to Corpus Christi to visit his mother in Spohn Hospital the year I was 13. He coaxed me into driving his old GMC pickup at night and laughed himself silly as I swerved over moonlit roads, my feet confused between clutch and brake. I’ve driven from Austin to Albuquerque, the West Texas plains unwinding into the Sandias of New Mexico. The spring of 2009 a friend and I drove from Austin to Maine. I am never so intoxicated with life and possibility as when on the road, even when that road has led to prison.

I’ve spent 27 years in Texas prisons for robbery. Eleven of those years I was assigned to units in Huntsville, 11 years measured by count times and recreation, cleaning turnrows under the guns of mounted guards and entering data into prison computers in air-conditioned warehouses, increments measured and relieved by visits from my relatives and friends. I spent one year living in Huntsville after my second release, playing softball at Kate Barr Ross Park a month after watching games played under those lights while in prison, half a mile away and up the hill. I attended SHSU classes in prison and on campus, was the assistant editor for the prison paper, the Echo, and was editor for the Houstonian, the SHSU campus paper, while working at the Huntsville Item. I have lived longer within the city confines of Huntsville than anywhere else in Texas. I dream of Huntsville, its iron cages and magnificent woods, of screams echoing down bloody hallways and of the fowl in local parks that preen in the background of pictures I’ve taken with my only child.

There are dozens of country roads that bracket Huntsville, with names like Old Phelps Road and Possum Walk Loop, Moffett Springs Road and Tanglewood Drive. Some are starkly numbered — 75, 247 and 980, 2821 and 45. Every one of them is known to the correctional officers who drive the Bluebirds, the buses that fly into Huntsville from all over Texas, referred to as “the chain.” White and ugly, with the blue Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) logo on the side, TDCJ chain buses carry thousands of prisoners to and from Huntsville each year, either to the Byrd Unit for intake or to the Huntsville Unit, which we called the Walls, for release. Inside each bus are men and women straining to get a glimpse of the free world as it whizzes into history. As they peer through the wrought iron welded to the windows, they are bombarded by the boasts and unlikely claims of revenge, betrayal, heartbreak and hope that make up the majority of talk among those sent to live in Texas cages.

Three times I’ve left the Travis County Jail headed to Huntsville. At least a dozen other times, I’ve been on chain buses to Huntsville, transferred in from the Robertson or Hughes or Ellis units, and then transferred out again. In 2001, after articles I’d written for the Echo angered TDCJ officials, they closed the paper and applied what old-school guards still call “bus therapy,” sending me on a pointless journey as a form of punishment. I was shipped from Huntsville to Gatesville, then back to the Walls via Dalhart, Amarillo and Abilene: roughly 1,400 miles over three days.

There is no mystery or romance to prison, not to the iron or stink or violent hopelessness that seeps into its very air, and certainly not to the means of transport by which people arrive or are transferred between the 110 or so TDCJ units. You are handcuffed to another person whom you have never met, and you shuffle forward when you are called. You struggle with the cuffs as you both try to maneuver up the steps and onto the bus. It’s divided into three cages, the larger, middle one for general population sandwiched between a tiny one in the rear for an armed guard and a small one in front for administrative segregation. The seats are iron. There is a tiny toilet, not covered or shielded, and the stink is constant. Most try to sleep or dream about being anywhere but here.

Chain buses are not built for comfort but for utility, and accidents happen. The most deadly in Texas resulted in the deaths of 10 people, eight of them handcuffed and two of them transport officers on a bus that skidded off an icy West Texas road and hit a passing freight train in January 2015.

Still, despite all its cruelties, the 1,400-mile “bus therapy” meant to punish me had the opposite effect. I was away from cages and cacophony when on the chain, and I always accepted the discomfort of bus rides as a welcome respite from the numbing monotony of prison, the rocking bus and green countryside rejuvenating my spirit.

Transformation finds few footholds in steel. Life in a cage too often leads to self-pity, not self-improvement. People who are incarcerated understand and struggle with those truths. We seek spaces where the spirit does not recoil: a few moments in a library, a recreation yard quieted by the rain. For me it was the road; the fact that my wrists were bound by iron made little difference.

A decade after my last chain bus ride, the horizon at the end of an unspooling highway still beckons. I absently rub my wrists as the forest whizzes by, calmed, as always, by the possibilities of a Texas road.

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Now you can carry any knife (almost) anywhere in Texas

Cliff Hill, knife collector and world champion knife thrower, shows his collection at the International Knife Throwers Hall of Fame in Austin on July 13, 2017.

There is no such thing as an “illegal knife” in Texas.

Dirks and daggers, stilettos and poniards, even machetes and swords can now legally be carried just about anywhere — even “down Congress Avenue,” said state Rep. John Frullo, R-Lubbock, the author of House Bill 1935, the law that made it so beginning Sept. 1.

HB 1935 effectively eliminates prohibitions on where certain knives can be carried by getting rid of the category of “illegal knives,” a designation critics called ambiguous. Under the new law, a smaller subset of newly dubbed “location restricted” knives will be prohibited in places like college buildings and bars.

Previously, knives with blades longer than five-and-a-half inches, as well as Bowie knives and a few other types, could not be legally carried outside the home. The new statute expands knife owners’ freedoms, advocates said, and also eliminates a great deal of confusion. Bowie knives, for example, were designated “illegal” under the previous law, but they were not legally defined.

Oversights like these made it difficult for knife owners to know whether they were in compliance with the law, “making criminals of people who had no intention of doing anything wrong,” Frullo said.

Todd Rathner, director of legislative affairs for the national organization Knife Rights, said the law’s significance stretches beyond practical concerns.

“Texans carry all kinds of knives for all kinds of purposes, whether it’s working on a ranch or opening envelopes in an office. So they want to be able to know that whatever knife they stick in their pocket or hang on their belt, that it’s legal,” Rathner said. “There’s also principle involved: In the United States of America, we have the Second Amendment right to bear arms — it doesn’t say ‘guns,’ it says ‘arms.’”

Cliff Hill, the owner of an Austin knife shop, said he appreciates the expanded protections HB 1935 offers knife enthusiasts.

An amendment restricting knives in certain locations — beyond college campuses, certain knives are also prohibited from jails as well as from certain bars and hospitals — was added to the law in the wake of a deadly stabbing this May on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Police said junior biology major Kendrex White used a “large, Bowie-style hunting knife” to kill one fellow student, Harrison Brown, and wound three others. HB 1935 passed the House a week after the tragedy.

The measure faced very little opposition in either chamber.

“The safety concern here was too great for me to vote favorably on this legislation without more debate,” said state Rep. Ina Minjarez, D-San Antonio, one of only a handful of legislators who voted against the bill.

But Frullo said that the law does not increase danger, arguing that knife threats are most likely to come from individuals who weren’t following the laws anyway.

“Definitely, knives can be used as a weapon, but also they have a lot of other practical purposes,” Frullo said. “The fact of whether or not we have a law is not going to change whether somebody is doing something bad.”

Rathner said he aims to push in future sessions for legislation that would eliminate the location restrictions entirely.

Cliff Hill, a competitive knife thrower and the owner of an Austin knife-sharpening store, said changing this law doesn’t mean “that you’re going to see people walking around with swords hanging off their belt.” Instead, he said, it makes it easier for enthusiasts like him to pursue their hobbies without breaking the law.

For example, when Hill takes his collection of blades to a knife-throwing competition or to teach a knife-throwing class, he’s been “driving illegal.”

“I think it’s good in that sense,” he said. “If I’m on my way to teach a class, how am I not going to have throwing knives with me, you know?”

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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In beleaguered La Marque schools, Harvey stirs up old anxieties

La Marque Middle School students will have to study in the high school building, due to floodwater-related damage.

LA MARQUE— As hundreds of parents sat nervously in the La Marque High School auditorium last Thursday, Nicole Gardner stood from her seat and raised her hand to ask what was on everyone’s minds.

“I was wondering how long this relocation is going to last.”

The response was just as Gardner, the mother of a kindergarten and second-grade student, had feared.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know,” said Susan Myers, Texas City ISD deputy superintendent.

Gardner’s children are enrolled in two of three schools in Texas City ISD closed temporarily due to damage from Hurricane Harvey, pushing officials to relocate about 1,600 students to other buildings within the district, starting Monday. For parents and administrators of the three closed schools, the flooding means more disruption in a period already marked by upheaval.

In 2016, the state forced the Galveston Bay school district to annex, or absorb, its neighboring district, and once football rival, La Marque ISD, which was hemorrhaging enrolled students and failing to prepare those who stayed for graduation. For months, tensions were high with rumors swirling that outside forces had conspired to destroy La Marque’s schools. When school started last fall, people from both communities were nervous about how their hybrid district would work.

“This year, it feels like we’re redoing last year,” said Flo Adkins, principal of La Marque Middle School, as parents queued up around her to pick up their kids’ new building assignments Thursday evening. “You know, when the annexation and all that happened, it feels like there was so much anxiety in the community.”

The three buildings flooded due to Harvey all belonged to former La Marque ISD, where the newest school building was constructed 47 years ago. Texas City ISD was promised $17 million over five years from the state in June to improve its recently acquired, neglected facilities. In just a few days, Hurricane Harvey, slow-moving and destructive, knocked back the timeline for renovation.

“We got through last year with the annexation, we can get through anything,” Adkins said. She pulled out her phone and swiped through photos of Texas City teachers helping their La Marque colleagues fill boxes with school supplies Thursday morning. The storm will bring the district closer together, she said.

Hundreds of parents filled the La Marque High School auditorium Thursday evening, after two weeks of cancelled classes, to hear the plans district administrators had for where and how to relocate their students. They were terrified and unhappy.

Administrators made sure to stay cheery as they explained how students from three La Marque schools that cover preK through eighth grade would temporarily attend classes in other school buildings, starting Monday. All their teachers and principals would go with them. They would all get free meals, and new bus routes as needed. Teachers would work hard to get students academically on track. Students, including some who lost their homes in the storm, would finally have a routine again.

“Our teachers know right now our instruction has to be intentional and intensive,” said Ricky Nicholson, La Marque High School Principal. “We have to the stop the bleeding on the loss of instructional days.”

Gardner was trembling as she later lined up to get a copy of the map showing her where her children would temporarily attend school, miles away in Texas City. Her second grader is behind in math and reading, and now has missed two weeks of instruction. The family moved from Deer Park to La Marque, before the start of the new year. “I’m hoping it’ll be six weeks or something,” she said, estimating the length of the school closures. “I feel like it will be two or three months.”

Opposed to Texas City ISD's relocation plan, Monique Lazard, at left, will re-enroll her 11-year-old daughter in a different school district.
Opposed to Texas City ISD’s relocation plan, Monique Lazard, at left, will re-enroll her 11-year-old daughter in a different school district. Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

The main priority, officials repeated over and over, was to keep La Marque students in Texas City ISD.

“We’re one big school district,” said Superintendent Rodney Cavness, new to Texas City this year, to the crowd of attentive parents. “Annexation, all that’s behind us.”

Not everyone was buying it. Monique Lazard planned to transfer her daughter Radiance Willson from Dickinson ISD to Texas City ISD this fall. When Lazard heard her 11-year-old would be studying in the same building as 17 and 18-year-olds, she immediately decided to re-enroll her in Dickinson ISD instead.

Already prone to letting water leak in, La Marque Middle School filled with two inches of water during last month’s hurricane. Those students will be relocated to La Marque High School, two miles away. Administrators promised to keep the two student bodies on different floors of the building, with no overlap, and to ensure teachers accompanied the fifth and sixth graders around the high school.

“Although they say they’re going to separate it, kids will be kids,” Lazard said. “Texas City can’t tell me there’s not other schools.”

She said she didn’t expect a better solution from the district. “Texas City and La Marque have always had their separation,” she said. “Even though it’s supposed to be one district now, there’s still a lot of separation. And it’s not good.”

Lazard and her children are still living in a home that filled with three feet of water over the course of the storm — among hundreds inundated in La Marque and Texas City. She was denied a hotel voucher through federal shelter assistance but she has filed for long-term federal disaster assistance while looking for a safer place to live.

Texas City ISD officials will soon submit a flood insurance claim for the damaged schools. They are also working with a FEMA consultant to apply for federal public assistance, along with all the other qualifying municipalities and institutions in 43 counties included in the federal disaster declaration.

Before the flood, La Marque buildings were safe, but not in good shape, projected to need $42 million for repairs and about $100 million for replacement. The state granted Texas City ISD $17 million over a five-year period in June to fix the buildings.

Meanwhile, Texas City ISD replaced and renovated the Texas City buildings in 2007, after its voters approved a $118 million bond referendum. Those buildings weathered the storm.

“All Texas City ISD students deserve the same educational experience,” said former Superintendent Cynthia Lusignolo, who lobbied the state for the $17 million this winter. That dream of equity is now even further away.

La Marque Middle School teacher Heather Dummar packed boxes of textbooks and supplies to take to the high school, where she and her students will be temporarily relocated.
La Marque Middle School teacher Heather Dummar packed boxes of textbooks and supplies to take to the high school, where she and her students will be temporarily relocated. Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

Heather Dummar toiled for three weeks last summer hanging sheets of corrugated metal from the walls and constructing long tables and stools to transform her eighth-grade English classroom in La Marque Middle School into an “industrial coffee shop.” She spent more than $1,000 of her own money to bring to life the calming environment she found at her local coffee shop in college.

“It was more than just slapping up posters,” she said.

It took her and a team of Texas City ISD teachers three hours last Thursday to pack up all the textbooks and pencils they would need to hold classes in a completely different building, as contractors in the middle school rip out soggy drywall and bleach the mold that had started to grow at the base of the chair legs.

None of the coffee shop’s decorations went with Dummar to La Marque High School. Her new temporary classroom was previously used for high school science and has laboratory tables attached to the walls. She went back to her middle school classroom to pack up books Thursday and saw some of the chalkboard paint peeling off the walls and the dirty water line two inches up the corrugated metal.

“That’s heartbreaking, because that’s our home,” she said.

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Flooded cars already being put up for sale

Flooded cars are already starting to trickle off dealer lots, and that trickle could become a stream in the coming weeks, according to a local vehicle inspection company.

“We’ve inspected over 100 cars in the last three days, we’ve already found seven flood-damaged vehicles, new and used. But yes, they’re ending up back on the streets, back to consumers,” Shane Vaughn, president of Auto Exam, a pre-sale vehicle inspection company, said.

An estimated 500,000 vehicles are flood-damaged in the Houston area. About 30,000 of those vehicles have been towed to Royal Purple Raceway in Baytown.

The facility’s expansive outdoor acreage is serving as a waypoint for the vehicles before they are junked, and in some cases, auctioned.

Auto Exam and other companies are doing brisk business, inspecting cars brought in by potential buyers.

For a little more than $100, buyers get peace of mind in a sea of uncertainty.

Car shoppers can do some of the homework with these quick tips to identify potential flood cars:

Avoid cars with moisture trapped in headlights/taillights

Check under the seat, avoid cars with rusty seat rails

Pull up the carpet. Brittle carpet pad could mean the area was wet, then dried

Check the spare in the trunk. The spare “well” can hold water, even if the rest of the car is dry

 

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Trump Nominates Lawyers from Anti-LGBT ‘Religious Freedom’ Group to be Texas Federal Judges

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton announced the appointment of Jeff Mateer, former general counsel for an anti-LGBT equality "religious freedom" group, to his office on Wednesday.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appointed Jeff Mateer, former general counsel for an anti-LGBT “religious freedom” group, as his first assistant in 2016.  JP2LifeCenter/YouTube

Jeff Mateer and Matthew Kacsmaryk have worked to erode the firewall between church and state as lawyers for the First Liberty Institute, a Christian legal advocacy group that protects pastors who mobilize their flock to overturn local non-discrimination ordinances, county clerks who refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses and anti-abortion centers that trick women into thinking they’re walking into actual medical clinics.

Trump’s nomination of the two religious-right legal activists to vacant federal judge seats in Texas has rattled LGBT rights groups, who call the appointments a gift to anti-LGBT activists.

“First Liberty Institute has used anti-LGBTQ policies to blatantly vilify our families and neighbors for two decades,” Equality Texas said in a Friday statement. “By nominating associates of this hate group, the president is using his office in an attempt to ensure policies will be created and spearheaded to advance anti-LGBTQ discrimination in employment, housing and places of business all under the guise of protecting religious liberties.”

Kathy Miller of Texas Freedom Network, which advocates for church-state separation, called the nominations “a clear signal that President Trump intends to make our federal courts the place where civil rights go to die.” Their nominations must still be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Mateer and Kacsmaryk aren’t typical judicial nominees. In his eight years as president, Barack Obama appointed 12 lawyers to vacant federal benches in Texas, eight of whom had served as judges. The other four Obama appointees had lengthy careers as government lawyers in the federal courts, either as law clerks for federal appellate court judges or long stints with the U.S. Department of Justice. One served as White House legal counsel to Bill Clinton.

By contrast, Mateer, who Trump nominated to fill a vacant seat in the Eastern District of Texas, has no judicial experience and most of his work has been in private practice. Mateer made headlines last year when Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made him the state’s first assistant attorney general. Critics such as Miller bristled that Mateer had publicly eschewed the notion of church-state separation. As he told students during a conference at the University of St. Thomas in 2013:

“I’ll hold up my hundred-dollar bill and say, ‘for the first student who can cite me the provision in the Constitution that guarantees the separation of church and state verbatim, I’ll give this hundred dollar bill. … It’s not there. … The protections of the First Amendment protect us from government, not to cause government to persecute us because of our religious beliefs.”

Before joining Paxton’s office, Mateer was First Liberty’s general counsel and executive vice president, representing people like Tom Brown, an El Paso bishop and founder of what the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled an anti-gay hate group. A month after Paxton hired Mateer, the AG’s office filed a court brief supporting Brown in a lawsuit stemming from his attempts to overturn the city’s non-discrimination ordinance and recall local politicians who pushed for it.

In a statement Thursday, Paxton praised Mateer’s nomination, calling him a “principled leader” and “a man of character.”

Kacsmaryk, one of five lawyers Trump nominated to vacant federal benches in Texas this week, is currently deputy general counsel for First Liberty, according to the group’s website, and oversees its “policy advisory team.” Trump wants to appoint him to the Northern District of Texas,where, prior to joining First Liberty in 2013, he served as an assistant U.S. attorney mostly handling criminal appeals for five years.

First Liberty, formerly known as the Liberty Institute, is the Plano-based brainchild of Kelly Shackelford, who helped push for a statewide gay marriage ban in 2005 that was ultimately voided by the Supreme Court’s landmark marriage equality ruling a decade later.

After that high court ruling, as the Observer previously reported, Shackelford urged anti-gay Christians to shift their focus toward fighting for the “religious freedom” to, say, refuse to serve same-sex couples. “We’re going to shove that down their throat over and over again in all these cases,” Shackelford said.

If the Senate confirms Trump’s nominees, there’d be two Texas courts receptive to all that shoving.

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Man survives being shot 16 times outside southwest Houston home

A man survived being shot up to 16 times outside a home southwest Houston.

The shooting was reported around 9 p.m. Thursday. Police said 24-year-old Bryant Dobbins was standing outside a home in the 3800 block of Gouldburn when a man wearing a black bandana over his face approached and opened fire.

Dobbins was taken to Ben Taub hospital and listed in serious but stable condition. He is expected to survive.

The gunman got away before police arrived. No arrests were made.

Anyone with information about the shooting is asked to call the HPD Major Assaults Unit at 713-308-3600 or Crime Stoppers at 713-222-TIPS.

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Floridians jam highways to flee wrath of Hurricane Irma

Floridians began a mass exodus on Thursday as Hurricane Irma, the powerful Category 5 storm, plowed through the Caribbean toward the Sunshine State.

Thousands of cars headed north, causing interstate backups and slowdowns. Drivers waited for hours at gas stations, some of which ran out of fuel. Travelers stood in line for hours at airports.

Based on Irma’s projected path, which includes Florida’s heavily populated eastern coast, the enormous storm could create one of the largest mass evacuations in US history, CNN senior meteorologist Dave Hennen said. Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties combined have about 6 million people.

People should get out now, Gov. Rick Scott warned at a Thursday news conference. If they wait until Saturday or Sunday, when high winds and rain are expected to lash south Florida, it will be too late.

“We cannot save you when the storm starts,” Scott said. “So if you are in an evacuation zone and you need help, you need to tell us now.”

“You do not want to leave on Saturday, driving through Florida with tropical storm force winds,” CNN meteorologist Tom Sater said. He said the latest Floridians should evacuate is Friday morning.

‘Three lanes of red bumper lights’

Roseanne Lesack, her husband and three children were among the evacuees.

They left Boca Raton on Wednesday and headed to Atlanta to stay with friends, she said. After encountering slow traffic, the family spent the night at a motel in Orlando and continued north Thursday morning, Lesack said.

“What should have been another six or seven-hour travel experience is coming up on 12 hours,” she said Thursday night while about 35 miles south of Atlanta. “It has been slow. Right now we’re going about 20 mph. … It’s just three lanes of red bumper lights.”

Last year, the family stayed with friends in Florida and rode out Hurricane Matthew, she said. Lesack is glad they decided not to chance it this year.

“Now there are a lot of people who are really nervous about staying but don’t feel like they can get out,” Lesack said.

Mandatory evacuations

In Florida, mandatory evacuations orders included parts of Miami-Dade County, Broward County east of US 1, Palm Beach County, low-lying parts of Brevard County, and Monroe County, home to the Florida Keys. More than 30,000 people evacuated Monroe County alone, Scott said.

Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi stressed to residents in the Keys they need to heed the evacuation order and leave.

All hospitals would be closed and ambulances gone as of Friday morning, including air ambulances, he said.

“You might as well leave now, while you have a chance, because when you dial 911 — you will not get an answer,” he said.

The Florida Department of Transportation released traffic counts showing extremely heavy traffic on Thursday, such as 4,000 vehicles on I-75 northbound in Lake City, compared to a norm of 1,000. About 1,800 vehicles traveled on I-75 in Collier County, compared to a norm of 600. Other roads showed smaller increases.

Though nobody knows exactly where Irma will make landfall, the governors of Georgia and South Carolina decided not to take any chances. They ordered mandatory evacuations of low-lying coastal areas around Savannah and Charleston.

Other eastern Florida population centers could also see similar evacuations soon, depending on the path of the hurricane, which is expected to near Miami on Sunday.

“Look at the size of this storm,” Scott said Thursday. “It is wider than our entire state and could cause major and life-threatening impacts from coast to coast. Regardless of what coast you live on, be prepared to evacuate. Floridians on the west coast cannot be complacent.”

Finding more fuel

Fuel availability is a major problem. CNN’s Miguel Marquez said about half the gas stations were open in Miami.

At a Marathon gas station in Miami, a line of cars wrapped around the corner. Two police officers on duty kept drivers in line and police tape kept them from entering the station the wrong way. Drivers had to wait at least an hour for fuel.

In a news release, Scott said he’s taking steps to have more fuel delivered. Contractors have come up with 1.5 million gallons to deliver so far, he said. State police will escort fuel trucks heading to gas stations on evacuation routes.

About 300,000 barrels of fuel were being unloaded from a ship in Tampa to resupply gas stations. A fuel ship from Mississippi was heading to the Port of Tampa and will be given a military escort, he said.

Scott also said he is suspending toll collections for the duration of the storm.

Limited evacuation routes

One issue with a mass evacuation is that Florida relies on two primary highways that go north and south: I-95 along the east coast and I-75 further west. Those highways, as well as the Florida Turnpike, US-27 and other smaller roads that run north, will be “tremendously” clogged if the storm hits, Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said.

“If this monster comes right up the peninsula of Florida, you’re gonna have a mass out-migration from the south to the north, and it’s gonna clog the roads something tremendously,” Nelson said. “Therefore, if you are going to evacuate, once the evacuation order is given, don’t wait around.”

An evacuation could lead to mileslong gridlock, as happened with attempted mass evacuations during Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Rita in 2005.

When Hurricane Harvey began threatening southeast Texas about two weeks ago, Houston officials decided not to issue voluntary or mandatory evacuations, partly because of memories of those problems.

Nowhere to hide

Hurricane Irma’s cone of potential landfall currently includes the entire state of Florida, meaning that residents may not be able to flee to the state’s Gulf Coast to avoid its wrath. Going north is the best choice.

Florida is relatively narrow. Fort Lauderdale on the east coast and Naples on the west coast are separated by just over 100 miles. Even in the central part of the state, only 130 miles separate Clearwater on the west coast from Melbourne on the east coast.

For comparison, tropical storm-force winds from Irma cover over 65,000 square miles — about the size of the entire state.

Hurricane Floyd’s traffic jam

Major evacuations have created significant problems in the past when millions of residents took the roads at the same time.

Florida saw this in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd. The storm was headed toward Jacksonville, in the northeast corner of the state, and officials there ordered evacuations. The storm ultimately turned farther north and made landfall in North Carolina.

In all, about 3 million people across Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina attempted to evacuate, making it the largest evacuation effort in US history, according to a FEMA press release from 2000.

Many of those evacuees became stuck in gridlock in what FEMA charitably described as a “frustrating effort.”

Houston’s non-evacuation

Mindful of past problems with mass evacuations, Houston officials last month told residents to hunker down in their homes until Hurricane Harvey passed. As the city flooded and residents became trapped in their waterlogged homes, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner defended his decision not to evacuate.

The alternative, he said, could have been worse.

“You literally cannot put 6.5 million people on the road,” Turner said last week. “If you think the situation right now is bad, you give an order to evacuate, you are creating a nightmare.”

Houston experienced that firsthand during Hurricane Rita in 2005, when officials issued mass evacuation orders.

During that evacuation, a bus carrying elderly evacuees caught fire and exploded, killing at least 24 people and jamming a major evacuation route. Others died during the evacuation due to heat exhaustion, according to the National Hurricane Center.

Airlines adding flights

For Floridians who don’t want to risk chaos on the highways, a flight out is another option.

Delta Air Lines said it has added flights out of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Key West to Atlanta, its largest hub. The airline also is allowing passengers affected by Irma to rebook flights without paying a fee.

American Airlines and United Airlines also said they are waiving change fees for passengers whose travel plans are impacted by Irma.

However, American Airlines said it will wind down operations Friday afternoon at its Miami hub as well as other south Florida cities. Operations will be canceled throughout the weekend, the airline said.

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U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul again top contender to be Trump’s homeland security chief

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul at a Texas Tribune event in Austin on Oct. 25, 2016.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, is a leading contender to serve as the next homeland security chief and is interested in the position, a source close to the congressman tells the Tribune.

The news – first reported by Politico – could put the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee at the head of the department that oversees the federal emergency response to Hurricane Harvey , which affected the southeastern part of his sprawling Austin-to-Katy district.

But it would also, for a short time, leave the 10th District without a Congressional representative and advocate, although the Houston delegation spent most of Thursday touting its all-for-one-and-one-for-all mantra in the storm’s aftermath.

McCaul was also a leading contender for the post when President Trump first chose his cabinet, but the position went to John Kelly, who now serves as the president’s chief of staff.

In recent years, McCaul was a leading party spokesman on national security – particularly during terrorist attacks.

He also served as a top adviser to candidate Trump during the campaign and helped the president with debate preparation.

McCaul was also frequently mentioned last year as a potential primary challenger to U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, but most of that chatter died down by the beginning of the new year.

Should he be selected, McCaul would vacate his seat representing the predominantly Republican 10th District seat and a special election would take place over the coming months.

Back when McCaul was under cabinet consideration in late 2016, GOP operatives pointed to several local Republicans as potential candidates in a special election to replace him including state Rep. John Cyrier of Lockhart, oil and gas investor Brian Haley, Texas Public Policy Foundation board member Stacy Hock, state Rep. Jason Isaac of Dripping Springs and Austin-based communications consultant Jenifer Sarver.

A McCaul spokesperson was not immediately available for comment.

Disclosure: Jenifer Sarver and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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Experts: Much of Harvey-Related Air Pollution was Preventable

Hillcrest, a neighborhood in Corpus Christi
One of the few standing houses in Corpus Christi’s Hillcrest neighborhood that remains in the refineries’ two-block buffer zone.  Jen Reel

Huge releases of hazardous air pollutants during Hurricane Harvey could’ve been prevented if companies had simply shut down their plants ahead of time or used more advanced emission controls, experts say. According to an Observer analysis, about 40 petrochemical companies along the Texas coast released 5.5 million pounds of pollution as a result of Harvey. Among the pollutants were carcinogens such as benzene and 1,3-butadiene as well as hydrogen sulfide, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds and smog-forming nitrogen oxides.

The excess emissions were mainly a result of facilities shutting down and restarting their operations in preparation for the hurricane and accidents such as the fire at the Arkema plant and a floating roof covering a tank caving in due to heavy rains at an ExxonMobil refinery. In many cases, the pollution releases were preventable, according to environmental experts who reviewed the Observer’s analysis.

For one, companies could have shut down in advance of the hurricane. At least seven facilities that emitted about 1.8 million pounds of chemicals chose to shut down on or after August 27, the day after Harvey made landfall near Rockport.

“Shutting down earlier with a slower shut down leads to less air pollution releases,” said Shaye Wolf, the climate science director at the environmental group Center for Biological Diversity. “Shutting down during a storm is more dangerous for worker safety and flaring when there’s high winds is more difficult because you have to keep the flare lit.”

In other cases, the emissions could’ve been avoided if the facilities had installed new gas flaring technology, according to Wolf and Neil Carman, the clean air director at the Sierra Club and a former TCEQ inspector. Motivated in part by a 2015 EPA rule, many petrochemical plants have installed equipment to dramatically reduce toxic emissions from flaring. The rule’s implementation has been delayed till 2018.

Carman pointed out that of the 800 or so chemical facilities in Beaumont, Houston and Corpus Christi, only about 40 had reported excess emissions to TCEQ.  “What that means is that there are ways to shut down without any extra air emissions,” said Carman.

The Observer’s analysis is based on about 80 initial emission reports filed by Houston, Beaumont and Corpus Christi companies with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) between August 24 and September 5.

The air pollutants from petrochemical facilities are “an additional toxic burden when people are already facing immense devastation,” said Wolf. Most of the pollutants that were released are respiratory irritants and can cause difficulty breathing and burning of the eyes and nose, Wolf said. Others such as benzene and toluene can cause developmental harms.

TCEQ did not respond to a request for comment.

It is unlikely that the facilities that reported emissions exceeding the amounts allowed by TCEQ will face any penalties. In the past, even in situations where a facility did not face a natural disaster, companies were able to claim exemptions on planned facility startups and shutdowns. Companies will also be able to fight any enforcement action from TCEQ if they can prove that a violation “was caused solely by an act of God, war, strike, riot, or other catastrophe.”

Still, Wolf and Carman said that TCEQ could incentivize petrochemical companies to reduce emissions through better enforcement. Penalties for not shutting down facilities ahead of the hurricane or failing to install flare technology could push petrochemical companies to be better prepared for future natural disasters, they said.

“The Gulf Coast region is going to keep getting hit and storms are becoming stronger because of climate change,” said Wolf. “The problem isn’t going away and regulatory agencies need to make sure that they’re implementing stricter rules.”

Elena Mejia Lutz contributed to this report.

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Texans in Congress aim for united front ahead of long fight for Harvey aid

Members of the Texas Congressional Delegation from both parties discuss funding for recovery from Harvey at a press conference in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 7, 2017.

WASHINGTON – For at least a decade or so, Thursdays on Capitol Hill meant one thing: the Texas GOP delegation lunch.

Thanks to the size of the GOP House voting bloc from Texas, major policy can live or die over that weekly lunch. But on Thursday, weeks after a hurricane flooded large parts of Southeast Texas, the Texas Democrats joined the Republicans. The full delegation – 36 House members and two U.S. Senators – met over Mexican food to plot how they would leverage their seniority and size to advocate for Hurricane Harvey funding.

“There are many issues, but the point is that I want to make is that we are going to work together to make sure that we resolve this people issue and keep politics out of it,” U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, told reporters at a news conference organized by U.S. Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston.

As long as Republicans control the U.S. House and Senate, Texas is the most powerful delegation on the Hill – thanks to U.S. Sen. John Cornyn‘s position as Senate majority whip, the state’s seven U.S. House chairmen and four Texans three Republicans and one Democrat – currently serving on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee.

The Texas delegation spent most of Thursday presenting a united, bipartisan front to the public and the message was clear: They are readying their legislative firepower to advocate for Hurricane Harvey-devastated parts of the state.

In the near term, the two chambers aim to get a short-term funding bill for Harvey relief to President Donald Trump, and then address a larger package once the gravity of the destruction is known.

On Wednesday, the House passed a bill that would fund nearly $8 billion in Harvey relief. But not long after the vote, party members were shocked to learn that Trump cut a deal with Democratic leaders to tie that emergency funding to other measures including raising the government’s debt limit and agreeing to fund the government past a Sept. 30 deadline.

Republicans were livid, charging that their party had just lost its leverage to push for budget cuts.

But the Senate moved forward on Thursday with the deal, voting to lift the debt ceiling, continuing to fund the government and actually doubling the short-term Harvey funding to $15.25 billion.

“This funding will serve as an initial first step towards helping Texans begin the process of rebuilding,” Cornyn said in a statement. “I’ll continue to work with federal, state, and local officials to ensure Texas gets the resources we need to recover from this devastating hurricane.”

Cruz called the marriage of Harvey relief to raising the debt ceiling and a continuing resolution to fund the government “unfortunate.”

“Historically, the CR and debt ceiling have proven to be the only effective leverage for meaningful spending reform, and I believe we should continue to use them as tools to reduce our long-term debt,” he said in a statement.  I would have much preferred a clean Harvey relief bill—which would have passed both Houses nearly unanimously.”

Cornyn and Cruz spent part of the day at the delegation lunch, which was organized by U.S. Reps. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo. Together, the delegation spoke to Gov. Greg Abbott on a conference call.

Members emerged from the meeting with high spirits and a rare sense of bipartisanship.

“It’s a really big undertaking, but it’s not so large that we can’t do it if we remain Texas strong, Texas strong means Texans working together, we are doing it now, we intend to continue, and we intend to meet the challenge,” U.S. Rep. Al Green said at a news conference later in the day. 

Cuellar indicated another delegation-wide meeting was on the docket next week, and he hoped for the practice to become a more regular habit.

Along with funding, Texas members said they plan to advocate for various policy goals amid the Harvey clean up. And even though the bipartisan sentiment was strong, some of the suggestions are sure to bring about dissent in the delegation:

  • U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, prioritized rebuilding the infrastructure and clearing brush and debris.

  • U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, advocated for ensuring FEMA will be staffed for the duration of the clean up, and provide adequate aide for small businesses to return to the region.

  • U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble and U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, hinted at pursuing a major infrastructure project in order to deal with Houston-area flood control. Poe, specifically, called for finding a way to direct flood water into the Gulf of Mexico.

  • U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston advocated for housing aid through community development grants and an emphasis on removing trash from streets.

  • Green also suggested new legislation ought to ensure flood insurance premiums are low so people can get coverage after they rebuild. That will likely put him at odds with U.S. Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Dallas, who is the chairman of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee they both serve on, and has called for reforming the program.

  • U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady,  R-The Woodlands is chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He floated the notion of lifting tax penalties on retirement accounts if the money is used for hurricane rebuilding. His Democratic colleague on the committee, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, called for tax cuts for the working poor victims of the storm.

  • Cuellar called on the Texas legislature – a body he once served in – to “look at tapping into the Rainy Day Fund,” a state savings account that holds about $10 billion. Cuellar, who serves on the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee, said he and his fellow Texas appropriators – Republican U.S. Reps. John Carter of Round Rock, Culberson and Kay Granger of Fort Worth, “are going to do everything we can to provide the funding” from the federal level as well.

  • U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio aimed for greater oversight of the environmental protection arms of the state and federal governments to ensure safe air and water in the region as the clean up continues.

U.S. Reps. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen, Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, Randy Weber, R-Friendswood, also attended the news conference. Every single member present spoke about a commitment to bipartisan unity.

But members of Congress often promise to set aside political differences in the wake of a crisis – whether it is a disaster like Hurricane Harvey or the September 11th terrorist attacks, or the shooting of colleagues, like former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona and current U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana.

And then, after a few weeks, the partisans return to their corners.

How can this be any different?

Olson and Gonzalez, a Republican and Democrat, walked away from the news conference together, headed to the House chamber for votes.

When asked if the bipartisan tone was new for the delegation, Olson said that the foundation already existed, but in a more subtle way.

Gonzalez added that his friendship with Olson is rooted in transportation – his commute to Washington goes through the Houston airports.

“We fly together,” he said.

“Nothing has changed. We’ve gotten closer, for sure, but we have the same bond that most states are jealous of,” Olson added.

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Texas churches damaged during Harvey sue FEMA for federal funding

A man assesses damage to the First Baptist Church after it was hit by Hurricane Harvey in Rockport on August 26, 2017. 

Three Texas churches damaged in Hurricane Harvey are suing the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying they should be eligible for disaster relief money even though they are religious institutions typically denied such funds.

The Harvest Family Church, the Hi-Way Tabernacle and the Rockport First Assembly of God were all damaged during Harvey, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for Texas’s Southern District. The First Assembly of God lost its steeple, roof, and church van, while the other two churches were severely flooded. In addition, the Hi-Way Tabernacle serves as a FEMA staging center, sheltering up to 70 people and distributing more than 8,000 emergency meals.

Yet the churches will not be eligible for recovery money from FEMA, which “categorically excludes houses of worship from equal access to disaster relief grants because of their religious status,” according to the lawsuit, which asks the court to declare FEMA’s church exclusion policy unconstitutional and seeks an emergency injunction preventing its enforcement.

“The churches are not seeking special treatment; they are seeking a fair shake,” the lawsuit read. “And they need to know now whether they have any hope of counting on FEMA or whether they will continue to be excluded entirely from these FEMA programs.”

FEMA excludes buildings that provide “critical service” or “essential government services” from repair if more than half their space is used for religious programming, the suit said. Museums and zoos are eligible for relief, but churches are not.

“If the Churches were to cease all religious activity in their houses of worship, those buildings would become assistance-eligible,” the lawsuit read.

A spokesperson for FEMA declined to comment on pending litigation.

The lawsuit comes three months after the Supreme Court decided a church in Missouri could get government money to resurface its playground — a major religious liberty decision that has set the stage for similar cases, experts say.

“The consequence is, in all likelihood, a few extra scraped knees,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. “But the exclusion of Trinity Lutheran from a public benefit for which it is otherwise qualified, solely because it is a church, is odious to our Constitution all the same, and cannot stand.”

Diana Verm of Becket, a nonprofit Washington law firm that seeks to defend religious liberty, said the churches sued FEMA partly because of the Trinity case.

“This is a time of crisis in Houston,” she said. “Churches are some of the helpers, doing everything they can to get back on their feet. Yet they are denied the same relief other nonprofits are getting from FEMA.”

When FEMA provides money to communities stricken by natural disaster, not everyone can get it. For example, community centers “operated by a religious institution that provides secular activities” are eligible, according to the agency’s policy guide, but other religious institutions may not qualify.

Alex Luchenitser, the associate legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, another nonprofit based in D.C., said the Trinity decision was not applicable to the church litigation. That decision allowed a church to get funding for a non-religious function, he said; the Texas churches are seeking money for “core facility” repair.

“We know a lot of people in Texas are suffering and we are sympathetic,” he said. “But the fact that something bad has happened does not justify a second wrong.” He added: “Taxpayers should not be forced to protect religious institutions that they don’t subscribe to.”

FEMA funds have been used to reimburse churches before. When money went to churches after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, officials said the decision was unprecedented, and some — including some of the faithful — questioned whether the funding was appropriate.

“The people have been so generous to give that for us to ask for reimbursement would be like gouging for gas,” the Rev. Flip Benham, the director of antiabortion group Operation Save America, said at the time. “That would be a crime against heaven.”

Founded more than 15 years ago, the 300-member Hi-Way Tabernacle in Cleveland worked with FEMA during Hurricanes Rita and Ike, the lawsuit said, and turned its gym into “a warehouse for the county” during Harvey. The church’s pastor said the Hi-Way would do the work anyway, but would like some help.

“The Tabernacle is here to help people,” Pastor Charles Stoker said in a statement. “If our own government can help us do that, that’d be great. And if not, we’re going to keep doing it. But I think that it’s wrong that our government treats us unfairly just because we’re Christians.”

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