Houston Chronicle. Aug. 29, 2021.
Editorial: Four years later, has Houston learned anything from Hurricane Harvey?
As you read this, Hurricane Ida is lumbering ever closer in the Gulf of Mexico. As with Houston’s near-miss with Hurricane Laura last year, Ida veered far enough east to spare our region from its worst impacts.
The traumatic imagery left behind by Hurricane Harvey — submerged houses, freeways turned to rivers, and evacuees being loaded on anything that can float — mean these storms are no longer just nebulous blobs on a grainy weather map. Every tropical disturbance that glides into the Gulf is enough to stir a drumbeat of heart palpitations and make us cling tightly to our hurricane emergency kits.
Will this be the year that Houston gets another direct hit? That’s our perennial obsession this time of year. Yet we’ve learned the hard way through countless disasters that there’s nothing we can do to influence a storm’s path. The whims of Mother Nature are unpredictable, undeterred and undefeated.
When it comes to a major storm, there are basically three options: hide, run and learn from it. Houston is pretty good at the first, proficient at the second and in need of intensive remedial lessons on the third.
Four years after Harvey, Houstonians have mostly moved on and major reforms that once seemed so urgent in preventing another disaster are plodding along. Our culture itself remains largely the same: people in the Houston region have generally not become soldiers of resilience as the Dutch have. There are climate change evangelists among us but skepticism tempers action.
We are still a tragically optimistic, economically opportunistic people more comfortable with risk and remote contingency plans than with the inconvenient, even painful, process of prevention through systemic changes in land use, personal responsibility and protecting the vulnerable.
While real estate development standards have been tweaked and a massive down-payment placed on hardening infrastructure, in many respects the recovery is mired in partisan squabbles, maddening layers of bureaucracy, and a lack of political will to rethink where we build.
Housing recovery has been a notable boondoggle, a confusing array of programs that has frustrated homeowners across the city. Nearly 700 are still waiting to receive aid from a city-run $12.7 million emergency fund to reimburse for repairs not covered by insurance. Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat in a nonpartisan position, and the Texas General Land Office, run by Republican Commissioner George P. Bush, have engaged in a protracted battle over control of the city’s Homeowner Assistance Program, which was criticized for being slow and unproductive. Homeowners and Turner say the state is coercing them to rebuild their homes smaller, diminishing property values, while the GLO insists it is adhering to federal standards, and “not rebuilding McMansions.”
We can’t be certain whether this bad blood led to the state’s egregious oversight in disbursing federal Harvey aid, but it couldn’t have helped. Bush’s agency came under fire in May for inexplicably snubbing Harris County out of more than $1 billion in federal funds in a first-round disbursal, apparently relying on metrics that penalized the city and county for having a large population. Harris County’s voter-approved $2.5 billion bond to strengthen flood mitigation was designed to leverage matching federal funds, but that plan collapsed when the GLO left the county empty-handed. Bush played blame game roulette, pointing fingers at the federal government, and when that failed, claiming the city and county applied the wrong way. Bush ultimately requested the federal government send $750 million in relief funds directly to Harris County, though it is unclear exactly when that money will arrive.
These fights obscure the fact that federal disaster recovery continues to favor the wealthy. The federal formulas for funding are based on the value of property, not the impacts on people. Renters were also left virtually unassisted, in part because state and federal officials did not do a proper assessment of which individuals most urgently needed housing. Every level of government must work harder to keep an eye out for the most vulnerable.
Amid the political turmoil, patterns of residential development in Houston continue to defy logic. For some reason, floodways — areas with the highest risk of floods, such as the channel of a bayou and the land next to it — are still considered prime real estate. A recent Kinder Institute report found as many as 2,000 homes were built in floodways in Harris County in 2019. Houston adopted a new standard after Harvey, requiring the base level of buildings two feet above what was the 500-year flood plain. Harris County adopted a similar standard, authorizing the county attorney to go after violators without approval from commissioners court.
But merely building higher can’t be a substitute for building smarter. Nature-based solutions — such as preserving wetlands and restoring prairies — need to be a much larger part of building resilience. Instead, weakened federal regulations left over from the Trump administration are making it even easier to get risky developments approved.
The increasing number of single-family and multifamily housing in flood-prone areas is an acute concern for poorer communities, many of which are unlikely to have flood insurance. When Harvey flooded Meyerland, an affluent area, many homeowners rebounded quickly thanks to insurance coverage. In lower-income Kashmere Gardens, many homeowners continue to live in moldy houses because they couldn’t afford insurance. While flood insurance policy purchases increased by 16 percent after the storm, a considerable number of homes remain vulnerable while the Kinder Institute study estimated that only 1 in 4 housing units in a flood plain has an insurance policy.
Yet this uneven recovery has still yielded encouraging steps. Houston’s Multifamily Program has funded construction of 11 housing developments, with more projects in the pipeline. Once completed, the program will fund 3,900 new rental homes, with about 85 percent reserved for low- or moderate-income renters. According to the county, work on all 181 flood bond projects — including widening and deepening our bayous — has begun, though completion timelines remain unclear. County buyouts have cleared 11,000 homes in flood plains, with another 662 in progress.
The region’s long-delayed White Whale for storm surge protection — the coastal spine known as the “Ike Dike” — is also inching toward reality. The $26 billion project, a system of dunes, sea gates and levees, will soon be unveiled in its final form when the Army Corps of Engineers issues its Chief’s Report sometime next month, the final step before it is sent to Congress to consider funding.
These projects were not designed to move quickly but they are nonetheless vital. What we really need is to upend Houston’s culture of “build now, ask questions later.” It’s not fair to taxpayers across the country to have to bail us out of our risky developments simply because we refuse to remove floodways from the pipeline of development. We must heed the dire warnings from the International Panel on Climate Change that every degree of global warming means “100-year storms” such as Harvey will happen more frequently.
Whenever the next big storm happens in this volatile climate, it will provide the true test for whether the incremental progress we have made since Harvey was good enough.
Abilene Reporter News. Aug. 28, 2021.
Editorial: Working against each other isn’t curtailing this health crisis, or very neighborly
Someone shaking their head side to side last week wondered when we stopped working together.
Instead of pulling together, the person mused, we’re pulling apart.
This subject has been a well-traveled road in recent years, but it is front and center when it comes to the pandemic.
We are sinking under another rapid rise in cases, back to daily triple digits in Taylor County.
What advice should we follow? What level of authority is best?
The Abilene ISD just a few weeks ago stated wearing masks was “optional.” Our governor, not any health organization, was cited as their authority, given his statewide ban on mask mandates. Gov. Greg Abbott had announced a $1,000 fine for a violation, but how that would affect school districts wasn’t clear.
Then came a local town hall event, at which our local health leaders greatly emphasized the danger of backing off safety measures, promoted vaccinations and stated the Delta variant was big trouble.
After that, the school district changed its stance, saying masks were “strongly recommended.”
That carries more punch. Fewer people choose “optional” for anything. “Strongly recommended” is not a political statement. It means the school year could go more smoothly if everyone was on the same page. Works in the classroom.
Cases have escalated and the district now is wetting its finger to see which way the wind is blowing. The AISD began surveying parents, What do you want us to do? (https://www.abileneisd.org/survey/).
Fair enough. That amounts to taking local control, if district leaders won’t make the call themselves.
Local control has been a stalwart position in Abilene and rural areas during the pandemic. Let’s do what we need to do, not what Harris or Bexar counties, or Austin or Dallas are doing.
But last year, when our local health officials became emphatic about the seriousness of COVID-19 in Abilene, particularly bed capacity at hospitals, we responded to their please. And cases went down.
When we slacked off, cases went up. Statistics show a roller coaster ride.
School districts in Iraan, Gorman, Colorado City and Lueders-Avoca have shut down due to COVID cases. With big cities hammered, rural Texas is getting nailed, too.
There are families here who want their kids to wear a mask at school but fear what other kids will think or do. And once in school, will their kids pull off their mask to fit in?
While masks cannot be mandated, due to the governor’s executive order (the Texas Supreme Court last week ruled in favor of Abbott, for now), students in a class where there is a positive test can be quarantined on campus and must wear a mask or face covering.
But does that come across as after the fact?
The Paris ISD ducked around Abbott’s ban by adding masks to the student dress code. We know those are enforced.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control has made a mess of the pandemic. Is that understandable because we don’t regularly have health scares, as seen in other countries? Or are we flat-out failing?
Some in Texas now want to secede from the CDC. But do we follow a governor who is up for re-election and caught flak in 2020 for a moderate stand on the pandemic. They believe the governor hasn’t moved far enough to the right — he’s facing opposition in his own party.
Why is health policy even a political football? Let’s tackle how to fix our power grid.
Abbott last week banned government mandates on vaccines, two days after the FDA approved the Pfizer product. Private businesses can mandate vaccines (well, maybe not cruise lines), he said, but public or private entities that accept funding from the government cannot.
“Some do, some don’t” isn’t going to end the pandemic.
It’s creating islands, pushing people to live in the isolation of their own beliefs.
The problem is, Texas is not a sea.
When you take responsibility, you do that not only for yourself but for others.
That goes back to the time when we helped a neighbor. Protection on the frontier. Building a house. Providing a ladle of water and biscuits to a traveler. You helped someone because someone down the trail could help you.
So let’s be bolder in dealing with the pandemic Let’s all be socially responsible.
Local health officials keep pointing out our vaccination rate of about 40%, and that most of those who are hospitalized are not vaccinated.
Maybe COVID doesn’t affect you like others, but giving it to someone could make them awfully sick. Or worse. We have recorded 430 deaths here.
If you look around, the list is shrinking as to who hasn’t had COVID. This includes community leaders and even some of us who have been the most outspoken against any restrictions.
COVID doesn’t discriminate, as some still want to believe.
Want to go to school in person? Want to go see a concert, a play, a movie? Want to shop without worrying about empty shelves? Want to get a drink with friends? Want to go to a ballgame — or sit at home when it’s canceled?
It’s time to saddle up and ride hard. Our neighbors need us, so let’s answer the call.
Cowboy up. Cowgirl up. It’s how we do things in West Texas.
San Antonio Express-News. Aug. 23, 2021.
Editorial: Redistricting that reflects diversity of Texas is doubtful
Since its birth in 1776, the country has been largely governed by whites, but minorities have always been here, starting with the first Americans — the Native Americans.
Some of the nation’s newcomers arrived willingly, lured by the freedom of living in a young country, but others — African slaves — came against their will, hurled into what amounted to a vast, open-aired prison.
The percentage of whites and minorities, however, was never fixed; the makeup of our nation has evolved, and despite the nativism that continues to haunt us, that evolution has led to major breakthroughs, including the civil rights legislation of 1965.
That evolution continues, and the proof is documented in the latest census report: People who identify as multiracial numbered 33.8 million in 2020, compared with 9 million in 2010.
Nationally, the white population shrank from 63.7 percent in 2010 to 57.8 percent in 2020, the lowest mark in history; Latinos accounted for 51.1 percent of our growth nationally.
In Texas, people of color made up 95 percent of our population growth, with non-Hispanic whites accounting for 39.8 of the population, down from 45 percent in 2010.
Latinos now comprise 39 percent of the state population, and in San Antonio, the number grew by 9 percent, mirroring national and state figures.
“The 2020 census confirmed what we have known for years — the future of the country is Latino,” Arturo Vargas, CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, told the Associated Press.
The census figures have ramifications beyond mere numbers. They will have a profound impact on redistricting efforts throughout the country, leading to what may be a massive effort to dilute — or, in some cases, maximize — minority influence at the polls. It is important to remove, legislatively if possible, these efforts to manipulate the vote, making the process as objective as possible.
In Texas, the population grew by 4 million, which means it will gain two congressional seats, thanks to minority population growth. A huge power grab will emerge in the Legislature, where the House is dominated by the GOP.
“I guarantee you that in almost every state, partisan interests have gone ahead and started drawing maps,” Michael Li, a redistricting expert with the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, told the Los Angeles Times. “They’re trying to figure out what they can do and what they can get away with.”
In Texas, partisan interests could be blunted with an independent redistricting commission to better ensure voters choose their lawmakers, as opposed to the other way around.
Diversity is a positive, broadening our outlook and expanding our understanding of cultures that may seem foreign to us. Yet while minorities have traditionally voted Democratic, it is wrong to assume they represent monolithic voting blocs, their choice of candidates hinging solely on their skin color. They are as diverse as the country at large when it comes to voting.
Still, Republicans cannot ignore the increasing percentage of minorities in this country. They may have to revisit the agenda they sought to establish following the two Obama administrations — the effort to attract minority voters. If so, it would represent a major shift away from the Donald Trump era.
The reality is people of color drove, and will continue to drive, population growth in Texas. The question is whether state lawmakers will recognize that in representation. And, unfortunately, history suggests we know the answer.
Victoria Advocate. Aug. 25, 2021.
Editorial: High-speed internet now essential for local economies
Earlier in August, a man walked into the Cuero Chamber of Commerce facing a serious problem. His printing shop needed to produce the programs for an upcoming funeral, but the business had lost internet.
Employees at the Chamber were able to help the man open the document he needed and put it on a flash drive so he could complete the job, recalled Angie Cuellar, the Chamber’s executive director. But the story was a reminder of how badly a mistimed internet outage can derail a local business.
“If we can get better broadband, or actually more reliable broadband, and higher speeds, our businesses hopefully won’t have those interruptions,” Cuellar said.
There once was a time when high-speed internet was a luxury. In fact, it can still seem that way sometimes. Your expensive internet service might allow five people to stream their favorite TV show at the same time, but is broadband really an essential utility?
When it comes to the business community, the answer is yes.
Richard Weber, co-owner of Weber Motor Company in Cuero, recently told the Advocate how the family-owned Ford dealership recently upgraded its internet to allow its service technicians to download files several times faster, allowing them to complete computerized repairs more efficiently. And most every business now relies on the internet for essential tasks like running their credit card machines — or printing out digital files.
That’s why the Texas Legislature’s passage of House Bill 5 this year, which creates a statewide broadband plan and establishes a broadband development council tasked with giving out grants and low-interest loans to bolster broadband access, is so important. While the private sector has already brought internet access to many local communities, many residential customers remain dissatisfied with their options — and businesses often have significantly greater needs when it comes to internet access.
There is buzz about potential low-cost satellite options like Elon Musk’s Starlink, but for now, installing high-speed internet remains expensive. In some cases, it can mean boring through concrete to install underground fiber-optic cables, which does not come cheaply. In small towns and rural areas where there are fewer potential customers for internet providers, the economics sometimes simply don’t work out.
Hopefully, House Bill 5 will represent the push Texas needs to make internet more affordable, reliable and available. If it does, businesses like that Cuero print shop will be able to do their jobs uninterrupted.
Amarillo Globe-News. Aug. 26, 2021.
Editorial: Pace needs to quicken in rental assistance efforts
Millions of people across the country continue to face eviction, and the Supreme Court is expected to rule on what many consider a shaky eviction moratorium yet somehow almost 90% of federal rental assistance funds remain undistributed.
It is a perplexing and frustrating ordeal, especially for those on the cusp of losing their residence as well as landlords adversely impacted by the moratorium. The U.S. Treasury Department said Wednesday that only 11% of federal rental assistance funds have been allocated, according to an Associated Press story this week.
The unfortunate result in far too many cases is a program seemingly mired in bureaucratic quicksand, leaving widespread need still not addressed.
Texas and Virginia have moved quickest in terms of putting programs in place and getting money to those in need. According to figures from the first round of funding issued to states, Virginia is the only one to disperse more than 50% of its funds while Texas has dispersed 45%. Compare that to 40 states at less than 25%.
A few positive notes: Overall, states moved quicker in July than June, and more than 1 million households across the nation have been helped, according to the AP story. However, the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey indicated last week that approximately 3.5 million people face eviction in the next two months while almost 8 million say they are behind on their rent.
“Some communities are spending the money quickly and well, proving that it’s possible and making the many communities who aren’t all the more glaring and unacceptable,” Diane Yentel, CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, said in the AP story. “Seven months after funds were first allocated to them, nine states have spent less than 3% of the money and 16 states have spent less than 5%.”
More than $46 billion in rental assistance was approved by Congress earlier this year in response to the lingering disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic as people across the country lost jobs in the wake of shutdowns and other restrictions meant to curb the spread of the virus. According to the AP, states and other entities overseeing the program are dispensing an initial allocation of $25 billion.
Critics say some states waited too long to set up programs and have unnecessarily complicated the application process with bureaucratic hoops and agonizingly long waits meant to eliminate fraud but also often adding weeks. Since its inception, the rental assistance guidelines have regularly been adjusted by the Treasury Department in an effort to smoothly get funds to those in need, but overall it has been a clunky effort.
Just this week Treasury officials added seven more policies meant to speed things up, including one, per the AP, that gives program administrators the ability to distribute money to landlords and utility companies ahead of time in anticipation of requirements being met. Now it is up to those in charge of programs to remove obstacles and cut red tape.
The current eviction moratorium, in effect until Oct. 3 under authority of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, impacts roughly 90% of the country where the transmission rate of the virus continues to be substantial.
The latest policy adjustments should add some much-needed agility to rental-assistance efforts at a time when they are most needed because the clock is ticking and the current moratorium will end – either by legal challenge or by the eventual change of the calendar to October.
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