The unintended consequences of anti-gouging laws

Protecting Houston from the next killer hurricane

Recommendations from Rice University’s Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters (SSPEED) Center. But do we have enough financial clout to pull this off while financing an array of expensive urban boondoggles?

Almost a month after Hurricane Ike

Hurricane Ike A friend of mine who is a homebuilder in The Woodlands passes along the following regarding his experience in overseeing a crew rebuilding the neighborhood of his weekend home in Hurricane Ike-ravaged Galveston:

Just back from Galveston after 3 weeks.  We suffered ancillary damage, but nothing structurally damaging. I went down with 80 rds of .40 cal and came back with a clip and a half. 

Snakes have taken over the dunes for now. Devastation is everywhere and we are helping some 61 homes get their lives back together. I have simply never seen such damage.

When you drive over the Galveston Causeway Bridge, you are confronted with hundreds of boats of all sizes lining the road, the median and the bay. Most homes inside the seawall suffered 10 feet of flooding, especially in the historic Strand District.  Downtown Beirut in the 1980’s looked better.

Moving to the seawall, the historic Balinese Room is gone. The Flagship Hotel lost its entry way and appears to be a total loss. Power and water are spotty — I went 2 weeks without either. Traveling to our West End home is like driving through the Northeast after a winter storm — sand is piled 10 feet high along both lanes and you sense you are in a fantasy winter wonderland.

Many properties immediately off the seawall are totally destroyed, sitting in the Gulf. You can literally walk under their foundations.  Stench and foul orders are everywhere — even the stoutest are easily overcome. It will be years, if ever, before Galveston will be restored or hopefully rebuilt to a higher standard. The homes built in the last 5 years according to the 160 mph wind standard suffered little damage, but most others were severely damaged or lost completely. Our crews have worked 16 hrs./day for 3 weeks to restore our neighborhood and are moving to help others at this time. The bright spot is that I have come to know my fellow homeowners in our neighborhood quite well.

The old site of the SeaArama Marineworld is now a landfill with three mounds that could easily fill the Astrodome. I have no idea what they will do with this matter as cranes are working 60’ above street level at this time. We have brought in heavy equipment and crews from The Woodlands to Junction, Texas.  The cowboys from Junction say they have never seen rattlers so big.

We completely lost our dunes, which were over 15’ high. It now looks like we are seaside in Malibu.

Reporting from an R and R encampment, I remain .  .  . 

And as bad as the damage is in Galveston, the devastation in Bolivar Peninsula to the northeast is even worse.

Tough day at the office

Clear Thinkers reader Charles Satterfield passes along these pictures of a trading office on the sixth floor of JP Morgan Chase Center, looking out toward the blown-out windows on the east side of JP Morgan Chase Tower (the tallest building in downtown Houston), taken shortly after Hurricane Ike blew out dozens of windows on the building’s east side during the early morning of Saturday, Sept 13th. Going on two weeks after the storm, over half a million Houston area residents remain without power and about 250,000 have no running water.

601 Travis Pic 7

601 Travis Pic 6 Trading Desk

Progress in the aftermath of Ike

champagneWednesday was a good day. Large areas of Houston — including the area that includes my family’s home — had power restored. Our land phone lines were also restored on Wednesday after they had survived Hurricane Ike only to be knocked out during the severe thunderstorms that swept through Houston the night after the hurricane hammered the area. So, we’re celebrating a bit tonight.

There are still large parts of Houston that have not had power restored, but my sense is that most areas other than the devastated coastal communities will have power restored by the end of the weekend. That will go a long ways toward getting life back to a semblance of normalcy in this neck of the woods.

Which leads to a point about the difference between hurricanes in Houston, on one hand, and areas such as New Orleans and Galveston, on the other. Most of Houston is at least 50 miles inland from the coast, so except for the southeast side of Houston that is close to Galveston Bay, the main risk of damage from hurricanes for most of Houston is from the wind.

In contrast, communities such as New Orleans and Galveston have to deal not only with damage from hurricane winds, but the even more devastating effects of flooding from the hurricane’s storm surge.

Believe me, it’s not pleasant living without power for the better part of a week. But my family and I had a livable home, natural gas for cooking, cell phones for communication, plenty of food and water, and autos for mobility and powering laptops and other equipment. I was able to work with little disruption between my home office and my "car office" whenever I needed Web access (because of spotty cell network coverage, I couldn’t get Web access on my laptop air card from my home office — I had to travel to a nearby part of town where the cell network signal was strong).

In the big scheme of things, that’s not much inconvenience. And it’s nothing compared to what many residents of the Louisiana-Mississippi Gulf Coast are still facing after Hurricane Katrina or what residents of Galveston and the other Houston coastal communities are facing for the foreseeable future.

A day in a life after Ike

the road warrior Just jotting down a few observations throughout the day of living in an area that just experienced a major natural disaster.

FEMA, take note

Although The Woodlands did not suffer as much damage as many other parts of the Houston metropolitan area, it’s interesting in my travels around town over the past several days that I have seen no evidence whatsoever of any federal relief.

For example, it seems to me that there are a couple of basic things that the federal government could do to facilitate recovery efforts. First, move as many portable generators to selected service stations throughout the region so that citizens can become somewhat mobile again. The primary problem at this point is not lack of gasoline. Rather, it’s lack of power to operate the pumps to get the available gas into cars.

Even though large swaths of Houston remain without power, many areas are getting power back by the hour. Folks in areas without power can be much more productive if they can travel to areas that have it and work. Unfortunately, as it stands, there is no gas to get to those areas and then return home.

Another irritation is that no one in an official capacity attempts to do anything to facilitate communications for the citizens directly affected by a natural disaster such as Ike. Ever since the storm, cell phone usage has been spotty in most residential areas, and serviceable in only a few commercial areas. Perhaps damage to the cell network equipment is the cause of the poor service, but I haven’t heard anyone contend that such is the case.


Just as the deadly hurricane of 1900 changed the nature of Galveston, my sense is that Hurricane Ike has done the same thing in 2008.

Prior to the 1900 hurricane, Galveston was Texas’ largest city, port and commercial center. The devastation from that storm put into the motion the changes in Texas’ development that resulted in Houston becoming the major port and cities such as Houston and Dallas-Ft. Worth becoming the major commercial centers. As Houston grew into this region’s major center of commerce, Galveston evolved into a tourist center and a weekend beach getaway for folks in Houston.

Despite that tourism development, the City of Galveston has been slowly dying for years. Jobs and commercial activity largely revolve around the tourism industry (even the port is now owned by the Port of Houston Authority). Most young people now move away from the city after high school, so older folks constitute an unusually high percentage of the "town folk."

My sense is that Galveston will come back as a weekender community and a modest tourist vista, but that commerce not related to the tourism industry will continue to decline at an accelerated rate. My sense is that what we might see in 20 years is a community comprised of a few high-rise condos and resorts along the seawall, the ubiquitous weekender homes on the West Beach and not much else.

It will certainly be easier to evacuate such a community.

Radio anchor people

As a general rule, I do not listen to much radio. Maybe an occasional traffic report or Charlie Pallilo’s sports talk show in the rare event that I am driving somewhere during it.

But I’ve been shocked at how bad the radio anchor reporters have been on KTRH, the main station providing disaster information to the public. Although a number of the KTRH field reporters are OK, the anchors often sound as if they are blithering idiots. It seems as if they aren’t asking inane and non-challenging questions to "experts" or public officials, they laughing and making bad jokes at inappropriate times or in regard to serious issues.

Walter Cronkite, where are you when we need you?

Houston sports teams

I noted in this earlier post in the run-up to Hurricane Ike that the high number of variables that become involved in reacting to hurricanes often generates some abysmal decisions in reaction to the storm. That observation was certainly validated by a couple of decisions that were made with regard to Houston sports teams.

From University of Houston Athletic Director Dave Maggard’s absurd decision to have the University’s football team play in Dallas while the storm was still hammering Houston (!) to Major League Commissioner Bud Selig’s equally preposterous decision to haul the Houston Astros players and coaches away from their families (to Milwaukee of all places) the day after a terrible natural disaster left the players and coaches’ families without power in a devastated city, it’s hard to imagine the fractured thought process that went into either of those boneheaded decisions.

Sports competition at the major-college and professional level requires a high level of concentration. Given the circumstances under which these games were played, it is not surprising in the least that the Houston teams lost each one of them. How could the players and coaches be concentrating on a damn game?

It’s only God’s grace to both Maggard and Selig that no family member of either a UH or Stros player or coach was hurt or killed in the aftermath of the storm. Why do either of these fellows still have their respective jobs?

The aftermath of Ike

candlesAn estimated 5 million customers along the upper Texas Gulf Coast lost power as a resuit of Hurricane Ike. Only about 5% of those have been restored as I write this post. Current estimates are that it will be 2-3 weeks before even most of those customers will have their power restored.

To give you an idea of the enormity of this damage, the last hurricane to make a direct hit on the Houston metro area — Hurricane Alicia in 1983 — left 750,000 customers without power.  Two-thirds of those customers had their power restored within five days, and it took between 2-4 weeks to restore the rest.

Although The Woodlands (where my family lives, 30 miles north of downtown Houston) did not suffer catastrophic damage from Ike, the part of the grid from which it receives power did. Entergy, the power company here, estimates that it will be between 2-3 weeks before The Woodlands power is restored. No one in The Woodlands currently has any power (I am writing this from my battery-powered laptop with an air card).

With that backdrop, i was curious to discover this notice from the local public school system:

Conroe Independent School District announced schools will be closed Monday and Tuesday and the Tuesday board meeting is cancelled. Residents are asked to check the Web site or call after 4 p.m. Monday for updates on the rest of the week.

Uh, one question there, school district: how are residents with no power supposed to check a Web site for updates?

Better re-think that approach, folks.


Surviving Ike

Hurricane Ike Yes, although you haven’t heard from me for awhile, I’m still here.

My family and I survived Hurricane Ike just fine. Although not an intense hurricane (it came ashore as a category 2), the enormity of the storm was something to behold. In The Woodlands, which is about 30 miles north of downtown Houston, we were buffeted by hurricane and tropical storm winds and torrential rain for over 12 hours. Such a lengthy period of high winds and heavy rain is extremely unusual for even a strong hurricane.

The damage in The Woodlands is not as bad as most of the rest of the Houston area — mostly just downed trees, some of which damaged houses. However, as many of you outside of the Houston area have seen on television (virtually no one in the Houston area has power, so no television here), the devastation around the Houston area — particularly those areas close to the coast — is devastating. My sense is that at least a quarter million people in the metro area do not have a livable home to return to.

Almost every area of Houston has no power. Cell phone networks are overloaded, so cell phone access via either telephone or computer is spotty, at best. No one has a clue of when power will be restored, but the initial estimates are not particularly encouraging.

Inasmuch as I have quite a few arrangements to make over the next several days for my family members and clients, blogging will probably be light or non-existent until some sense of normalcy returns. I very much appreciate everyone who has emailed and phoned to check in on me today. Please understand if it takes awhile for me to get back to you.

Houstonians reacted remarkably in the face of the devastation of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. Now, it is time for a re-run of that effort. For all of you around country and the world who check in from time to time on this little corner of the blogosphere, any help and prayer that you can provide will be much appreciated.

The Galveston Seawall

You probably have heard much over the past couple of days about the Galveston Seawall. It was constructed in the early 20th century after Galveston was destroyed by the storm surge of the Hurricane of 1900. The purpose of the seawall is to protect the east side of Galveston Island from similar storm surges. Here is a picture of the seawall:

galvestonseawall normal

As you can see, the ocean usually laps up on the beach 75 yards or so away from the seawall. On most days, the ocean rarely gets close to the seawall, even during high tide.

The picture below shows the seawall on Friday morning as Hurricane Ike was still over 100 miles from Galveston in the Gulf of Mexico:

Seawall on Friday

(picture by David J. Phillip/Associated Press)





As you can see, the storm surge from Ike was beginning to breach the seawall over 12 hours before the eye of Ike was scheduled to make landfall.

Weather analysts estimate the the highest point of the surge will occur around midnight on Friday as the Ike’s eye makes landfall just west of the seawall during high tide. By that time, the seawall will be little more than a concrete sandbar under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico that are inundating Galveston.

A developing disaster

ike_iss The extreme storm surge of Hurricane Ike is causing a disaster in Galveston, Texas, which is about 50 miles southeast of Houston. The Coast Guard announced earlier today that the authorities believe that Galveston Island will be completely submerged for at least 12 hours.

The Galveston City Manager and Mayor were just interviewed on local television at 3 p.m. They estimated that between 25-40% of Galveston’s residents (10-20,000 people) did not heed the mandatory evacuation order and have remained on the now-almost completely flooded island. It is now too late to evacuate the island.

Ball High School and the San Luis high-rise resort facility on Seawall Blvd have been opened as relief centers for Galveston residents who stayed. However, widespread flooding on the island makes getting to the centers risky, to say the least.

It is currently estimated that over 1 million residents of the Houston metropolitan area near the coast evacuated over the past several days. Many of those residents will likely have neither a livable home nor power when they return.

This is looking very, very bad.