AUSTIN (Nexstar) – A sophisticated storm surge barrier decades in the making is receiving a renewed push in the wake of Hurricane Laura, which brought strong winds and storm surge to east Texas early Thursday morning.
“We dodged a bullet,” Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday. Laura made landfall as a Category 4 storm in Cameron, Louisiana, which is less than 40 miles from the border with Texas.
Texas wasn’t so fortunate in 2008 when Hurricane Ike pummeled the coast and caused $38 billion in damage. In the wake of that storm, people began to call for a comprehensive storm surge barrier.
Texas A&M scientists proposed a solution: the “Ike Dike” or “Coastal Spine.” It involves 70 miles of sea walls, gates and barriers along the coast, and requires coordination and study to make sure it doesn’t have a negative effect on the environment or surrounding communities.
Texas Sen. John Cornyn said during a press conference Thursday that the Army Corps of Engineers won’t release its finalized plan until next year, and after that it will need congressional support before it’s put in place.
“There’s a lot of attention to the Ike Dike and that’s a priority,” he said.‘When they say to leave, you should leave’: Hurricane Laura survivors take in the aftermath
Texas Rep. Chip Roy said it’s time to make sure it remains a priority, saying, “Whenever you’re talking about infrastructure, it’s about prioritization and we don’t ever do it.”
“Go back and look at the historic pictures of building the wall there after the disastrous hurricane of the early part of the 20th Century,” Roy said. “There’s no limit to what we can do if we want to do it. It’s a matter of resources and putting our mind to what we need to do.”
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who has weathered five hurricanes since taking office five years ago, echoed that the time to get the Ike Dike funded and built is now.
“You have to have the Coastal Spine, quite frankly, and we need it yesterday,” he said.
Hunting for price gouging during hurricane evacuation
Price gouging complaints related to Hurricane Laura are already rolling into the Texas Office of Attorney General, which confirmed it received 33 complaints by Thursday morning.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has the authority to investigate and prosecute price gouging during a declared disaster, which occurs when a business exorbitantly increases prices to profit on necessities, such as “fuel, food, medicine, lodging, building materials, construction tools, or another necessity,” according to the AG’s office.
Complaints received by Paxton’s office so far include:
- Gas: 12
- Hotels: 9
- Grocery/Convenience: 6
- Home supplies (mostly plywood): 5
- Misc: 1
“My message to those who are actually price gouging is don’t do it because we will investigate you, and you will end up paying the money back, and it will end up costing you as a business more, and it also hurts your reputation,” Paxton said in an interview with KXAN Wednesday. “It is not something you want to do. Just be fair with consumers, and I think your consumer base will appreciate that.”
Paxton said his office will pursue valid complaints of both online and brick-and-mortar retail price gouging and seek restitution for consumers.
“If a consumer feels like they have been price gouged they can either go online to our website, or they can call our hotline and talk to an individual who can walk through with them what actually happened,” Paxton said. “There are basically two ways to do it.”
It is not clear what exactly the 33 complaints regarded. KXAN has asked for more specifics on the types of price gouging complaints and for copies of the originals.What is price gouging? Here’s what the AG’s office says
Gov. Greg Abbott first issued a disaster declaration related to Hurricane Laura on Aug. 23. The storm has since strengthened to a Category 4 storm with wind speeds of 140 mph. It is expected to make landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border early Thursday morning. The National Hurricane Center anticipates an “unsurvivable storm surge” that could travel up to 30 miles inland and catastrophic storm winds near the hurricane’s eye.
In the hours before Laura spun onto the Texas coast, we were out hunting for price gougers along two main evacuation routes leaving Houston. Emergency officials opened two evacuation shelters in North Texas in the cities of Ennis and Mesquite.
KXAN set out to document gas prices along U.S. 290 and Interstate 45.
Prices posted at gas stations in downtown Austin were between $1.89 and $1.99 per gallon for regular unleaded Wednesday evening. Stations along Interstate 35 in Temple, Waco, West and at the Italy exit at mile marker 386 all showed prices between $1.79 and $1.99 a gallon. All of the stations were within the range of the $1.90 average price-per-gallon in Texas posted to the AAA website at the time and did not appear to be exorbitant.
In Ennis, an Exxon station on Highway 287 offered gas for $1.99 a gallon for regular unleaded. From there, we headed south on Interstate 45 toward Houston. KXAN checked dozens of gas stations’ prices along the route. A Chevron station in Huntsville offered the cheapest fuel, at a cash price of $1.73 a gallon.
A Phillips 66 station in Huntsville was selling gas for $2.19 a gallon—the highest of any other gas station we documented along I-45.
The lowest price we found along the Highway 290 evacuation route between Houston and Austin was $1.60 a gallon at the Buc-ee’s in Waller. The highest price we found along Highway 290 was at a Chevron station in Brenham with the price-per-gallon set at $2.15.
Price gouging during Hurricane Harvey
The AG’s office ultimately received over 5,000 complaints of price gouging following Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
KXAN uncovered price gouging at a Best Western Plus hotel in Robstown, near Corpus Christi. That investigation resulted in the hotel losing its license and affiliation with Best Western, and 40 customers received refunds. Best Western apologized for the incident and said it was offended by the Robstown franchise’s conduct.
The AG’s office announced in 2018 it had reached settlements totaling over $167,000 against gas stations that gouged prices, charging more than $3.99 per gallon and up to $8.99, during Hurricane Harvey.
“If a disaster has been declared by the Governor of Texas or the President, and businesses raise the price of their products to exorbitant or excessive rates to take advantage of the disaster declaration, then it is quite likely that price gouging is taking place, and you should file a complaint with our office concerning the incident,” according to the AG.
A spokesperson for Paxton’s office said, “consumers who encounter unfair pricing or business practices are always welcome to file a complaint with our office either online or over the phone. Complaints can be filed online here: http://txoag.force.com/CPDOnlineForm, or through email at email@example.com, and our consumer protection hotline is 800-621-0508.”
Texans at the Republican National Convention
The Republican National Convention took a significantly different approach than the convention held by Democrats the week before. President Trump spoke before an in-person audience, as did many of the other keynote speakers. The formal roll call was also done in person.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick led the Texas delegation to the convention. Each state and territory sent six people to Charlotte, North Carolina to re-nominate the President.
At the roll call, Patrick declared all of the state’s 155 votes for President Trump. Patrick called Trump “the only hope that every American in this country has for true liberty, and true freedom, and true opportunity,”
Congressman Dan Crenshaw addressed the convention Wednesday night, as one of the featured speakers at the convention. His speech was pre-recorded on the deck of the battleship Texas.
Crenshaw, a former Navy SEAL, told the story of being wounded in Afghanistan, and the story of a man who helped save his life who later died in combat.
“We need to remind ourselves what heroism really is,” Crenshaw said. “Heroism is self-sacrifice. It’s not moralizing and lecturing over others when they disagree. Heroism is grace, not perpetual outrage. Heroism is rebuilding our communities, not destroying them. Heroism is renewing faith in the symbols than unite us, not tearing them down.”
Crenshaw is serving his first term in Congress. Democrats are aiming to flip the Houston-area seat in November. Sima Ladjevardian is running against Crenshaw. If she wins, she would become the first woman to represent District 2, and the first Iranian-American woman in Congress.
Crisis looming for some colleges
Manthurs Oseni has been dreaming about becoming a Longhorn for years. He moved to Austin with his family after completing high school in his home country of Nigeria.
After knocking out the first two years of basic courses at Austin Community College, Oseni applied to the University of Texas at Austin in February, before the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
Oseni was accepted to UT in May, while the university was still formulating a plan for what the unconventional fall semester may look like.
“With all of this happening now, it really threw me off,” said Oseni. “I was like, ‘Do I still transfer?’ I just decided to go with it, like it’s a challenge anyway.”
Instead of living on campus, Oseni decided to stay at home and take all virtual classes for the first semester. He will be one of thousands of Central Texas college students earning their degrees online.
It is still a mystery how fall enrollment at UT Austin will compare to last year, when more than 51,000 were enrolled. The university told KXAN it will not disclose the numbers until day 12 of classes, but leaders say half of students are opting for a fully online schedule.
On-campus housing will be far from capacity. Out of 7,300 open spots, a total of 4,500 students have committed to living on campus. Students who choose to learn from home both semesters, rent-free are saving more than $12,000 on room and board, which is money the university is not getting.
Though Central Texas’ universities appear strong enough to handle the pandemic’s negative impacts, there is a crisis looming for some U.S. colleges.
NBC News and The Hechinger Report have been studying the financial strength of colleges and universities across the country. They created an online tool where you can check the financial fitness of institutions around the country. More than 500 showed warning signs of financial stress in at least two of the areas analyzed, including a pattern of declining enrollment.
Over the summer, UT Austin officials said they were considering layoffs due to declines in future revenues and uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. However, in a recent virtual press conference, Interim President Jay Hartzell only said there have been some furloughs in departments, such as performing arts, that have not been able to carry out normal revenue-generating operations during the pandemic.
St. Edward’s University in South Austin was the first university in Central Texas to make drastic budget cuts and layoff nearly 100 employees over the summer. The university cited a significant revenue decline and lower projected fall enrollment.
In a recent St. Edward’s student survey, which does not include incoming freshmen, 74% of students said they plan to return to campus, 24% have decided to be all virtual off-campus and just 2% said they were planning to postpone their education altogether.
“I’m very encouraged by it,” said Tracy Manier, the vice president for enrollment management at St. Edward’s.
Manier oversees admissions and says the university has continued to think outside the box on recruiting efforts by offering virtual campus tours, one-on-one orientation Zoom calls with new students and posting brand new podcasts from professors on its website explaining what to expect in the middle of the unexpected.
“We want [students] to continue to thrive during the pandemic,” said Manier. “It’s not enough for us to opt out of life for six months, eight months, a year — however long this will last.”
Some education experts have predicted community colleges could come out of the pandemic in better shape than traditional four-year universities, and become a more popular choice this fall during the global pandemic and economic slowdown because it provides two things: the option to stay home and the chance to save money. Recruiting efforts haven’t slowed down for ACC, which has just moved to virtual formats and targeted television commercials.
“I’m not paying any rent costs or anything like that,” said Austin Community College student Loraine Hellums. “I’m not paying $2,000 or $3,000 a class, I’m paying $250, which is way more affordable.”
Hellums plans to finish her associate’s degree at ACC this school year and pay about $2,500 instead of more $10,000 at a four-year state school.
ACC isn’t sharing fall enrollment numbers just yet, but according to information the college released they fared well over the last three months during the pandemic: summer enrollment surpassed last summer.
“I think what happened was families just had time to reflect at home and decide, ‘How do I, what do we do with this time that we have?’” said David Zuniga, ACC’s director of student recruitment services.
Zuniga said students typically make their fall school decision in July, but this year he noticed many students pushing it off until August to wait and see how four-year universities were going to handle the semester.
Most local colleges and universities tell KXAN they will release enrollment numbers after the first few weeks of class. Right now, you can scroll over local colleges and universities on a map we created to see the fall 2020 outlook information we’ve gathered for each one.
Concerns rise over voting rights of older Texans
Since the spring, Cissy Sanders has sent dozens of emails to lawmakers and state health officials calling for more protections against the coronavirus for nursing home residents like her mom.
Her latest email was addressed to the Texas Secretary of State.
“What is your Office communicating to the nursing homes to ensure that nursing home residents will have sufficient time to request their ballots, complete them and have enough time for them to go through the USPS and arrive on time?” she asked in the message. “Nursing home residents, including my mom, have been through so much hardship this year—ground zero for the virus, high infection and death rates, isolation and lock down. I want to ensure that nursing home residents can easily and safely vote.”
Her questions come as Central Texas election officials are preparing for unprecedented levels of mail-in voting due to the pandemic.
As of August 13, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said she already received 31,000 mail-in ballot applications for the November election. She expects more than 100,000 mail-in ballots to be cast, a record for any election.
With certain visitor restrictions still in place at Texas nursing homes and assisted living facilities, mail-in voting will be the primary option for residents. That means the responsibility of distributing and collecting ballots falls on nursing facility staff, but DeBeauvoir noted that was already the case.
“They are very accustomed to handling it,” she said. “They automatically get a ballot by mail, and we do make contact with the administrator for the nursing home to see if that person needs any extra mail or any extra training.”
However, this year the responsibility falls on a workforce already facing staffing shortages and overwhelmed by the effects of the pandemic.
“I haven’t heard any complaints, so I think they will handle it just fine,” DeBeauvoir said, of facilities administering voting.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump indicated he will block additional funding for the United States Postal Service, which is experiencing widespread delays.
Sanders is worried that without special attention paid to nursing home residents during this year’s elections, their ballots might not be counted in time.
“I just feel like nursing home residents are always kind of skipped over, ignored, forgotten,” she said. “I think more than ever before nursing home residents need this vote—need to be able to vote easily and safely—because their voices need to be heard.”
DeBeauvoir said anyone requesting a mail-in ballot should be prepared to vote and return it immediately, no matter they are voting from.
“Don’t hold onto it for any length of time because you may run out of time,” she urged voters.
She expects more retirement home and elderly, independent living residents to vote by mail this year, as well, after state senators passed a bill banning mobile polling locations last year.
“We have 120,000 people here in Travis County who are over 65. Some of them have never participated in by-mail voting because they like going to the polls. This time they are going to change their approach,” she said. “We are going to do everything we can to try to assist them.”
Still, she urged able voters to safely do so in-person.
“We learned a lot of lessons from the July elections on how to keep our voters safe and not touch any of the equipment ever as long as they are in the polling place,” she said.
DeBeauvoir noted she is presenting even more ideas for the November General Election at this week’s County Commissioner meeting. According to the agenda, the Clerk’s office has requested to purchase more election equipment in order to facilitate voting in larger polling places with more social distancing.