Harvey deals costly blow to local criminal justice system

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Local governments grappled Tuesday with the staggering costs of responding to and cleaning up after Hurricane Harvey, a trifecta of wrecked infrastructure and damaged buildings, around-the-clock overtime for rescue and recovery and a massive, escalating clean-up effort to bring the Houston area a semblance of normalcy after days of chaos.

City and county officials could not provide complete estimates of the impact to their coffers from Harvey’s wrath – crews still were inspecting buildings Tuesday and workers logging 120-hour weeks walking door-to-door across Harris County’s nearly 1,800 square miles to survey the widespread devastation.

Amid the uncertainty, officials agreed that even for a government apparatus well-versed in weathering and recovering from severe storms, Harvey’s damage was unlike anything ever seen here before.

“I’ve been here 30 years,” said Harris County Engineer John Blount. “I was through Allison. I was through Ike, and this was the worst I have ever seen.”

On Tuesday, public officials across the Houston region said they were only beginning to understand the scope of Harvey’s damage and its impact on public services.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner sent a letter to Texas Governor Greg Abbott this week, requesting state and federal funding and detailing “a catastrophic strain on our infrastructure, with damages estimated at more than $5 billion.”

Specifics, Turner spokesman Alan Bernstein said, could not be compiled Tuesday as recovery and even rescue efforts still were underway.

Civil jury trials were canceled for September, said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, after four county buildings suffered such significant damage that they likely would be closed for a minimum of eight months.

One of the buildings closed was the county’s criminal justice center, where the deluge forced sewage to explode out of bathrooms up to the second floor, rain and winds shattered windows and disrupted a chilling system that caused several water leaks, Blount said.

“There’s no question this is the worst that we’ve had, certainly since I’ve been judge,” said Emmett, who first was appointed in 2007.

The county Tuesday was actively relocating the hundreds of employees that work in the criminal justice center, including the district attorney’s 330-lawyer operation.

Hundreds of prosecutors and staffers with the district attorneys office, many dressed in t-shirts and shorts, spent Tuesday pulling their personal possessions out of the 20-story downtown criminal courthouse next to the still-swollen Buffalo Bayou.

The move is expected to slow the local criminal justice system as everyone involved will have to work from unfamiliar offices and commute to courtrooms spread across the downtown courthouse complex.

Harris County criminal justice officials are expected to unveil plans for courts early Wednesday, which could mean using courtrooms in the civil courthouse, the family law center and other county buildings.

Ogg said she had not seen the finalized plans, but hopes to keep the system chugging by implementing more docket times for defendants. Typically, suspects appear in court first thing in the morning on weekdays only. Afternoon dockets and night courts long have been eschewed in the criminal courthouse.

“I’m going to request increased dockets – dockets that are at nontraditional times, like evenings and, perhaps, weekends,” Ogg said. “Judges control their dockets, but I know that we have a public that needs service and that we the professionals in criminal justice need to be flexible.”

Other county office buildings still were being inspected and damages tallied Tuesday.

A total cost estimate of the damage is weeks away, county officials said.

Houston City Hall remained closed, Bernstein said, and a list of municipal buildings affected by Harvey could not be compiled as city employees still were being relocated.

City sewage treatment plants still were underwater along Buffalo Bayou, where releases from the Addicks and Barker dams kept bayou levels high and entire neighborhoods underwater.

Houston’s Public Works and Engineering Department was assessing damage, including cars that flooded after being moved to a garage downtown, according to spokeswoman Alanna Reed. Exact numbers were not yet available.

Nonetheless, further glimpses of the wide, undiscriminating nature of Harvey’s destruction on public resources came into focus.

The Houston Police Department had 500 officers who suffered damage to their cars, and approximately 300 whose homes were damaged, according to a union official.

Two police stations suffered substantial flooding damage: HPD Central, at 61 Reisner, and the department’s substation on Beechnut, near Meyerland.

Dozens of HPD cars also were lost in the flooding, officials said, with some estimates putting the damage at Beechnut alone at 28 to 35 cars.

At least 300 firefighters’ homes were seriously damaged, according to Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association Local 341. Hundreds more saw their cars swamped, he said.

“Like so many Texans, Houston firefighters are starting to recover from the storm,” Lancton said.

At the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, approximately two dozen patrol cars and other vehicles were lost to flooding, according to spokesman Jason Spencer. Floodwaters also damaged two patrol substations, he said.

Meanwhile, a robust debris removal operation lumbered forward. Bernstein said Turner had asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to front the $200 million the city estimated it would cost to haul away 8 million cubic yards of debris.

Harris County began the first of three passes across the entire county to collect debris. A total cost estimate was not yet available, Harris County Budget Officer Bill Jackson said.

Debris removal after Hurricane Ike battered the region in 2008 cost the county more than $62 million, he noted.

“We are looking at something much, much greater than that,” Jackson said.

The county also must consider overtime costs, Jackson said. County employees, including first responders, racked up $6 million in overtime during search and recovery efforts after Ike, he said.

An estimate of the city’s overtime costs was not available Tuesday, Bernstein said.

Statewide, preliminary estimates of public property reported to the Texas Department of Public Safety as of Monday morning showed more than $380 million in public damage incurred so far, including almost $130 million in road and bridge damage, $87.5 million in debris removal costs and $47.6 million in police and emergency response costs.

Fort Bend County had reported some $12 million in costs, while Galveston County reported $90.6 million – numbers that were expected to grow considerably as officials tally their costs.

“This is preliminary information self-reported to the state by local jurisdictions thus far,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said.

FEMA, for its part, could pay for some costs, including up to 90 percent of debris removal costs and full reimbursement for “emergency protective measures” for 30 days after Harvey hit.

The county has flood insurance and building insurance on most of its facilities, Blount said. Jackson said the county also could borrow money in the short term to pay for recovery efforts.

Congress is expected to pass an $8 billion dollar relief package this week, the first piece of likely larger sums of federal funding for the region’s recovery from Harvey.

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