Sorting Out Substance from Scams in Relief Funds

Residents are evacuated from their flooded apartment complex Tuesday, April 19, 2016, in Houston. Storms have dumped more than a foot of rain in the Houston area, flooding dozens of neighborhoods. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

New Orleans  I’m looking forward to driving to Houston this week to finish a trip that was unbelievably storm delayed. Even though Beaumont, Texas not far across the Louisiana border is still without potable water, and neighborhoods in Houston are still flooded, Interstate 10 runs through it all on an open road from New Orleans to the Pacific Ocean, and I’ll be pedal to the metal to get there.

I’m hoping to sort out who is really on the ground doing the job. Having been too intimately involved in post-Katrina work in New Orleans, that is the key to recovery, not necessarily the heroes and goats in the first wake of the storm and the tally of dollars for relief. There were plenty of both though. A local mattress company and an Academy Sports location have gotten rave reviews for their open arms and generosity, just as Joel Osteen and his megachurch and gospel of prosperity has been pilloried for the lack of both. Houston is a big time corporate headquarters and some big timers have stepped up including the Michael Dell of Dell Computers with a pledge of $36 million and the John and Laura Anderson Foundation of Enron energy trading fame with $5 million. JJ Watt, the Houston Texas NFL star, supported by his mom back home in small town Wisconsin has soared from a goal of $200,000 to crest $18 million and rising. An equally enjoyable story is the complete embrace of far right conservatives like Texas governor Greg Abbot and cantankerous Senator Ted Cruz of as much money as they can score from their much hated and abused federal government. Abbot has set the price tag at $180 billion wanting Texas to have the record in this category as well.

Watt’s mom is worried about how to spend the money as well she and the donors should be. At least President Trump didn’t endorse specific charities in the way that George W Bush propped Habitat for Humanity and the Red Cross. Habitat raised over $300 million after Katrina and a dozen years later is still accounting for how it spent the money since its sweat equity model was out-strapped by the need for housing PDQ, rather than in the by and by. Houston is likely to have a similar problem with public housing displacements at over 30,000 and schools and jobs still inaccessible for many people. People will need housing, but where do you build on the same flood plains, and who is making the plans and where are people in the process? These are critical questions with 50,000 in hotel rooms now and only 1500 still in the George Brown Convention Center. These are also questions that were poorly answered after Katrina over and over as we continually had to fight against displacement and for quicker movement of funds.

People need to be at the table. In Houston under Mayor Bill White after Katrina, he wisely convened a daily morning meeting to make sure up to 100,000 Katrina survivors were welcomed and housed. At that meeting were chief executives of Fortune 500 companies and the business elite, as well as representatives from ACORN. White strong armed the Houston real estate interests to open up all of their available rental units to Katrina survivors. Current Mayor Sylvester Turner needs to do the same thing.

While doing the right thing, avoid the scamsters. Social media and crowdfunding are hot with appeals, but beware. Websites are springing up willy-nilly as always. Money is going to be needed for a long time from Houston to Beaumont. There’s no harm in making sure that your few dollars are going where the impact will be the greatest, but it may take some time to sort that out. That’s one of the things I’ll be doing this week, so stay ready and willing, but be careful.

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Building Drainage Systems for a Changing Climate

New Orleans Pumping Station

New Orleans   On August 5th only weeks ago, New Orleans was caught in a downpour of between 9 and 10 inches in some parts of the city that overwhelmed the sewer and drainage system. The city has been in crisis since that time, as citizens come to grip with what they thought were the strengths of the system versus its real abilities and classic fail. The outgoing mayor’s reputation and legacy, on the rise for his handling of the Civil War monuments, has now drowned since the Sewerage & Water Board was on his watch and under this thumb. The level of contradiction and incompetence revealed in the aftermath of the flooding has left many in the city on edge during hurricane season with the anniversary of the August 29th Katrina hurricane in 2005 only days away.

Remarkably, what was once vaunted as one of the most effective drainage systems in the world, now is a poster child for urban myth. I’m especially sensitive to the mythology here, because I had fallen for it hook, line and sinker as well. After the May floods in the 1980s, I had sucked in a line that the city could handle 3 inches per hour. After the August floods, I had repeated the fiction, and had to retract my line, when the local papers kept reporting that, yes, the system was supposed to be world-class, but that meant it could handle 1 inch the first hour of rain, and clear ½ inch every hour after that. A 10 inch rainfall in their version of the events was a “sky falling” catastrophe that even the best systems could not handle without flooding, especially given the epic level of the rain.

Now with Hurricane Harvey knocking hard at the I-10 Louisiana Welcome Centers across the Sabine River, we read that the Mayor’s office and the local Sewerage & Water Board are having trouble verifying any technical assessment that would have rated the system’s water carrying and clearing capacity even at the level of 1 inch per hour and so forth. This has all of the alarming aspects of an urban myth repeated so often that no once bothered to check the sources until they were finding their life jackets and canoe paddles with the water rising at the front door.

Meanwhile I’m due in Houston this week. Harvey is expected to dump 3 feet of water on Texas. The Houston drainage system is legendary for its limited handling capacity and frequent flooding from homes to interstates on the least heavy rainfall. My friend and comrade sent me a dawn text that they had already had 21 inches hit the city by Sunday morning. He was happy to report the water had covered up his street, but was not up to the porch steps yet. Before you applaud the progress in Houston, the nation’s 4th largest city, you probably need to know my friends live in the Houston Heights, near the apex of the rise. Their story is a high ground story, not one from the lowlands.

But, it’s fair to say that no city, even Houston and New Orleans in the swampy tropics of America, can handle a foot or more of water without some flooding at this point. My question is what are we learning? With climate change we are going to have more of this more often, not less. Are we talking about infrastructure investment and capital programs that will give drainage systems the capacity to handle even a couple of inches of water per hour, much less what we are seeing now with some regularly.

In the classic formulation attributed in the French Revolution to King Louis XIV, “here comes the deluge….” We’re not ready, but can we become able?

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