The principals of Huffman ISD were one group of many honored for their work during Harvey. From left: Ray Burt, Huffman board vice president; Melissa Hutchinson, Ben Bowen Early Childhood Center; Amy Turner, Copeland Elementary School; Adam Skinner, Huffman Middle School; Brandon Perry, Hargrave High School; and Benny Soileau, superintendent. Photo by Bruce Olson

Board keeps tax rates unchanged; authorizes employee wages during storm closings

On Sept. 25, the Huffman ISD Board held its first monthly meeting after two previous hurricane emergency meetings. The hurricane and flooding may be over, but the hard work to recover will go on, including a lot of help and financial assistance from FEMA and others. However, with its schools now up and running, a sense of normalcy seemed to be returning to the district even as the impact of the storm affected every item on the meeting agenda.

Superintendent Benny Soileau recognized four departments that are traditionally honored in October: the transportation department with National School Bus Safety Week, October 16-20; the child nutrition department with National School Lunch Week, October 9-13; the human resources department: October is Human Resources Awareness Month; and the district’s principals with National Principals Month.

Soileau pointed out that this year’s recognition was more important than usual as he called forward the school principals, the last group of the evening to be honored.

“All of these people that I have already recognized, along with the principals, really got us through this trial and tribulation that we have had recently with the hurricane. The leadership we have seen among all of the people has just been absolutely incredible. To see all of our departments within our district come together to help our community members, to help our kids who are in need, the donating, the time, the effort … it is just very impressive,” said Soileau.

As Soileau recognized each department, he noted what they had all done, including operating and maintaining the school buses on an emergency basis in the midst of the storm and setting up and running the evacuation shelter the district operated for 90 hours, which included meals prepared by the nutrition staff in the school cafeterias. He highlighted the work the human resources staff did to insure the well-being of families and students in need and the management and distribution of a mountain of donations from the general public.

As the presentation ended, Board Vice-President Ray Burt thanked all of the departments and staff for their service and outstanding performance.

Following the recognitions, the board unanimously voted to authorize two major, sensitive financial issues.

Huffman ISD property tax rates will remain unchanged for the budget fiscal year of 2017-2018. The current rate is$1.40 per $100 valuation.

Wage payments will be paid to all employees, contractual and non-contractual, salaried and non-salaried, who are instructed not to report to work during an emergency closing, unless the workdays are scheduled to be made up at a later date.

Chief Financial Officer Tim Brittain explained that the current tax rate is adequate to cover revenue needs expected in the coming year in spite of the storm. His department will closely monitor the impact of the hurricane going forward as the community returns to normal.

Regarding the decision to continue wage payments for outages during the storm, Trustee Jerry Jones shared his feelings about the board’s unanimous decision.

“I could not be more proud of this administration and our district for doing this. I don’t always agree with the administration, but I just think this is great. I appreciate it. It is the right thing to do,” said Jones.

The next regularly scheduled board of trustees meeting will be Monday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. in the board room of the Huffman ISD Administration Building, 24302 FM 2100.

 

 

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Instructional Support Center sustains major Harvey damage

During Harvey, two Humble ISD buildings sustained major damage, Kingwood High School and the Instructional Support Center (ISC) on W. Lake Houston Pkwy. at Magnolia Cove. The ISC is in close proximity to the bridge that spans the San Jacinto River and connects Kingwood and Atascocita.

The district made an early estimate of $3 million total damage to all Humble ISD structures, but that has since grown to more than $30 million for the high school and $10 million for the ISC. While a few other buildings incurred minor damage, the high schol and the ISC were the hardest hit.

The total extent and cost of the support center’s damage is yet to be determined. Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Fagen placed a priority on the KHS facility since the school closure directly impacts students. The district’s focus has been on combining KHS and Summer Creek High School on one campus.

Over the last two weeks, district officials turned their attention to the ISC. A restoration company has been remediating the building to get it into a condition to be assessed by adjustors. The assessment was scheduled to begin Sept. 30.

Damage was so extensive that the building is currently uninhabitable. Approximately 150 employees from several departments have offices there: arts education, career and technical education, counseling and behavioral services, curriculum and instruction, professional learning, special education, technology services, records management, and state and federal program management. Most employees spend the majority of their time on campuses, but report to the ISC at least once per week. Displaced employees are working from multiple campuses and facilities. No date has been determined regarding when the building will once again be operational.

The ISC also housed eight meeting rooms that the district uses for professional development as well as for community meetings. The district says these spaces will be difficult to replace. Other spaces like it are just not available elsewhere in the district, and the rooms had extensive technology in them as well.

It is Humble ISD’s expectation that the cost of recovery will be covered by FEMA, district insurance and funds from the state of Texas.

 

 

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Kingwood resident Jeff Early has retained Houston attorney Richard Mithoff to investigate the cause of action relating to severe flooding damage of homes in the Lake Houston community. Mithoff and other attorneys held a meeting Thursday, Sept. 21, that was open to anyone affected by the flood. The attorneys said they were amazed at the attendance of over 100 residents who filled the pews at First Presbyterian Church where the meeting was held.

A single question was the focus of the meeting: Did the federal government intentionally flood homes to save other homes or property?

“Was there damage to the few to save the many?” asked Mithoff.

It is a question that has been on the minds of many Kingwood homeowners and business owners since the flooding from Harvey. The Sept. 21 meeting was one of several that have been held to discuss the issue of inverse condemnation, defined as the government taking of private land. The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits the taking of land by the federal government without warning, consent or compensation.

Many residents claim the San Jacinto River Authority (SJRA) took their land as a result of water release from Lake Conroe, Lake Houston and the San Jacinto River during and immediately after Harvey.
The first class-action lawsuit or “takings case” was filed Friday, Sept. 6 by Houston-based Potts Law Firm. The suit seeks to represent all individuals and businesses recently affected by the SJRA's handling of "controlled release" of Lake Conroe water.

Mithoff stated that his firm, Mithoff Law, has taken the Early case on contingency, explaining that they are still in the research phase of collecting evidence to see if there is a valid case. “We’re trying to see if we can make inverse condemnation work here.”

The attorneys explained that inverse condemnation suits had already been filed in other areas of Houston affected by the intentional flooding to relieve the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. The legal team explained the differences between the more clear-cut Addicks/Barker case and the harder-to-prove SJRA Kingwood case.

First, the Addicks/Barker release was managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, a federal government entity. SJRA, by contrast, is not a federal entity, and the lawyers explained that it is much more difficult to show inverse condemnation at the city or county level. Secondly, SJRA is not substantially capitalized; they float bonds to pay for capital improvements, but otherwise do not have deep coffers.

Mithoff speculated that legislative action might be necessary to provide SJRA with sufficient funds to compensate residents. Third, the Army Corps of Engineers had a well-planned, televised effort notifying homeowners that their homes would be flooded when the reservoirs were intentionally released.

The 1994 flood in Kingwood and areas along the San Jacinto was cited. That “takings case” against SJRA was dismissed due to lack of evidence, and that ruling was upheld by an appellate court. The Supreme Court case in which the Arkansas Fish and Game Department won an inverse condemnation suit against the Army Corps of Engineers was cited as well. Lawyers stated that they likely have a better case after the 1994 flood because SJRA now knew what could happen again. In particular, residents whose homes flooded in 1994 might have a much stronger case this time around because precedent was set.

One resident cited the more recent example of flooding in Kingwood Greens on Memorial Day weekend in 2016. “You don’t have to go all the way back to 1994 to see that this area had a flooding problem. Our subdivision was inaccessible for three days. We could only get in by air boat.”

Many residents asked what steps SJRA had taken since 1994 and 2016 to remedy the situation. The lawyers said that they are in the research phase and will be looking at all analysis and engineering studies done since 1994.

Attorney and Kingwood resident Clay Crawford has handled “takings cases” with the City of Houston before, and says that the government does not like to take tax dollars to compensate individuals. “We have to carve out a new way to win this case,” Crawford said.

Many residents asked the lawyers how negligence like dam control and lack of warnings to residents factored in. One resident mentioned the rumor that an emergency spillway was never opened at Conroe, something that both State Representative Dan Huberty and Houston City Councilman Dave Martin have mentioned. The lawyers stated that negligence does not factor into a “takings case;” they are two separate issues.

Huberty previously said that he had spoken with Texas governor Greg Abbott and urged an investigation. “There’s no question in my mind that there is malfeasance here,” Huberty said. Water release from the SJRA floodgates rushed in at an amazingly powerful 80,000 cubic feet per second, sweeping many homes off their foundations.

Martin echoed Huberty’s call for an investigation. Congressman Ted Poe held a town hall phone meeting on Sept. 20 and said that many discussions across all levels of government had taken place. Poe said he found SJRA’s actions totally unsatisfactory and that he blames them directly for the Kingwood, Atascocita and Humble flooding. Poe called for forcing public disclosure of all SJRA operating plans and release notices. Poe also mentioned that all plans are under discussion, including building additional reservoirs to hold more rain, raising dam heights and dredging the river and lakes.

The rainfall and dam releases are not the only culprits, according to Kingwood residents. Another serious point of contention is the sediment buildup in the river and lake. The last sedimentation survey by the Texas Water Development Board and the Army Corp of Engineers, done in 2011, showed that Lake Houston already lost 25 percent of its capacity. Most of the sediment has remained in the East and West Forks of the San Jacinto above the 1960 bridge where the average water depth was less than 5 feet in 2011. The report also shows that the rate of sedimentation has doubled since sand mine operations began expanding.

Mithoff said he recommends handling the cases as individual cases rather than as a class-action suit, but communicated to residents that there is an advantage in one firm handling all the individual cases, for economy of scale. Mithoff is one of the nation's most successful trial attorneys, famous for high-profile cases like a $2.3 billion settlement with the tobacco industry on behalf of several Texas counties, and for obtaining the first verdict against Dow Corning for silicone breast implants that harmed the health of thousands of women. Houston Business Journal called him “one of the state’s most prominent legal renegades.”

 

 

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More than 500 people crowded into the Kingwood Community Center for a post-Harvey meeting. Photo courtesy of Jill Curran

Turner, Martin, Peña answer questions for hours

It was standing room only at the District E Harvey Recovery Information Session, organized by Houston City Council Member Dave Martin last week.

Martin announced the session earlier in the week, emphasizing that the meeting was an opportunity for flooded residents to meet with various assistance agencies. But Sylvester Turner, mayor of Houston, and Samuel Pena, fire chief of Houston, were at the top of the agenda for the more than 500 people who came to get relief form the ravages of Hurricane Harvey on the community. More than 3,000 homes in Kingwood were damaged or destroyed and many homeowners did not have flood insurance. 

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner addressed the crowd as Dave Martin, right, listened.

There were informational tables available for those that arrived early to the meeting to assist with any questions. Those participating included the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the Solid Waste Department, Public Works and Engineering Department (Code Enforcement/Floodplain Management Team), the Housing and Community Development Department, the Department  of Neighborhoods, the Houston Police Department, the Houston Health Department, and the Harris County Appraisal District. Martin also invited the Harris County Flood Control District but they declined to participate.

The mayor announced that the City of Houston was expediting the permitting process so that residents can get their rebuilding plans approved faster.

“The center is open now,” Martin said, adding that it is located next to the Houston Police Department substation on Rustic Woods.

“Dave Martin spoke, the mayor spoke and then there were questions … lots of questions.

“It was packed and I noticed there were so many older people and many I recognized that have lived in Kingwood for many, many years.

“The most important thing to me was the mayor said that building permits were going to be expedited and they opened a permit office in Kingwood ... I am so ready to get our home back together,” said Jill Curran, a local Realtor whose home was flooded.

Martin stayed until well after 11 p.m., talking to residents.

For more information, contact Martin's office at 832-393-3008  or via email at  This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

 

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The enormous cleanup at Mercer begins and will require enormous strength and patience to rebuild.

Parks suffer millions in damages

Jesse H. Jones Park has a rich history of providing people of all ages with hiking and biking trails, a nature center with many live animals, and a walk-through, early-1800s Texas at the Redbud Hill Homestead and Akokisa Indian Village. Unfortunately, the park, and in particular the Nature Center, was significantly affected by the recent Hurricane Harvey floods.

For many years, the Mercer Botanic Gardens have been the beautiful backdrop chosen by professional and amateur photographers alike for wedding, engagement, family and quinceañera photos. The exotic flora and fauna of the park has created a special spot to many to take a walk, a rest or just relax and enjoy the extensive collection of rare and endangered plants. Like Jones Park, floodwaters took a huge toll on the gardens.

Harris County Pct. 4 Parks Director Dennis Johnston said, “Jesse H. Jones Park and Nature Center and Mercer Botanic Gardens both received the most damage in our parks department by a long shot. The Nature Center at Jones had about 7 feet of water in it and Mercer had about 6-and-a-half feet of water in the Visitor Center. These two buildings are the heart of those parks respectively.”

The cabin, smokehouse, root cellar and workshops in the Pioneer Homestead area were the only buildings that did not take on water at Jones Park. At Mercer Gardens, only the staff building, which is 10 feet above the ground, was spared.

Jones Park reopened Saturday, Sept. 16 with the playground and picnic area and some walking trails open. Other trails will open later as they are cleared. The homestead was not affected by the flood and it will be open for Second Saturday Settlers Saturday, Oct. 14 and Pioneer Day on Saturday, Nov. 11. The Nature Center will be closed for an undetermined number of months and all of the September programs are canceled until further notice.

Mercer fared much worse. Johnston said that it will be months before Mercer is back open for business in any capacity. Mercer Director Darrin Duling said, “The park was hit hard ... The gardens are devastated, and some areas will not be recoverable to their former identity ... We are beaten but not broken, and determined to rebuild stronger and more beautiful than ever.”

 

 

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