Tag Archive for: Houston Chronicle

Chronicle, ReduceFlooding endorse Mealer over Hidalgo

The Houston Chronicle has endorsed Republican Alexandra del Moral Mealer for County Judge over incumbent Democrat Lina Hidalgo. I won’t recap the lengthy Chronicle article here; you should read it firsthand. But I will expand on it, especially vis-a-vis flood control, which the Chronicle touched only lightly.

Let me start by saying that after watching four year’s of Hidalgo’s missteps in flood mitigation, I support Mealer, too. It comes down to concerns about Hidalgo and the promise I see in Mealer. Let’s discuss Hidalgo first.

Hidalgo Slights Area With Worst Flooding

The person in the driver’s seat has a huge influence on where flood-mitigation money goes. And more than half of all flood-bond money spent to date has gone to Brays, Greens, White Oak, Halls, and Hunting Bayous. Those five have received more than $550 million from the flood bond through May. That’s more than half of all bond money. See below.

Flood Bond Spending through May 2022. Data obtained from HCFCD via a FOIA Request.

Here’s how that looks in a graph. Keep in mind that the San Jacinto watershed is the largest in the county.

The San Jacinto also had the highest flooding in the county during Harvey – more than 20 feet above flood stage.

worst first
Chart showing feet above flood stage at 33 gages on misc. bayous in Harris County during Harvey, including the 5 LMI watersheds listed above.

And as a result, the San Jacinto was among the most heavily damaged.

Flood-loss heat map during Harvey. From MAAPnext.org.

So, you would think this would get Judge Hidalgo’s attention. Instead, she brags about her equity prioritization framework. She claims it gives preference to the “worst first.” The only thing is, she doesn’t define “worst” the way most people would. She ignores severity of flooding and damaged structures.

Hidalgo’s Definition of Worst

Hidalgo’s formula measures Low-to-Moderate Income (LMI) residents, the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index, and population in an area. But many of those densely populated neighborhoods are crowded with apartments. So …

People who live above ground level and don’t flood get prioritized over people who live at ground level and do flood.

But Hidalgo can’t even tell how many residents in a watershed live with different degrees of flood risk. So, Hidalgo’s “worst first” mantra is clever but misleading. It intends to deceive.

While rewarding her core constituents with mitigation projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars, the entire Lake Houston Area has only $2,000 of capital-improvement flood-bond construction projects underway.

Compare that to the half billion dollars you saw above. She’s proud of that disparity. Watch the video interview embedded in the Chronicle article.

Meltdown at Universal Services

Flood-control spending is just one of the county’s “disaster areas.” Consider the County’s IT department, Universal Services, which is in meltdown. The reason you see five-month-old data above is that the county has gone through a disastrous change in its IT systems.

The department has been dogged by incompetence since Hidalgo appointed Rick Noriega to take over. He has no IT background and has pushed out people who do. The managers of every group beneath him have turned over.

Employees complain Universal Services now hires new people for their political affiliation, not professional qualifications.

The incompetence is widespread, according to multiple sources. Things have gotten so bad that many qualified staff are burning out from having to shoulder more and more of the workload. And they are quitting.

As a result, accurate, timely information is rare. And yet, Hidalgo keeps bragging about “transparency.”

Lacking Leadership, Direction on $750 Million Flood-Mitigation Allocation

Universal Services is not alone. See the org chart below.

Changes under Hidalgo. Red X’s represent changes in leadership. Green boxes represent new departments.

The Community Services Department has had three different leadership changes under Hidalgo.

So whom did she choose to develop a plan for spending $750 million in Harvey flood-mitigation funds? Community Services, not Flood Control!

Community Services may be knowledgeable about disaster relief. That’s about helping individuals recover from past floods. But flood mitigation is about lessening the severity of future floods. One requires social workers; the other requires engineers, like they have in Harris County Flood Control.

The Texas General Land Office (GLO) administers those flood-mitigation funds for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The GLO signaled its intention to allocate $750 million to Harris County on August 23, 2021, but Community Services hasn’t even started compiling a list of potential projects yet.

They are still waiting on “direction from leadership,” according to an internal memo obtained by ReduceFlooding. In 14 months, Community Services has only defined a “process” for determining the list.

Community Services has, however, determined that it wants to spend almost a hundred million of the $750 million on planning and administrative costs.

From CSD Planning Meeting Presentation for the $750 million.

Meanwhile, H-GAC which covers a much larger area and includes many more governmental entities received notification of a $488 million allocation – also on 8/23/21. Yet H-GAC has already submitted its project list, received approval, and is working with sub-recipients to secure and validate bids.

Brain Drain Continues

Some of the departments shown above have been gutted. For instance, Engineering lost 4-5 layers of management. They don’t even have a disaster relief capability anymore.

Also, their “Fix Flooding First” program lost its leader and has reported no progress in months. Fix Flooding First was especially important to people on the periphery of the county. Its objective was to get neighboring areas that drain into Harris County to adopt minimum drainage standards.

What you see in the org chart above is the wholesale replacement of highly credentialed professionals by political cronies. And often, the cronies have no experience or qualifications.

Many managers under Hidalgo have described the environment as “chaotic.”

And then there’s Elections Administration. Hidalgo hired a political activist who had never run an election. She missed key deadlines and lost 10,000 votes. So, Hidalgo replaced her … just weeks before early voting starts for the upcoming election.

Management Mayhem Under Hidalgo

In my opinion, Hidalgo’s biggest problem is that she’s just a bad manager. She:

  • Doesn’t attract and retain top talent
  • Pushes out those who disagree
  • Hires people based on political affiliation, not qualifications
  • Doesn’t value experience and institutional knowledge
  • Blatantly discriminates against Republican-leaning precincts.

Hidalgo repeatedly says that she’s proud of what most would consider screw-ups.

Hidalgo never “owns” her problems. She just waves them away. In my opinion, another four years of Hidalgo would leave the county in disastrous and unrecoverable shape.

County spending is up. Crime is up. Taxes are up. And virtually all the flood-mitigation money promised to the Lake Houston Area has so far gone elsewhere.

About Alexandra del Moral Mealer

Mealer comes to the job with much more life and leadership experience than Hidalgo did. She has a way of confronting the truth head on.

You would expect that from a West-Point-educated Army Captain who commanded a bomb squad in Afghanistan. Mealer understands:

  • The necessity of accurate intel
  • That peoples’ lives and livelihoods depend on the decisions she makes.
Alex Mealer
Alex Mealer spent days touring the Lake Houston area to understand local flooding issues first hand. Hidalgo has not.

Mealer also has MBA and JD degrees from Harvard. She was a VP at Wells Fargo where she helped put together billion-dollar oil-and-gas deals before deciding to run for County Judge. In flooding as with law enforcement…

Mealer’s focus is making sure the county spends money wisely.

Straight Talk Vs. the Flood-Control Fairy Tale

Before this campaign, Mealer acquired a wealth of knowledge about how the county works. And she has surrounded herself with experts on various subjects.

The Chronicle described her as a data wonk. In my opinion, that’s what the county needs: someone grounded in reality. In one commissioner’s court meeting after another, Hidalgo, Garcia and Ellis, have spun a flood-control fairly tale.

It goes something like this. “Flood control has ignored poor neighborhoods. Rich ones like Kingwood get all the flood-mitigation money.” Why? They point to institutional racism!

If we had a judge who knew where her money was actually going, she could have challenged this myth. The reality is that LMI neighborhoods have consistently received the lion’s share of flood-mitigation funding going back decades.

By ignoring reality and blaming flooding on racism, Hidalgo has divided people. Worse, she has diverted attention AWAY FROM the REAL causes of flooding.

Laser Focus on Results that Benefit All

I have discussed flooding issues with Mealer a dozen times since the primary last spring. In my opinion, she is laser focused on accurately diagnosing problems. National and state issues over which she has no control do not distract Mealer.

Mealer is determined to provide a safe and secure community with well-maintained public infrastructure that support growth and opportunity for all.

Accurately diagnosing problems is the key to fixing them quickly and cost effectively.

I, for one, don’t plan to support Hidalgo. She continually says she needs more money when she doesn’t know where billions of flood-mitigation dollars have gone. Nor does she seem eager to deploy another $750 million already in her hip pocket. I’m voting for Mealer.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/16/22

1874 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Contractor Kills, Maims 138 Egrets, Herons While Clearing Land

Multiple Houston-based news outlets reported a story recently about a contractor that killed or maimed 138 egrets and herons protected under the Migratory Species Act. The birds were nesting on a site being cleared by the contractor.

It’s not clear from news coverage whether the contractor was working for a homebuilder or homeowner. While I have done dozens of stories over the years about the environmental impacts of land clearing, i.e., loss of wetlands and wildlife habitat, I can’t remember any this callous.

Summaries of Local News Coverage

KPRC Channel 2

Channel 2 reported that “An investigation has been launched after dozens of migratory birds were discovered injured or dead in an area being used as a breeding ground by the protected species.”

The incident occurred last Friday in the 19700 block of Cherrywood Bend Lane in the Town Lake neighborhood in Cypress. A tree trimming company cut down trees where the birds had built nests. The surviving birds suffered broken wings, mangled legs, and internal injuries.

Texas Parks and Wildlife said the property owner and tree trimming company will be held accountable. “Their fines could add up thousands of dollars, multiple Class C violations, plus the civil restitution,” said Texas Game Warden Jaime Hill.

Egrets and herons are migratory birds protected by state law, in addition to being federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). The MBTA protects 1,000 species. Under the MBTA, it is illegal to kill, injure, or capture protected birds.

Houston Chronicle

Houston Chronicle reported that 67 birds were discovered dead and another 71 were rescued by the SPCA’s Wildlife Center of Texas. The story said the non-profit had to euthanize 17 of the injured birds due to the extent their injuries.

A game warden cited the contractor and property owner for violating a statute which protects these non-game birds from being injured or killed, and their nests disturbed or destroyed.

“The issue here is the nests,” said Hill, the game warden. “Before nesting season begins residents can harass the birds so they don’t return.” They can use noise-making devices, fake owls, balloons with eyes on them and even pyrotechnics to try to ward them off, the warden added. “But any harassment must end when the first egg is laid,” she added.

“The birds might be a nuisance,” she said, “but at the end of the day when it comes to their nests and their young, they are protected.”

TPWD conferred with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and agreed to handle the incident at the state level.

KHOU Channel 11

KHOU 11 reported that “Several of the blue herons and great egrets were found alive inside trash bags that also contained dozens of dead birds.”

The Houston SPCA will care for the surviving birds until they can be released back to the wild.

TPWD’s investigation is ongoing.

Personal Commentary

Few waterbirds are more beautiful or graceful than herons and egrets. I have photographed them in the wild for years. My favorite shot is this one, taken years ago, not at the site in question.

I took it moments after the chick hatched out of its egg, as both parents looked on proudly.

Great Egrets and hatchling. I call this photo Proud Parents. © Bob Rehak 2022.

The chicks look gawky and gangly in their nests. As they mature and grow feathers, they walk out on branches and flap their wings to gain strength. Then one day, they release their grip on the branches and take wing to repeat the cycle of life as young adults.

It isn’t until you follow these birds from egg to air, that you can appreciate them as individuals. At moments like the one in the photo above, I see the same emotion that parents of every species feel. Love. Pride. And protectiveness.

But sadly, the egrets are no match for chain saws.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/17/22

1722 Days after Hurricane Harvey

Four Halls Bayou Detention Ponds Recently Completed; Four More Virtually Done

If you saw the recent front page article in the Houston Chronicle about Halls Bayou, you would think that Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) relegated residents in the watershed to “the back of the bus.” Even before the bond, Halls received four floodwater retention projects, three of which are major. HCFCD is trying to expand the fourth of those. And since the flood bond, HCFCD has virtually completed four more floodwater retention projects..

Here’s what I found by simply driving around after consulting the HCFCD website and Google Earth Pro. I wish the Chronicle writer had done the same. There’s just no substitute for laying eyeballs on the job sites before riling up millions of people. Let’s start with the flood-bond projects first. I took all the photos below on 4/25/21 and 4/26/21.

Almost Completed Stormwater Detention Basins in Halls Watershed

Basin on Little York east of US59
New basin at Hopper and US59
Third new basin north of Helms Road east of Airline Drive
Fourth new basin south of Helms Road west of Airline Drive.

Recently Completed in Halls Watershed

Hall Park Stormwater Detention Basin East of US59 at Parker. Google Earth images show this project was substantially completed in 2018.
Bretshire Stormwater Detention Basin West of US59 at Parker. Google Earth images show this project was substantially completed in 2015.
Keith Weiss Park Stormwater Detention Basin on Halls Bayou east of Aldine Westfield. Google Earth images show this project was substantially completed in 2015.
West of Aldine Westfield, there’s a small basin owned by TxDOT. HCFCD hopes to enlarge this basin into the surrounding wooded areas as part of bond project C-25. Google Earth images show the first phase of this project was completed in 2012.

Funding “Shortfall” Not Yet Known

The Chronicle writer also claimed a “funding shortfall” for Halls of $272 million. Curious that he would make this statement just days before the GLO announces the winners of a statewide competition. Harris County could get some, none or all of its requests. To be clear, the competition is stiff; Harvey affected more than 40 counties. Regardless, there’s more than $2 billion up for grabs ($1 billion in this round and $1.144 billion in the next). It seems to me, the Chronicle writer could have waited a few days to publish results rather than rumors.

We Need Real Historical Data on Flood Mitigation Spending

Whether you agree with Rodney Ellis, Adrian Garcia and Lina Hidalgo or not, they have fought tenaciously for their constituents. They succeeded in reordering the priorities in flood-bond spending to serve low-to-moderate income neighborhoods first. For the Chronicle to imply that they failed their constituents is an insult to the Judge and Commissioners.

And to imply that all the money is going to more affluent neighborhoods is simply false. That claim seems designed to inflame racial hatred. Kingwood, for instance, has NEVER received one federally funded capital improvement project from HCFCD. Yet the Chronicle’s readers evidently concluded rich neighborhoods get all the money. Again, there’s no substitute for research.

From the Chronicle writer’s Twitter feed.

Inflaming racial tensions based on false information is the last thing America needs at this time.

In my opinion, we need facts, not fiction. Asserting discrimination is not the same as proving it.

Chronicle Article Also Ignores Tax Issue, Funding Realities

The Chronicle’s “HCFCD-puts-poor-people-at-the-back-of-the-bus” narrative also ignores the mechanics of funding projects. Before the flood bond vote in 2018, I spent an hour with former County Judge Ed Emmett discussing funding needs. A high priority at that point was to make local tax dollars stretch as far as they could by leveraging partner funding.

The need to leverage partner funding was even addressed in the final flood bond language. Paragraph 14 G states “…the commissioners court shall provide a process for the equitable expenditure of funds recognizing that project selection may have been affected in the past and may continue to be affected by eligibility requirements for matching Federal, State and other local government funds.”

Nobody stretches local tax dollars like the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). HUD is one of the main sources for funding projects in low-to-moderate income neighborhoods. Why?

HUD often offers a 90% match.

But there are two catches. First, you’re only eligible if at least 70% of residents that benefit from a project qualify as “low-to-moderate income” (LMI). Second, HUD is slow. To put “slow” in perspective, the Texas General Land Office just started accepting HUD grant applications from Imelda last Saturday. Imelda happened 586 days ago.

Looking at the flood bond spreadsheet (Page 6 of 10) and the expected partnership share of Halls Bayou Projects, you can see that 90/10 ratio reflected in most of the projected funding for Halls.

It’s unclear whether voters would have approved a flood bond that was 9X higher, especially when everyone, rich and poor alike, expressed concerns about not getting their fair share.

Alternative Sources of Halls Funding More Risky

Had HCFCD tried for FEMA funding instead, the low home values in Halls neighborhoods may have yielded a poor Benefit/Cost Ratio. Commissioner Ellis constantly reminds people about the perils of FEMA funding when applied to LMI neighborhoods.

So really, HCFCD had no choice but to focus on HUD for Halls projects.

  • The neighborhoods qualified.
  • The HUD match was far higher.
  • That minimized a tax increase.
  • It also maximized the number of possible Halls projects.

This was not a “gamble” as the Chronicle headline implied; it was actually the least risky option that seemed to benefit the most people.

Map above taken from HUD CDBG-MIT Draft Grant Application from Halls Bayou Watershed shows that 144,000 people in the watershed qualify as LMI (low to moderate income). That’s 70.6% of the total residents. To see the complete draft, visit this page.

We all need to calm down and wait to see how much money HUD grants the Hall’s Bayou Watershed projects. Brittany Eck of the GLO told me that she expects decisions by the end of this month. That’s this Friday.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 4/27/2021

1337 Days since Hurricane Harvey and 586 since Imelda

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Would Purchase of Perry Homes’ Woodridge Village by HCFCD be a “Bailout”?

Last week, according to the Houston Chronicle, Harris County Commissioners discussed in executive session a deal to purchase the Woodridge Village development in Montgomery County. Woodridge Village has contributed to repeated flooding of Elm Grove and North Kingwood Forest. At issue: the possibility of turning the land into a regional detention facility that could help the affected communities and others on the East Fork of the San Jacinto.

But shortly before the crucial meeting, the Houston Chronicle printed an article calling it a “bailout” of Perry Homes. As I read and reread the article, I cringed. The headline screamed “A homebuilder in the floodplain wants a bailout. Should Harris County cut a check?”

Article Raises More Questions than Answers

This article left me with more questions than answers.

How did the reporter arrive at the conclusion that Perry Homes wanted a “bailout”? He never explained.

He called it an unprecedented deal. But flood control authorities routinely purchase land for detention projects. 

The author implied that developers “bungled” the project, but never explained how. 

He quoted Commissioner Jack Cagle as saying that the builder made unwise decisions. But the reporter never explained what those were. 

The reporter consistently implied that residents’ claims were unsubstantiated. But photographs and videos taken during the event clearly show water streaming from Woodridge Village directly into the streets of Elm Grove and North Kingwood Forest.

Inconsistencies and Inaccuracies

Bizarrely, the article implied that Harris County Commissioners would be letting developers “off the hook.” What hook? Yes, Perry Homes is being sued by hundreds of homeowners. But Commissioners have nothing to do with the lawsuits and can’t influence them. The lawsuits are moving forward independently, as the article points out later.

The article claimed the parcel being considered for purchase is inside city limits. It is NOT. It is, however, within the City of Houston’s extra-territorial jurisdiction.

Another inaccuracy: The article said “Elm Grove” sits inside the 100- and 500-year flood plains. Only a portion of it does. 

Getting to the Heart of the Mystery

The article claims that the new development also sits in floodplains. I agree. But now we’re getting to the crux of the flooding issue and the mystery surrounding these floods. This is where the Chronicle could have won a Pulitzer.

LJA Engineering, which prepared the drainage analysis for Perry Homes, claims the property does not sit in floodplains. They also claim the property contained no wetlands. Hmmmm. The wetlands clearly show up on the USGS National Wetlands Inventory. This is where a good investigative reporter would have started digging. But there’s no discussion of these issues.

More than a year and a half after Perry Homes clear-cut this land and Elm Grove flooded twice, Perry Homes still has not even completed a quarter of the required detention pond capacity.

A glance at the construction plans and drainage analysis would have shown that Perry Homes did not build what was on paper. They failed to follow the permitted plans.

Adding Insult to Inaccuracy

To add insult to inaccuracy, the article then goes on to claim that portions of Kingwood have flooded repeatedly in the last five years, as if that explains Perry’s problems. But those areas are not even in the same watershed as Elm Grove! They have separate issues; those other areas were built in the floodway of the San Jacinto river. Elm Grove, on the other hand, never flooded before Perry clear-cut 268 acres immediately upstream from them and then filled existing streams.

Dubious Slant Could Rile Up Voters, Torpedo Deal

Whether intentional, unintentional or both, the article’s omissions, inaccuracies, and mischaracterizations could rile up voters who may fear their tax dollars are being wasted by the “bailout” of a billion-dollar company that they don’t especially like. That kind of publicity often scares authorities who fear blowback. And that, in turn, could torpedo any land purchase and doom desperate people to more flooding. I sincerely hope not.

Advice for Houston Chronicle

If the Chronicle wants to write about this issue, I suggest they research it. Don’t just call both sides and think you have done a good job of balanced reporting. Get to the damn truth. Then maybe more people would buy subscriptions. Why:

People’s lives, homes, lifesavings, and sanity are at stake. I sincerely hope the Houston Chronicle starts digging for answers, instead of shoveling bull.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 2/4/2020

889 Days since Hurricane Harvey

The thoughts expressed in this post represent opinions on matters of public concern and safety. They are protected by the First Amendment of the US Constitution and the Anti-SLAPP Statute of the Great State of Texas.

Trump Says Texas Made a Fortune Off of Harvey

Not sure how I missed this one, but for the historical record, a story appearing the the Houston Chronicle on October 18th reports that President Trump told a rally in Dallas that Texas “made a fortune” off of Harvey. I know some victims who might dispute that claim.

View C-Span clip from Dallas Trump rally.

If you think this is biased reporting, you can watch the video yourself. Someone posted the clip on C-Span.

Posted by Bob Rehak on 10/29/2019

791 Days after Hurricane Harvey