Morning Ed: Hurricane Harvey {2017.08.28.M}

First, some songs about the greater Corpus Christi area. The first is a song about Port Aransas specifically, of which there are not many out there. If you don’t like country music much, I would recommend it over the other two. The second one, Robert Earl Keen’s Corpus Christi Bay, is something of a classic in some country music circles. The third, Further Down The Line by Bleu Edmondson, is a sour grapes letter about a girlfriend who moved to Seattle and he speaks of the climate contrast between Seattle and Corpus (though perhaps that doesn’t apply when there is a hurricane on).

Since Houston is grabbing a lot of the attention right now, here is some of the devastation in Ingleside, Port Aransas and Rockport.

And in Sinton, there is the story of a courier dog.

Bill stayed in Port Aransas when Harvey first struck, calls it the stupidest thing he ever did, but concludes that the main thing he fears is the IRS.

If you want to know how bad a hurricane is looking, look at Waffle House.

One thing it’s important to remember is that just because it seems like somebody has drowned it doesn’t mean they have actually drowned. Nobody knows this better than Houston’s mayor:

So why wasn’t Houston evacuated? Well, this is why. This may be the topic for another post, but we probably need to start planning for the possibility that some cities just can’t be evacuated even in the worst case scenario.

A priest needed some communion wine, gets a kayak and… you’ll never guess what happens next.

Harvey is destroying homes, and wreaking a different kind of havoc on the homeless.

Some pretty amazing before-and-after photos of Houston.

The Texas Tribune and ProPublica get the mother-of-all I told you so’s about Houston’s unique vulnerability to flooding. Matt Corbett lays out a mild defense of Houston. in tweets.

Here is a story of myself in an unrelated hurricane.


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Will Truman is a former professional gearhead who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He also writes fiction, when he finds the time. ...more →

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80 thoughts on “Morning Ed: Hurricane Harvey {2017.08.28.M}

    • The GF and I were discussing this. She straight up told me that she wouldn’t leave her dog to die if a mandatory evac was given. She’d ride it out with him at her house. A mother’s love.

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      • I was thinking about evacuations. If one were recommended for my area, and I had the option to load up my car (even lightly) and drive far enough to find a hotel with rooms available, and stay there, I’d do it.

        If my option was to go to a Red Cross shelter and sleep on a cot, in a huge open gymnasium or convention center, surrounded by people I don’t know and their noise and their arguments and everything else….I might just choose to try to ride it out at home.

        I don’t have pets to worry about, but I find large masses of anonymous humanity really, really hard to take.

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        • Re hotel. Hotels will increase their rates as they slowly fill up. A friend’s son was stationed near New Orleans before Katrina and they were ordered to leave, but be prepared to turn-around after the storm him to help out. They were given a stipend and as his group headed away from the coast, each hotel/motel they stopped at was either full or had tripled its rate, and by the time they to Southern Illinois, they decided just to drive another four hours to mom’s house.

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          • Eh, at that point – I’d pay it to avoid the shelter. (I make decent money and am agonizingly frugal otherwise). If I had enough lead-time and figured I’d have to be gone for over a week, I’d probably just drive the 10 hours to my parents’ house, provided it was safe there.

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        • It depends on what “ride it out” entails. If it means living without electricity or potable water for a week, that is a mere inconvenience. Keep a camp stove and a fuel supply to boil water and cook the canned food you already have in the pantry, and you are good to go. If riding it out might plausibly entail chopping a hole in your roof to crawl out of the attic and sit on your roof hoping a rescue helicopter comes by, then that Red Cross shelter starts to look pretty good. For other parts of the country, riding it out might mean hoping the wind blows the fire the other direction. Again: Red Cross here we come! It all depends on the natural disaster of choice where you live. Here in Maryland this can involve flooding, but not in the part I live, in the piedmont country. That and I bought my house with an eye to local topography. If the flood line reaches my house, this will mean God has changed his mind and there are no more rainbows.

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          • Richard,
            When the neighbors got guns, you’d better be prepared to do your share.
            That means enoguh food and water to share.
            (And depending on how many people you’ve got, and how many people you know are prepared, that can be substantial).

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          • Where I live, the most likely “drive me into a shelter” event would be an ice storm that cut power (but not necessarily water) for a week. It would suck but it would be survivable.

            It would take truly Biblical flooding – perhaps even more than Dickinson TX saw – for my house to flood where it is (on a hill, and on higher ground than the surrounding area to begin with. Wildfires are possible but as I live practically downtown in a small city I think that’s also unlikely.

            Civil unrest might be another issue, but I’m not sure Red Cross opens shelters in that case – in that case, getting the hell out of town would make the most sense, provided the whole country isn’t part of a conflagration. (The other option is hightailing it to the house of a friend a couple hours away who has said they will protect me, and who has guns and more shooting skill than I….)

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  1. Only five dead so far, one perhaps a heart attack. I’m not sure if that’s unusual for a city this size even without a hurricane. We may be looking at the press putting a microscope on it.

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    • So far more people died in the Ike evacuation than have died here. Even if that blessedly remains so, though, the damage to the city make the story worthy of a lot of media attention.

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      • I believe most deaths attributed to hurricanes are indirect. For example, Hurricane Andrew killed more people after the storm:

        The number of deaths directly attributed to Andrew is 26. The additional indirect loss of life brought the death toll to 65 . . . . Many of the indirect deaths occurred during the “recovery phase” following Andrew’s passage.

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        • What those numbers essentially mean is that the most common cause of direct death is blunt force trauma from building collapses, which takes place in a broader area than the storm surge. The second most common is drowning, six of which were from a foreign fishing boat that turned over.

          Indirect deaths were mostly heart attacks or similar natural deaths, found to have been brought out prematurely by stress and lack of access to medical care.

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    • Those numbers are going to go up once people can start actively looking for bodies.

      My first reaction to “five dead” was “more people got shot in (insert city here)”. Then I remembered: they haven’t even started looking for bodies yet. They’ve got five without even looking.

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          • I’m waiting for the “looting” stories to come out. Also for the “roving gangs” stories to come out.

            Keep in mind: if there are cannibalism stories coming out in the first three or four days? They’re hoaxes.

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            • Supermarkets are starting to open – Kroger in my partially flooded neighborhood opened today for the first time since Friday evening.

              Though there’s a lot of flooding, there’s also a lot of not flooded and partially flooded only areas. You might not be able to walk to safety because of the floods, but for most, safety would be but a five minutes walk in a normal day.

              Think really, really, really, really, big puddles, perhaps 10 feet deep. but most not more than three. It is not flooded New Orleans water as eyes can see.

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              • With that new information, I’m now thinking that the stories to keep an eye out for are the “this is what it’s like when Democrats get flooded… this is what it’s like when Republicans get flooded” stories.

                Edit: oh, yes. Good luck to you and yours.

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                • Thank you guys, much appreciated

                  As it happens, perks of the international executive, I get to miss a lot of hurricanes, including this one. I was out of town (and country) because I had an important meeting on Friday, and another one tomorrow, and now I can’t get back because there are no flights until goodness knows when.

                  I got to miss both Allison and Ike this way, as well as the Memorial Day floods. I stayed put (and asleep) in Rita.

                  As per neighbors, the house is apparently unflooded. We do have a facebook like neighbourhood site where i keep track of how things are going.

                  When Ike, all my damage was a single, torn down picket fence. If looks could kill, me walking out from Lowe’s with a lone picket fence on my shoulder during Ike recovery would have been my end.

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                  • J_A,
                    Perks of the international business: Got a DR in Houston, because politics. So, yes, nothing’s working down there ad things are a mess. (not me, friend of mine. I’m nobody important).

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  2. The bit about Houston and the roads was very informative. Turning major roads in flood drains is actually a good idea.

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  3. Its going to be nearly impossible to evacuate hundreds of thousands or millions of people from the path of major hurricane in a short amount of time. The roads will get clogged, you can’t fly that many airplanes or put that many people on them. You need places to keep the people. The focus should be on making sure the infrastructure can take as much damage as possible and keep people safe during the hurricane.

    My building was in an evacuation zone during Sandy but I decided to stay. I was on the seventh floor and my building was only a few years old at the time. It turned out to be the correct decision. I was able to endure the storm comfortably and only lost power for a few hours and that’s because the super decided to turn the power off to save the generators. I then got an unexpected two weeks paid vacation because of the damage rendered by the storm. You couldn’t get into Manhattan for one week because the trains and subway were done. The New York Immigration Court and USCIS remained close for a week after the subways and trains were running because their building infrastructure needed some more repair work done.

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  4. There have been lots of pieces pointing out the number of things Congress has to deal with in the 12 working days they have scheduled between the end of the August recess and the end of the fiscal year on Sep 30. One of the things seldom mentioned is the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Unless the program is renewed by Sep 30, NFIP will have to stop writing new policies. The program is allowed to borrow from the Treasury if premiums are insufficient, up to a limit of $30B, with about $5B remaining. Claims from Harvey will almost certainly cause the cap to be reached in short order, greatly slowing the rate at which claims can be paid.

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          • Insurance companies can provide a lot of disincentive. My parents got caught up more than once in Rainwater vs Rising Water damage. The insurer for rainwater would argue that it was caused by rising water, and therefore not their problem. The rising water insurer would argue that it was caused by rain and therefore not their problem.

            And nobody would insure you for both.

            (I think some law or eeek regulation was passed to prevent this sort of thing at some point. At least, it hasn’t been an issue the last couple of floods.

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            • It’s also the weird refusal to let you pay monthly for flood insurance.

              I get that it’s, say, 1000 dollars a year. And I get that you can’t get it today and have it cover you tomorrow — I’ve got no problem with the six month gap until coverage starts.

              What I don’t get is why they literally will not say “We’ll charge you 80ish bucks a month starting THIS month, coverage will take effect six months from the first payment”.

              It’s freaking weird that people have to scrounge up a single, lump sum payment once a year instead of letting it come out as a smaller, monthly payment for continuous coverage.

              (At least, that’s how State Farm does it and I’ve never been able to get them to switch to anything else).

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              • Us looney California liberals have the state running earthquake insurance, and one of the reasons is for the monthly payment plan (and, of course, it increases the likelihood that there’s a pot of money to pay out if umpteen billion dollars are lost when the next big one hits the bay area).

                The coverage is relatively limited and unappealing, but everything else about it is as user friendly as possible.

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              • Federal law requires flood insurance on federal-backed mortgages in high risk areas. So, if someone doesn’t have flood insurance, it’s either because (a) no mortgage; (b) state-backed mortgage; or (c) not a high risk area in the last flood map.

                A lot of people assume “no mortgage” means wealthy, but some of the hardest hit areas from Katrina were income-poor people, living in homes previously purchased by parents or grand-parents.

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                • or (c) not a high risk area in the last flood map.

                  The problem with (c), at least in Houston, is that fast development has distorted significantly the amount of water running off the streets (see Propublica link above). Compound much increased water runoff where streets and roofs replace rice paddies (rice paddies!!!) with (fake!!!) climate change, and your 15 year old 100-year flood plans are not worth much

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                  • I personally live one block away from the 500-years floodplain, and less than two blocks from the 100-year one. I have flood insurance but it was not required by the mortgage company (nor have they never even asked if I do).

                    My house is old and on a foundation slab, but my front door neighbor is currently rebuilding on top of four feet piles

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                • A lot of people assume “no mortgage” means wealthy, but some of the hardest hit areas from Katrina were income-poor people, living in homes previously purchased by parents or grand-parents.

                  I recall that back in 2011 the big wildfire east of Austin, TX burned ~500 houses, and a surprisingly high percentage were people with no mortgage but also no homeowners insurance.

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              • Yes, exactly like that.

                Which means that we all have it when we need it, you know, instead of having the public fund out the payments when emergency hits us (all, some day or other).

                The alternative is, of course, to have people day without medical care, or be homeless when disaster happens. Dead, homeless, you name it, but free of government mandates. It’s the conservative way, I’m told.

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                • Not being able to properly price the insurance because of subsidies or grandfathering just pushes the cost onto everyone else.

                  I look forward to the day when flood insurance premiums are such that houses in a flood zone are built closer to boats or submarines than they are stick frame housing.

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                  • But we don’t want to price health insurance to consider a pre-existing condition such as cancer, and make cancer survivors pay their own actuarial value.

                    Pushing the cost around is a feature, not a bug

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                    • But housing is not the same as health-care. For housing I think we could argue that actuarial value should be borne by the property owner.

                      If interests in a certain geographical area want to pool resources, that’s fine… but then we’re sort of arguing over the scope of “everyone”

                      Everyone in Houston? Everyone in Texas? Everyone on the Gulf Coast? Everyone in America?

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                      • A big difference between housing and health is that we choose to build and buy in risky places whereas we don’t (yet) choose to have cancer run in the family. Someone in Florida’s hurricane alley and someone in Texas’ hurricane alley pooling their risk and leaving people in Idaho out of it (unless there is a similarly risky risk profile in Idaho that I am unfamiliar with).

                        That said, you can’t make dramatic changes overnight. The best time to consider whether we want six million people living where Houston is is… right now, actually.

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                    • Depends on how likely such behavior results in moral hazard. Pre-existing conditions are, more often than not, outside of the control of the person (Type 1 diabetes, cancer, etc.) or are conditions we, as a society, want to keep normalized (pregnancy).

                      Owning property in an obvious and well known flood plain should result in either higher premiums or some manner of restrictions. Owning a piece of property isn’t outside of a person’s control, nor is choosing to own property in a flood plain.

                      Now, I can see exceptions for 500 year flood plains that suddenly become 20 year flood plains thanks to climate change or some other natural or man-made alteration to the landscape that changes things. But even then, after a point, restrictions or premium hikes have to kick in.

                      Of course, such hikes can be mitigated through infrastructure improvements that move water away from habitation, or through architectural changes that improve the ability of a structure to withstand a flood. I’m not opposed to people living along the river, but you need to live like you live on a river, and not on a hill top (I have similar thoughts regarding people in earthquake zones, or who live in areas that see a lot of fire, etc.).

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                      • Owning a piece of property isn’t outside of a person’s control, nor is choosing to own property in a flood plain…. Now, I can see exceptions for 500 year flood plains that suddenly become 20 year flood plains thanks to climate change or some other natural or man-made alteration to the landscape that changes things.

                        My palatial manor is carefully sited well outside the 100 year flood plain. A million people move in upstream, pave or roof over most everything, carefully design their roads with curbs and such to dump massive amounts of water into the river, etc. Suddenly I’m in the 20 year flood plain. Surely someone has taken something of value from me. How do I get compensated?

                        Consider what happens in the opposite circumstance. If those million people move in upstream and divert river water so that the flow past my property is diminished, denying me the ability to do something useful with it, I have recourse. In most of the West they’re certainly in the wrong; elsewhere things vary. Shouldn’t there be an equivalent sort of thing for dumping excessive amounts of runoff?

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                        • The extent of the flood insurance subsidy is supposed to be conditioned about your local government’s compliance with the FEMA requirements to reduce flood risk. There is some gap btw/ compliance and reality, and we may find that when Congress writes checks to local governments for disaster relief that there is an offset for noncompliance.

                          BTW/ I believe Colorado is the largest net contributor to the flood insurance program in terms of the difference btw/ premiums collected and disbursements made.

                          Addendum: Louisiana is the biggest taker.

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                          • The Denver metro area was hammered in 1965, a few years before the federal flood insurance program was created. Since then, the various municipalities have jumped at pretty much every set of flood control grants that come along (especially when the Corps of Engineers offers to pick up the whole tab). Bear Creek Reservoir is kind of amazing: a huge dam, with what is normally a little lake behind it, capable of holding 20,000+ acre feet of flood water and releasing it slowly. In the last 30 years while I have lived here my suburb, which does not include any of the major flood threats, has spent a lot of money reworking our smaller flood plains into retention basins and flood channels.

                            Granted, some things are easier when there’s some up-and-down in the terrain. Even down here on the “flat”, we’ve got far more to work with than, say, southern Louisiana. Eg, the Old River Control Structure, a hundred miles or so in a straight line from the Gulf, is only 28 feet above mean sea level.

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                        • I quite clearly suggest that such a situation should entail some manner of exception. Perhaps you do get grandfathered in at 100 year flood rates, but you get a choice when the next flood hits:

                          1) Get a lump sum payment for the pre-flood value of the property and go live somewhere else.

                          2) Get money to rebuild, but face strong incentives to spend money to harden the property & structures against future flooding.

                          3) Get money to rebuild to original spec, and eat the 20 year flood plain rates.

                          4) Some other option I haven’t thought of.

                          The point being that people choose to live in a given spot. If that spot becomes a money sink thanks to repeated flooding, the people who choose to live there (after to being given a generous out) need to accept the cost of that in some manner. Grandfathering people in at lower rates indefinitely is madness. It’s right up there with giving an alcoholic a new liver before they’ve gotten sober and proven they can stay that way.

                          PS If the excessive runoff can be shown to be a direct result of development, the developers or communities in question should be required to pay to buy out the affected owners.

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                          • PS If the excessive runoff can be shown to be a direct result of development, the developers or communities in question should be required to pay to buy out the affected owners.

                            I wish we could do this, but it’s almost impossible. Every new development around you might add 1/1000 of an inch to the runoff. Individually, they are not directly causing anything. It’s the aggregation of 10,000 such developments what floods your property.

                            Though I fully agree with your points 1-3 above (and perhaps I can be convinced about #4), the interconnectedness of it all, combined with climate change, is what makes me argue for a universal flood insurance base, to which, as you suggest, we might add surcharges in cases someone decides to construct in already known flood prone land plots

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                            • J_A,
                              We require better sewers for new developments. That allows most of the water to leave without being contaminated by shit.

                              Doesn’t fix sidewalks, but does fix houses.

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                              • We require better sewers for new developments. That allows most of the water to leave without being contaminated by shit.

                                And have generally done so. When was the last time a combined sewer system was built, or even expanded? Old systems are a problem, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest. Even there, though, new development does separated systems. Eg, the combined system in parts of Seattle are all pre-about-1950; everything newer than that has been separated systems, and some parts of the old combined system have been converted.

                                Unintended water ingress to the sanitary sewer can be a problem. My suburb/city (pop ~120,000) is midway through a project that will seal all of the pre-PVC sanitary sewer lines to stop such ingress, so we don’t have to expand the treatment plant again.

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                            • OK, so maybe findings of direct impingement is too much to ask, so I can see the value in a base level of flood insurance for everyone who can potentially be affected by a flood, with surcharges reflecting the increase in risk for location versus structural resilience.

                              I wouldn’t apply it to everyone, however. I live on a ridge 750 feet above sea level (and many hundreds of feet above the nearby river). The only way we flood is if the water main breaks.

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                                • Oh, no, it’s not more. I am quite aware of how many that would be. Perhaps for most it would just be a small fee on their homeowners or renters policy, and only people above a certain danger threshold would have to carry and pay for a specific flood rider.

                                  But for people clearly outside any flood danger that falls short of ‘nearby large asteroid impact tsunami’, or ‘ice dam lets go and releases glacial lake’, I think we can forgo such things.

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      • I suppose we’ll learn of the participation rate for flood insurance in this area.

        I’m afraid it will be quite low, though the two once-in-a-century flooding events of 2016 might have improved coverage rates

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        • Seems equally likely that two once-in-a-century flooding events would do just as much to increase the cost of flood insurance for areas that ask for it.

          If living on a flood plain isn’t the equivalent of smoking or obesity now, it seems like it will be soon.

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          • I fully agree with you

            But when people in the Dakotas also flood, perhaps mandatory (Go, Government Tyranny, Go!!) flood insurance as part of your property taxes nationwide could help disperse the risk better, at a very reasonable cost to all property owners

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            • $10 tax on everybody that goes to “National Flood Insurance” would give us $3,500,000,000 to play with every year!

              And, the best part is, if we have a year without flooding, we can use that money on abstinence programs and planned parenthood.

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          • From memory, so possibly wrong, people who bought coverage long enough ago are grandfathered into heavily-subsidized premium rates and the ability to file an unlimited number of claims. One of the newspaper stories over the weekend was citing a case somewhere in Harris County of a house valued at $72K with a history of over a million dollars of claims paid. Another similar case somewhere in southern Louisiana where, IIRC, there had been 20 flood damage claims paid in 40 years.

            I believe that Congress has periodically made runs at doing away with those grandfather terms, but has always chickened out.

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  5. One thing to note: After Allison and Ike, some of the outlying cities put a ton of money into flood infrastructure. Some did not.

    My town’s known for high tax rates. We’ve had streets flood, but virtually no homes. Our main culverts are still showing concrete (they’re not full). We didn’t get hit the worst in Houston, but we still ate more rain than we did in Allison — and places that flooded then did not now.

    I also note that literally 10 miles from us, they’ve had to evacuate hospitals and houses are underwater. They pay a lot less in taxes, and did very little (if anything) to improve their drainage systems.

    My city utterly revamped their drainage system after Allison. An incredibly large surge pond (dozens of acres), they went over every drain line, culvert, and connection in the city — to clean them, repair them, test them, and improve them.

    One of the only city vehicles moving all weekend was dump trucks full of guys whose job was to make sure the water intakes on streets weren’t blocked by debris, and to do the same for the ditches and culverts.

    Now yeah, there comes a point where no amount of engineering can deal with water (some places in Houston are expected to hit 50 inches by Friday — 50 inches of rain in a week, more than the yearly average). But you can see some big differences in the places that spent the money.

    (Houston’s another matter. Too much concrete, too much area. There’s only so deep you can build bayous, so high you can build reservoirs).

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  6. I’ve only ever experienced one hurricane, and I was on a ship at sea, and we were able to avoid the brunt of it. Still a hell of a night and a day. The LHA we were with was deeper in and wound up torquing a drive shaft, had to divert to Pearl for a week of repairs.

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  7. There was a fascinating paper on hurricanes recently.

    How hurricanes replenish their vast supply of rain water

    Hurricanes and their rainfall

    Intense tropical cyclones — hurricanes and typhoons — involve violent winds, torrential rain and low atmospheric pressures. (Please note that hurricanes and typhoons reflect the same atmospheric phenomena — the label used depends only on where they occur.)

    It is known that local evaporation accounts for less than a quarter of ongoing rainfall within the hurricane’s rainfall area (about 600-800 km in diameter and comprising the distinct vortex of clouds visible from space). Remarkably, despite the danger associated with hurricane rainfall, where the other three-quarters of the rain come from remains uncertain.

    And then they explain where the water comes from, which fundamentally alters the theory of hurricanes.

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    • I’ve always said that reversing deforestation is critical to combating climate change.

      It’s late and I’m not entirely sure I parsed all their math & assumptions correctly, but the gist is that hurricanes basically suck in all the moist air around them and feed the heat bank by condensing the moisture (thus releasing the heat), and they only fall apart once they have no more moist air to draw in.

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      • Yep. That’s the gist of it. The clue was that some hurricanes exceed the maximum theoretical efficiency of the accepted model. They also have a paper on how lush forests drive rainfall by evaporating huge amounts of moisture, creating a rising air mass that condenses into a thunderstorm, and the change in volume caused by the condensing and falling water causes onshore winds that suck moist air from the ocean back over land.

        Under that theory, it’s possible that California’s drought was worsened by stopping irrigation to save water, thus stopping the replenishment cycle.

        Anyway, NOAA had linked a 2014 paper by Dr. Joe Cione that showed hurricanes can historically survive with sea surface temperatures less than 26 C.

        Dr. Cione found that in addition to ocean temperature, the near-surface air temperature and moisture around the hurricane are also essential energy requirements for sustaining a hurricane. These two variables often play an even more important role than ocean temperature.

        It’s possible that path forecasting can be improved by taking those things into account.

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