Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Depeche Mode at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion

Although they're among my all-time favorite bands, Sunday evening's concert was the first time I had seen Depeche Mode live in 16 years. (I don't do a lot of concerts...)

A band that has been around as long as Depeche Mode (37 years!) always faces a dilemma when they tour to support their latest album in that they need to strike a balance between the new material that they want to promote and the older material that their fans really want to hear. The Generation-X-centric crowd at the Pavilion clearly wanted to hear the older stuff.

The view from the lawn at Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion
To that end, the band provided, reaching back as far as 1983 with "Everything Counts," playing two songs off of 1984's Black Celebration ("A Question of Lust," "Stripped"), three songs from 1990's Violator ("World In My Eyes," "Enjoy the Silence," "Personal Jesus"), three songs from 1993's Songs of Faith and Devotion ("In Your Room," Walking In My Shoes," "I Feel You"), and one song apiece from 1984's Some Great Reward and 1987's Music For the Masses ("Somebody" and "Never Let Me Down Again," respectively).

They balanced this out with five songs from their "newer" albums (which I consider to be anything from 1997 onward, after Alan Wilder left the band), five songs from their latest album (note to self: listen to new album before going to concert promoting said album), and an excellent cover of David Bowie's "Heroes." Dave Gahan, who is pretty spry for being 55 years old, handled most of the singing duties and did a great job interacting with the crowd and moving about the stage as he did so. He handed vocal duties over to Martin L. Gore for a handful of songs, including "Home" (off of 1997's Ultra).

Martin L. Gore provides a heartfelt rendition of "Somebody"
Of course, there are only so many songs that can be fit into a two-hour set. This meant that several iconic Depeche Mode songs I (and many of those around me) would have liked to have heard - "Master and Servant," "Blasphemous Rumours," "People are People," "But Not Tonight," "Strangelove," "A Policy of Truth," etc., - didn't make the setlist. That just goes back to the previously-referenced dilemma faced by long-lived bands with deep back catalogues like Depeche Mode: you're not going to be able to play everything everyone wants to hear.

This isn't to say I was disappointed; to the contrary, I had a great time, and I introduced my girlfriend, who was aware of only a handful of Depeche Mode's more famous older songs, to a sound I've enjoyed since I was in middle school.

This was the first time I watched a concert at CWMP from the lawn. (Like I said, I don't do a lot of concerts.) My decision to purchase a pair of cheap but functional binoculars from Academy right before the concert turned out to be a good one. Unfortunately, they could only do so much to cut through the haze of marijuana smoke that persisted throughout the concert. I get that Depeche Mode is the kind of music that lends itself to being listened to while stoned, but at times it looked (and smelled) like a freakin' Grateful Dead concert up there!

Texas Tech 27, Houston 24

Turnovers and an inability to do anything on offense sealed the Coogs' fate against Texas Tech at TDECU Stadium last Saturday. The final score makes the game look closer than it was, thanks to a pair of touchdowns the Cougars scored late in the game after Kyle Postma replaced Kyle Allen at quarterback.

The Good: The Cougar defense held its own against Texas Tech's potent offense, holding a squad that averaged 54 points over the first two games of the season to half that. Wide receiver D'Eriq King, who missed the first two games of the season due to injury, scored his first touchdown of the season. Special teams Kicker Caden Novikoff kicked a career-long 45-yard field goal. John Leday had a 47-yard kickoff return, giving the Coogs excellent field position, which the offense promptly squandered. Which brings us to...

The Bad: Where to begin? The offense was inept and ineffective for most of the afternoon. Kyle Allen had two (rather stupid) interceptions, snaps from the center to Allen were continually low (which resulted in one turnover), the receiving corps dropped too many passes, the Coogs were a pathetic 6 of 18 on third down conversions, and the running game was anemic (it says something when your leading rusher is a quarterback - Postma - who entered the game late in the fourth quarter). The Cougars turned the ball over a total of five times. While the defense played well overall, they also got their asses handed to them by the Red Raider offense on a few big plays, including a 83-yard run from scrimmage and a 77-yard touchdown pass.

The Ugly: The game was sloppy - Houston and Texas Tech combined for 21 penalties for 167 yards - and poorly-officiated. Neither defense appeared to tackle very well. Texas Tech missed two field goals and a dropped a sure touchdown pass that would have made the score worse than it actually was. Quite frankly, neither team looked like they are anything more than mediocre programs in their respective conferences.

The Really Ugly: 11 am kickoffs in September suck! Not only do they limit valuable tailgating time, but they also make for an oppressive game-watching experience. Temperatures during the game were in the low 90s, with stifling humidity, little breeze and only intermittent cloud cover. Many of the announced crowd of 36,383 (which was a good showing, by UH's historical standards, but almost certainly would have been a sellout of 40,000+ for a 6 pm kickoff) left at halftime, while thousands more crowded the shaded concourses to watch the game.

I realize that television dictates kickoffs, and that the regional exposure on ABC that Houston received during this time slot is generally good for the program. But I really wish the ESPN executives who make these decisions would make their way down here from Bristol, Connecticut to understand for themselves just how brutal these conditions really are. It's not just about fan comfort; it's about safety.

What it Means: This was a disappointing loss for many reasons: the Cougars lost to a school from a Power 5 conference, lost to a former SWC rival and in-state program with which it competes for recruits, and Houston's 16-game home winning streak is snapped. Even worse, this game exposed some real shortcomings with Houston's offense and also called in to question Kyle Allen's status as starting quarterback. How Major Applewhite and his staff address these shortcomings will say a lot about their nascent coaching abilities as well as the Coog's chances for a successful season.

Next up for the Cougars is a trip to Philadelphia to take on the Temple Owls.

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 Mazatl├ín, 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.