Monday, September 29, 2008

Rankings, Ike spirit, Dome, and more

The smaller misc items have been piling up since before the hurricane, and now are so many I'll have to split them over a couple of posts this week. Before getting to them though, I wanted to throw out another plug for my solution to the national housing and financial crisis, after the bailout defeat in Congress today. Just hoping one of my readers out there has the ability to get it in front of the crisis-response decision makers in the government. On to the list, starting with a little good news to raise your spirits after today's depressing market crash:
More later this week.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

Ike in context

Although I'm still in Austin, I figure it's time to get back to blogging. For those of you who get this blog by email, you can find my personal (very mild) saga of Ike posted here - it was not emailed out. It sounds like today was "back to work" for most of Houston, but with traffic signals still a mess, I've heard a couple anecdotes that rush hours are more painful than usual (confirmed).

Now available are satellite images showing post-Ike Houston and beaches, which, not surprisingly, seem to have pushed back a bit in areas. Once you drill-down to a full-size pic, click on it again to zoom in. Hat tip to Cary.

For this post, I just want to pass along something I got on Ike in context from Jeff Moseley over at the Greater Houston Partnership:
One of the most important lessons we learn in school is making sure that when we read a text that it is placed into the proper context.

Ike roared through our community with Category 2 winds with a near meteorological record 80 mile wide eye. We regret the damage done to our neighbors' homes and property along the coast as well as to the beautiful Kemah and Galveston tourism districts.

The resilience of our people is amazing. Without power and with shortages of water, food, gasoline and other resources we have witnessed over and over neighbors helping neighbors and putting their shoulders to the task of cleaning up the debris. We should and will continue to focus on all areas of our region that received storm damage as well as what we can all do to collectively assist in rebuilding and getting these communities back into operation.
(aside: The NY Times has a nice piece on Houston's neighborly and charitable spirit after the hurricane: "Power Is Scarce, but Houston’s Spirit Isn’t Lacking")
As I am beginning to understand this storm's impact versus other storms and their impact here is an interesting context.


1. Although the technology of predicting powerful storms is still evolving, forecasters were correct this time in determining that there would be a need to evacuate designated surge areas. Relative to 3 years ago, when Rita blew into town, our community and state leaders were much more prepared and the evacuation of surge areas was night and day difference in comparison to its orderliness. Once again, Mayor White, Judge Emmett have proven role models for the nation in demonstrating how city and county government can work in tandem to maximize crisis management. Their regional counterparts of the surrounding cities and counties have also demonstrated equal abilities to serve the public's interests. Kudos to our regional leaders!

2. In 1983 Alicia's winds carried gravel from downtown roofs and caused a cascade of broken glass to fill downtown streets. A city ordinance was then passed banning gravel as a roofing material and making those towers with gravel switch. Fast forward 25 years--Ike's winds only impacted 1/2% of the 400,000 windows in downtown. Chase Tower was impacted the most and this was done most likely by a tornado which damaged the lower half of the southside. (Chase Tower has already covered all the windows that were broken and will be fully operational in a few days).
Another aside: Alica was the same year I moved back to Houston from Louisiana and started high school. One of its tornadoes touched down in the pipeline right-of-way behind our house (I'm pretty sure I heard lawn furniture hitting the second floor), but we escaped with only the loss of a single roof shingle.
3. In 2001 Alison brought heavy rains and then turned around and brought even more heavy rains back to the downtown area. By some guess the rainfall was 4-1/2 " per hour and the hydrology of city streets is to have storm drainage for 1/2" per hour. Downtown, St. Joseph's Hospital and the Texas Medical Center suffered from severe Alison flooding. Contrast that to Ike--even though we didn't get Alison levels of rainfall, we did get 5-10" Saturday with and additional 5-9" early Sunday morning. With all that rainfall, check this out---NO FLOODING of downtown, Texas Medical Center, NASA or Galleria. The flooding that our region did suffer was due to storm surge. The good news is that Ike's surge was approximately half of the predicted level (13.5' vs. 25'). Prior to Alison and then as a result of Alison, the city and Texas Medical Center have placed an emphasis on storm drainage. Today's downtown storm sewers can handle 3" hour of rainfall.

4. Centerpoint and Entergy today have mutual assistance agreements in place. David McClanahan informed me that our region has received 7,000 mutual assistance workers to compliment the 4,000 linemen and contractors already working in the Centerpoint service district. This is a recent development that has allowed us to enjoy convoys from across the US.
We've come a long way. As bad as it was, it could have been much worse.

Update: Another Ike pass along:
A Message from Elliot Gershenson, Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston, Tuesday Memo from the President & CEO
September 23, 2008

Like so many non-profits, IM has been out of power but still kept going, serving the community. It's hard to believe that it is possible to serve so many seniors and refugees without computer power and phone service, but somehow we have done so. Just as so many other first-responder organizations like the Red Cross, Salvation Army and government agencies like the City of Houston, Harris County and FEMA have stepped up. We'll likely hear stories about failed efforts, but the true heart and guts of our city needs to be recognized. There are so many stories of bravery, dedication and pure visionary action that are worthy of telling.

There's the story of dozens of churches and other faith groups who have been housing evacuees from Galveston and other places in their gyms and sanctuaries - providing food, shelter and clothing. Much of these expenses will be borne by them. Certainly the time and talent of their core volunteers and staff is being diverted from other programs - all because the people of Houston are heroes.

There's the story about crime - not the one we would expect - but how low the crime statistics have been.

People in Houston have learned how to drive! Somehow, with all those lights out, people have slowed down and let the other guy take a turn.

I keep hearing that people connected with their neighbors, many for the first time. And now as the electricity is coming back on and the garage openers begin working again, it feels like we're losing something very special.

I learned about one church's senior pastor who received a phone call from someone he didn't know living back east. The caller said they could not find their elderly parents and were desperate to find out if they were ok. So this pastor got in his car late that night, with a load of food, water and ice and drove across town to find the parents. He drove up to the house and knocked on the door. They were fine, but without electricity or phone, so he called their kids on his cell phone and said "here, someone wants to talk to you." After the call the parents said they didn't need anything but across the street there was someone who really looked like he did. So the pastor gave all of his food, water and ice to the neighbor. The next day he came back with more food and water only to find that the neighbor had distributed what he received the night before to his neighbors. The church volunteers returned each day until the electricity came back.

The president of my synagogue bought Sabbath dinner for 1,250 families who he thought might need a kosher meal. In the end a number of synagogues and the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston backed him up so that he did not need to take this financial burden on his own. Only about 500 families came forward to receive these meals, so in the end he and my synagogue donated enough food to the Houston Food Bank and the Jewish Community Center to feed 700 families and seniors.

I could go on - but I think you already know what I am talking about. You've likely witnessed this yourself and have been amazed by the grace that has been shown by Houston and all of our leadership.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Liveblogging Hurricane Ike

Update: Satellite images showing post-Ike Houston and beaches, which, not surprisingly, seem to have pushed back a bit in areas. Once you get to a full-size pic, click on it again to zoom in. Hat tip to Cary.

Update Sat 9/20 7:30pm - Austin:
Wife went home to work. Power came back Thurs night (yeah!), but still no phone, cable, or, most importantly, internet. Comcast speculates Tues, but that's after they said Fri and didn't deliver. I'm not holding my breath. Since all I need to work is the internet, I'm staying with the cats and internet in Austin. Ate at Hula Hut on the water today with beautiful weather. Yum. This displacement's not all bad...

The NY Times has a nice piece on Houston's neighborly and charitable spirit after the hurricane: "Power Is Scarce, but Houston’s Spirit Isn’t Lacking"

Update Thurs 9/18 4pm - Austin:
Still without power, and still enjoying Austin's charms. Our zip code is listed as one of the more problematic ones, and the earliest we might see power is "after Tuesday." Sigh. One of my Austin-based step-daughters is going on a week-long trip Friday, so I volunteered to apartment-sit her cats while she's gone - all the electricity and internet I want included. So I may not get back to Houston until the 27th or 28th. We'll have to have power and internet by then, right?...

Not sure if I'll do any normal blog posts before then, given that most of my readers can't get to the site or receive post emails.

FYI, if you're thinking about bailing out of town while the power's out (or bringing in friends or family to help clean up), Continental is running some great fares for travel to/from Houston the rest of the month.

Updated Centerpoint outage and restoration maps. Hat tip to Alex.

Update Sunday 4:50pm - Austin: So we lost power about 1:30am Saturday morning. Got no sleep. The winds were ferocious. Heard a very scary crash about 5am. Worried about roof holes or maybe the chimney falling away from the house. Once the sun came up we could see, to our relief, we just had a fence fall over. But our yards look like somebody tossed multiple hand grenades in the canopy of our oak trees - as well as among our potted plants and flower beds. Spent most of the day cleaning up both yards, finishing with piles of leaves and limbs so big we could have filled a couple large pickup trucks. What a mess. But we were lucky compared to many others with trees on - and in - their houses.

Our hopes were raised when neighbors across the street got their power back Sat afternoon (although no phone, internet, or cable). But none for us, and the night was horrendously hot and humid. Very little sleep. It's been a while since our dog got his last summer hair cut, and with his thick coat, he was continuously panting. Before sunrise, we decided we were heading to Austin to stay with my step-daughters until power comes back. The wife preferred to stay, and we would have if it were just the husband suffering, but the dog tipped the balance. Listening to the mayor's press conference on the radio as we drove, we realized we made the right choice - one I expect many others to make soon too. It's becoming clear it may be many days - if not weeks - before power comes back to the 2 million households without it (99% of Centerpoint's customers): no computers, no internet, no TV, no fridge, no cooking, no light, no fans, and, most critically, no air conditioning. Not to mention the unsafe drinking water at low pressure. And now waves of mosquitoes are appearing too. Utterly miserable.

One of the news items that most surprised me was that both airports are still closed today. I know Continental was planning to resume operations Sunday morning, and every day that hub is closed (since Fri afternoon) has to cost them tens of millions of dollars. It's probably close to half their business. So I assume they pushed as hard as possible and just couldn't make it happen. A very bad sign.

For some positive spin, on both the damage and the city, check out this AP story.

Update Friday 10:25 pm
: Although we still don't have any rain, the gusts have started whipping up pretty fast outside. We have clear plastic insulating panels on the inside of our windows (like a double pane window), and I can see my reflection flexing in them as they bow in and out with the wind and pressure changes. Lots of small branches down already. We walked the dog again earlier in the evening and there was a major oak tree branch down blocking a street around the corner from us - maybe a foot diameter at the base and 15 feet long or so. Looked weak and partially rotted, so it was ready to fall. Our cats are driving us nuts whining to get outside, which they usually do at night, but there's no way they're going out tonight. The power blinked, but has stayed on (obviously, or I wouldn't be able to write this). The news footage from the coastal areas is both scary and sad. The flood surge is getting into a lot of buildings all along Galveston and the bay, and the projections get worse and worse. The losses will be large.

The zip code wind maps say we will hit peak sustained winds around 80mph tonight in my area. I don't think we've broken 40mph or so yet, so it's going to get a lot worse. The projections indicate the worst winds should be past us by around noon or so tomorrow, but it's going to be a nasty 14 hours. I don't anticipate a lot of sleep.

Original: I decided this morning that as long as we have power and internet, I'd try to liveblog Ike, adding updates to this post through tonight and tomorrow - but without the usual email distribution of posts. If you're looking for current information on the storm, Drudge Report has a great collection of links - plus this interactive tracker at the Chronicle. We live in the Meyerland/Bellaire area, well inland and outside the mandatory evacuation zones, so we decided to stay put. Our main risks are wind, trees, street flooding, and power loss. As of right now (1pm), about 12 hours before landfall, it looks like it will be going directly over us and the city, with extremely serious 20ft surge risk to our friends around Galveston Bay (my wife works for NASA and knows a lot of people who live around Clear Lake). Pray it pushes just a little more to the east, which will put us and the bay on the weaker west side of the storm - while putting the more dangerous parts of the storm in far less populated areas.

Last night while walking the dog, I noticed many of the houses were dark, so I think a lot of people have left. Watching the live traffic map yesterday, it looked pretty bad, but nowhere close to as bad as the Rita evacuation in 2005. Other houses have plywood over the windows. I didn't get the impression many people bought new plywood and cut it for their windows for this hurricane. More that they already had a set of custom-cut plywood in their garage from previous hurricanes that they just pulled out and attached. We spent the morning securing our yard, moving stuff into the garage and making sure nothing will get picked up by the (up to) 100mph winds and become a projectile. Sounds easy, but you don't know how much garden schlock my wife has... ;-) We were even able to make enough space to stuff my wife's Camry in the garage, but my own old Acura will have to tough it out in the driveway - unfortunately under the limbs of an oak tree. The street is much lower and has too much water risk if the rain can't run off fast enough.

The steady, gentle breeze made the morning remarkably pleasant for a Houston summer day, and people were out everywhere biking, walking their dogs, and, yes, securing their yards. Hard to believe the weather could be that nice 12 hours before being so bad. Makes me wonder if the weather was that nice in Galveston the morning before the great 1900 hurricane that killed 8,000+, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history. No warnings, no satellite tracking, no indications of any kind what was coming.

Compared to that, my biggest worry of a few days without power seems trivial.

As of right now, it's gotten cloudy and breezy, but still no rain. And we wait.


Monday, September 08, 2008

Reason says non-zoning helps Houston weather the housing storm

Sam Staley writes about Houston in Reason's 'Out of Control' blog:
As cities across the nation reel from the steepest housing market decline since the 1930s, Houston’s real estate market is surprisingly strong. While new housing sales have fallen dramatically, they haven’t fallen as far or as steeply as in other cities across Texas or the nation. At least part of this resilience is due to the market-driven nature of the city’s land development process, including a real-estate market unencumbered by zoning.

More than 2 million people live within the city’s borders while another four million round out the metropolitan area. Houston may well emerge as the archtype city of the 21st century. Urbanist Joel Kotkin used the term “Opportunity Urbanism” to describe the city in a study for the Greater Houston Partnership, pointing out that Houston’s entrepreneurial drive, affordability, tolerance for diversity, and willingness to adapt to changing economic circumstance may well propel it to become the next U.S. megacity.

Underappreciated in the city’s success may be its uniquely flexible and adaptable approach to land-use regulation. Unlike every other major city in the US, Houston has shunned zoning regulation, preferring to leave choices about land uses up to the real estate market.

The benefits of this market-based approach are most apparent immediately adjacent to and inside the “Loop” (the I-610 beltway, a ring road about 10 miles from the city center). Redevelopment occurs at a rapid pace inside the Loop, creating a mix of land uses rare in most U.S. cities, where aggressive zoning segregates and highly regulates land uses. High-rise apartment buildings and commercial towers emerge on redeveloped property quickly, and notices of higher density and mixed-use redevelopment dot parcels of land throughout the inner-loop area.

Despite the lack of municipal zoning, land development is not completely unregulated. Houston has adopted several statutes to set standards for infrastructure, parking, building setbacks, and building location. More importantly, in many parts of the city, private deed restrictions that limit future land uses run with the land, not the property owner. Nevertheless, substantial amounts of land are unrestricted by private deed, and property owners aggressively promote the flexibility and economic opportunity resulting by the lack of regulation.
From there he goes on to talk about the Ashby controversy (and its reactionary risks to our system), smart growth and the 2009 mayor's race, and Fed writings on how we were able to avoid the housing bust. It's worth checking out the whole thing.

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Thursday, September 04, 2008

Milwaukee commentary on Houston

A while back, an editorial columnist from Milwaukee called me to talk about Houston's free-market land use and development philosophy. His column finally came out last week in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and it has some great stuff in it.

This notion that more houses are good isn’t universally accepted. Exurban towns oppose it when they tell smart-growth planners they’d prefer horse estates to subdivisions. The state is spending taxpayer money to keep big tracts of farmland undeveloped. Planners call new growth “sprawl” and discourage it.

Yet economists are clear: Restricting the amount of land people can build on leads to higher housing prices.
Milwaukee, looking for a way to end decades of comparative stagnation, could take a clue from some Sun Belt cities that have excelled at attracting prosperity. One common element: low housing costs.

“The fact is that most people will go to places that are affordable,” said Joel Kotkin. A scholar of urban affairs, he cites Houston as a model of a place that makes itself attractive by not making housing costly.

Houston’s been getting a lot of buzz lately, with Chicago and New York newspapers reporting how well it avoided the housing bubble. Kiplinger’s, the personal finance magazine, just ranked it tops on places to live and work, while Forbes magazine in July called it the best place to buy a house and in June the best place for college grads to move. Milwaukee, by the way, was sixth on Forbes’ July list of increasingly unaffordable cities.

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, writing in the New York Sun, explained, “Houston’s great advantage, it turns out, is its ability to provide affordable living for middle-income Americans.”

Fairly nice living, too, says Tory Gattis, a business consultant and commentator on Houston affairs. The myth is that Houston, famously unzoned, is cacophonous sprawl, but in most places, that’s simply untrue, says Gattis. Private deed restrictions enforced by neighborhood associations keep most parts orderly. There are rules, but they’re simple. “It’s a bias toward allowing development and only stopping things that have a clear problem,” he says. “Our default answer is ‘yes.’ ”

So Houston’s median home price is two-thirds that of Milwaukee’s, according to the National Association of Realtors. Yet as it spreads, Houston is seeing a boom in condos and apartments, since zoning doesn’t let the NIMBYs stop infill. This makes rentals affordable, too, says Kotkin: “At every level, they’re offering more opportunity.”

But surely this cowboy sprawl is doomed by $4 gas? Unlikely, says Kotkin. Suburbia is distant only from the city center, which in Houston, as in Milwaukee, holds only a small fraction of the jobs. “Multipolarity is the wave of the future,” said Kotkin. Even assuming people moving to the former duck farm in Yorkville don’t telecommute or drive hybrids, they’re just as likely to work in the burgeoning industrial parks on I-94 a few miles away.

Still, aren’t autocentric suburbs dull? It hasn’t worked out that way in Houston, Gattis says. The place scored high with Kiplinger’s because of a high concentration of “creative-class” workers. It has nice museums, lots of fine dining. When people pay less for their housing, he points out, “it frees up money that makes your city more attractive.”

Milwaukee’s differing history and circumstances mean it can’t just ape Houston, says Kotkin. But its “sewer socialist” history of building infrastructure to accommodate growth admirably let middle-income families afford what most wanted, a house and yard. The opposite view, that “we’re going to force everyone to live very densely,” as he puts it, may suit a hemmed-in San Francisco, but it means middle- and lower-income families must accept modest circumstances.

“We have to accommodate people’s aspirations, not squelch them,” he said.

OK, "sewer socialist" is probably not the right label for what Houston does (particularly that second word in this capitalist mecca), but we do have a moderately good history of investing in transportation and other infrastructure.

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Monday, September 01, 2008

The Rise of Urban Romanticism

Quite a while back, someone sent me a link to an interesting white paper from New Zealand's Center for Resource Management Studies titled "The Rise of Urban Romanticism (or The New Road to Serfdom)". I finally got a chance to read it, and I think it has a really interesting perspective. He talks about the fundamental conflict over the last few centuries between the Scientific Enlightenment and Emotional Romanticism, and how socialism, fascism, and communism were all 20th-century "dark sides" of these fundamental movements. Modern Emotional Romanticism movements include anti-globalization, radical environmentalism, and, you guessed it, urban romanticism - i.e. the smart growth movement of density and transit. Romantic movements always revolve around an extremely passionate mission to "fix" some aspect of humankind based on an elite aesthetic vision, whether society wants to be "fixed" or not and pretty much regardless of any collateral damage to the people involved.

He defines an older generation of urban planners schooled in the scientific enlightenment tradition of reason and engineering what the people wanted. Then he gets into the newer generation of planners who have moved to the romantic side based on aesthetics and environmentalism - more architect than engineer. You can guess which side he comes down on. Excerpts:
In his seminal work, The Road to Serfdom, Hayek makes the point that the problem with central planning is that it attempts to form a universal view on matters on which there can be no universal agreement. Therefore any such plan necessarily coerces more people than those who willingly go along with it. Smart Growth is a classic example of this failing. It forces the majority to live where they would not choose to live if given the choice. All those people must be coerced into making second-best choices – they lose their property rights and their liberty.
Sometimes we are asked to choose from three or four of these different “visions” – overlooking the fact that the future contains an infinite number of possibilities. We should ask what happened to all the others. The few alternative visions presented have one thing in common. They all transfer power from the people to the Urban Romantics who will then use those powers to impose their “vision” on the canvas of the region. The rest of us have to do as we are told, and suffer the costs, which are enormous. The Urban Romantics don’t care – they have power and have no concern for the consequences. When did you last hear a “Smart Growth” planner express real concern for, or even refer to, housing affordability.
The other fatal flaw in these “visioning” exercises is that they survey the wrong population. The need to develop the “vision” is always justified by a perceived need to manage the “problem of growth”. Hence the exercise begins with some scary claim that the population of city X will grow by Y thousands or millions over the next Z years.

The Urban Romantic visionary then asks the existing population (or a small and carefully chosen sample of the existing population) where these hordes of newcomers should live. We know that existing people have quite strong preferences about where newcomers should go, but these are usually remarkably different from where the newcomers themselves want to go. Certainly in New Zealand newcomers show little enthusiasm for land around railway stations or other “transport nodes”. Unsurprisingly they prefer the beaches, the mountains, the countryside, or the nearest “Hobbit-like” village.
While he starts out mentioning some dark sides of the scientific enlightenment (like socialism and social engineering), later in the paper he seems to categorically divide the world into good science/reason vs. bad romanticism. I don't think it's that simple. Romanticism has produced a lot of good things (like civil rights), and clearly has a place as the balancing yin to the science's yang. But his overall insight is a good one well worth considering.

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