Hackers Accessed The Personal Data Of 143 Million People, Equifax Says

Equifax announced Thursday that its systems were hacked in May, exposing 143 million consumers’ personal information.

Mike Stewart/AP

hide caption

toggle caption

Mike Stewart/AP

Equifax, an international credit reporting agency, has announced that a cybersecurity breach exposed the personal information of 143 million U.S. consumers. In a statement released Thursday, the Atlanta-based agency acknowledged that “criminals exploited a U.S. website application vulnerability to gain access to certain files.”

Those files include data such as Social Security numbers, birthdates and addresses — and, Equifax adds, “in some instances, driver’s license numbers.”

For a span of roughly two months — from mid-May through July 29, when Equifax says it uncovered the breach — hackers had access to this information, as well as the credit card numbers of about 209,000 consumers and “certain dispute documents with personal identifying information” of about 182,000.

All told, the number of American consumers affected constitutes about 44 percent of the U.S. population.

Equifax did not explain why more than two months passed before it discovered the hack, which also affected an unspecified number of consumers from Canada and the U.K.

However, the agency is careful to note, it “has found no evidence of unauthorized activity on Equifax’s core consumer or commercial credit reporting databases.”

YouTube

“This is clearly a disappointing event for our company, and one that strikes at the heart of who we are and what we do. I apologize to consumers and our business customers for the concern and frustration this causes,” said Chairman and CEO Richard F. Smith said in a statement.

Equifax handles the data of more than 820 million people and more than 91 million businesses worldwide, the agency says on its website, to transform “knowledge into insights that help make more informed business decisions.”

As gargantuan as the numbers may be, The New York Times points out this is not the largest data breach in history. That dubious distinction goes to Yahoo, which nearly a year ago announced that the personal information of at least 500 million people had been stolen. Just months later, the company said hackers stole data associated with more than 1 billion user accounts.

Equifax, for its part, says it has been in touch with law enforcement and that it has set up a website for consumers to determine whether they have been affected by the breach announced Thursday. It has also set up a call center at 866-447-7559 for the same purpose.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Tell Us Your Irma Story

Motorists evacuate north of Key Largo, Fla., on US 1, in anticipation of Hurricane Irma on Wednesday. Are you in Irma’s path? Tell us how you’re doing.

Alan Diaz/AP

hide caption

toggle caption

Alan Diaz/AP

NPR has reporters in Florida and the Caribbean to bring you the latest news as Hurricane Irma spins toward the mainland.

But our reporters can’t be everywhere: That’s where you come in. How are you preparing? What have you learned from Andrew and other destructive storms in the past? Are you staying put or getting out? What’s happening in your neighborhood? How is the experience affecting your mental and emotional state?

If possible — and if you’re in a safe place — we’d like follow your whole story before, during and after the storm. You can choose a way to talk to us:

  • Email Irma@npr.org with your name, your situation and the best way to reach you. A reporter might contact you.
  • Leave a voicemail describing conditions in your location at 202-216-9564. We might use your voice on the air.
  • Fill out the form below. A reporter might contact you.

Thanks for your help.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Democracy By Sneeze: When Wild Dogs Must Decide, They Vote With Their Noses

Look deeply into those soulful eyes … but watch out for that nose. When it comes time to decide whether to leave, this African wild dog may be trying to say more to its pack with the latter.

Pim Stouten/Flickr

hide caption

toggle caption

Pim Stouten/Flickr

Humans the world over have devised varied ways to note the opinions of a group. Want to cast a vote? Take your pick between ballots, raised hands or inked fingers — heck, just shout “aye” if you can’t be bothered to move.

For all our electoral ingenuity, there is one method we can be reasonably sure no one’s tried yet: sneezing.

African wild dogs, though, apparently aren’t afraid to get a little nasal when expressing their opinions. In a study published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers found that when it comes time for a pack of wild dogs to determine whether to move, the group engages in a bout of sneezing to see how many members are ready.

The more sneezes — or “audible rapid nasal exhalations,” as defined by the researchers — the more likely the pack would set out on its next hunt. In fact, in the course of watching five packs in Botswana engage in a total of 68 rallies, or “high energy, socially intricate pre-departure greeting ceremonies,” the group even figured out a general threshold the group had to clear before leaving.

What’s the quorum of sneezes needed for departure? Well, that depends on the role the group’s dominant members played in initiating the rally.

According to their findings, “rallies never failed when a dominant … individual initiated and there were at least three sneezes,” the study’s authors write, “whereas rallies initiated by lower ranking individuals required a minimum of 10 sneezes to achieve the same level of success.”

Now, the observation comes with a couple of caveats, The New York Times points out: Unlike our own voting — in its ideal form, at least — each dog is not limited to one vote. “And the scientists don’t know if it is voluntary or something that just happens, like a sneeze. So they can’t say it’s a true vote.”

Still, it demonstrates a pack of wild dogs — which operates an “otherwise despotically driven social system,” researchers say — has at least a strain of democracy in its processes. While the dominant members may hold considerable authority, the study shows that authority is not absolute: Their underlings have a say in certain decisions, sometimes even determining them if they can cobble enough sneezes between them.

Below, you’ll find footage of the tail end of a rally in 2014, during which two of the members casually demonstrate the electoral art of the sneeze.

As co-author Reena Walker tells National Geographic, this wasn’t exactly what they set out to find at the outset, saying they had set out learn other characteristics of the African wild dog — which, with a population of just 6,600, is among the world’s most endangered species.

But in the course of other observations, they couldn’t help but notice all the achooing going on: “We all started questioning, ‘Why are these dogs sneezing so much?’ “

Their initial befuddlement is understandable — but ultimately, the wild dogs may not be all that peculiar: The study notes meerkats, white faced capuchin monkeys and mountain gorillas all emit unique noises of their own when it comes time for a group to make moves.

Nevertheless, they say the finding is unprecedented: “A sneeze has never before been documented as a major communicative function of African wild dogs.”

And Walker hopes the news about their noses will inspire something will open more than just a new frontier for democratic procedures: She hopes it will open some eyes.

“They’re absolutely gorgeous animals focused on cooperation and their pack family unit,” she tells National Geographic. “The more people who are aware [of] how amazing these animals are, the better.”

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Amazon Set To Build A Second HQ And Cities Say 'Pick Me!'

Amazon said Thursday that it will spend $5 billion to build another headquarters in North America to house 50,000 new employees. In April, workers constructed three glass-covered domes in an expansion of the company’s downtown Seattle campus.

Elaine Thompson/AP

hide caption

toggle caption

Elaine Thompson/AP

Amazon made the sort of announcement this morning that mayors dream about.

The tech juggernaut said it was looking for the right city in which to build its “HQ2”: a second headquarters in North America, equal to its campus in Seattle. And it’s going to make that selection process a public one, akin to how cities bid to host an Olympic Games.

“We expect to invest over $5 billion in construction and grow this second headquarters to include as many as 50,000 high-paying jobs,” Amazon wrote on its website. “In addition to Amazon’s direct hiring and investment, construction and ongoing operation of Amazon HQ2 is expected to create tens of thousands of additional jobs and tens of billions of dollars in additional investment in the surrounding community.”

Amazon, which is among NPR’s financial supporters, says it’s looking for a metro area of more than a million people, a “stable and business-friendly environment,” and the potential to “attract and retain strong technical talent.”

The company estimates it added $38 billion to Seattle’s economy between 2010 and 2016. And in its request for proposals from cities, Amazon says the average annual total compensation of those 50,000 new employeees will exceed $100,000.

But Amazon’s presence – and the high-paid workers it employs – has also been a major factor in creating a housing crisis in Seattle, which has the fastest-growing home prices in the country. The housing market there has become so expensive that even wealthy foreign buyers are getting priced out.

It turns out that many North American mayors would love to have problems like that. On Thursday, they were hankering for the chance to be home to Amazon’s HQ2:

Dallas: “We will aggressively demonstrate that Dallas and our surrounding area would be the perfect spot for their expansive business needs,” Mayor Mike Rawlings said in a statement to CNN Tech. “Amazon already has an extensive amount of business here. They’ve been good corporate citizens and we look forward to future conversations.”

Chicago: “Chicago’s unmatched workforce, world-class universities and unparalleled access to destinations throughout the world make it the perfect headquarters location for companies large and small,” mayoral spokesman Grant Klinzman told the Chicago Sun-Times. “That’s also why Chicago has led the nation in corporate relocations for the last four years.”

Toronto: “I firmly believe that Toronto is a prime candidate to host Amazon’s second headquarters in North America,” Mayor John Tory told the CBC. “City staff are working with Toronto Global to make sure we put together an attractive bid for this opportunity … I will be leading the charge to make the case that Amazon should call Toronto home.”

Philadelphia: “We think Philadelphia would be a PRIME location for Amazon that would make people SMILE!” tweeted mayor Jim Kenney. “Look forward to submitting a proposal!”

Washington, D.C.: “Mayor Bowser has directed us to pursue every opportunity to expand employment in the District, and we have already reviewed Amazon’s search for a second headquarters,” a spokesperson for D.C.’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development told the Washington Business Journal. “[The] District is open for business and provides the amenities and talented workforce to be a competitive location for major tech firms.”

Baltimore: “Dear @amazon, please come to Baltimore City,” City Councilman Eric Costello tweeted. “We’ve already successfully worked together, we can and we will do it again!”

Pittsburgh: “With an unmatched portfolio of technological talent and intriguing development parcels, Pittsburgh is uniquely positioned to submit a winning bid for Amazon’s facility,” Mayor William Peduto said in a statement to CNN. “This is a transformational opportunity unlike any that we’ve ever seen.”

The municipal casting call is reminiscent of Google’s 2010 search for cities in which to roll out its high-speed fiber-optic cable, Google Fiber. That open-for-business arms race led to civic wackiness like Topeka temporarily (and unofficially) changing its name to Google, Kan. Residents of Grand Rapids, Mich., staged a parade in Google’s honor. The mayor of Duluth, Minn., went for a Google-inspired polar bear swim. (Now deployed in ten cities, Google announced last year it was scaling back the project.)

Similar hijinks are almost guaranteed in the pursuit of Amazon. Many cities will likely put together proposals with big tax breaks, too — even though the company really doesn’t need the money.

Amazon says it’s looking for communities “that think big and creatively when considering locations and real estate options.”

The ideas are coming fast and furious, and not just from mayors. How about putting Amazon in Chicago’s Old Post Office? Or how about next to the train stations in Uptown Philadelphia? What if Amazon put its HQ in Detroit?

re amazon hq, what about the old main post office? 2x total square foot requirement, but maybe a feature not a bug? https://t.co/Wr2jjOOn0o

— Whet Moser (@whet) September 7, 2017

New Amazon HQ should go next to the North Philadelphia Amtrak and BSL stations. Backbone of new Uptown biz district https://t.co/h928AKlobOhttps://t.co/u7xBad3MDK

— Jon Geeting (@jongeeting) September 7, 2017

In cities across the country, people will look around and think about where they would put 50,000 tech workers, whether in enormous old buildings or brand-new construction.

With its announcement today, Amazon set off a crazy corporate-Olympics contest — and one big thought experiment on the future of some American cities.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Governors Sound Off On How To Fix Health Insurance

Governors from left; Bill Haslam of Tennessee, Steve Bullock of Montana, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, John Hickenlooper of Colorado and Gary Herbert of Utah all testified Thursday about ways t improve the ACA.

Jose Luis Magana/AP

hide caption

toggle caption

Jose Luis Magana/AP

The Senate is again trying to tackle the politics of health care. Rather than going for sweeping changes, lawmakers are acting more like handymen this time, looking for tweaks and fixes that will make the system that’s already in place work better.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is leading the effort to stabilize the Affordable Care Act’s insurance markets for next year. He’s trying to get a bipartisan bill together in the next 10 days, he said Thursday. He’s working against the clock; insurance companies have only until Sept. 27 to commit to selling policies on the ACA exchanges, and to set their final prices for health plans.

It’s a big ask. And Alexander, who is chairman of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, was frank about what needed to happen.

“To get a Republican president and a Republican House and a Republican Senate just to vote for more money won’t happen in the next two or three weeks, unless there’s some restructuring,” he told a group of five governors who testified before his committee Thursday.

It was the second of four hearings the committee is holding while developing a new health bill.

All of the governors and most of the senators in the room agreed that the top priority was for Congress to appropriate money for what are called cost-sharing reductions. These reimburse insurance companies for discounts they’re required by law to give low-income customers.

President Trump has threatened to cut off the payments, and insurance companies have responded to that uncertainty by proposing higher premiums for next year.

Funding CSR’s is the easy part, Alexander said.

He was looking for tweaks that will appease conservative Republicans who for years have told their constituents that Obamacare is a failure. They would be hard-pressed to appropriate money to fund it without some substantive changes.

Alexander presented the dilemma to the governors as an opportunity to ask for specific changes they’d like to see happen fast.

“This train may move through the station, and this is the chance to change those things,” he said near the end of the hearing. “And so if you want to tell us exactly what those are, and we got it by the middle of next week, we could use it and it would help us get a result.”

The governors had plenty of ideas.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, said establishing reinsurance plans — pools of money to help insurers when they face huge costs from severely ill patients — can cut premiums for everyone.

Alaska last year created a reinsurance program that almost immediately slowed down the inflation in health insurance premiums in that state, Lori Wing-Heier, the director of the Alaska’s Division of Insurance, told the committee in testimony Wednesday.

Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire thinks Washington should put up some of the money for such programs.

“I’d be making the argument that at least some of the seed money should be coming from the feds because the feds are going to save money,” she told the governors at Thursday’s hearing.

And the governors unanimously supported Alexander’s proposal to give states waivers that would allow them out of some of Obamacare’s regulations, and enable states to design their own health care systems.

“What we’re really focused on is, how do you make the bureaucracy easier so that you can get these various waivers that pretty much all of us agree offer not only cost savings but in many cases will improve the actual outcomes of health care delivered,” Gov. Steve Bullock, of Montana, told the committee.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said he was concerned that giving too much flexibility would diminish the quality of the insurance policies.

Gov. Bill Haslam, of Tennessee, took issue with that.

“There’s an assumption from the federal government, that’s a little offensive to be honest, that ‘you won’t care for the least of these unless we tell you exactly how to do it,’ ” he said.

The governors were divided on a suggestion by Alexander that catastrophic health plans — which have high deductibles and don’t cover routine health care — should be more widely available. Under the Affordable Care Act such policies are only available to people under age 30.

Alexander said expanding the role of such policies could help gain the support of conservative Republicans in the House and Senate who want consumers to have more and cheaper choices in their insurance plans.

Baker, of Massachusetts, said he opposed expanding such policies, but Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah said he liked the idea.

In the end, Alexander suggested the bill he’ll pursue will likely include funding for cost-sharing payments and a more flexible waiver program. But he says he’s open to ideas.

“The reason for the hearings is for me to learn and listen,” Alexander said.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

Silicon Valley Wants To Dust Off The Democratic Establishment

Jessica Alter is a co-founder of Tech For Campaigns. The San Francisco-based startup focuses on state races and is currently working on campaigns in Virginia.

Aarti Shahani/NPR

hide caption

toggle caption

Aarti Shahani/NPR

A massive shift happened, quietly, during the Obama years: Democrats got comfortable and gave up their lead in digital campaigning, Democratic and Republican political operatives say.

Republicans, meanwhile, itched to regain power and invested heavily in using the Internet to build political support.

Now, liberals in Silicon Valley want to shift the balance of power.

Take Jessica Alter. She didn’t expect to care. A tech insider who cashed in on the sale of two different startups — her own, and another where she’d worked (which went to AOL for $850 million) — she was not politically engaged. Yes, she voted for president, and always for a Democrat.

But, as she puts it, as recently as January, “I did not know what the DCCC stood for.” (The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is an enormous body whose purpose is to help Democrats get elected.)

Alter’s focus shifted when President Trump issued the ban against travel from majority Muslim countries. She was beside herself. She lost family in the Holocaust and, she says, her grandmother was part of the Belgian resistance. Alter imagined grandma scolding her, “This is going on and all you’re doing is posting on social media.”

That weekend, she had an epic texting session with a friend about how outraged so many peers in Silicon Valley were, but also how the right solution for them is not door-knocking or phone banking.

“A very small percentage of them are actually going to quit their jobs and be involved as step one,” Alter says. “But a lot of them want to do something and they’re highly skilled.”

It’s widely believed that Silicon Valley has a political bias — that the coders and digital marketing gurus at Facebook and Google are, for the most part, young liberals.

Alter decided to bet on that bias when she dove headfirst into launching Tech For Campaigns, a nonprofit dedicated to funneling tech talent into partisan politics. She and her co-founders recruit online marketers, Web developers and data scientists (from Google, Airbnb, Slack) and put them to work — part-time, pro bono — exclusively for Democrats.

She is part of a movement among Silicon Valley liberals to breathe new life into the dusty machine of their party. In her opinion, this is a crisis moment and legacy institutions, such as the DCCC (she now knows what it stands for), are crawling ahead.

In March, Alter flew out to a meeting convened by an important Democratic entity. (She doesn’t want to name the entity and burn bridges.) The very top pollsters and operatives were there and for six hours, she says, they dissected the lessons of 2016. But that’s it. “No outcomes, no plan of action to move forward, and a lot of being self-congratulatory about just attending,” Alter says.

This was a few weeks into her caring about politics — and a reminder about why she shunned it before.

Alter did her own industry analysis. She talked with party insiders. And she came to the conclusion that, at the level of presidential campaigns — Howard Dean, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders — Democrats kill it with digital strategy.

But that does not trickle down. The party isn’t spending money to teach smaller campaigns how to really use Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. Tech for Campaigns is working exclusively on state-level races.

On a recent afternoon, Alter holds a confidential campaign call with a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates. Her tech consultants include Michael Landsberger, who’s at an airport security line, traveling for his very demanding day job with the online insurance company Sure Inc.; and Leah Rappaport with Thumbtack, the gig work site.

Rappaport explains to the Virginia team that digital ads are very different from TV. On TV, if you run a negative message to bash the incumbent, everyone sees it. But online, you can pick and choose, and test to see if it works.

“So yes, there is that permanency of putting something out there,” she says. “But we can also be careful about whom we’re targeting.”

This call is happening days after the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Over the weekend, people were emoting on social media — tweeting outrage and clicking emoji (sad face, angry face). Alter wanted them to do real work. She slipped a link to her startup into the stream of Facebook conversations. Since launching, she says, she’s recruited 3,000 tech volunteers.

This impressive number is a drop in the bucket, according to operatives who say that Democrats have fallen behind.

As one strategist put it, “We could target a Latino in Florida. But the Republicans could target a Latino in Florida who cares about education, and test messages to see what works.”

Phillips Stutts, a consultant for Republican campaigns, agrees. “Republicans are better. For sure. 100 percent,” he says. “It’s not even a debate that we are head and shoulders above where they are right now.”

Stutts is the founder of Go Big Media and his clients include Betsy DeVos, now education secretary. His camp felt like “losers” during the tenure of President Barack Obama. That spurred robust competition in the marketplace, prompting firms like his and Cambridge Analytica to grow. Donors like the Koch brothers and the Mercers gave big contributions to the Republican establishment. And private companies and the party worked in coordination to help smaller campaigns — for governor or state legislature — fight with cutting-edge tech.

Michael Slaby, who served as chief technology officer of Obama for America, says that while Republicans are taking lessons from big campaigns and applying them to smaller ones, “we’re more of a thousand flowers blooming.”

Slaby is an adviser for Higher Ground Labs, an incubator to help Democrats build political technology. He says campaigns are temporary and technical innovation gets thrown away after Election Day, but“a lot of the things we did live on in the staff, the best practices.”

Top Democratic operatives argue that the party can do better than that. The Democratic National Committee hired a former engineer from Uber to lead tech efforts. Raffi Krikorian used to work on the cutting edge of machine learning. He led Uber’s move to roll out a self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh. And now at the DNC, he’s doing remarkably unsexy, non-cutting edge work that “someone’s got to do,” he says.

Krikorian plans to take the software built during the Hillary Clinton campaign — whose strength was mass mobilization through texting and emailing — and transfer it to the committee, so that it can arm candidates up and down the ballot, from school boards to the presidency. He’s also hoping to usher in a culture shift, so that digital strategists are as standard a part of the campaign toolkit as door-knocking community organizers.

That’ll take money. Krikorian reluctantly admits he wants to overhaul the DNC budget so that roughly one-third goes to his technology efforts. (It’s nowhere close to that now.) This year alone, that should mean $25 million. And he’d like that figure to grow as elections approach.

“It’s not a small amount of money,” he says. “The DNC hasn’t done major tech investments since 2012. We’ve only done keep-the-lights-on types of investments.”

In an effort to recruit talent and raise funds, Krikorian is splitting his time between Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley. “We need to be everywhere,” he says.

The DNC’s hiring of Krikorian has excited liberals in Silicon Valley, including Mark Pincus. The casual-gaming guru who co-funded Zynga says he’s tired of writing big checks to candidates he doesn’t find inspiring. That’s how he felt about Hillary Clinton, whom he backed out of his disdain for Donald Trump.

“I was a big supporter [of hers], but not excited,” Pincus says. “It’s not a comfortable place to be.”

He says the last election made him and others realize that Silicon Valley technology — not just money — is driving political outcomes. And that’s spurred him to start another techno-intervention called Win the Future. He describes it, candidly, as a vehicle searching for a direction. “I want to do more, but it’s not obvious what to do.”

He and others would rather experiment now than wait until the next election to figure it out.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

100+ Roads Closed. 50,000+ Displaced. Houston Still Has A Long Way To Go

A view of flooding on the west side of Houston on Sept. 1.

Scott Dalton for NPR

hide caption

toggle caption

Scott Dalton for NPR

As some residents of South Texas begin to dry out their homes and belongings, significant challenges lie ahead as the city of Houston and others in the affected area look to recover and rebuild.

Congress is fast tracking billions of dollars in recovery funding. But just because that down payment on Harvey recovery is on the way, that doesn’t mean the rebuilding of Houston and other areas hammered by Harvey’s high winds and historic rains will go quickly or smoothly.

Here are five challenges ahead for the Harvey recovery:

1. 100+ roads are still closed

Residents can’t begin to assess the damage to their homes and businesses until they can get to them, and many local roads and main thoroughfares remain flooded or closed due to storm damage. Even those that are now dry have to be inspected before for possible damage and may need some repairs before they can reopen.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Tuesday that while all the interstate highways are now open, at least 118 other roadways remained closed due to high floodwaters and with continuing releases of water from reservoirs into overflowing rivers and bayous, some roads may remain closed for a couple of weeks.

On many of the roads and highways that are open, traffic signals are out and lane restrictions may be in place. And that’s leading to brutal traffic jams as many area residents began trying to return home or get back to work this week, while often needing to take alternate routes.

“Traffic is going to be heavy and somewhat confusing,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told reporters Wednesday. “This is going to be the roughest week,” he added, “I certainly would encourage people to be patient.”

How well the concrete and asphalt held up under the floodwaters depends in part on what kind of road it is, what level of traffic it was designed to handle, how long it was underwater and what kind of shape it was in before the storm, says David Newcomb, a research engineer at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Interstates, he says, should fare pretty good, while “lower volume roads are going to be weaker.”

A car is left stranded in Houston on Aug. 27.

Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

hide caption

toggle caption

Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

Newcomb adds that “the longer the water stays on the road, the greater the opportunity for it to seep in the ground and it could leave the soil in a weakened state.”

The Texas Department of Transportation has 2,400 employees in the region assessing damage and address highway and traffic problems.

Bridge and highway inspectors “will be looking for scour underneath bridges, spots on the road where erosion might have occurred around culverts,” and similar signs of flood damage, says Newcomb.

Even if some roads appear to be in relatively good shape after the water recedes, Newcomb says the wear and tear from bigger trucks carrying heavier loads to help in the recovery will likely cause additional damage.

“There’s going to be a lot of heavier trucks, dump trucks,” and other heavy vehicles helping remove debris and bring in materials to rebuild homes. “That’s more traffic and larger loads than you’d normally see on residential streets.”

It’s not yet clear how long some roads and highways in and around Houston and elsewhere in South Texas may be closed, but Newcomb says repairing all the damage “will take a long time.”

“Funding won’t be available to fix all of them at once,” he says, “so I foresee this going on for years in terms of getting highways back to the condition they were before the storm.”

2. 50,000+ are in temporary housing

The biggest challenge for Houston is temporary housing. Those evacuated from their homes have been leaving the temporary shelters set up around the area, but many will be unable to return to their homes for months, maybe even years. FEMA has placed 56,000 people in hotels, paid for by the government, thousands of others are staying with friends and relatives. The agency is considering longer term solutions, including mobile homes.

The shelter at the city’s convention center, which at it’s peak housed about 10,000 people and now has about 1,600, will likely remain open until the end of next week, Mayor Turner said in an interview with the PBS NewsHour Wednesday.

But he notes that those still in the shelter likely have few, if any, other options. “It is the hardest population to place,” he said, adding that the city is working on developing a longer term housing plan for those displaced by the storm. “We want to try to provide the most suitable placement for them… and put forth a transitional housing plan that meets the needs of individuals and the families.”

“For those who were homeless prior, we’ll look for shelters in other areas. But the goal is not to increase the population of people who are homeless on our streets than existed prior to the storm.”

3. 8 million cubic yards of debris need removal

Once residents can get back to their homes, there’s there task of getting rid of water-soaked mattresses, couches, and other damaged furniture, plus ruined appliances and other stuff inside of their flooded homes. Then there’s the flooded carpeting, moldy drywall, damaged floor tiles and other debris, not to mention downed trees, damaged shingles and junk that may have just floated into their yards.

The city of Houston is estimating it will remove more than 8 million cubic yards of hurricane debris and flood-related trash at a cost of more than $200 million. Harris County has not yet disclosed figures but FEMA estimates the county and all the cities in it spent $242 million removing debris after Hurricane Ike and this will far surpass the totals from that 2008 storm.

“We’re going to pick it up, and we’re going to operate with the highest degree of urgency,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said. But he acknowledges it will be a “herculean” task to get rid of all the debris, and it will probably take months.

Asked about debris removal at a press conference Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott said “we want to get it removed as quickly as possible,” adding that FEMA is providing funding to speed up the removal process.

The mayor says there are public health concerns about piles of flood debris in city neighborhoods, and if it takes too long to remove it, there could be a negative psychological impact on residents.

How successful the city is in responding to the hurricane is “going to be determined by how quickly we can move that debris from in front of their house,” Turner said. “Because that will be a constant reminder of this storm.”

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett agrees.

“Everybody is fully aware that people want to get on with their lives,” he said. “That’s real difficult to do if you have a whole mountain of debris sitting in front of your yard.”

4. 126,000 homes have severe damage

Ray Blanchette stands in his flooded home in the Nottingham Forrest subdivision of Houston on Aug. 31.

Scott Dalton for NPR

hide caption

toggle caption

Scott Dalton for NPR

Once the water recedes and residents can get inside their homes, the next challenge is assessing the damage and determining if the home is salvageable. The city of Houston estimates 126,000 homes were “severely impacted” by Harvey and the subsequent flooding. There are tens of thousands more homes across south Texas that were damaged or destroyed, but it is far too early for authorities to determine how many of those homes will be inhabitable.

The first thing to do is to check the structural integrity of the home, says Norma Jean Mattei, a professor of civil engineering at the University of New Orleans and president of the American Society of Civil Engineers. She says unlike the flooding from levee breaches in her city after Katrina, “where it was like a bathtub filling up slowly,” she says Harvey floodwaters appear to have risen fast.

“More of the structures were closer to high velocity water, those channels, flood control canal, a bayou or a creek,” says Mattei, who teaches structural design and analysis. “If it was really close to fast flowing water, then some of those structures are going to have foundation issues, possibly.”

“If there is some significant foundation damage, that then would be more likely to require replacement instead of just gutting, drying out and repairing,” she adds.

Those homes that can be repaired, Mattei and other experts say, might have to have walls and insulation ripped out and the house stripped down to the studs, which then will need to dry out.

Depending on how high the water was and how long a home remained flooded, water can soak up into and rot drywall, it can ruin insulation and electrical systems and it can swell or warp wooden floors, doors and trim.

There could be dangers lurking in your home, even after the flood water recedes, says Steve Cain, a disaster specialist at the Purdue University Extension.

“You don’t want to be rushing into your home after a flood,” Cain told the Associated Press. “You can falls through a floor, gas lines could be leaking, electrical systems can be damaged and if the electricity is not shut off, you could get electrocuted … you want to make sure you go back when it’s safe.”

Families are going to need help assessing their homes, says Mattei, who did a lot of pro bono structural assessments of homes after Katrina. “Giving those families the information they needed to make a decision — do we eliminate the house and start from scratch or do we gut this thing an put it back together as is … that can be very helpful,” she says, especially considering that many homeowners will be shell-shocked when they see the damage. “They’re walking into a house and they’ve lost everything.”

5. Painful decisions lie ahead on what — and how — to rebuild

There’s some question about whether some Houston area residents should be allowed to repair or rebuild the most severely flooded homes and apartment buildings at all. Harvey is the third major flood in three years in Houston so many homes have flooded before. Some had recently completed repairs to their homes from flood damage caused by the April 2016 “Tax Day” floods, and some flooded the year before. The city’s somewhat unregulated development has been widely criticized since Harvey as a possible contributing factor to the scope of Harvey devastation. Thousands of homes and many multi-family complexes have been built and many of them rebuilt in flood plains near Houston’s reservoirs, creeks and bayous. Some engineers, urban planners and other experts say it’s time to stop building and rebuilding homes where flooding is likely to happen again.

“We certainly shouldn’t be doing any building in flood prone areas and we should be very careful about building in areas along the bayous,” Mayor Turner said Wednesday in an interview with the PBS NewsHour. “We will continue to grow and continue to develop, but we will do it in a very smart and intelligent way. We certainly can take definitive steps to minimize the risk of flooding. We just can’t continue to do things as we’ve always done it and expect a different result,” he said.

The mayor told reporters Wednesday that the city has started conversations with FEMA about buying out homes and apartment complexes “that are in the flood plain and have flooded repeatedly.” But when it comes to apartments in particular, he says “one of the reasons why those housing units keep getting rehabbed is because there’s not sufficient affordable housing (available).” So buying out those properties would require affordable rental housing to be built elsewhere.

If the government doesn’t buy out flooded homes, those wanting to rebuild may have to meet new FEMA codes or flood control elevations, says University of New Orleans civil engineer professor Mattei. She says FEMA did just that in and around New Orleans and all along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts. “So therein lies the ability to change how neighborhoods are rebuilt if you’re in an area that really had a high level of flooding,” she says.

But she adds a few words of caution; the recovery is going to be a long, and at times frustrating and painful process.

“It’s going to take a while for Texas to recover from this historic event,” and Mattei says one of the biggest lessons learned in New Orleans after Katrina is the need for patience above all else. “The damage may have occurred very quickly but the recovery is going to take a while, and you just have to have patience.”

Let’s block ads! (Why?)