An interesting perspective on Harvey

This is going to be another one of those “unless you’ve just crawled out from under a rock” posts, because that’s about the only way you wouldn’t be submerged in coverage of Hurricane Harvey and its aftereffects on the Houston region in Texas. If you thought Noah was just a Biblical character and the story of the Ark simply a parable, imagine what 40 straight days and nights of rain could do…less than a week’s worth dumped over 50 inches on some hapless portions of Texas.

Anyway, there’s an estimate that Houston was bathed in nearly 20 trillion gallons of water, and if I recall my formula correctly a cubic foot holds roughly 7 1/2 gallons – thus, an area of 2.6 trillion square feet would have been submerged one foot deep. In turn, that works out to an area 1,632,993 feet on each side, which equals 309 miles – 95,653 square miles, to be exact. Imagine not just Maryland and Delaware under a foot of water, but all of Pennsylvania and the majority of Virginia as well. Put another way, under that same deluge all of Maryland would be drowned beneath about 10 feet of water.

What make this relevant is an article written by Jon Cassidy in the American Spectator that I came across. When people talk about planning it piques my interest for obvious reasons: architecture is my chosen profession, but I know just enough about land planning and civil engineering to be dangerous – one area I learned a little bit about in the position I have now (albeit when I had my first bite of the apple a decade ago) was the technique required for doing stormwater management and other civil work. Coming here from Ohio I found out stormwater management is a BIG f’ing deal in Maryland, much more so than in my home state.

This is important because the blame for the extreme flooding in and around Houston is being placed on the rampant growth and large amounts of impermeable surface in that area. But, as Cassidy writes, development is many orders of magnitude shy of being the primary cause:

The idea that pavement is to blame for Houston’s flooding is, to put it simply, idiotic, even comical. The daily journalists on their deadlines haven’t had time to realize how out of their depth they are, but the (Texas) Tribune has no excuse for its shoddy reporting. The committees that awarded those prizes should be ashamed of their inability to spot the obvious hole in the narrative, which has been there all along.

The turf surrounding Houston is not, in the words of the county official the Tribune singled out for abuse, a “magic sponge.” Yes, it absorbs some water. Yes, of course, impermeable surfaces produce runoff. But no, absolutely not, no way, no how, could the clay and sandy soil around Houston have absorbed this deluge. The poor absorptive capacity of our soil is a matter of record, but that didn’t really matter. Even if our turf had the absorptive capacity of the Shamwow, Hurricane Harvey would have overwhelmed it.

study by the Harris County Flood Control District, which focused on the same Cypress Creek region that interested the Tribune, found that a residential development with 50 percent impervious cover would indeed absorb less water, creating more runoff. To be precise, the development would absorb exactly 1.79 inches less rainfall than an undeveloped property. But we got hit with up to 51.88 inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey. That’s more than rainy Seattle got all last year.

So even if the Tribune had had its anti-development agenda fully realized, it would have made no difference. The soil would have absorbed the first couple inches of rainfall, and the next 50 inches still would have had to go somewhere. Back in 1935, when the area was almost entirely covered by natural wetlands, it still got flooded.

Cassidy has an unlikely ally in Charles Marohn, the creator of a website called Strong Towns. (It’s often cited by the mayor of Salisbury, who seems to be an advocate of so-called “smart growth.”)

Harvey is not normal times. We can’t look at this event the way we look at other flooding events. The devastation in Houston from Hurricane Harvey is not the result of the accumulation of many bad decisions. It was simply a huge storm.

The Texas A&M research I highlighted above suggests reckless wetland filling robbed Houston of 4 billion gallons of stormwater storage capacity. For context, the Washington Post is reporting now that Harvey dumped 19 trillion gallons on Texas—a large portion of that hitting the Houston area. That means that, had those wetlands never been filled, they could have accommodated at most .02-.1% of the water that fell in Harvey.

Exactly. Soil has a carrying capacity of drainage, and some soils drain better than others. If you’ve spent any amount of time in Florida, you’ll know it rains nearly every day but the soil drains quickly because it’s quite sandy. Places with a lot of clay, though, aren’t as fortunate. To manage stormwater, the common technique involves collecting the overflow from impermeable areas and placing it in retention ponds where it can be released for drainage in a controlled fashion. It’s why you often see bodies of water along roads, highways, and inside developments – they’re not necessarily there for looks, but as catchbasins.

Of course, not every area has managed stormwater and in times of extreme weather they flood. During Superstorm Sandy in 2012, a large part of downtown Salisbury flooded, causing damage to several buildings. Other parts of town are often under water after a heavy rainfall of 4″ or more, with one significant headache being the closing of Business Route 13 at its intersection with Priscilla Street, adjacent to a large pond.

But even the best techniques would fail under a deluge like Harvey, and that’s the point. We design for 10- and 100-year flood events, but it’s prohibitively expensive and, frankly, unnecessary to worry about 500- or 1000-year events like Harvey may have been. Those cases are truly acts of God and the best we can do for those is pray for minimal loss of life. We can rebuild a building, but we can’t get the 30-odd victims of Harvey back.

Back to routine: Here at this residence, we’re getting set for one last school year. With the distractions of summer over, it will finally be time for me to get serious about writing once again. While it’s looking more like a wrap by the middle of 2018 rather than the spring, I’m still thinking I have a good start on The Rise and Fall of the TEA Party, and with recent developments there may be an entirely new hook to expound upon as I increase the word count.

So I haven’t forgotten. However, I also want to get a little bit into the 2018 campaign and perhaps get back to doing this blogging more often than a couple times a month. We will see.

But the year of my discontent seems to be closing – not that I miss being politically active, but going forward I’m not going to studiously avoid it, either. (I will miss the WCRC Crab Feast, though, but only because my grandson’s first birthday is being celebrated that day. Family first.) If nothing works its way onto my calendar for that Saturday I might make the Lincoln Day Dinner in October.

So that’s a brief update. All those impatient because I do other stuff besides politics may get their wish as baseball season winds down.

Surviving Irene

This is where I normally park my car. Luckily, I moved my car up by the garage.

Well, we survived Irene. In all honesty, I think it’s blowing harder now at 11:00 in the morning than it did for a good chunk of last night.

By the way, that branch was the largest limb that fell in our yard. That’s important because normally I park my car there! Luckily, I had decided to move it right up by the garage to keep it out of the wind – and away from the row of pine trees.

It seems to me that this hurricane was very unusual insofar as I would expect hurricanes to be. I was expecting conditions to deteriorate as the eye drew closer, but it seems like the worst time of it was yesterday afternoon and early evening, several hours before the center of the storm came by. On the back side, the wind is howling outside at about the same amount of time after the eye of the hurricane passed. Granted, the closest experience I had to a storm before this was Ernesto a few years back. Aside from the duration of the event, Irene’s effects seemed comparable to me.

Yet the sizzle didn’t match the steak. I’ve been glued to the Weather Channel for a couple days trying to see what would happen, but all they seemed to talk about was North Carolina (naturally, since the hurricane was supposed to make landfall there) and New Jersey/New York City. Okay, that’s a major center of population. But they didn’t send anyone to Ocean City and didn’t make much of an effort to pinpoint when Irene would affect us. I got more information from our local news than the channel which is supposed to be “the hurricane experts.”

Hopefully everyone within the reach of my words had a similar story to mine – other than a little water in the basement, the few branches down, and a bit of a flashing failure on my chimney (we had water running down the front of our fireplace, which faces east into the wind) we got through this just fine. My significant other even went to a wedding yesterday afternoon and we never lost our power.

So now I guess I can dump the pot of water we left on the stove, drain the bathtub we filled in case we needed to flush the toilet, and place the dozen or so plastic ice bags we made into the garage freezer. Oh, and eventually move my car back now that I dragged that branch out of the driveway and take the basement furniture off the blocks. So it’s another busy day about these parts.

Plowing the dollars away

Six years ago, I moved here to get away from this crap. Well, it’s apparently followed me because for the fourth time in about fourteen months we are getting hammered by a significant winter storm.

But the difference between living in northwestern Ohio and the Eastern Shore lies in preparation: simply put, this area has a hard time dealing with a clipper-type shot of a couple inches of snow, let alone a blizzard. To be prepared is to spend money on plows, supplies, and equipment that most counties and municipalities don’t seem to possess around here – meanwhile, private industry hasn’t completely taken up the slack because there’s a fairly significant investment in time and equipment required to tap into the market for snow removal. Perhaps a run of relatively snowless winters kept people out of that avocation.

One obvious question is whether additional investment is justified given the fickle nature of weather. It’s true that many experts tell us the next couple decades will be a spell of cold winters – as opposed to the predictions of global warming in vogue perhaps five years ago – but with the local climate a variance of just a few degrees may be the difference between a 10-inch snowstorm, a nasty ice storm, or cold rain. That’s not as common in northern climes where the tendency is for snow from Thanksgiving through St. Patrick’s Day.

My guess, though, is that we’re going to be putting up with a blizzard or two and its inconvenience pretty much every winter for the foreseeable future. It never hurts to be prepared, but I’m thinking that preparation will have to be personal since I doubt the local and state governments will have the resources to keep the roads clear. They were busting their budgets just to get through last winter and, alas, the money’s not there for budget increases.

In this latest case, we were taken a bit by surprise but so far people seem to be taking it in stride. Stay warm, stay home, and read some blogs to get caught up after the holiday weekend.

No business like snow business

I was having a discussion with a small business owner friend this afternoon with the obvious topic of conversation being the white shroud of death overhanging our area. (I realize that, growing up in northwest Ohio, a 2″ snowstorm is much more common to me so I try to account for the local hypersensitive attitude toward winter weather. But I can’t always cut the local natives some slack.)

Anyway, his complaint was that the snow would not just kill his business today but that their likely closing tomorrow will also hurt him. Yet those who actually work for the school district won’t actually be hurting since they are paid whether school is in session or not.

Something about the conversation got us briefly onto the “broken window” theory – an axiom which contends that breaking a window would lead to positive economic activity because the homeowner would have to either purchase the supplies to repair the window (making a shopkeeper more wealthy) or hire someone to fix it (giving the service provider a job, who in turn invests the money in his family.) Obviously a snowstorm puts some people to work who wouldn’t otherwise be needed – private contractors who plow out driveways and parking lots, for example.

Of course, the problem with that theory is that the destruction of the window and repairs needed prevents the homeowner from addressing other needs with his money – instead of the cash going toward a new, more energy-efficient refrigerator or another item he would like to purchase, he’s simply replacing the investment to restore its full value.

In other words, like the ‘benefit’ to local snowplow operators measured against the lost productivity that the unexpected closing of school tomorrow due to the storm will present, the positive of the homeowner’s investment in fixing the window is only – at best – equal to the negative of having to make the repair. It would be like telling the man who just had the tornado blow through and destroy his farm he’s lucky because he now has the opportunity to build a better one; the problem is that everything he had of worth is gone with the storm.

All this reminds me of the specious argument about extending unemployment benefits as a boost to the economy. We are told that these benefits are good because they enable those who aren’t working to spend that money on their necessities and boost their local economy. On the surface this is true, but there’s nothing of value being created by those who are unemployed. Listen, we get angry when we hear about the auto workers who were paid by their employer to sit home during the occasional necessary shutdowns so why shouldn’t we get angry with this argument as well?

While I’ve been in the working field for most of the last 25 years, there have been three occasions where I was laid off long enough to collect unemployment. Still, I would wager that the premiums my employers paid have more than offset the few thousand dollars I’ve collected. And the system was designed as an insurance policy, with premiums and benefits calibrated to limited and infrequent stretches of joblessness. With me, it worked as it was supposed to.

But states had no expectation of keeping people on the unemployment rolls for nearly two years (and counting), so it’s no surprise their systems have all but failed. Now Uncle Sam is the one stepping in to pay, and it’s yet another case of the federal government bullying their way into state-level affairs. Last year Maryland accepted an infusion of federal cash to its unemployment fund in return for making the changes to their rules desired by the federal government.

To be gainfully employed, whatever your profession, generally means you are a net asset to the economy. The problem with the statist’s approach, embodied by their continual call for extending unemployment benefits, is that nothing being “added” to the economy comes from value – either the money is being borrowed or printed. Aside from a few people operating a printing press and the pencil-pushers needed to make sure the unemployed jump through all the hoops necessary to keep collecting checks ad infinitum, there’s nothing of value being produced.

As a society, it appears we are happy to break windows in order to put people to work. Personally, I’d rather allow those who produce to put their money to work as they see fit and not throw it down the rathole.

But then I’m the guy sitting here watching the snow fall – what do I know?