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.

Friday night videos – episode 32

Another week, another edition of FNV for your enjoyment.

The first video may not be as enjoyable as it is tragic. Take a look at the devastation in the Nashville region from a simple rainstorm that wouldn’t move off the area. No hurricane, no tornado – just heavy rain wrought this damage.

On the other hand, we have people like General Motors who aren’t self-reliant and wait for government handouts. Perhaps a presidential candidate in 2012, Rep. Paul Ryan recently decried their ‘crony capitalism.’

We’re 1/3 of the way through President Obama’s term, and Renee Giachino of the Center for Individual Freedom points out 10 lessons of his era.

Best thing is that I disabled autoplay on that one – yay me! I like their videos but didn’t like their autoplay feature, so I fixed it. Self-reliant.

It’s not as confusing as HTML code, but Arizona’s new immigration law does have its share of controversy. Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies did his best to explain the ins and outs on Fox News.

Another bill explained here by Americans for Limited Government is the Dodd financial takeover bill.

Let’s take this full circle, sort of, by going from southern rain to southern rock. Recently I was at Pork in the Park and caught these guys playing some Lynard Skynard you don’t often hear.

And is Smokin’ Gunnz a politically incorrect name or what? It’s a great way to wrap up this edition of FNV.

Just how essential is “non-essential?”

As the large majority of my readers know – I’ll say large majority because readership is fairly Delmarva-centric but others from across our land stumble onto the site as well – this neck of the woods just endured two significant snow events in a week’s time (and may get another half-foot for the Presidents’ Day holiday.) In each case, state and local government shut down as did the gears of Washington, D.C. Only “essential” workers needed to come in while others were told to stay home or placed on the (aptly-named) “liberal leave policy.”

The obvious question to ask, then, is just how these positions can’t be cut in an era where we all need to cut back on our personal spending due to unemployment, lack of raises, or cutbacks in hours. Sure, there will be some government workers added to the unemployment rolls for a time but leaving capital in the private sector will eventually allow these workers to be absorbed back into the labor pool.

Of course, some would ask about the services which these temporarily furloughed workers were performing to make them non-essential. One example could be the paid staff at one of the many attractions run by the federal government and closed during the height of the storm. Tourism wasn’t exactly bustling during this time when everyone was hunkered down.

Perhaps the biggest shock was the news reports that these unexpected furloughs cost taxpayers $350 million in lost productivity for 3 1/2 days off. Some did their work from home, but if you take that figure and assume 200 days’ work per year it seems like an easy $20 billion cut right there without even breathing hard. It was a tough go for us in the mid-Atlantic region but out in flyover country people survived the lack of non-essential federal services pretty well.

Then again, if the definition of lost productivity includes not dreaming up needless regulations and lobbyists losing a chance to buttonhole their bought and paid for members of Congress on their newest rentseeking schemes (which only qualifies as productivity in the bizarro world of Fedzilla,) $100 million a day might not be a bad price to pay considering the federal government now spends over $10 billion per day.

We are approaching a point where the federal government is taking in less than 60% of what it spends (a $1.6 trillion deficit on $3.8 trillion budget.) Just to make things even we would need to cut entire departments or seriously curtail entitlement programs, or both. The Blizzards of 2010 proved that not everything is a vital function of government; however, the weaning of dependency needs to spread far beyond the borders of the District of Columbia.

Often I write about returning to a government based on the Constitution and much smaller than what we’re saddled with today. Those who more or less agree with me banded together into TEA Parties and eventually took that message to the “belly of the beast.” I’m certain that the vast majority of them would be willing to give up some cherished government service or entitlement as their sacrifice to the cause. To be truly independent and free requires losing the chains of dependence and slavery that Washington puts on us, and the elections of 2010 and 2012 could provide the key.

At that point, perhaps the next “storm of the century” won’t be such a big deal because the federal seat of government will command much less importance in life.

Note: while I was crossposting this to Red County, I ran across a great article by Chip Hanlon about those TEA Partiers – it’s well worth reading. Some places will need these protests longer than others will as there are governmental bodies who are getting the message.

A blizzard of budgeting

While the 2010 election is over eight months away, in sitting here watching the snow come down yet again this gives me an insight on writing a relevant post; one about the role of government.

One thing we expect for our tax dollars is snow removal, but this fickle and historic succession of snowstorms will certainly strain budgets in the affected counties and states. I’ve lived in Maryland for six winters now and some of them had less snowfall in toto than we’ve had in the last two weeks. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen 2 feet or more of snow in the backyard, and obviously that makes clearing highways a dicey process, let alone running a plow on the side roads.

Yet my fear is that we overcompensate next year and expect more storms of the century in the budgetary process. Certainly many scientists see us entering a long-term period of cooler weather than we’ve come to expect, but it’s highly unlikely that the winter of 2010-11 will see our area become ground zero for winter storms again. A manner of comparison can be drawn with hurricane seasons – some seasons Florida is hit hard, sometimes it’s the Texas Gulf Coast, and at times the Outer Banks seem to be in the crosshairs. Last year we even had the variation of an eerily quiet hurricane season.

But these storms have also proven that we can’t simply count on government to bail us out.

I have good friends who live in rural Delaware, and last weekend’s storm meant they had to do without power for the better part of two days. Obviously part of their issue was being in such a remote location, but the utility claimed they couldn’t get their trucks onto their road because it wasn’t plowed. As it turned out, the government didn’t plow their road – a local farmer did. (More importantly, the farmer helped the community by bearing the cost himself for the gas and use of his tractor.)

On a larger scale, allocation of a finite amount of resources is a tricky thing. Ask someone who was looking for a snow shovel this week whether they wished they’d purchased one a month ago and the answer would likely be yes. But, based on the experience of previous winters people felt no need to invest in a snow shovel. They do invest in bread, milk, and toilet paper on a usual basis, though, but you’d never know that with the panic buying which has occurred over the last couple weeks.

However, it is easier for private enterprise to find scarce resources than it is for a bureaucracy to do so – that Titanic is much more difficult to turn around once the course is reset. It’s for this reason I’ve often opined that there are a number of services which may work out better if done by the private sector than the public sector, and snow removal is one. No, it’s not foolproof and there is the possibility of corruption in awarding such a contract as opposed to having county or state workers do that job in addition to other tasks, but I think it’s worth exploring due to the obviously cyclical example of weather.

It also goes without saying that next winter may see a slew of entrepreneurs who will see the booming business private snow removal has done over the last month and hope to cash in next year. This could make the price of snow removal via private contractor more attractive – so why not consider the option?

One other thought occurs to me as I listen to the news of several roof collapses affecting poultry farmers.

With the difficulty these businessmen have had in erecting new chicken houses because of EPA regulations, will the damage from this storm hasten the long, slow decline of the poultry industry Delamarva is enduring? The industry is supposedly moving south already, so this storm just may be a fatal blow to some growers.

These chilling thoughts aren’t exactly the type preferred to get through what’s become a historically rough winter, but we as a region need to ponder them since we have little else to do as we’re buried farther in snow today.