Category Archives: Local

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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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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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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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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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.

The post Experts: Much of Harvey-Related Air Pollution was Preventable appeared first on The Texas Observer.

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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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New texting while driving ban full of loopholes

A new Texas law now in effect that bans texting while driving is full of loopholes, Channel 2 Investigates has learned. The law took effect Sept. 1, during the height of Harvey. “I think it is going to be very difficult to enforce,” Jeff Seely, a personal injury attorney in Houston, said. Seely, who generally supports the new law, said that the legislation, a product of compromise, offers drivers a range of possible defenses and mandates that officers must not only witness offenders using their phones, but identify that the activity is specifically texting. “It gives people (permission) to use their phones under certain circumstances,” Seely said. Drivers are still permitted to make and receive phone calls, as long as local ordinance does not prohibit it. Drivers are also allowed to use navigation and music applications. The law does not address the use of internet browsers, search functions, gaming or other phone applications. However, the way the law is written, the use of messaging and communications applications like Facebook, Facebook Messenger and Twitter appear to be prohibited. In some cases, the new state law replaces more stringent local texting while driving ordinances. “I think for 99 percent of the circumstances, the law is very clear,” Rep. Gene Wu, from Houston, said. “There’s always going to be an exception, there is always going to be a head scratcher.” Wu, a co-author of the bill, concedes that the law could have been tougher, but said certain compromises had to be made. “Something is better than nothing,” Wu said. Under the law, drivers who text during emergency situations are exempt from the law. However, the bill does not make clear what constitutes an emergency. Workers sending and receiving dispatches via text or messaging apps to and from devices temporarily or fixed to a vehicle during the course of business are also exempt. On the face of it, it would appear most workers communicating with offices would be exempt, as long as their phones are mounted. “At the end of the day, we expect a jury or a judge to use good common sense and apply the law with the facts,” Wu said. Persons licensed with the FCC while operating a radio frequency device other than a wireless communication device are exempt. Hands-free texting is also allowed. Operators of authorized emergency or law enforcement vehicles are exempt, as long as the operator is on duty. “I think it’s a step forward, (but) I think it could have gone a lot further,” Seely said.

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter “More fake news! There is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides!”

 

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What to do if your vehicle flooded during Hurricane Harvey

It’s bad news. Your car needs repairs and it’s no small job, either, because your ride is just one of thousands of cars damaged in the Houston area by Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters.

At Gillman Honda in Houston, employees are working furiously to handle the work load.

“We’ve got well over 100 cars in here, and taking in more every single day,” said Kelly Goldsberry, service director at Gillman Honda.

So what do you do first?

Number one, don’t start that car, because doing so could destroy it.

“Starting that car is the worst thing you can do, that and driving it, because you don’t know what part of the engine or the drive train the water got into. You could be doing thousands of dollars in damages right there,” shop foreman Danny Cheng said.

So what should you do immediately?

Remove all personal items.

Roll down the windows to help dry the vehicle.

Remove the floor mats.

Remove the spare tire in the trunk and the trunk cargo cover.

Let the repair shop remove all the car seats, because they act like giant sponges and are hard to handle if you don’t know what you are doing.

The shop will also remove all the carpeting without damaging it.

Mechanics will overhaul the vehicle and determine what repairs need to be made.

So what is the easiest way to get the insurance company pay for your repairs?

Have the dealership do it for you. After all, they are the experts in this field.

“File a claim immediately, have the car taken to an authorized facility so we can estimate the repairs, and contact the insurance provider for the customer. We do this all the time, we know the language and understand how to deal with insurance,” Goldsberry said.

Finally, if the insurance company decides to total your car out, ask your dealership to look at the vehicle and give you an accurate estimate of what that car’s true market value should be.

That way, you know what you should get from your insurance provider to cover your car’s replacement.

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter “More fake news! There is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides!”

 

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House overwhelmingly passes $7.9 billion Harvey aid bill

The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed $7.9 billion in Hurricane Harvey disaster relief as warring Republicans and Democrats united behind help for victims of that storm as an ever more powerful new hurricane bore down on Florida.

The 419-3 vote sent the aid package — likely the first of several — to the Senate in hopes of sending the bill to President Donald Trump before dwindling federal disaster reserves run out at the end of this week.

“Help is on the way,” said Texas GOP Rep. John Culberson, whose Houston district was slammed by the storm. “The scale of the tragedy is unimaginable. But in the midst of all this, and all the suffering, it really reflects the American character, how people from all over the country stepped up to help Houstonians recover from this.”

The first installment in Harvey aid is to handle the immediate emergency needs and replenish Federal Emergency Management Agency reserves in advance of Hurricane Irma, which is barreling through the Caribbean toward Florida.

“This is a chance to be your brother’s keeper,” said Houston Democratic Rep. Al Green. “This is chance for the unity that we express when we’re before the cameras to manifest itself in the votes that we cast here in Congress.”

Far more money will be needed once more complete estimates are in this fall, and Harvey could end up exceeding the $110 billion government cost of Hurricane Katrina.

“My friends and neighbors’ homes were completely flattened by Hurricane Harvey’s winds. Businesses were destroyed,” said Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas. “FEMA will be out of money in just two or three days if we don’t pass this.”

Politics quickly intruded as Democratic leaders insisted they would back the measure in the Senate only if it were linked to a short-term increase in the nation’s borrowing limit, not the longer-term hike that Republicans and the Trump administration want.

And some Democrats from the New York delegation reminded Texas Republicans that they opposed a larger aid bill for those harmed by Superstorm Sandy in the Northeast five years ago.

“What you did to us during Superstorm Sandy should not stand, should not be done to any other people, anyplace in the country,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y. “We’re one country, we’re Americans. We need to help those who need help.”

In the Senate, GOP leaders want to link a long-term increase in the debt limit — until 2019 — to the Harvey aid, but that plan faces opposition from conservatives and thus will need Democratic votes.

“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who conceded that conservatives were getting outmaneuvered.

“I think at this point there are bigger issues that we have to focus on,” Meadows said.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York want to retain Democratic influence and trying to ensure the Republican-controlled Congress addresses health care and immigration as the hectic fall agenda kicks off.

“Given Republican difficulty in finding the votes for their plan, we believe this proposal offers a bipartisan path forward to ensure prompt delivery of Harvey aid as well as avoiding a default, while both sides work together to address government funding, DREAMERS, and health care,” Pelosi and Schumer wrote.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said again Wednesday that increased Harvey costs show the importance of acting swiftly to increase the government’s debt cap to make sure there’s enough borrowed cash to pay out the surge in disaster aid.

Analysts at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, say Harvey aid wouldn’t cause a cash crunch for weeks.

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter “More fake news! There is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides!”

 

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Selena’s family mourning the death of Houston relatives killed in Harvey flooding

The family of legendary Tejano songstress Selena Quintanilla is mourning the death of six relatives swept away by flood waters during Harvey.

Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla took to Facebook last week to express his devastation to the news his family members died in the storm that has, as of Tuesday, claimed at least 60 lives.

“The family that drowned in Houston, Texas were related to me,” Quintanilla said in a Facebook post. “Manuel Saldivar and his wife Velia and four of their grandkids left their flooded house to go somewhere where there was safety (sic). When they cross a bridge a wave of water swept the van and push them in to the bayou the driver was saved but Manuel and his wife and 4 grandkids drowned (sic).”

Quintanilla is referring to Manuel Saldivar, 84, his spouse Belia, 81, and great-grandchildren Devy Saldivar, 16, Dominique Saldivar, 14, Xavier Saldivar, 8 and Daisy Saldivar, 6.

The family died when they were swept away by flood waters while trying to get to a relative’s home on higher ground. Manuel’s son, Sammy Saldivar, was the only person to survive the attempt to seek higher ground during the flooding. Sammy was behind the wheel.

Sammy’s brother Ric told CNN’s Eric Burnett Sammy could hear the kids screaming and crying to get out of the van.

Sammy was able to get out of their van and held onto a tree branch for his life.

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter “More fake news! There is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides!”

 

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Trump ending immigration program that has impacted more than 120,000 in Texas

The Trump Administration made it official Tuesday: It will end an Obama-era program that has granted relief from deportation to hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants.

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made the announcement that the administration will phase out the initiative — the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — or DACA — program — over six months.

Started in 2012, the program has awarded more than 800,000 recipients — including more than 120,000 Texans — a renewable, two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceedings. It applies to undocumented immigrants who came to the country before they were 16 years old and were 30 or younger as of June 2012.

In a statement released before Sessions’ announcement, Acting Department of Homeland Secretary Elaine Duke said the agency would no longer accept new applications and added the administration’s action was intended to prompt Congress to pass an immigration solution.

“With the measures the Department is putting in place today, no current beneficiaries will be impacted before March 5, 2018, nearly six months from now, so Congress can have time to deliver on appropriate legislative solutions,” she said. “However, I want to be clear that no new initial requests or associated applications filed after today will be acted on.”

Rumors had swirled since last month that President Donald Trump was leaning toward eliminating the program after he promised to do so while campaigning for president. His decision sparked immediate outrage from immigrants rights groups and their supporters.

“This spiteful executive action runs counter to what has made America and Texas great,” said Ann Beeson, the executive director of the left-leaning Center for Public Policy Priorities. “While the Trump Administration will use the six month delay to point the finger at Congress, make no mistake that it is the President who is dashing the hopes and dreams of young people protected by the DACA program. Ending the DACA program is contrary to Texas values and bad for the Texas economy.”

This summer, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton urged the U.S. Department of Justice to end the program, claiming it was an unlawful overreach by former President Barack Obama. Paxton and nine other state attorneys general wrote in a June 29 letter to Sessions that should the program stay intact, they would amend a 2014 lawsuit filed in Brownsville to include a challenge to DACA.

The 2014 lawsuit was filed in response to a separate Obama administration initiative, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, that would have expanded the eligible population of the DACA program and lengthened work permits to three years. That program was never implemented after the state of Texas sued the Obama Administration and successfully convinced a district judge and an appellate court that Obama overstepped his executive authority. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court split on the matter, upholding the appellate court’s decision.

The issue has prompted lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to file legislation to maintain the program in some form, including the bipartisan BRIDGE Act in the U.S. Senate that would extend protections for certain undocumented immigrants for three years. Economists have also cited DACA’s benefits to the economy as a reason it should remain intact. Even Trump has stated before that deciding to end the program would be “very, very hard.”

But immigration hardliners argue that despite the “deferred action” title, the program is nothing more than amnesty for people who have violated the country’s laws – no matter how old they were when they first entered the U.S.

Jackie Watson, an Austin-based immigration attorney who represented some of DACA’s earliest Texas-based applicants, said last month that attorneys are already discussing what, if any, legal action they could take should the program be axed — and whether rescinding it might “light a fire under Congress to make DACA a permanent statute.”

But she also said all of those options would be uphill battles. “It will be a total Hail Mary,” she said.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities 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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Cinco Ranch flood victims demand buyout from federal government

Residents from a Cinco Ranch subdivision are angry about the recent flooding from the Addicks-Barker Reservoir and demanding that the Federal Emergency Management Agency buy them out.

Several dozen residents from the Canyon Gate community held a prayer vigil near the subdivision Monday night, telling Channel 2 News they were not aware the area would flood.

“In my 18 years of living here, the water has never gotten over my curb,” David Tyler said. “Those of us who bought homes here were never told that we were in a spillover from the Barker Reservoir. A lot of us feel deceived, defrauded in that regard.”

“Probably 95 percent of our subdivision does not have flood insurance,” Candice Watson said. “I, personally, have had a FEMA claim denied, I’m homeless; we’ve lost both of our vehicles.”

Several residents at the vigil demanded that the government pay for the repairs to their homes or buy them out.

“We are asking the authority to fix it. Fix our houses, fix the levy, so that we are not flooded all the time,” Binay Anand said.

Meanwhile, the Fort Bend County Precinct 3 told Channel 2 that their officers, along with the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office, 15 troopers and 30 members of the National Guard are patrolling the subdivision to keep looters away.

President Trump commented on the story, saying on Twitter “More fake news! There is plenty of blame to go around, on both sides!”

 

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The Impossible City

harvey recovery houston spring
Volunteers Travis Adair, right, and Matt Vinks throw a kitchen sink damaged by floodwaters onto a pile of debris in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Sunday, September 3, 2017, in Spring, Texas.  AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Houston should not exist. In August 1836, just a few months after Texas won its independence from Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto, three New York real estate speculators purchased 9,000 acres of swampland at the junction of Buffalo and White Oak bayous, drew up a city map and began advertising their uninhabited bog in American and European newspapers as “the great interior commercial emporium of Texas … handsome and beautifully elevated, salubrious and well-watered.” An illustration depicted a quaint village nestled among rolling hills.

The reason for the city’s location was Buffalo Bayou, which ostensibly provided easy access to the Gulf of Mexico. But merchants soon discovered that even when the twisting, murky bayou was navigable, it took many days to reach Galveston Island. Visitors found the nascent city anything but handsome or salubrious. The naturalist John James Audubon saw “drunk and hallooing” residents “stumbling about in the mud in every direction.” Another observer called it “one of the muddiest and most disagreeable places on earth.”

That Houston became the country’s fourth-largest city is a combination of dumb luck and near-masochistic perseverance in the face of incomprehensible hardship.

The city survived thanks to another con. The New York speculators — husband-and-wife Augustus and Charlotte Allen, and Augustus’ brother John — befriended Sam Houston and secured his permission to name their unbuilt city in his honor. This was enough for the newly established Congress of the Republic of Texas to name it the provisional capital, despite the fact that Houston’s few residents were still living in tents. By the time legislators realized their mistake and moved the capital to Austin, Houston had attracted enough settlers and investment to soldier on through the floods and yellow fever epidemics that punctuated the 19th century.

Houston 1836 advertisement historical illustration
An 1836 illustrated advertisement for Houston promised a city that was “handsome and beautifully elevated, salubrious and well watered.”  Preservation Houston / Facebook

That Houston became the country’s fourth-largest city is a combination of dumb luck and near-masochistic perseverance in the face of incomprehensible hardship. Galveston, not Houston, was the state’s great port city until it was destroyed by the hurricane of 1900. That storm, which killed more than 8,000 people and remains the deadliest natural disaster in American history, spurred the dredging of Buffalo Bayou to create the Houston Ship Channel, which finally turned Houston into the “commercial emporium” of the Allen family’s dreams. The discovery of oil in nearby Beaumont in 1901 announced the advent of what would become Houston’s defining industry.

Today, my city is being tested like never before. As I write these words, large swaths of the city remain underwater. Tens of thousands of homes have been flooded, and shelters are packed with the displaced. Across Texas more than 60 people have died, most of them in Houston, and the death toll is expected to rise as rescuers discover more bodies.

I was fortunate. Though my street flooded, water never made it into the houses on my block; my power didn’t even flicker. For a few days I was unable to leave my neighborhood in the Houston Heights because all the surrounding freeways had become rivers, but I was otherwise unaffected, as were most of my friends. My grandmother and cousin, who live in west Houston, lost power and decided to evacuate, but their houses are fine.

Partly out of survivor’s guilt, nearly everyone I know who weathered the storm has been helping their fellow Houstonians in one way or another. Some are volunteering at shelters or preparing food; others are ripping out soggy drywall from flooded houses. As one of my friends put it on Facebook, there are now two kinds of people in Houston: wet people and dry people. And the dry people, almost without exception, are helping the wet people.

How does Houston rebuild? Unlike with New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, the question of whether Houston should rebuild hasn’t seemed to cross anyone’s mind. Typical is the attitude of Michael Snow, whose two-story home on Little White Oak Bayou flooded to the rooftop and will have to be demolished. He intends to build again on the same spot. “Where are we going to go?” he asked a reporter. “This is home.” Homeowners in the low-lying Meyerland neighborhood have flooded three times in the last three years, yet most seem determined to stay.

Far from puncturing our myth of invincibility, Harvey has supercharged it. If we can overcome 50 inches of rain, this attitude says, we can overcome anything.

This willful defiance of nature and experience has characterized the city from its founding. Our refusal to learn our lesson or change our ways has become a matter of civic pride. “Houston will come back bigger and stronger than ever!” local radio station KTRH has taken to declaring this week in self-congratulatory promo spots. J. Frank Dobie once argued that Texas weather “has done more than any other one factor to make braggarts out of Texans.” A Texan, he noted, “brags on the weather, and for his purpose the worst is the best. He brags in reverse.”

Far from puncturing our myth of invincibility, Harvey has supercharged it. If we can overcome 50 inches of rain, this attitude says, we can overcome anything. Our resilience in the face of unprecedented devastation has become just the latest bullet point in our city’s long brag list, taking its place alongside such well-worn boasts as having the largest medical center and the largest theater district — both of which flooded last week, by the way.

Larry McMurtry observed a long time ago that Texans, even after moving to bustling metropolises like Houston, remain “symbolic frontiersmen.” It’s why so many of us drive pickups, wear cowboy boots and, if we’ve made enough money, buy a ranch out in the country. Frontiersmen hate being told what to do — that’s why they’re on the frontier in the first place. Hence their resistance to government, regulation, taxation and any other form of enforced cooperation. Unfortunately, those are precisely the things that are going to be needed to protect Houston from more and even deadlier Harveys, which anyone paying attention knows are coming.

Frontiersmen also help each other out in crises, knowing the cavalry may not be coming. That spirit of self-reliance has served us well in the aftermath of Harvey, but seems likely to hinder any efforts to shore up our city’s defenses or — God forbid — force the oil and gas companies that power our economy to address global warming. Houston shows its best side during disasters and its worst side in boom times. Sadly, it appears the future will bring more and more opportunities to show our best side.

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Texas officials see long road from Harvey for state transportation network

The highway into Rockport is still covered in water on Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall.

Alongside thousands of Texas homes and businesses impacted by Hurricane Harvey, floodwaters also damaged hundreds of roads and highways across the region.

Prolonged flooding can wash out bridges, knock down traffic signals and signs and cause asphalt to buckle. Last week, the federal government directed $25 million to the Texas Department of Transportation to help the agency begin repairing the region’s vast transportation system.

But that funding won’t last very long, said TxDOT Deputy Executive Director Marc Williams.

“The size and the duration of this storm is beyond anything we’ve ever experienced in this state,” he said.

As of Friday, more than 290 roads were closed in the areas affected by Harvey. TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said the agency was making repairs where they could get in. But conditions needed to get better before they can fully begin the recovery process.

“While roads are underwater, all we can do is put up barricades and redirect traffic, for the most part,” Williams said.

More than 2,400 TxDOT employees are currently addressing the damage from Hurricane Harvey. The department is still assessing the disaster, so they’re unsure of how long recovery will take and the total cost.

Texans in Congress are already in the middle of talks to vote on a federal aid package for Harvey recovery efforts later this month.

Preliminary flood data collected by the Dartmouth Flood Observatory using satellite imagery shows the extent of flood water across Southeast Texas. Because cloud cover can limit the availability of data, this represents the minimum likely extent of the flood water.
Preliminary flood data collected by the Dartmouth Flood Observatory using satellite imagery shows the extent of flood water across Southeast Texas. Because cloud cover can limit the availability of data, this represents the minimum likely extent of the flood water. Ryan Murphy/Dartmouth Flood Observatory

On Friday, Gov. Greg Abbott said state lawmakers have “smartly kept a lot of money” in the Rainy Day Fund, the state’s savings account. The fund, which is largely made up of tax revenue on oil and gas production, was projected to have a balance of $10.3 billion at the end of August, according to a recent estimate from the Texas Comptroller’s Office. But Abbott confirmed he didn’t plan to call a special session for Harvey relief, meaning lawmakers are unlikely to use much of that fund until 2019.

Hurricane Ike was the last major hurricane to hit Texas in 2008. According to a report issued by TxDOT in 2012, the final cost to repair roads and highways after Ike was over $150 million.

State crews managed to clear roads four days after Ike. Hurricane Harvey lingered in Texas for nearly a week, resulting in record-breaking rainfall and extensive flooding. The longer duration of Hurricane Harvey is expected to have caused more damage to the state’s transportation system than Ike.

“I think we’re safe to say that it’s going to exceed the $25 million,” Williams said.

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Officials are starting to grapple with the costs of Harvey. Here’s what you should know today.

With video of southeast Texas flooding rolling in the background, state emergency workers tackle Hurricane Harvey-related crises at the Texas DPS Emergency Operations Center (EOC) on Sept. 1, 2017. 

As the extent of the damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey becomes apparent, federal and state relief efforts are coming into focus.

The death toll for the storm has reached 50 people, the Houston Chronicle reported on Saturday, and the Texas Department of Public Safety said more than 185,000 homes have been damaged or destroyed by the storm, according to the Washington Post.

President Donald Trump is scheduled to visit Houston on Saturday, where he’s expected to meet with Harvey survivors after being criticized for not doing so while in Corpus Christi and Austin on Tuesday. Houston activists are reportedly planning to protest Trump’s midday visit to a relief center, according to the Chronicle. Saturday’s visit will be Mayor Sylvester Turner’s first opportunity to talk to Trump since Harvey made landfall, the Chronicle said, though the president has communicated regularly with Gov. Greg Abbott.

Trump on Friday called for $7.9 billion in federal assistance, a first installment in what’s expected to be a more expansive relief package, according to the Associated Press. Of that, $7.4 billion would go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $450 million to disaster loans for small businesses. The New York Times reported a second request for $6.7 billion would follow.

Abbott said Wednesday he expects the state will need far more than $120 billion, the amount of federal relief provided after Hurricane Katrina, the Post reported. And Turner told CNN Friday, “We need immediately, right now, just for debris removal alone, anywhere between $75 million to $100 million.”

In a message posted to Twitter, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the chamber will “act quickly” on disaster relief funding, with a vote expected to come next week when Congress returns from an August recess. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have set a committee hearing for Thursday to discuss housing needs in the wake of Harvey. Abbott has already said a second special legislative session would not be necessary, and that the state has enough resources to “address the needs between now and the next session.”

Trump has said he plans to donate $1 million of his personal money to Harvey relief. He also has called for Sunday to be a national day of prayer for those impacted by the storm.

Abbott, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick all said they would commit $100,000 through their campaigns to a Harvey relief fund announced by the governor Friday. Patrick added in a message posted to Twitter that he and his wife would make a personal donation of $25,000 to the fund – which Abbott wants raise $100 million for over Labor Day weekend.

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