Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why were homes built inside the reservoirs, anyway?

A previous post included an aerial photo of the Canyon Gate subdivision in Fort Bend County that was flooded when water from Barker Reservoir backed up into it. Which begs the question: since Canyon Gate was clearly behind the dam wall of the reservoir, why was it allowed to be built to begin with? And did the homeowners in that development understand the risk that the reservoir presented to their homes? Naomi Martin at the Dallas Morning News discovers that, for the most part, they did not:
Many of the victims knew little or nothing about the risk they faced. They never purchased flood insurance. They had no clue their homes were built within government reservoirs engineered in the 1940s to fill with billions of gallons of water in case of heavy rains. The undeveloped, government-owned land inside the reservoirs had a 1 percent chance of flooding in a given year. But residents' homes just upstream, in the so-called maximum pool of the reservoirs, had a significant chance of being intentionally flooded in the event of a major storm. 
"I feel cheated," said Binay Anand, 46, an engineer who lived with his wife and two kids in a $275,000 home in Canyon Gate, a subdivision in the maximum flood pool. "I was not aware — and none of the residents were aware — that this was flood-prone. If they would have told us, I would not have taken it." 
Anand said he and his neighbors only learned since Harvey that Fort Bend County had issued notice about the corps' plan to use their property as a reservoir on the original plat, which is the county's public land record approving the subdivisions. 
Politicians knew it. Bureaucrats knew it. Developers knew it. But homeowners appear to have been offered little to no notification. 
Even providing the most basic information in the plat's fine print was a political fight at the time, Fort Bend County officials said. 
"It took a yeoman's effort because the developers were saying, 'You can't make us do that,'" said Richard Stolleis, the Fort Bend county engineer. "It was a pretty significant battle — a high-level discussion — before these were put on the subdivision plat." 
County officials believed the plat's warning would be passed through the property's title to every prospective owner at closing. However, many residents said they never saw it. They may have overlooked it or missed it in a stack of documents, or their real estate agents and title workers may have not clearly explained the risk. State law doesn't require disclosure of such notes, experts said.
Not being in the real estate business, I don't know how often plats - and the language contained on them - are included in the pile of documents every homebuyer is presented with at closing. As somebody who used to process plats for the City of Denton, however, I do know that there is oftentimes critical information on that document, which is usually printed in a 24"x36" format, making the text and disclaimers impossible to read if it is reduced down to the legal size documents normally associated with real estate transactions.

As to why subdivisions such as Canyon Gate were allowed to be built inside the reservoir's dam walls to begin with, the simple truth is that there was nothing prohibiting them from being built there. They were outside of the 100-year floodplain property owned by the US Army Corps of Engineers:
The corps didn't feel the need to acquire all the land at the time the reservoirs were built, Long said, because that land was nothing but rice farms and fields where cattle grazed. 
It didn't stay that way. In 1997, developers came before Fort Bend County government for approval to put subdivisions on the pastures. Aware of the flood risk to the area, the county was in a bind. It didn't have the authority to prohibit development or establish zoning rules, said County Judge Robert Hebert, who has been in office since 2003.
Which, tangentially, brings me to something I've wanted to rant about: the idea that the lack of land-use zoning (the City of Houston being famous for being the largest city in the nation without it) is what "caused" Harvey's flooding, or made it worse than it otherwise would have been. This idea (which has been debunked here, and here, and here, and here, and here) isn't even relevant to Canyon Gate, because it is not inside Houston's city limits, and unincorporated areas under county jurisdiction do not have the authority under state law to implement zoning controls.

Beyond that fact, what I've come to understand is that, oftentimes, "zoning" is popularly conflated with "planning," even though they're not the same thing. The latter is a process a city undertakes to guide and regulate its development; the former is just one tool that a city can use in that process. Even though Houston doesn't have zoning, it is not a development free-for-all, and municipalities around Houston that do have zoning laws on the books, such as Bellaire, Missouri City, Friendswood, League City, Dickinson and Baytown, flooded as well.

The region (whether inside or outside of Houston's city limits) obviously needs better regulation in terms of construction in flood-prone areas, floodwater retention infrastructure, and preservation of pervious cover. But land use zoning (e.g. designating what properties can be single-family residential, multi-family residential, retail commercial, office commercial, industrial, institutional, agricultural, etc.) wouldn't make a difference: it would simply mean the same buildings, with the same impervious cover, would have been built in different places. (But what do I know? I'm just a native Houstonian and AICP-certified planner who did zoning work at the City of Denton.)

Getting off tangent, what is the future for homes in flood-prone areas, and entire subdivisions like Canyon Gate? I honestly have no clue, and I feel for the homeowners in these areas who have a lot of tough decisions ahead of them. Entire communities have hard choices to make in the wake of Harvey, and Memorial Day '15, and Tax Day '16. These events may represent a "new normal" that the region needs to come to terms with, and all options need to be on the table in order to confront it.

Buyouts and demolitions of at least some of the homes, apartments and other structures in areas that are chronically prone to flooding will obviously be required (this process has already begun, albeit at a very limited pace), but will not be suitable (or financially feasible) for every home that flooded during Harvey. Perhaps more homes will need to be elevated out of the floodplain or even retrofitted water-resistant materials to make them "floodwater ready." That won't be cheap, either. Nor will the construction of new stormwater detention and discharge structures, including, perhaps, a third flood control structure to augment the beleaguered Addicks and Barker Reservoirs.

As a final thought, the one thing we can probably do in the short term is to throw out the current floodplain maps. Not only have they done a poor job of predicting flooding, the entire concept of the "100-year floodplain" probably needs to be reconsidered as well.

Kirby Lloyd Harding 1927-2017

Although I am no longer married into his family, hadn't seen him in years, and know he had been in ill health for some time, I am going to miss Kirby Harding.

Kirby was as hilarious and as mischievous as he was cantankerous. He made the best seafood gumbo. He was a fan of UH football from the very beginning of the program and even gave me the copy of Jerry Wizig's Eat 'Em Up, Cougars - a history of UH football from its inception to its 1977 Cotton Bowl victory - that currently sits on my bookshelf. And he adored the fact that my son is named after him.

Kirby died just a month shy of his 90th birthday and 70th wedding anniversary. This is his obituary as it appeared in the Galveston County Daily News; however, Lori's cousin read a much longer and more interesting obituary at the funeral service on Monday. If I can get my hands on a copy, I'll replace this one with that one.
Kirby Lloyd Harding born October 16, 1927 in Waco, Texas and went to be with the Lord on September 15, 2017 in New Braunfels, Texas. 
Kirby was preceded in death by his mother, Willie Ables Harding and his daughter Synthia Marie Harding Stevens. He is survived by his wife of 70 years, Charldeen Jeanette Watts Harding; three daughters, Sandra Wicker (Tom), Sherry Cass (Ron) and Sharlene Bailey (Brian); and a son-in-law, Larry Stevens;13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren and 3 great-great-grandchildren. 
Visitation will be at Crowder Funeral Home in Dickinson, Texas on Monday, September 18, 2017 at noon, with a service to follow at 1:00 pm, and a graveside at Forest Park East.

Houston 38, Rice 3

The first Bayou Bucket since 2013 carried more meeting than usual in a city still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Harvey. In a show of thanksgiving and solidarity, both teams met at midfield for a pre-game handshake. The Rice MOB joined the Spirit of Houston at halftime for a tear-rending performance of "Amazing Grace," and Mayor Sylvester Turner was on hand to recognize first responders. The game itself, however, was pretty one-sided, as the Cougars bested their crosstown rivals for the fourth time in a row.

The Good: Houston QB Kyle Allen had an excellent evening, completing 31 of 33 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns. Running backs Mulbah Car, Duke Catalon and Dillon Birden each scored a rushing touchdown. The defense forced three Rice turnovers and kept the Owls out of the endzone. The Coogs had no turnovers of their own and were only penalized two times for ten yards.

The Bad: Kicker Caden Novikoff's 46-yard field goal attempt was short; he is now just 2-4 on FG attempts for the season. Rice's two offensive playmakers, QB Sam Glaesmann and WR Samuel Stewart, were forced out of the game with injuries. And, although I know it was because the Cougars were well ahead at the half and decided to put in their second string offense (including QB Kyle Postma), this is the second game in a row that Houston has failed to score any points in the second half. The Cougars went for it on fourth and goal from wth Rice one yard line early in the third quarter and still weren't able to score. I don't care if it is your second team; you should still be able to score in that situation.

The Ugly: Rice fan attendance. I'm not sure they even had a thousand fans at the game, and that includes the MOB. It never ceases to amaze me that so many Rice fans cannot be bothered to drive seven whole miles from their campus to support their team.

What it means: The Cougars looked a lot sharper than they did a week ago against Arizona, which suggests that last week's sloppiness truly was the result of rustiness and hurricane-related distractions. That being said, Rice is not a very good team so it's hard to use this game to determine just how "good" the Cougars really are this season. The real test will come next Saturday, when the Coogs host  former SWC rival Texas Tech in a nationally-televised matchup.

The Cougars now lead the all-time series against Rice, 30 games to 11.

A wake-up call for our elected officials

I don't always agree with former mayoral candidate Bill King, but sometimes he is absolutely right. In suggesting that the State of Texas use some of its $10 billion "Rainy Day Fund" to pay for a least a portion of flood control projects in the Houston region, he writes:
If we fail to address these risks there will be long-term, adverse economic consequences for our region, the State and indeed the entire nation.  The Houston region accounts for almost 30% of the State's total GDP.  As goes Houston so goes the State.
After a week of nonstop national news coverage about how vulnerable Houston is to flooding, what corporation is going to relocate here?  Would you schedule a convention in Houston during hurricane season?  How many companies are going to build a new plant in a place where it could be inundated by a 25-foot storm surge?
Now is the time for bold leadership, not Republican primary posturing.  There is nothing conservative about failing to make investments that we know are needed to avoid future losses.  In fact, it is grossly irresponsible not to do so.
A hundred years from now no one is going to remember anything about bathroom bills or even know what that the hell a sanctuary city was.  But, as we remember the construction of the Galveston Seawall over a century after it was built, our grandchildren will remember whether we, as a generation, stepped up and ended the threat of devastating flooding to our region and the State's largest economic engine.
King believes that rainy day funds could be used to leverage federal dollars to construct flood and storm surge infrastructure such as the "Ike Dike" and a third reservoir to supplement the beleaguered Addicks and Barker Dams.

Unfortunately, I think King is going to discover that the folks who currently run this state (and, for that matter, country) are more concerned about pandering to their wingnut base than they are to protecting the people and economy of the Houston region. Especially when that protection is going to require new revenues to fund it. However, I'd love to be proven wrong.

Harvey was, indeed, a wake-up call. But then again, so were the Memorial Day floods. And the Tax Day floods. And Ike. And Allison...

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Houston 19, Arizona 16

It wasn't pretty, but it was a much-needed win to start the season.

The Good: Ed Oliver took up where he left off, disrupting offenses and pressuring quarterbacks. He had eight solo and three assisted tackles in spite of being double-teamed for most of the evening. The defense also scored a safety, and safety Garrett Davis intercepted Wildcat QB Brandon Dawkins late in the game to secure a win. Wide receiver John Leday broke off an 81-yard kickoff return to set up Houston's second touchdown.

The Bad: Although it was good from Houston's perspective, Arizona QB Dawkins was exceptionally bad. He had poor accuracy, his bumble of a snap led to the Cougars' safety, and he missed a wide-open WR in the endzone in the second half that would have put the Wildcats ahead. Truth be told, if Dawkins were even an average quarterback, the Cougars probably would have lost this game.

Also bad: the Cougar wide receivers' inability to block on screen plays, the secondary getting burned on several passes, quarterback Kyle Allen throwing two interceptions (although one was the result of his receiver slipping), and new UH kicker Caden Novikoff's miss of an easy field goal.

The Ugly: The Cougars were penalized ten times for 110 yards. Although some of those penalties were rather ticky-tack, it was nevertheless emblematic of a sloppy game. Although Kyle Allen had a respectable performance (completing 25 of 32 passes for 225 yards and a TD), the offense was clearly out of synch and didn't score any points after halftime. Playcalling was particularly ugly, at times bordering on absurd; the Cougars had a decent running game, but several times on third and short they abandoned the run in favor of bubble screens and sideline routes that didn't work. One time they even tried to run the option - to the short side of the field!

Truth is, the game was ugly all the way around. Arizona is not a good team and head coach Rich Rodriguez is probably out of a job at the end of the season.

What it means: I’m willing to look past this week's sloppiness, because the end result was a win, on the road, against a P5 school (albeit a bad one). The Cougars were dealing with siginifcant distractions and interruptions because of Hurricane Harvey, and they were playing their first game of the season with a new QB and coacihng staff. But significant improvement is going to have to be made if the Cougars are to have a winning season. Furthermore, if this is the type of placalliyng we can expect from Major Appllewhite and his staff, then we may be in for a long, frustrating season.

Houston's game against UTSA, which was postponed due to the hurricane, will not be rescheduled this year, which means the Cougars will only play 11 games in the 2017 regular season.

Harvey, survivor guilt, and self-absorbed local writers

I did not suffer flooding damage at my apartment. None of my family experienced property damage, or had to be rescued from floodwaters, either. The power never went out. The internet service never got interrupted. My office was closed and my employer covered our salaries through an emergency leave account. So for me, Harvey was essentially a week-long staycation from work. This is not to say it was particularly enjoyable to spend the week trapped in the apartment, glued to the TV, scrolling through horror stories on Facebook and otherwise going stir crazy. But for me, Harvey was little more than an inconvenience, as if somebody had pressed the "pause" button on my life for a week. I found Harvey to be much less onerous than Ike, when we went for two whole weeks without electricity.

Compare my experience to that of a friend of mine, who recently moved back to Houston after her husband died to be close to her mother. She rented an apartment in a complex in the Meyerland area that backs up to Brays Bayou expressly so her two teenage sons could attend Bellaire High School. She and her sons safely got out of the apartment before the flooding hit, but they lost all of their possessions - including keepsakes belonging to her late husband - and are now staying with her mom.

Compare my experience to my girlfriend's coworker, whose house on the east side of Baytown flooded and who, along with her family, had to be rescued by boat. They're fine, but they've lost cars and furniture and their house, along with every other home on their street, is currently being stripped of waterlogged carpet, sheetrock and cabinetry.

Compare my experience to those who bore the brunt of Harvey's initial landfall, whose business and homes have been blown away. Towns like Port Aransas and Rockport have been essentially wiped off the map.

Should I feel guilty that I was spared while so many others are suffering right now? Abby Koenig at Culturemap Houston certainly does:
I feel guilty just writing this. Hurricane Harvey came to Houston, and my home and family and I are fine. 
On the Thursday before the storm, my husband told me that his office would be closed the next day, and probably the following Monday. “This is so stupid,” I replied, “It’s not even supposed to start raining until Friday night.” 
The whole thing was a bother, even more so when I found out my sons’ daycare would also be closed that Friday and probably the following Monday. That meant I’d have my twin three-and-a-half year-old boys for four days straight! Ugh. 
On Friday, the boys and I went to the mall and walked around and window shopped. It started raining lightly around noon. 
“It’s not even going to do anything!” 
But it did. A lot. 
Friday night it began to pour and pour and pour. My husband and I began to worry. We had been in Houston through Hurricane Ike but not in our current home, and even though we had not had any troubles previously, it was becoming quickly apparent that this was different. Like most Houstonians we turned on the news Friday night and didn’t stop watching for the next three days. 
Once Harvey made landfall the texts began. “You guys OK?” “What’s going on there?” “We’re watching the TV, is it bad?” 
Like many in the city, we are transplants. Our friends and family watched the horrors on the national news with little context of how the city functioned. 
But we were fine. Like… fine.

We saw friends. Their stories were the same. So lucky. Dodged a bullet. Never even lost power. Can’t believe it. #Blessed. Grateful. Can you believe it? Like nothing happened. A little water but really fine. Fine. Just trying to figure out how to help. And can you believe the pictures? Terrible.
We uttered the same words in the same hushed tone: Survivor Guilt. 

Koenig describes how she tried to assuage her "survivor guilt" by volunteering and donating. She clearly is also trying to assuage her "guilt" by writing this article, which quite frankly comes off as self-absorbed and overwrought.

Survivor guilt is the condition by which a person experiences remorse or feels somehow at fault because they survived a traumatic (and oftentimes life-threatening) event that others did not. It is experienced by everyone from survivors of terror attacks to combat veterans to cancer survivors. It is technically considered by the DSM-IV to be an aspect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Which means it's not a condition that Keonig is entitled to experience.

First, Koenig's experience is nothing special. It's not like she survived a form of cancer that kills 90% of its patients or was a handful of people to live through a plane crash. Most Houstonians "survived" Harvey in that they did not experience flooding or had to evacuate.

Although the national media might have painted a picture of an entire city underwater due to Harvey, the fact is that it was not. Harvey may have affected as much as 14.2 percent of the local housing stock, and given that there are estimated to be about 1.66 million housing units in Harris County alone, that's a lot of homes. However, the majority of Houstonians are "fine," in that their homes did not flood and they are not currently ripping out drywall, haggling with insurance adjusters or living in shelters.

This is not to belittle the immense toll the storm did take: lives that are lost or will never be the same again, property that was destroyed, priceless heirlooms that will never be replaced. It's worth noting that a lot of people may have avoided damage to their homes but still lost their cars to the flood, or lost a week's worth of wages as their businesses were closed or unaccessible. But the truth is that much of Houston got through this ordeal relatively unscathed.

This is why there were long lines of volunteers at places like the George R. Brown Convention Center. Most Houstonians got through Harvey just fine and wanted to help their fellow residents in need. Unlike Keonig, they simply didn't feel the need to draw attention to themselves through a column in a local webzine.

Second, Koenig did not experience anything that could be considered traumatic. She was not one of those who had to be rescued from their car, or plucked from a rooftop by a helicopter, or evacuated from their home in a bass boat with little more than the the clothes on their back. While she certainly had every right to be concerned about the amount of rainfall she was experiencing, she was spared the experience of standing helplessly in her living room as floodwaters crept up around her.

While others spent Harvey experiencing real trauma, she spent the storm watching the news, reading Facebook and drinking wine. While she understandably feels awkward and contrite because she comfortably weathered a storm that devastated so many others, she did not undergo an experience likely to cause her PTSD in the future.

Finally, nobody gets to feel "guilty" or otherwise at fault for a naturally-occuring, albeit extreme, weather phenomenon that dumped as much water on the city in three days as it normally gets in an entire year and flooded neighborhoods that have never flooded before. The people who got flooded out of their homes didn't do anything wrong; they were simply located where there happened to be too much rainwater and no place for it to go. Those of us who didn't flood didn't do anything wrong either; we simply happened to be in places where those conditions did not occur.

Whether or not you flooded was simply the luck of the meteorologic and hydrologic draw. Even my friend who got flooded out of her apartment with her two kids realizes this. "Just bad luck I guess. We'll be fine," she messaged me.

Koenig's article might have been stronger had she focused on the fact that while she and her family were "fine" in that their house didn't flood, nobody in this city is truly "fine" right now. All of our daily routines have been altered in one form or another. We're all mourning the loss of local heroes. We're all dealing with horrendous post-flood traffic (although it's gotten better this week). We're all going to have to absorb the economic hit this region is going to take. We all know people who have flooded out of their homes and we are helping them accordingly. We're all going to have to work together to make things "fine" again (and, to prepare for the next time one of these events occurs, but that's a topic for my next post).

I feel fortunate that I, like most Houstonians, made it through Harvey without any loss.

But I don't feel like I survived a trauma, because this experience was not traumatic for me; to claim that it was would be to trivialize and demean the people who truly went through horrific experiences.

Furthermore, I do not feel guilty. Neither should Abby Koenig.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

United adding nonstop service to Australia

After the ravages of Hurricane Harvey, we could all use a trip Down Under:
United Airlines will begin offering daily, nonstop service between Houston and Sydney on Jan. 18. 
At 8,596 miles, it will be United's second-longest flight. Its Los Angeles-Singapore flight remains the longest. 
Patrick Quayle, vice president of international network, said the new international flight is possible because United is rearranging flights at Bush intercontinental Airport this fall to make connections more efficient. 
The new route will provide more than 70 cities across North America with one-stop service to Sydney. For example, United customers originating in Charlotte, N.C., currently have to fly to Chicago to connect to San Francisco to get to Sydney. With United's new flight from Houston, customers would have just one stop. 
"We're not just going after the Houston traffic," Quayle said.
Well, yeah; that's not the way hubs work. But Houston is big enough, and there are enough people with ties to Australia living in it, that there will nevertheless be plenty of local traffic on this flight.

The Houston-Sydney route, to be flown using Boeing 787-9 Deamliner aircraft, will create a second linkage to that region of the world, complementing Air New Zealand's service to Auckland. Today in the Sky has more.

In addition to this service, United is also resuming non-stop flights to Mazatlán, Mexico (which were halted five years ago, when the airline threw a temper tantrum regarding the city's decision to allow Southwest to fly internationally out of Hobby). Additionally, Bahamian carrier Bahamasair is introducing flights from Nassau to IAH in November.

Images of Harvey's wrath

Google just updated their satellite imagery of Houston and other parts of Texas (flyover dates of August 29 and August 30, 2017 - why is it that Google can upload new imagery immediately after a natural disaster when it otherwise takes them cycles of 12 to 18 months to refresh their aerial coverages?). The images were taken after Harvey's clouds moved out and don't show the flooding at its worst, but they do show the devastation its winds and rains left behind, including parts of the metropolitan region that are still flooded (and could continue to be flooded for weeks to come, as the Addicks and Barker Reservoirs slowly drain) and entire neighborhoods of houses being gutted in a desperate race against mold.

I took a few screenshots from Google Earth; click any of the pictures below for a full-size version.

                                                                                                      Google Earth (Imagery Date: 8/30/2017)
This is the Canyon Gate subdivision of Cinco Ranch. It is underwater because, although it is nominally outside of the 100-year floodplain, it is still located inside the wall of the Barker Reservoir (visible directly below the subdivision). As the reservoir filled up from the deluge, the water had nowhere else to go and backed up into this neighborhood.

                                                                                                       Google Earth (Imagery Date: 8/30/2017)

To the north, behind the Addicks Reservoir, is the flooded Bear Creek Village subdivision. (I turned off the roads layer for better visibility of the floodwaters.) Like the Canyon Gate subdivision in the previous picture, it was only "outside" of the reservoir in that it was outside of the 100-year floodplain, which is, in reality, a rather flawed concept in regards to describing flood risk. I imagine that in the months to come there is going to be a lot of discussion about the futures of the subdivisions in an adjacent to these two reservoirs.

                                                                                                    Google Earth (Imagery Date: 8/30/2017)
The two reservoirs drain into Buffalo Bayou, which remains out of its banks as the US Army Corps of Engineers continues to release water from those dams at higher-than-normal rates. This means that thousands of homes - many of them high-end residences in Houston's upper-class Memorial neighborhoods - remain flooded. The situation in this part of town is such that electricity has been cut to flooded homes and the area still remains under a nighttime curfew. Many critical north-south thoroughfares on the west side of town, such as Gessner Road shown in the image above, remain impassible as well, creating massive traffic problems for the city.

                                                                                                      Google Earth (Imagery Date: 8/30/2017)

The aftermath of the flood can clearly be seen in this image of a Bellaire neighborhood, as piles of waterlogged carpet, drywall and furniture accumulate on the curbs of affected houses and the streets are clogged with the vans and pickup trucks of cleanup and construction contractors. Although it was well to the north of where this image was taken, it appears that my former residence (which nearly flooded a couple of years ago) was affected as well; there appears to be a pile of furniture and other items in the front yard (and, sadly, on top of what used to be the most productive pieces of agriculture in Bellaire). While I feel very badly for my former landlord and her new tenants, my decision to move was definitely the right one.

Harvey was the worst flood-producing storm in our nation's history. Over the course of three days, Harvey dumped anywhere between 30 and 50 inches of rain over Harris and surrounding counties.The Harris County Flood Control District has a map here of all the areas of the county estimated to have flooded during the storm.

                                                                                                     Google Earth (Imagery Date: 8/29/2017)

To the southwest of Houston, we see evidence of Harvey's destructive winds and storm surge where it actually made landfall. This is an image of Port Aransas: roofs have been blown off buildings, trees have been felled, RVs have been toppled, and some structures have been destroyed completely.

                                                                                                     Google Earth (Imagery Date: 8/29/2017)

Another Coastal Bend community that was devastated by Harvey is Rockport. Many buildings in the image above have had their roofs blown off or have been destroyed entirely. Months of reconstruction and recovery lie ahead for residents and businesses of this town.

                                                                                                       Google Earth (Imagery Date: 8/30/2017)
Finally, this image of an otherwise undamaged Hobby Airport with no aircraft at any of its gates speaks not to Harvey's physical effect, but its economic impact. Houston's economy was brought to a standstill due to the storm, as businesses closed and flights got canceled. Southwest did not resume a full flight schedule out of Hobby until this past Saturday. Many employers, mine included, did not resume operations until the Tuesday after Labor Day. The cumulative impact of Harvey will reach into the hundreds of billions.

The Rockets have a new owner

Or at least they will soon, if the NBA approves:
Houston billionaire Tillman Fertitta has reached an agreement to purchase the Houston Rockets from Leslie Alexander. 
The $2.2 billion sale price to break the NBA record sale of $2 billion from when the Clippers were sold to Steve Ballmer, according to the person familiar with the terms of the deal. 
"I am truly honored to have been chosen as the next owner of the Houston Rockets," Fertitta said in a statement. "This is a life-long dream come true.
In addition to being a restauranteur, casino owner and reality show star, Fertitta is also the chairman of the University of Houston Board of Regents. He's been heavily involved in supporting Cougar athletics, including donating $20 million to renovate (and rename) UH's basketball arena.
UH president Renu Khator, who has worked with Fertitta on many projects, said he brings the right vision to the Rockets. 
"Tilman is one of the finest and smartest CEOs that I know," she said. "He has been a perfect chair for us and brought so much energy and so much hope here. 
"He looks at issues from 50,000 feet and can ask questions that go 10,000 feet. I have watched him, and we think here at the University of Houston that we have been very blessed with his leadership. I think he's going to bring the same energy, enthusiasm and smartness to anything he touches, including the Rockets."
Fertitta's support of the UH athletics program bodes well for his ownership of the Rockets: he values competitive sports programs and is willing to put his money behind them. However, a downside (at least for UH fans) to Fertitta's ownership of the Rockets is that that team, rather than Cougar sports, is likely to be his focus moving forward.

The Houston Press's Jeff Balke is supportive of Fertitta, arguing that "he checks off all those boxes" that Rockets fans would want in an owner, and likens Fertitta to another successful NBA owner in the state:
Perhaps the closest example of what type of owner he could be resides a couple of hundred miles to the north in Mark Cuban. Both are entrepreneurs. Both are fans. Both are outspoken and somewhat controversial. Both have reality TV shows. Cuban may rub the NBA and fans of other teams the wrong way, but as an owner, he has been great for the Dallas Mavericks.
The Chronicle's Brian T. Smith thinks Fertitta's ownership "looks perfect on paper" but offers some words of caution:
Now, Fertitta will have to prove himself to Houston.
He's been handed the best backcourt in the NBA and has one of the sharpest GMs in the league. He'll cut the check for Coach of the Year Mike D'Antoni, who got 55 regular-season wins out of a supposed No. 8 seed.
This should be hard to screw up -- but the insanely wealthy do it all the time.
What happens if the 2017-18 Rockets fall short, the team's coach isn't getting enough out of his stars, or the new owner wants to start pushing all the big buttons himself?
Time will tell, I guess. But Fertitta's ownership of the Rockets makes sense for a lot of reasons.

The Chronicle outlines the steps required to be taken before Fertitta officially assumes control of the franchise and asks some related questions, including what this might mean as far as a future National Hockey League team for Houston. Kuff shares his thoughts as well.

Friday, September 01, 2017

Why didn't Houston evacuate? Two words.

As the devastation wrought by Harvey has been broadcast out to the world, and as untold numbers of people have been saved from rising waters by helicopters, dump trucks and air boats, several national media outlets have spent the past week asking the same question: why didn't Houston evacuate ahead of the storm?

Aside from the immense logistical hurdles associated with evacuating an area of this size - there are over 6.5 million people in the metropolitan area and 2.2 million people in Houston alone - the reason why Houston was not evacuated for Harvey can be summed up in two words: Hurricane Rita.

As NPR's Camila Domonoske explains:
People outside the city, watching this unfold, have wondered why — some quietly, some loudly. Why were all those people home in the first place? Why were officials wary of calling an evacuation? 
There are multiple reasons, but one good place to start is on a scorching-hot, utterly gridlocked freeway more than a decade ago. 
In 2005, just a few weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Hurricane Rita made its way toward Houston. Rita was even stronger than Katrina — and Houstonians had just witnessed what happened to New Orleans residents who decided to wait out the storm. Nobody wanted to repeat that mistake. 
The result: The largest evacuation in U.S. history, according to PBS. Texas legislators estimated that 3.7 million people left the Houston region in the evacuation effort.

The evacuation was a disaster in itself. NPR's John McChesney reported from the scene in 2005: 
"In searing 100-degree heat, cars crept up north I-45, windows down, air conditioning off to save precious gasoline. The traffic jam stretched for over 100 miles and has been going on for over a day and a half. ... Gasoline was not to be found along the interstate and cars that ran dry made the gridlock even worse. Abandoned vehicles littered the shoulder lanes." 
Dozens of people died on the road — in a horrific bus fire, in traffic accidents, of heat stroke.
I've previously written about the lethal disaster that was the Rita evacuation, including that it needs to be remembered "in order to ensure that it never happens again." And it would have happened again, had a general evacuation of the Houston region been ordered prior to Harvey's arrival.

Even though several improvements were made in the wake of Rita, such as better-designed evacuation plans or contraflow lanes on freeways, the sheer number of people affected by a widespread evacuation order would have almost certainly caused Rita-like gridlock on area highways and have put millions of people in harm's way, as The Atlantic's Ian Bogost points out:
A series of slow-moving rivers, called bayous, provide natural drainage for the area. To account for the certainty of flooding, Houston has built drainage channels, sewers, outfalls, on- and off-road ditches, and detention ponds to hold or move water away from local areas. When they fill, the roadways provide overrun. The dramatic images from Houston that show wide, interstate freeways transformed into rivers look like the cause of the disaster, but they are also its solution, if not an ideal one. This is also why evacuating Houston, a metropolitan area of 6.5 million people, would have been a terrible idea. This is a city run by cars, and sending its residents to sit in gridlock on the thoroughfares and freeways designed to become rivers during flooding would have doomed them to death by water.
The safety of evacuees while they are en route is of paramount concern. There are other critical concerns as well, such as the ability of other regions to safely absorb said evacuees (and it's worth noting that two nearby metropolitan areas that generally serve as destinations for local hurricane evacuees - San Antonio and Austin - were threatened by Harvey as well), or making arrangements for evacuating folks who can't do so on their own (i.e. the sick, disabled, elderly, those without automobiles, etc.). Even if a general evacuation is ordered, there are still scores of people who will refuse to do so for whatever reason: the desire to protect their property from looters, the fact that they can't afford hotels or do not have friends or relatives in destination cities, misunderstanding or underestimating the threat posed by the storm, etc. Storm-related evacuations are exceedingly difficult to carry out (see here and here for excellent discussions of the complexities involved) and, as we learned from Rita, can be more deadly than the storm itself. Even the mayor's former opponent thinks he made the right decision in not calling for a general evacuation of Houston.

None of this is to discount the horrible human suffering that occurred as a result of Harvey. Thousands of people have lost everything; their homes have flooded and they are living in shelters with nothing but the shirts on their backs. In the coming months, as the region recovers, there's going to be a lot of discussion about flood-related evacuations, especially as it relates to affected areas (some of which flooded for the third time in three years, others of which have never flooded before this event) of the region. Evacuation plans and routes will be updated accordingly. People will be better prepared next time.

But blanket condemnations of local and county officials for not issuing general evacuation orders are unfair and are ignorant of the realities as well as the history of the Houston region.

We learned our lesson during Rita. The armchair evacuation experts (most of whom don't even live in Texas) would do well to do their research, too.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

2017 Houston Cougar Football Preview

It seems trite, and even insensitive, to write about college football as the as the death, property damage and human suffering tolls of Harvey mount. This is especially true for the Houston Cougars, whose players might have family members affected by the catastrophe and whose own facilities have been damaged by the floodwaters. The program's season opener against Texas-San Antonio, which was scheduled for this weekend, has been postponed.

With that said, we're all going to need some semblance of normalcy to return as the floodwaters recede and as college football season begins.* So what can be expected from the UH football program this fall?

Looking Back: the 2016 season started off with high hopes for the Cougars, who began the season with a signature upset of Oklahoma, and at one point were ranked as high as #6 in the AP poll before crashing down against Navy and SMU. Ravaged by injuries and constant rumors about the future of head coach Tom Herman (who fled to Austin at season's end), the Cougars ended the 2016 season unranked, with an 9-4 record and a bowl loss. USA Today gives the Cougars a C+ on the season; I know several UH fans who probably would have given the team an even lower grade, given the expectations they had going in to the season.

I accurately predicted that the Coogs would end the regular season with a 9-3 record (although I predicted one of the losses to be against Oklahoma, not Friggin' SMU!). The fact that the Cougars could beat Oklahoma and Louisville but still not end the season ranked was a disappointment for me.

The Big Story for 2017: for the second time in three seasons and the third time in six, the program has a new coaching staff. Former offensive coordinator Major Applewhite takes over the reigns as head coach. I've been familiar with Applewhite for about 20 years, as he was quarterback at Texas when I was a graduate student there. Applewhite's new offensive coordinator is Brian Johnson, whose previous coaching experience was at Utah and Mississippi State. Mark D'Onofrio, who was previously at Miami, is defensive coordinator.

Reasons for Optimism: the Cougars have some talent returning. Notably, defensive tackle Ed Oliver, a preseason All-American who may be one of the best defensive players in the country. Linebacker Matthew Adams, who led the team in tackles last year, returns as well. Seniors Khalil Williams and Garrett Davis anchor the secondary. On the offensive side of the ball, highly-recruited Texas A&M transfer Kyle Allen is expected to take the reigns as starting quarterback. He'll be joined in the backfield by Duke Catalon, who was the team's leading rusher last year, and will have experienced targets in the form of senior wide receivers Linell Bonner and Steven Dunbar.

Another reason for optimism is that the Cougars aren't going into 2017 with the same set of pressures and distractions that they were facing a year ago. They're not in the conversation as a potential "playoff buster" this season, the Big XII expansion farce is not an issue this season, and they don't have to spend every week this season hearing chatter that their head coach is the top candidate for other jobs. The team might play better without these distractions hanging over their heads.

Reasons for Pessimism: aside from the uncertainty that a new coaching staff brings, the Cougars are also having to fill the holes left by the departures of many talented players, including quarterback Greg Ward Jr, wide receiver Chance Allen, linebacker (and second-round draft pick) Tyus Bowser, linebacker Steven Taylor, and defensive backs Howard and Brandon Wilson. It doesn't give me a lot of comfort that new DC Mark D'Onofrio was unemployed the entire 2016 season, or that Miami fans inundated Cougar message boards after UH hired him to tell us how horrible he was there and how big of a mistake we made by hiring him. The biggest problem on the offensive side of the ball is the offensive line, which gave up 98 TFLs last season. They're still suspect until proven otherwise.

The Schedule: the Cougars face two beatable P5 schools - Arizona and Texas Tech - and get the three teams that beat them last year - Navy, Memphis and SMU - at home this fall. It remains to be seen if the UTSA game will be rescheduled; that could have a significant effect on the team if, for example, it replaces the November 11 open date.

What the Pigskin Pundits Think: they're all over the place. Some people are a bit bearish on the Coogs; Athlon predicts a seven-win season for the Coogs, as does USA Today. Others are more optimistic: SBNation predicts a nine-win season for UH, CBS Sports thinks the Coogs will win at least nine games, and Saturday Blitz sees a ten-win campaign. Yardbarker doesn't predict a record but does think that the Cougars will have a better record without Tom Herman.

What the Computers Think: for whatever reason, the machines are all pretty optimistic. Sagarin seeds the Cougars in the #46 spot with a rating of 75.77. That implies a record of 10-2 when opponent ratings and home field advantage are taken into account. The Congrove algorithm, likewise, predicts a 10-2 record. Massey foresees a 9-3 campaign for the Coogs. ESPN's FPI, which has been updated to exclude the UTSA game, predicts a 9-2 record for the Cougars.

What I Think: a ten-win season would be a great start to the Major Applewhite era and a wonderful rebound from the relative disappointment of a year ago. Alas, I just don't see it happening. I think the Cougars have lost too much talent from a season ago, there's too much uncertainty surrounding the new coaching staff, no help has been provided to the struggling O-line (i.e. in the form of JUCO transfers), and Harvey and its aftermath will have a negative effect on the team's focus.

I predict a 7-5 record for the Cougars (6-5 if the UTSA game is not rescheduled).

*It already has, for two local universities. Although I'm sure it was a great experience for the players, did Rice really have to travel all he way to Australia just to get trounced by Stanford?!

(UPDATE: The UTSA will not be rescheduled.)

Sunday, August 27, 2017


I had planned to spend this weekend relaxing, unpacking boxes, doing some shopping and writing my season preview for the upcoming UH football season. However, Hurricane Harvey - a storm that just a week ago was expected to pass over the Yucatan Peninsula and move into Central Mexico as a weak tropical storm, but which instead broke towards the northwest and made landfall in Aransas Bay as a Category Four Hurricane last Friday evening and then stalled out - has altered my plans, as well as those of millions of others in the Houston region.

The good news is that my girlfriend, our animals and I am fine. I think my decision to move from a house that nearly flooded during the Memorial Day flood of a couple of years ago to the fourth floor of a concrete-block midrise apartment was a good one. My parents likewise, are fine. They experienced some street flooding but it didn’t get into any houses in their neighborhood. Ditto for Kirby and Lori.

The bad news is that I can’t say the same for tends of thousands of others in the Houston area, who have suffered catastrophic flooding of their homes and are being evacuated, in many cases by boat or by helicopter. Some of my friends have homes that have taken on water, or have roofs that are leaking from the sheer amount and duration of rainfall. The amount of rain that has fallen over the Houston area over the past three days has been unprecedented; the total rain amounts are easily going to surpass those for Tropical Storm Alison, whose massive 2001 flood was until now the region's benchmark for a devastating rain event.
                                                                                                  Jordan Tessler, Washington Post

Entire neighborhoods are flooded. Rivers and bayous are out of their banks and continue to rise. The city's roads and highways are underwater and travel around the area is next to impossible. Public transportation has been suspended; school districts have canceled classes for the week. Both airports are closed until at least Wednesday. Floodwaters have forced Ben Taub Hospital to be evacuated and have knocked a local TV station off the air. The visual reality of the flood is stunning:

It's not over yet, either. Harvey remains at tropical storm strength, and is forecast to loop back out over the Gulf of Mexico and come in again closer to the city. This means that more rain is probably on the way:

Some corners of social and traditional media are already comparing Harvey to Hurricane Katrina. It’s too early, of course, to survey the true impact of the storm, especially since it’s not over yet; it’s going to take weeks to truly understand Harvey’s devastation. But when I see the images on the news - of desperate people being plucked from their roofs by helicopters, of people walking through waist-deep water to seek shelter, of senior citizens sitting in floodwater while they wait to be rescued, of evacueees being sent to the George R Brown Convention Center - the parallels to Katrina are eerily similar.

I’ve been told to stay home from work for the next couple of days, so I’m not going to go anywhere. I will post more updates as the situation warrants.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Obligatory eclipse photo

Your Facebook feed was clogged with them today, so one more won't hurt:
I took this picture of the partially-eclipsed sun shining through the clouds with my iPhone; it actually turned out much nicer than the pictures I took when no clouds were in the way. Here in Houston, about 2/3rd of the sun was obscured at maximum eclipse. 

I'm already looking forward to the 2024 eclipse, because I won't have to travel too far to see it in totality. 

The teenager

As of today, my son turns 13 years old. You've come a long way, boy!

(Also: God help us all.)

Resuming transmissions

In my previous post I said I didn't intend to take a true hiatus from this blog over the summer months, but that's exactly how things turned out.

Which is to say, it's been a busy few months, and there's just wasn't any time to generate new posts. There were vacations to New Orleans (Kirby, my girlfriend and I took the Sunset Limited there, reprising, in the other direction, the train ride I took several years ago) and Cancun (including a stopover in Mexico City); there was a trip to central Texas for my aunt's 95th (!) birthday; I finally got to see a legend in concert; I got to do some fishing down at the Gulf; and, I moved.

Yes, the move was a real pain in the ass. It didn't help that I had to put all my stuff in storage and hang out at my parents for a few weeks while my girlfriend and I waited for our new place to become available. But we're here now, in a nice unit at a new apartment complex near Greenway Plaza. We're nowhere near finished unpacking - there are still boxes everywhere - but with every passing day this place feels more and more like home and my girlfriend and I are excited to begin the next phase of our lives here.

However, now that the move is complete and another football season is upon us - I received my UH football season tickets just a few days ago - it's time for the writing to resume. I'll have my customary season preview up in a few days (although it's going to be difficult to write because I really don't know what to expect from the Cougars this fall). I've also resolved to do what I didn't do for last year's big vacation, and put up some pictures of our trip to Mexico.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

It's that time of year again

The Rockets' season came to a rather ignominious end on Thursday night, Kirby is down to his final two weeks of sixth grade, the University of Houston's academic year ended with a speech from the Ahnold the Governator, and the cooler, drier weather we experienced this weekend is most likely "going to be our last true front of spring." All this means is that, regrettably, another miserable Houston summer is upon us.

That also means that it's time for me to do what I successfully avoided doing a year ago, and find a new place to live. I've enjoyed my five years in Bellaire, but my wallet has not, and so it's time to seek housing that's a bit more in line with my socioeconomic status. I'm not looking forward to packing and moving - I haven't even begun putting things in boxes yet and as I look around this house I'm already feeling overwhelmed at what I'm going to do with all this stuff I've managed to accumulate - but the time has come. I'll be combining households with my girlfriend at my new place, which will lesson the financial burden somewhat but which will also mean a big step towards the next phase of my life, depending on how things work out.

There are also a couple of summer trips planned: the usual June trip to New Orleans and a weeklong vacation to Cancun in July. It's been over a decade since I was last in Cancun, so I'm looking forward to heading down there again and sitting my fat ass on a beach with a beer in hand for the entire week. Maybe I'll manage to see some Mayan ruins, too.

Unlike last year, I'm not taking a formal summer hiatus from this blog, but posting activity will probably be very light for the next few months for the reasons I just mentioned.

May everybody have a great summer.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Little things that make me chuckle

The American Athletic Conference had more players drafted in this year's NFL Draft than the Big 12:
That the Big 12 struggled to produce draft picks is not surprising. The league doesn’t recruit as well as the other power conferences and hasn’t for years. It has one elite program these days, Oklahoma, with Oklahoma State a tier below that and Texas still trying to find itself. D’Onta Foreman was the only Texas player picked, which really hurts the league’s numbers. The Horns are making progress, at least. 
It’s also a small conference with just 10 teams, and the league passed on expanding last year. The Big 12 got 1.4 picks per team, compared to 1.25 for AAC teams. 
Some of the schools the Big 12 was reportedly considering most seriously — Houston, Cincinnati, and UConn — are in the league that’s now produced more 2017 picks. That isn’t a good look for the league’s administration, even if it’s just a PR hit. 
The Big 12's small membership and comparatively poor recruiting are both ingredients that make it harder to churn out professionals. The Big 12 is worse-positioned than each of the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 to get players picked. 
The Big 12: college football’s fifth-best conference, but sixth in the 2017 draft.
It's just one draft but, yeah, I'm enjoying a wee bit of schadenfreude.

Congratulations and good luck, but the way, to all the Cougars headed to the NFL.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Another "carmageddon" that wasn't

Following a fire that collapsed part of the busy I-85 freeway in Atlanta, it was feared that the loss of a key traffic linkage would cause havoc in the already-congested city for months while the freeway was repaired. But that didn't happen, because people adjusted their driving habits accordingly once they were aware that the section of freeway was out of service:
So what’s going on here? Arguably, our mental model of traffic is just wrong. We tend to think of traffic volumes, and trip-making generally as inexorable forces of nature. The diurnal flow of 250,000 vehicles a day on an urban freeway like I-85 is just as regular and predictable as the tides. What this misses is that there’s a deep behavioral basis to travel. Human beings will shift their behavior in response to changing circumstances. If road capacity is impaired, many people can decide not to travel, change when they travel, change where they travel, or even change their mode of travel. The fact that Carmageddon almost never comes is powerful evidence of induced demand: people travel on roadways because the capacity is available for their trips, and when the capacity goes away, so does much of the trip making.
I've pointed this out before, but it bears repeating: motorists are not water molecules. Shutting down a freeway is not the same as closing a valve on a pipe and causing water to back up. Motorists make choices as to where to drive or to drive at all, and if they aware of a major closure, they will choose alternate routes to get to their destination or decide not to make the trip at all.

It's also why widening or expanding highways does nothing, in the long term, to solve traffic congestion.

The not-so-friendly skies

I'm just as disgusted as everyone else about the story of the passenger who was bloodied and dragged off an overbooked United flight from Chicago to Louisville because he refused to give up his seat to make room for crewmembers that needed to be ferried to Louisville.

I understand the concept behind overbooking. And I understand that, legally, United Airlines (or in this case, their subsidiary, Republic Airlines) had every right to force the guy off their plane.

But there's the legal world, and then there's the world of common human decency. What kind of world do we live in when something this grotesque is allowed to happen?
“Once you’re offloading passengers who’ve already boarded so that you can get employees on the flight, you’d think they’d do just about anything to avoid that,” said Seth Kaplan, editor of the Airline Weekly trade publication. 
Others echoed the sentiment that United probably could’ve handled the situation better. 
“I’ve seen a lot in my 40 years covering and working for the airline industry, but this is historically bad public relations,” says George Hobica, president of Airfarewatchdog. “The burning question is why did they wait until everyone was seated before realizing they needed to move employees?”
Yep. This should have been handled before the guy was allowed to board the plane. The euphemism the airline industry uses for cases like these, when overbooking requires a passenger to be bumped off a flight, is "involuntarily denied boarding." But the passenger wasn't denied boarding. He was allowed on the plane, presumably because he had a boarding pass with a seat number on it, and he was sitting in his seat when the flight attendants and gate agents selected him for removal.

The passenger, a doctor (whose background is utterly irrelevant to the incident at hand) who claimed he had patients to see in Louisville the following day, refused to get off the plane after he was (apparently randomly) selected for removal, which is when things escalated. Vox's Alex Abad-Santos wonders about the thought process behind the brutal forced removal: what United staff member(s) actually thought this was a good idea?
But the complaint here is that it seems like there are missing steps between asking a man to leave an overbooked flight because he’s been bumped and, if he refuses, knocking that man to the ground and dragging him off the plane, busting his lip in the process.

If every airline deals with denied involuntary boardings — some 8,955 occurred between October and December 2016, according to the DOT report — why did this one result in someone literally being dragged into the aisle? Is that a reflection of United’s policy? And is United’s valuing its policy over its customers indicative of a bigger problem in the industry?

It’s hard to imagine another industry getting away with rescinding services that have already been paid for.

“How many businesses do you know of that can sell you a good or service, accept payment, and then withdraw that good or service unilaterally for their own purposes — much less by force?” Michael Hiltzik wrote for the Los Angeles Times.

Imagine if a restaurant charged you for a meal and then made you leave before it was served. Imagine if you paid for a haircut but your barber stopped partway through and made you live with it until he could reschedule your appointment.
Put another way, people are outraged at the way United treated this person, because they are frustrated by the way the domestic airline industry treats their customers as a whole. As The Atlantic's Derek Thompson notes, this is a symptom of a larger problem in the airline industry:
But although this incident was unusual in many respects, it was also representative of an airline industry that has considerable power over consumers—even if the use of force is more subtle than a group of security professionals wrestling a passenger to the floor. 
For example, many people have pointed out that United might have avoided the entire fiasco by simply offering the passengers more money to leave the plane. By law, compensation for passengers is capped at $1,350, which means that United technically could have raised its offer by more than 50 percent before removing people against their will. But it’s absurd that airlines’ capacity to compensate passengers is bounded by the law in the first place. Indeed, there’s a good case to remove the cap entirely. If airlines are legally permitted to overbook—that is, to sell consumers a service that they will not fulfill—they ought to pay market price to compensate people for the unfulfilled promise. 
Domestic airlines are now enjoying record profits, having flown more passengers each year since 2010. This is in part because the airline industry is sheltered from both antitrust regulation and litigation. Four carriers—United, Delta, American, and Southwest—earn more than $20 billion in profits annually and own 80 percent of seats on domestic flights. Along with cable companies, airlines are the top-of-mind paragon for industries that seem to get worse for consumers as they become more heavily concentrated. Indeed, when fuel prices fell last year, as The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker (who edited this story and who has a relative who works at United) has written, airlines spent the savings on stock buybacks rather than pass them to consumers.

Meanwhile, if customers are shocked by the fine print of United’s contract of carriage, what recourse do they have against the company? Very little. In the last decade, class-action lawsuits have become endangered thanks to a series of Supreme Court rulings that have undercut consumer rights. Disputes over fine-print regulation are increasingly likely to be settled in arbitration, without a judge or jury, where the deck is stacked against the individual plaintiff and the decisions are practically impossible to appeal. 
In this way, the United video serves as a stark metaphor, one where the quiet brutalization of consumers is rendered in shocking, literal form. The first thought that I had watching the outrageous footage of a passenger being dragged through an aisle like a bag of trash was that this should never happen. But fundamentally, this is an old story: Companies in concentrated industries, like the airlines, have legal cover to break the most basic promise to consumers without legally breaking their contracts. The video is a scandal. But so is the law.
A depressing situation, indeed, and one that makes me never want to fly United again (even though I probably will, by virtue of the fact that Houston is one of their fortress hubs and I also still have a significant amount of frequent flyer miles with them that I need to use). But there are some silver linings to this otherwise gruesome incident:

United's stock is taking a beating. The company's tone-deaf CEO was forced to issue a second, more contrite apology today because the statement he issued about the incident yesterday went over like a lead balloon. The Chicago police officer involved in the brutal removal has reportedly been suspended. Late night hosts and other airlines are taking their shots at United. Today the internet was flooded with hilarious and savage memes at the airline's expense. And, most importantly, the outrage being generated by this incident indicates that, even in our hyper-corpratized world, there are still things that companies cannot do to their customers without sparking furious outrage and backlash.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Crawfish season

Texas Monthly's John Nova Lomax explores Houston's love affair with the succulent crustacean; notably, the fact that the love affair is relatively recent:
It wasn’t always this way in Houston. As recently as the 1980s, crawfish were still seen as impossibly exotic. “You want me to suck the what?” was often heard.  
Jim Gossen remembers those days, and as chairman of Louisiana Sysco Seafood, he’s been an integral part in bringing about the cultural shift. Despite selling the company to Sysco a few years ago, the Lafayette native still runs the company he founded in 1972. Gossen moved to Houston in 1975, because, as he says, that was “where the market was.” Houston didn’t know it then, but Gossen, through his involvement in pioneering Cajun-style restaurants such as Don’s, Willie G’s, and the Magnolia Bar & Grill and events like the Spring Crawfish Festival, has changed the way Houstonians (and by extension, all Texans) eat forever. 
Gossen now believes that more crawfish are consumed in Greater Houston than in the entire state of Louisiana, and for that, he is the one man most responsible. Yes, he had his contemporaries out there in the 1970s spreading the Mudbug Gospel: Ray Hay’s (today’s Ragin’ Cajun) and the tragically closed NASA-area Cajun stronghold Pe-Te’s among them, both of which catered to homesick Cajuns in Houston for oil patch jobs.  
The first wave of zydeco’s popularity also brought crawfish into Houston’s culinary scene. Ken Watkins recalls eating crawfish at African-American Catholic parish hall gigs by zydeco titan Clifton Chenier in the 1970s, where “everybody was having a party.” (As many a zydeco performer has said from the bandstand over the years, Louisiana is the place where “even the crawfish have soul.”) 
Even given all that, when Gossen helped open Don’s, he could hardly give the critters away. 
“When I opened up Don’s in 1976 I couldn’t sell three sacks a week,” he says from his car, en route to another dining adventure in the bayous of Louisiana, where he still owns two homes. “What I would do is boil them, and whatever I had left over on Sunday, I would put on a plate as a garnish, just so people could see what they looked like.” 
Crustacean parsley? Huh. 
Needless to say, Houston's come a long way from those days, thanks at least partly to Gossen's efforts. The popularity of crawfish grew throughout the 80s and 90s; more recently, the post-Katrina influx of Louisianans to Houston has swelled the ranks of the city's mudbug aficionados. The inception of commercial farming of crawfish by rice growers in Louisiana and eastern Texas, who realized they could raise them in their flooded fields, also helped by improving the crustacean's quality and availability. 

As the popularity of boiled crawfish grew, distinctive cooking styles developed:
Houston crawfish are prepared in variations on three main styles: purist Cajun (spices in the boil), Texan (spices on the shells), and Vietnamese. Some of Gossen’s earliest customers at the Magnolia were large parties of Vietnamese immigrants.  Since then, Vietnamese Houstonians have made Houston into a year-round crawfish city, thanks to their importation of Asian crustaceans that never go out of season. They also have their own way of preparing them: adding ginger and lemongrass to the traditional seasonings, fruits and spices of mustard seed, lemon, garlic, onion, and bay leaves. Viet-Houston crawfish also come with spicy butter-garlic sauces. With its roots in both regional bayous and distant (though equally sultry) Vietnam, some Bayou City foodies have declared this dish Houston’s signature fare. 
You also have Vietnamese American cooks who make them Cajun-style. One such is Khon Lu, owner of Khon’s Wine Darts Coffee Art in Midtown Houston, Lu hosts crawfish boils at his establishment when the mood strikes him. “I make mine Cajun style, with fresh and dry ingredients,” Lu said. “I’m a traditionalist when it comes to crawfish. The only thing that should be on your fingers are the cayenne peppers and spices. The boil should be clean and devoid of oils and butter. The Vietnam style is basically stir fried in butter after they’re dunked.”
I usually go to Khon's at least a couple of times every season for his crawfish; they are so good that even my New Orleanian girlfriend looks forward to his boils. Here's what a plate of his crawfish looked like last Sunday:

To be sure, not everybody in Houston is a fan of crawfish. A fairly common remark is that peeling and eating them "takes too much work" relative to the amount of meat you get from them. They can get messy, and some people can't handle the spiciness with which they are traditionally cooked. 

True, there is work involved in getting to the meat in the tail (and, if they are large enough, the claws); crawfish is an activity as much as it is a food. But - aside from the fact that if the meat is good, then the work is worth it! - that very activity is why a typical crawfish boil is just as much of a social event as it is dinner. People gather over large communal plates or newspaper spreads of freshly-boiled crawfish to talk and laugh as they peel tails, crack claws, sip beer and consume entire rolls of paper towels in a futile effort to keep their hands clean. This social feature might be just as responsible for crawfish's popularity as the tender and flavorful meat itself.

Houstonia dedicated much of March's issue to crawfish, including their list of the best places to get traditional Cajun and Vietnamese crawfish in Houston, the best local beers to pair with crawfish, and some suggestions for your next boil.

Crawfish season traditionally lasts into the summer, but March and April are generally the best months for quality. So get 'em while there's still time. Bon appétit!