Posted: Sep 10, 2013 8:21 PM
Updated: Sep 10, 2013 8:22 PM
Houston Chronicle. Sept. 6, 2013.
Up from Ike? Five years after the hurricane, has the wind gone out of our will to recover?
Five years after Hurricane Ike brought enormous destruction to Southeast Texas, we must ask: Why has the urgency to prepare for the inevitable "next one" that Hurricane Ike brought to our community all but disappeared?
Surely we have not forgotten that Ike delivered only a glancing blow compared with what might have come our way. Or perhaps we have.
Here is a reminder: If the storm center's landfall at 2:10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008, over Bolivar had vectored only a few degrees farther west to Freeport, the loss of life and property, not to mention damage to the environment, would have been truly catastrophic.
Tens of thousands of lives could have been lost as Ike's powerful center moved through low-lying but heavily populated areas. With just the smidgen of a shift in direction, Ike could have stirred a witches' brew of toxic chemicals from Superfund sites and overwhelmed refinery and chemical plant storage facilities. The very engine of our local energy economy on the Ship Channel could have been all but destroyed.
Five years later there is still far too much to be done across this region to prepare for the eventuality no, make that the certainty of another Hurricane Ike.
Putting things shipshape on Galveston Island, across the Houston Ship Channel, at Johnson Space Center, the Texas Medical Center and in other strategic locations will require the full attention of state and local leaders and, importantly, fuller federal participation. Alas, the financial collapse of 2008, which began only hours after Ike struck, with the bankruptcy of Lehman Bros. on Sept. 15, 2008, has left a federal government weakened by crippling debt and deficit.
God forbid, but if a Hurricane Ike were to our way come in a week, a month or even a year on this slightly different path, would we be prepared?
That is the question of the moment as we approach observance of this fifth anniversary.
We see precious little evidence that the needed steps have been taken, at least in the public sector, to prepare for the certainty of the next Ike. Rather, a debating society has convened over whether an Ike Dike or other, more natural means of protection is the most effective defense. And the clock ticks.
We do know that steps have been taken by the private sector along the Ship Channel to "harden" the chemical plants and refineries that play a large role in making the U.S. economy hum. That is a good thing. But this wall of defense is only as effective in protecting the community from potential environmental damage as its least prepared facility.
As of Sept. 11, 2001, we who live here came to understand that the safety of the Houston Ship Channel rises to the level of a national security issue.
Even more so, 12 years later. From Beaumont to Corpus Christi, a score of major refineries processed an average of more than 93 million barrels of crude monthly, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
And something else: Five years ago, the age of shale was only just dawning. For decades, the informed betting had been that many Ship Channel industries could one day go offshore to Qatar and other Mideast locations in search of cheaper feedstocks.
Largely due to the shale revolution, that situation has turned 180 degrees. Along the Texas Gulf Coast, chemical plants are expanding because of the ready and reasonably priced availability of feedstocks from shale. Soon, liquefied natural gas terminals originally built to import gas from the Middle East will be exporting U.S.-produced LNG.
These facilities are all major engines of the American economy and, not incidentally, the U.S. military.
Every resident of this area who lived through Ike came through the experience with unique personal stories of hardship, discomfort and in some cases, moments of terror. But the shared experience of power outages, gasoline shortages and other miseries also brought a memorable coming together as neighbors and community.
We recall that it was not uncommon for one side of a residential street to have its power restored within hours of the strong Cat 2 storm's arrival while the other side of the street would remain dark for days or weeks.
Bonds were forged. Our candidate for the enduring symbol of Ike's aftermath in Houston would be those countless orange extension cords reaching out from the electrical outlets of neighbors fortunate enough to have electricity to offer power to those nearby who were not so lucky.
Five years after Hurricane Ike, some of that can-do spirit must be rekindled across this region.
As President Obama, the Congress and the nation weigh military action in Syria, securing these foundational assets, not just from terrorists, but from the wrath of Mother Nature, seems to us an imperative.
San Antonio Express-News. Sept. 6, 2013.
The system on assaults Is still broken
When there is a military court-martial conviction, an automatic appeal on serious cases normally follows.
A military branch's Court of Criminal Appeals, on which military lawyers sit, can consider "factual deficiencies." It can go beyond just considering legal errors that might have resulted in an unfair trial and look at the totality of evidence.
This is according to an expert in military law we checked with: David A. Schlueter of St. Mary's University School of Law.
That being the case, we are having some difficulty understanding the reasons Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin offers for throwing out the conviction of an officer under his command for sexual assault.
The Express-News reported last week on other Air Force documents, which revealed that Franklin acted despite warnings from a wing commander that this would "send a negative message about how seriously we take sexual assault in the (Air Force)."
We laud Brig. Gen. Scott Zobrist for speaking truth to power his boss. He noted also that the victim still worked at the base and "she deserves consideration, too."
This kind of consideration is often what is most lacking in the military's handling of sexual assaults conditions aptly described in the Express-News "Twice Betrayed" series by King in May.
Setting aside the conviction in this particular case prompted an outcry that, along with the epidemic of sexual assaults in the ranks, has resulted in proposals to change military practice when it comes to such assaults.
Franklin didn't just reverse the conviction but reversed Lt. Col. James Wilkerson's dismissal from the Air Force and sought to have his promotion to full colonel move forward.
Wilkerson was convicted of sexually assaulting a houseguest, a physician's assistant who worked as a contractor at Aviano Air Base in Italy.
Normally, a general court-martial's convening authority, what Franklin was in this case, would not have to explain his actions.
The discretion to overturn court-martial conviction is that broad. But, because of the controversy his actions sparked, he wrote a memo in March, reported on earlier, to the Air Force Secretary. He said that Wilkerson was convicted without proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
But, if that's the case, the military judges at the military appeals court are more expert in reaching such conclusions. Franklin said he was also acting out of humanitarian concerns to reunite Wilkerson with his family.
There was no reason to treat Wilkerson any differently than anyone else convicted of a crime in the military.
Pending congressional legislation would remove a commander's authority to dismiss court-martial convictions for most offenses, including rape and sexual assault.
Our expert, Schlueter, said he does not favor this provision, we should add.
But if a conviction is affirmed at the Court of Criminal Appeals, the case can move, Schlueter said, to a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces; and to the U.S. Supreme Court after that, particularly if constitutional questions arise.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled a host of meaningful reforms on how the military handles sexual assaults.
As "Twice Betrayed" detailed, victims are too often re-victimized by the military.
But these Pentagon reforms left intact a commanders' broad authority to decide which cases go to trial and to unilaterally overturn convictions. Those changes must come from Congress.
Lack of avenues of appeal, even after removing the authority now invested in commanders, does not strike us as a credible criticism.
Commanders are too inexpert to make these decisions and the process is too susceptible to conflict of interest and personal bias. They need to be removed from the process.
Sexual assault is traumatizing enough. Bungling or insensitivity at the commander level simply re-victimizes the victim.
The Monitor of McAllen. Sept. 6, 2013.
TEA not making the grade; lax audits by state agency unacceptable
After a State Auditor's report probing a cheating scandal in El Paso schools recently found the Texas Education Agency has been woefully lax in scrutinizing school districts, the state agency whose integrity is at stake announced it was creating a new self-policing unit. And then it issued a statement vowing to do better via four objectives.
This includes: operating a hotline for anonymous tips on unscrupulous district behavior to encourage more whistle blowers; operating an internal hotline for TEA employees to report concerns and informing the governor and state lawmakers about agency investigations.
All this sounds fine, except that those procedures have already been in place for many years. So what's new?
Aside from creating a new Office of Complaints, Investigations and School Accountability, the TEA did announce that it would also "analyze the nature and volume of complaints received in fall and spring of each year to identify trends and patterns related to noncompliance with student accountability requirements."
That only causes one to wonder why they weren't doing that before? We'd like to believe they were doing something with the complaint data. At least one would hope.
But, alas, it appears that's not the case. The report found that too often teachers, parents and district officials have reached out to TEA about questionable activity in Texas education only to be quickly rebuffed.
It's true that state funding has been cut to the agency, as it was to districts statewide. There is less money to pay for investigators. But everyone in state education has been asked to do more with less. There is no excuse for sloppy investigations by TEA.
Nevertheless, TEA has had a repeated habit of responding to inquiries by saying that it doesn't have the manpower to investigate complaints in person and often turn cases over to district superintendents to probe, according to the
50-page report. TEA "lacks a consistent and defined process for performing investigations and does not have comprehensive procedures that guide investigators in conducting consistent and thorough investigations," it found.
This pattern is disconcerting and Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams was wise to request an audit of his agency. And after years of rumors and rumbling of allegations against the agency, we now have a documented report detailing its shortcomings.
So that's why it is so shocking that the first thing the agency did was to reinstitute old policy and tout it as new to the public. Does that really show it is ready to change and improve for the sake of our state's 5 million students in public schools?
The El Paso scandal dates back to 2010 and involves the placement of all foreign high school students as ninth-graders. The El Paso Times said that "gamed" state and federal accountability standards by preventing academically struggling students particularly Mexican immigrants from taking the 10th-grade standardized test. The former El Paso superintendant pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges and is serving a three-year sentence.
This has real significance here in the Rio Grande Valley because the McAllen Independent School District launched an independent investigation last month after it was merely mentioned in the El Paso area school district's audit. This is because in McAllen ISD, older students who are new to Texas and speak a language other than English are enrolled in ninth grade. McAllen ISD has not been accused of doing anything wrong, and it's important to note that district officials were right to take swift action to see what effect, if any, the policy has had on students.
In the future if the TEA does its job, as intended, then maybe more districts like McAllen ISD won't have to launch their own investigations.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Sept. 7, 2013.
A few obvious fixes would aid voter ID law
It shouldn't be a problem for anyone for Texas to have a voter ID law.
After all, the Supreme Court has said it's OK to require people to present proof that they are who they say they are, even to present valid photo ID, when they go to the polls.
It's not necessary to show a record of voter fraud that the ID requirement is meant to address, the court said in a 2008 Indiana case.
All states have a legitimate interest in protecting public confidence in the voting process. A voter ID law can help ensure that confidence.
So why have people, including U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, filed a federal lawsuit in Corpus Christi aimed at knocking down the Texas law?
And why has U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder decided to join them?
Having a voter ID law is not a problem. The zealous requirements written into this law, without easily identifiable provisions to lessen the burden on some potential voters, are a problem.
The case against the Texas law was extensively reviewed and ruled on last year by a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. We know exactly what its problems are.
That ruling was nullified in June when the Supreme Court blocked a portion of the Voting Rights Act under which the case was brought.
But only stubbornness and a willingness to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal costs would drive Texas to fight the same case over again.
The Legislature could fix the obvious problems with little difficulty, and the state could still have a very stringent voter ID law.
Given that the state has seen intense political battles over voter ID for several years, getting it all settled should be attractive to everyone.
In ruling against Texas in a Voting Rights Act "pre-clearance" case, after extensive analysis, the D.C. district court outlined exactly what the Legislature did wrong in 2011 when it passed the law.
The Texas voter ID law distinguishes itself from similar laws in other states in that it goes beyond "minor inconveniences" the Supreme Court recognized in Indiana.
Texas rightly hands out free voter ID cards at Department of Public Safety offices, meeting a key requirement laid down by the courts.
But there are costs involved in getting the documents needed to obtain the free cards, and DPS offices are not always easily accessible.
The D.C. court found the cheapest of the necessary documents, a copy of a birth certificate, costs $22. There are no DPS offices in 81 of the state's 254 counties, so some Texans must travel long distances to get to one.
The D.C. district court said the Texas law "at least to our knowledge . is the most stringent in the country."
The law, the court said, "imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty."
That's going to be a problem in the Corpus Christi case brought by Veasey and joined by Holder.
It's also going to be problematical that the Legislature refused to fix some of the law's obvious flaws when it defeated what the district court said were "several amendments that could have made this a far closer case."
The amendments would have:
Waived all fees for indigent people who need documents to get a voter ID.
Reimbursed poor Texans who must travel long distances to a DPS office.
Expanded the range of acceptable identification at the polls to include student or Medicare ID cards.
Required DPS offices to be open in the evenings and on weekends.
Allowed indigent people to cast provisional ballots without photo ID.
None of those steps would compromise the voter ID law or undermine confidence in elections.
Some of them would incur costs for taxpayers. But again, fighting a lawsuit to defend a law that has already been shown to be flawed is not only costly but foolish.
Everyone in Texas must believe in the integrity of the ballot box, and a voter ID law can help.
But it's just as crucial that everyone who has a right to vote has an equal opportunity to vote.
Austin American-Statesman. Sept. 6, 2013.
Pass bill honoring Fort Hood victims
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Reps. Roger Williams of Austin and John Carter of Round Rock have proposed a commendable bill that would label the attack at Fort Hood an act of terror, which would make the victims of the attack and their families eligible to receive additional federal benefits combat-related pay, extra life insurance coverage and tax breaks, for example.
Further, the bill named the "Honoring the Fort Hood Heroes Act" by the three Texas Republicans would allow the Pentagon to award the Purple Heart or its civilian equivalent to the victims of the attack.
The worthy measure can't end the pain of those who lost loved ones in the Nov. 5, 2009, attack, but it can ease the continuing struggles of their survivors and of the wounded. We realize members of Congress have a full and divisive agenda awaiting them when they return to work this week, but they should pass the legislation by Cornyn, Williams and Carter as promptly as possible.
Army Maj. Nidal Hasan was convicted and sentenced to death last month for killing 13 and wounding 32 at Fort Hood four years ago. Concerns about compromising Hasan's court-martial led to the defeat of previous attempts to pass similar legislation. With Hasan now imprisoned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., reasons to object have diminished.
"I believe the victims of this terrorist attack deserve the same recognition as those attacked by terrorists on September 11," Carter said. "It is time this administration stops calling this 'workplace violence' and label it for what it is an act of terror on U.S. soil."
News reports exploring why the Defense Department refused to charge Hasan with terrorism have noted that military prosecutors could not charge Hasan with terrorism because no such charge exists under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Prosecutors "really didn't have an option," Scott Silliman, a Duke University military law expert, told the Associated Press recently.
The accusation that political correctness motivated the Pentagon to label the Fort Hood shooting "workplace violence" rather than terrorism has been based a bit on a canard, a distortion of the narrowly defined legal line Army prosecutors had to walk as they took Hasan to trial. "We never characterized it as 'workplace violence,'" Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Tom Crosson recently told the McClatchy Washington Bureau. "We've never characterized it as anything."
Hasan's attack was an act of terror as well as a criminal act. He was inspired by jihadist ideology, though despite contacting Anwar al-Alawki, the American-born radical cleric who was killed in Yemen in 2011 by a U.S. drone strike, he appears to have acted without overseas instructions.
Hasan, who represented himself at trial, admitted he was the shooter during his brief opening statement last month. He had wanted to tell jurors he had attacked soldiers deploying to Afghanistan because he wanted to protect his fellow Muslims overseas, but the trial judge, Col. Tara Osborn, wouldn't let him pursue a so-called defense of others argument. Hasan spent most of his trial sitting in silence.
One of Hasan's victims, Michael Grant, was a civilian, so we suppose it's possible Hasan could have been tried in civilian court. Civilian prosecutors could have, and we're sure eagerly would have, charged Hasan with terrorism. Hasan also could have pleaded guilty in civilian court, something military law prevented him from doing, since he was being tried on capital charges.
But there was no way Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, was going to be tried in civilian court. "He was an active-duty officer. The crime occurred on a military installation," Silliman said. "It was obvious he was going to face a court-martial."
While his court-martial had more than its share of maddening delays, Army prosecutors attained their goal: Hasan was convicted and sentenced to death. His case must now go through a mandatory appeals process that most military law experts expect will take years.
Members of Congress return to Washington this week. They face contentious votes on the use of force in Syria and the debt ceiling, and a battle, driven by Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, over funding the Affordable Care Act that could lead to a government shutdown. If members want to set one positive goal for themselves this fall, they could take a break from their partisan quarrels and do right by Hasan's victims.