When city workers broke ground near English Bayou, they hoped to install a new drainage component that could potentially delay the effects of sea level rise.
Instead, they discovered a leak in a nearby water line that had been pouring an average of 3 million gallons of water, worth thousands of dollars, into the city’s storm sewer system each day for years, Assistant City Manager Brandon Cook said.
“It was more than a leak, it seems like,” Cook said. “It was like a wide-open line.”
The city might never have found the leak if it hadn’t been trying to set up the new back-flow prevention devices, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
Those devices are meant to stop water from backing up into the drainage system’s pipes at times, for example, when tides are running high. That’s especially a problem in Galveston during hard rains because it keeps the system from draining fast enough to prevent street flooding.
But to install a valve, the city needed to ensure the drainage system was empty of water, Maxwell said. A city crew had been pumping 3,000 gallons of water a minute out of the system with no end in sight, he said.
“We could never get it dry,” Maxwell said. “We couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.”
Finally on the weekend of Nov. 18, workers found the leaking water line and capped it to stop the flow, Maxwell said.
“If we hadn’t gone through this exercise in the back-flow prevention, we probably wouldn’t have found the leak,” Maxwell said.
The city has had to buy about 3 million gallons less water each day since it capped the water line, Cook said.
The city purchased an average of 13.6 million gallons of water a day from Nov. 18 to Nov. 29, 2016, Cook said. The city purchased an average of 10.5 million of gallons of water a day in that same time period this year, he said.
If that 3 million gallons a day reduction holds, the city will save $600,000 a year, Cook said.
After the line was capped, five other breaches in the water line occurred and led to several sinkholes forming around the island, Maxwell said. There’s no way to be sure that capping the leaking water line led to the breaches, but it’s a likely scenario given the timing of the breaks, Maxwell said.
The whole situation was a complete surprise, given the city didn’t even know the water line existed before officials found the leak, Maxwell said. The 10-inch line was supposedly abandoned by the city in the 1950s or 1960s and doesn’t appear on any recent city maps, he said.
Maxwell said he had watched water consumption “like a hawk” since he began working for the city in 2011 and hadn’t seen any significant changes. That leads him to believe the leak has been occurring for at least seven years, Maxwell said.
“At least in my tenure here, that leak has probably been occurring,” Maxwell said. “This is a big one.”
Fixing the leak allows the city to try the back-flow prevention devices again, Maxwell said. The city had been testing them at no cost in a pilot program with a Swedish company called Wapro AB, so the only extra money the city had to pay capping the leak was in labor, Maxwell said.
The city will keep trying to make the devices work, Maxwell said.
Galveston County charitable organizations need more toys than usual this Christmas to help families still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.
“There is a great need,” said Chris Delesandri, executive director of United Way Galveston County Mainland. “The devastation is not only for the kids. All the agencies are scraping together for Christmas.”
Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport, about 200 miles south of Galveston County, but in the 72 or so hours that followed, it dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of the area, swelling creeks and bayous and flooding about 20,000 houses in the county.
Many families lost belongings either during the flood or during the mucking.
“Where do they keep the toys at home?” Salvation Army Capt. Jennifer Jones said. “On the floor.”
The Salvation Army of Galveston County has almost three times as many requests this year for its annual Angel Tree program that provides toys and clothes to children as Christmas presents. The organization had 1,026 requests in 2016; this year it had more than 3,000 requests, Jones said.
More than 820 children in the Angel Tree program were still waiting for someone to choose their card and agree to buy them an outfit, a special toy the child requested and a book for Christmas. The deadline to donate gifts for an Angel Tree child is Monday, but the agency is looking for whatever donations it can get.
“We are worried about a toy shortage this year,” Jones said.
“When we started disaster relief, we included applications for Angel Tree,” Director of Development Holly McDonald said. “We have a lot of people in need.”
Most of the requests came from Dickinson, but residents in other parts of the county also applied for the holiday help, including some in Friendswood, McDonald said.
“We knew recovery was going to be long,” Jones said. “It’s a horrible stress for families at Christmas.”
Interfaith Caring Ministries in League City also has seen a surge in requests for help, grants manager David Watkins said.
“The last couple of months, we’ve been the busiest I’ve ever seen the agency,” Watkins said. “And it hasn’t slowed down.”
Many people going to the agency need help paying utility bills and are getting groceries from the organization’s food bank, he said. They also sign up for a toy giveaway that the agency is having Dec. 12. The agency is looking for toy donations now through Dec. 8, Watkins said.
People whose homes were perfectly fine and dry after Harvey are now out of work because they lost a job to the historic natural disaster or ran a small business that Harvey obliterated.
“They were making ends meet and had savings,” Watkins said. “All of a sudden, they lost a job or a business. They lived off savings for a couple of months.”
In October, the agency helped 60 households in northern Galveston County and 64 in Harris County.
“That’s the busiest month we’ve had in at least five years,” Watkins said.
Jones was at The Salvation Army emergency shelter in La Marque as the first evacuees escaped Harvey’s flood in late August.
“They were bringing people in dump trucks to the shelter,” she said.
A soaking wet family with four children wearing pajamas arrived at the shelter with no shoes because they swam out of their home, Jones said.
“The kids, all they wanted was to have something to hold on to,” she said. Jones only had crayons and coloring books, so that’s she gave them and that’s what they hugged.
A new teddy bear would mean the world to the youngest victims of Harvey, Jones said.
Besides donations and Angel Tree adoptions, the Salvation Army needs help sorting toys and goodies in preparation for the Dec. 16 distribution day.
“I desperately need volunteers,” she said.
Jones also would like some musical groups to play for families during the distribution day, she said.
A lot of Harvey victims are refusing help, Delesandri said.
“They’ve never asked for help in their lives,” he said. “That’s one of the concerns. A lot of people who need help won’t ask for help. I don’t know how you put a number on that.”
The number of flu cases reported in Galveston County is up this year and at a rate that has county health officials urging people to get their seasonal shots.
Since September, 268 lab-confirmed cases of the flu have been reported to the health district. Just 32 cases of the flu were reported to the district in the same time period last year.
The flu season typically begins in October, but health district officials said they started to receive reports of flu cases in September this year.
Health care providers are not required to report flu cases to the health district. The district’s numbers come from hospitals such as those at the University of Texas Medical Branch and its own clinics. The number of cases in the county is likely higher than has been confirmed by the district.
Still, the number of flu cases already reported this year is drawing some concern, and the county’s top health official said he was worried the increase is a sign that people are ignoring warnings to get vaccinated.
“We’re becoming concerned people are not taking the flu threat as seriously as they should,” said. Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County Local Health Authority.
There is no way to predict how severe a flu season will be, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Flu viruses are constantly changing, and new strains of the virus can appear every year.
The CDC reported there was widespread flu activity in Louisiana and Oklahoma in its most recent update of virus activity in the United States. Nationally, flu activity is increasing.
The best way to avoid, and help prevent, the spread of the flu, is to get vaccinated, Keiser said. Newborns younger than 6 months, people age 65 and older, pregnant women and people with chronic health conditions all are at higher risk of serious health complications or death if they contract the flu.
Flu shots are available in many places, including local pharmacies. The health district also operates its own immunization clinic.
“No matter if you get it at one of our clinics, your private physician or a pharmacy, you just need to make sure you actually go and do it,” Keiser said.
As a deadline looms, enrollment for health care coverage through the Affordable Care Act is up despite a shortened enrollment period and political uncertainty.
The American Civil Liberties Union in a recent letter misrepresented how judges responded to concerns about the county’s legal system, a court at law judge said this week.
County Court at Law No. 3 Judge Jack Ewing disputed some assertions the ACLU made about how accused people are handled in the county legal system and said the civil rights group mischaracterized the response among judges.
A staff attorney for the ACLU had in a Nov. 21 letter to the county called for a more urgent response to addressing concerns about the legal system, most notably the pretrial release system.
In that letter, the attorney had noted judges had been uncooperative in addressing those problems during meetings between the attorney and judges. The ACLU has been communicating with the county for nearly a year about problems identified in the county legal system by various reports.
Ewing took issue with those comments about judges.
“The truth is the judges have been more than accommodating to the ACLU,” Ewing told The Daily News.
Ewing could not attend an initial meeting with the ACLU because he had a schedule conflict, he said. But judges invited the attorney again to a meeting that more judges attended, he said.
“For several hours, the judges discussed along with the ACLU attorney not only the proposals being made by the ACLU, but the changes which had already been made over the past months in response to the ACLU’s concerns,” Ewing said.
In an earlier August letter, Trisha Trigilio, staff attorney for the ACLU, had spelled out some of the reforms with dates for completion, including eliminating pretrial detention for misdemeanor and state jail felony charges by Oct. 2.
In the letter, Trigilio said county officials should collaborate on a detailed plan to provide counsel at magistration and update the ACLU on that plan by Oct. 2, she said.
But those conditions have not yet been met, Trigilio said in a Nov. 21 letter to the county.
“Of course, we are sensitive to delays caused by Hurricane Harvey in late August,” Trigilio said in the Nov. 21 letter. “However, it is critical that we maintain a sense of urgency.”
In a November letter, Trigilio restated the call for people accused of state jail felonies or misdemeanors be released on more affordable bonds.
Trigilio could not be reached by phone Thursday.
Other county court of law judges, John Grady and Barbara Roberts, did not return a phone call Thursday.
Ewing said the judges had been working toward the proposals, although he found some to be unreasonable.
“As the administrative judge for the county courts, I can assure you that every reasonable concern and demand made by the ACLU either has been or is being addressed,” Ewing said.
“Unfortunately, the ACLU has chosen to rely on flawed data in making the overall assessment that somehow the constitutional rights of accused persons are being violated.”
He disputed some of the statements by the ACLU, such as that magistration and appointing of a public attorney for indigent accused persons weren’t happening in a timely matter.
Indigent accused persons who request counsel are appointed legal counsel within 24 hours and have an opportunity to meet with their attorney within a day or two, he said. The ACLU, based on reviews of the county’s legal system, has said some accused persons are held for days before meeting a court-appointed attorney.
Ewing, however, added that some changes had been made just within the past month, including those for indigent counsel and other changes allowing people to pay certain fees over time instead of before being released from jail.
Each county court has a misdemeanor docket of more than 1,000 cases and each court is being assigned about 250 new cases each month, he said.
“We strive hard to make sure that each of these cases are handled as fairly and as expeditiously as possible,” Ewing said.
Other changes, such as recommendations about how to deal with accused persons with mental health issues, could not be addressed immediately, Ewing said.
“We have only a limited number of experts, so those are some issues that really are out of the judges’ hands,” Ewing said.
And one of the primary concerns of the ACLU was one he found unreasonable, he said. The ACLU has requested the county release persons accused of state jail felonies or misdemeanors on a cheaper personal bond, according to documents provided by the county.
“I don’t believe it’s reasonable to say let everyone out on a personal bond that has a state jail felony or below,” Ewing said. “That’s kind of the glitch in our working with them. That’s the biggest concern.”
The ACLU has argued it is unconstitutional to hold people who have been accused but not been convicted of a misdemeanor or state jail felony charge on bonds they cannot afford.
Downtown Galveston will take a trip back in time today for Dickens on The Strand, an annual Victorian-themed holiday festival held through the weekend.
Weather during the festival, one of Galveston’s most profitable tourist events, likely will be sunnier than last year. Heavy rain in 2016 caused the Galveston Historical Foundation, which stages the festival, to make the event free for two days of the weekend and to also hold a second weekend.
With sunny skies projected for today and Saturday and the slight possibility of scattered thunderstorms Sunday, the weekend looks to be off to a great start, Galveston Historical Foundation spokesman Will Wright said.
The event starts 5 p.m. today with a free kickoff at 22nd and Strand streets. The ticketed events will take place all day Saturday and most of Sunday, according to the foundation.
Unredeemed tickets from 2016 will be honored this year, Wright said. Although vendors were not given refunds during last year’s event, they were able to come back for free the second weekend and get 50 percent off registration for this year’s event, Wright said.
Dickens on The Strand is the historical foundation’s largest fundraiser, meaning the rainy weekend last year affected the organization, although not to an overwhelming extent, Wright said.
“The loss from Dickens did not net a full loss for the organization,” Wright said. “We were able to make up for it. It’s still a tough year when Dickens takes a hit.”
The festival features parades, entertainment on six stages and special events, and many people dress in Victorian garb for the occasion.
Dickens on The Strand is the island’s third highest earning event for hotel revenue, said Mary Beth Bassett, spokeswoman of the Galveston Park Board of Trustees. Lone Star Rally, a motorcycle rally held in early November, and Mardi Gras, held in February, are first and second, Bassett said.
In 2016, hotel revenues during the weekend of Dickens on The Strand were almost $900,000, and revenues were more than $1 million in 2015 for the weekend, Bassett said. Those numbers are from Smith Travel Research, which receives hotel revenue information from about 90 percent of hotels on the island, Bassett said. Bed and breakfasts and short-term rental properties don’t report, she said.
“Dickens on The Strand is an important holiday tradition for our visitors and residents,” Bassett said. “And it comes at a great time of the year, during the off-peak season, to serve as an economic boost to our downtown merchants.”
Online ticket sales are already up from 2015, Wright said. About 35,000 people will attend Dickens on The Strand in a strong year, Wright said.