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Former First Lady Laura Bush entertains, inspires at Women's Conference in Galveston

Texas’ own former first lady, Laura Bush, entertained and inspired attendees of the 12th annual Galveston Women’s Conference on Thursday, cracking jokes about life with her husband George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, and emphasizing the importance of reading and education in a democracy.

On returning to Texas after eight years in the White House, Bush said she and the former president are living what she calls the afterlife in a state George W. Bush calls the Promised Land.

Returning frequently to the cause she championed as first lady, literacy, Bush said she was delighted upon arriving at the Moody Gardens Convention Center to see the Galveston Independent School District’s book bus and to be there in support of the district’s Educational Foundation and Galveston’s SMART Family Literacy program.

Regarding her family, Bush spoke about the deaths over the past year of both her mother-in-law and father-in-law, former President George H.W. and first lady Barbara Bush, saying the elder Bushes taught her and her husband how to age gracefully.

From her mother-in-law, Bush said she learned that all we have is now and to walk on the beach every time you have a chance, sharing a story of Barbara Bush’s determination to continue enjoying life in her last years.

Laura Bush framed her speech with an incident she experienced as a teacher in Houston, rewarding her class one day with a trip to Astroworld, the theme park formerly across from the Astrodome.

One little boy from her class didn’t get to join the others and left her with the haunting image of him standing alone in the front door of his rundown house, denied opportunity. That image has remained with her throughout her adult life, always reminding her of the importance for all children to have the opportunity to learn and be safe and happy.

Bush has turned her attention since returning to Texas to the work of the Bush Institute, housed in the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum complex in Dallas. In particular, she talked about her women’s initiative, WE Lead, a program designed to equip women from the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan to become effective leaders.

She reflected on the aspects of a strong democracy that are in place for all Americans, including education and literacy, recognizing that those tools are essential to emerging democracies.

Bush celebrated being a grandparent, saying her husband has said being one is about the only thing around that’s not overrated.

After her speech, in conversation onstage with Galveston Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gina Spagnola, Laura Bush discussed her support of the nation’s national parks system and her Texan By Nature initiative, supporting conservation and preservation of Texas’s natural resources, following in the footsteps of Lady Bird Johnson.

She invited all present to visit the presidential library to see the grounds, a Texas native park planted with prairie grasses and wildflowers.


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Dunes, not levees, now the goal of corps' coastal barrier plan

GALVESTON

Plans by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers no longer call for miles of levees built along highways in Galveston and on Bolivar Peninsula as part of a proposal to protect the region from storm surges caused by hurricanes.

Instead, a new recommendation for regional flood protection will include a plan to build and expand dunes along the beaches in those places, corps officials said Tuesday.

“We have dropped the levees on Bolivar and Galveston,” said Kelly Burks-Copes, the project manager for the Army Corps project.

The announcement is a significant change from the proposal first outlined in the tentatively selected plan the corps released in November 2018. While officials had stressed that the initial plan needed to be developed in detail, it emphasized levees and flood gates to hold back flood waters.

The new plan, which won’t to be released in written form until next year, does away with the levees in favor of building dunes, Burks-Copes said.

New dunes would be built on the dune lines of the peninsula and the West End of Galveston Island. The dunes would resemble the natural dunes that already exist in those places. The corps does not plan to recommend that the dunes include a solid core, as have been recommended in some concepts of coastal barriers over the years.

The corps changed its recommendations after receiving more than 6,000 public comments about the barrier plan it released in November.

That plan recommended a series of barriers and levees around Galveston County, as well as a massive sea gate at the mouth of the Galveston Ship Channel, at a cost of up to $31 billion.

The plan came after three years of internal study and development by the Army Corps.

But as the plan began to circulate around Galveston County, it drew widespread criticism from residents who live closest to the coast and in the potential project areas.

At public hearings, residents of Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston testified about their concerns that levees on the highway would leave some homes between the Gulf of Mexico and the new wall, or that their properties would be seized to make way for the construction of the levee.

The objections grew so pronounced that Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, whose agency partnered with the corps to produce the plan, called for it to be revised to place barriers along the dune line.

The corps’ announcement was celebrated by one of the people who helped organize local criticism of the original plan.

“I think that’s great,” said Azure Bevington, a High Island resident who organized meetings and created a social media page dedicated to the barrier project. “I think a natural dune system on the beach is absolutely the type of protection that we need.

“I think that the community groundswell that occurred from this, that got people informed, that is what pushed the Army Corps in a more positive direction.”

SOME FEATURES REMAIN

The corps has not scrapped every part of its original proposal, Burks-Cope said.

The agency is standing by its recommendation that a protective ring levee be built around much of Galveston Island, to protect the densely populated area from a storm surge that comes from Galveston Bay, as happened during Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Like the highway barriers, the placement of the ring levee was criticized by residents and businesses who feared the wall would run through their properties, or that they would be left outside it.

The corps has not changed its thinking about the ring barrier, Burks-Copes said.

“Our storm models show that there is still a need to have a ring barrier around the backside of Galveston,” Burks-Copes said.

However, the corps is now evaluating a plan that would place the barrier along the water’s edge, instead of along Harborside Drive. The corps also is stressing the ring barrier might not be as high as some people imagine. With piers along the ship channel already at 10-foot elevation, a barrier would only need to be built up another 2 feet to 5 feet, she said.

The corps also still plans to recommend extending and raising the Galveston seawall, Burks-Copes said. Those measures are considered to be immediate needs, however, Burks-Cope said.

The corps also is evaluating a new sea gate configuration that would build two smaller navigation gates at the mouth of the ship channel, instead of single large gate, and to increase the width of 39 proposed lift gates that allow water to continue to flow in and out of Galveston Bay.

Late Thursday, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush said his office would continue to work with the corps to develop a plan based on the public’s comments.

“I am pleased to have worked with the Corps to ensure a dune type barrier is placed on or along the beach,” Bush said. “We continue to evaluate what type of dune configuration will best work to reduce storm surge. It is our goal to provide better protection for our coast both now and for years to come.”

PUBLIC COMMENT, PART DEUX

The Army Corps has yet to put its new priorities in a written report, and is still working out many of the details that are necessary before a new plan can be forwarded for approval, Burks-Copes said.

The corps plans to publish its new proposals in early 2020, and will have another series of public meetings to gain even more feedback about the barrier, Burks-Copes said.

Holding the additional meetings is unusual, and perhaps unprecedented. The corps’ normal procedure is to hold one comment period, Burks-Copes said. The public reaction to the initial plan warranted a second go-around, she said.

The corps still plans to release a final report in 2021.


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2 dead, 1 injured in state Highway 3 crash, police say

TEXAS CITY

Two people were killed and another seriously injured in a crash on state Highway 3 in Texas City on Thursday evening, police said.

The crash happened at about 8 p.m. near the intersection of the highway and Mentor Drive, Texas City Police Department spokesman Allen Bjerke said.

The crash involved a person on a motorcycle and a vehicle with at least three people inside, Bjerke said.

Police were still gathering details about the crash at 9 p.m. and it was unclear which directions the vehicles had been moving and what might have led to the crash, Bjerke said.

One person was declared dead at the scene, Bjerke said.

A second person, a woman, was removed from the vehicle and transported to Mainland Medical Center in Texas City, Bjerke said. She was pronounced dead at the hospital, he said.

A third person was taken to a University of Texas Medical Branch hospital in Galveston, Bjerke said. That person was in critical but stable condition, he said.

A fourth victim, a juvenile, was treated at the scene and released to parents, Bjerke said.

Police had shut down state Highway 3 in both directions as they investigated the crash.

Police have not released the names of the people involved in the crash.


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Sea turtle strandings up sharply in South Texas

GALVESTON

The organization that monitors sea turtles in South Texas has reported the largest incidence of turtle strandings in April for the state, but Galveston’s stranding levels are only slightly elevated, officials said.

The Sea Turtle Stranding and Salvage Network in Padre Island reported 154 sea turtles stranded in the state for April, the highest incidence for that month since the network was established in the 1980s, Texas Coordinator Donna Shaver said.

“A more typical year, you might have 100 in April,” Shaver said. “It’s high for April.”

A stranded turtle can be dead or alive, and washed ashore because of sickness or other reasons.

The largest number of these turtles, 77, was found in the lower Texas zone, with 47 recorded in the zone that includes Galveston, she said.

“It’s disappointing because this year, we hope for good news,” Shaver said.

This is the time of year that people are looking for sea turtle nests, she said.

For the Galveston region, sea turtle strandings were up slightly in April, but it wasn’t anything that raised too much concern, said Ben Higgins, Sea Turtle Program Manager at the Galveston Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The lab rehabilitates turtles who are injured from contact with boats or humans, who are sick or who wash up on the beach for other reasons.

“We didn’t have a cold winter so we didn’t see the normal January and February turtles,” Higgins said. “Sometimes, they get compressed into March and April.”

Higgins isn’t seeing any particular reason turtles are washed ashore, he said.

He’s aware of reports from the south, but he doesn’t analyze that data, he said.

“I only see my forms and I don’t see what’s coming in down south,” Higgins said.

Turtle strandings in the Galveston area have been slightly higher than usual, but nothing like what the south of Texas is seeing, said Christopher Marshall, director of the Texas A&M University at Galveston Gulf Turtle Research Center.

Sometimes, events in the south can link to events farther north, he said.

“In this case, they’re pretty separated,” Marshall said. “Texas has a long coast.”

Galveston is seeing increased numbers of green sea turtles, a species that wasn’t as abundant 20 or so years ago, he said.

That’s a trend Higgins sees too, he said.

“The green sea turtles are making a real comeback,” Higgins said. “It’s amazing that they’re able to make that comeback.”

More sea turtles in the water does mean there will be more contact with people, Higgins said.

“The more turtles you’ve got out there, the more human-turtle interactions you’re going to have, whether it’s caught by a recreational fisherman, whether it’s caught by commercial fisheries, whether it’s hit by a boat, whether they’re ingesting plastics,” Higgins said.

For the south of Texas, the levels are concerning, Shaver said.

Between 2000 and 2017, the state averaged 762 stranded sea turtles a year, she said.

“There was some hypothesis of incidental capture in shrimping nets,” Shaver said. “It’s often very difficult to tell what caused a sea turtle to strand.”

The state doesn’t have laws specific to sea turtles because the federal government does, said Julie Hagen, spokeswoman for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

“This is especially relevant for commercial fisherman who must have turtle excluder devices on gear like a shrimp trawl,” Hagen said. “Because it is federal law, they must comply with it in Texas waters.”

This event highlights how much more research is needed to understand sea turtles and why they strand, Marshall said.