Hurricane Warning

Hurricane Andrew’s winds had a message for the Texas coast.

IF HURRICANE ANDREW had hit a heavily populated area on the Texas coast, how bad would the devastation have been? Worse than in Florida, engineering and insurance experts say. The major problem is that in Texas, buildings outside of incorporated cities get little scrutiny. Repeated attempts by coastal counties to ask the Legislature for the authority to impose building standards have been thwarted. “In outlying areas there are thousands of homes in low-income subdivisions that wouldn’t have made it through Andrew,” says Joe Moseley, a consulting engineer in Corpus Christi. But high-income properties aren’t exempt. “Some of the high rises on South Padre Island that were built before the area was incorporated are poorly designed and poorly constructed,” Moseley says. Back in the seventies, when he headed a now-defunct state agency called the Coastal and Marine Council, Moseley caused a brief ruckus when he described some South Padre buildings as “Tinker Toy” structures.

Cities do have building codes, of course. But are they strong enough to resist an Andrew-type storm, with winds of 145 miles per hour? The widely used building code model calls for structures in hurricane-prone areas to withstand winds ofat least 120 mph seawardof the Intracoastal canal and 105 mph inland. (Some cities, notably Galveston, have higher standards.) But Florida’s codes were undermined by lax inspections: some builders got by with using particleboard instead of plywood and staples instead of nails. Property insurers fear that Texas is no different. “Engineers tell us that the codes are fine. The problem is enforcement,” says Buddy Rogers, who manages the Austin-based windstorm catastrophe pool that insures high-risk coastal property. Safe construction, Moseley and Rogers say, adds just 3 to 5 percent to the cost of a building.

Claim Check

A VERY POLITICIAN seems to be jumping on the national health care bandwagon, but no one seems to know where it is headed. Some recent figures from the University of Texas System health care plan reveal why the issue continues to defy easy solution. The UT plan covers around 68,000 employees and dependents. In the first eleven months of the current fiscal year, it has paid out approximately $95.5 million in claims. Of that amount, close to 20 percent, $18.3 million, went to just 164 people. The obvious conclusion is that the cost of health care is driven up by the extreme cases. The challenge for politicians is to devise a national health care system that covers every extreme case (including people not now covered by insurance) and that costs less than health insurance does now.

Courting Disaster

ANOTHER LANDMARK education-funding lawsuit is scheduled to be argued before the Texas Supreme Court this month, and Attorney General Dan Morales finds himself on the hot spot. Morales’ office is appealing a Brownsville judge’s ruling that the state discriminates against South Texas in funding highereducation, and Morales is under intense pressure from area politicians and business interests to settle the case before the Supreme Court rules. One reason for the pressure is that the plaintiffs—led by MALDEF, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund—have a shaky case: A Brownsville trial judge disregarded a jury finding that there had been no discrimination. More than thirty friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed by support-ers of the plaintiffs. Morales is caught between stayingon the good side of his core constituency and representing his clients, mainly the University of Texas and Texas A&M systems. The universities fear that ifthe state loses, money for new programs in South Texas—and MALDEF wants, among many other things, two medical schools and two law schools—will have to come out of their current budgets. Morales and the universities went public with a $2 billion proposal (not a settlement offer, they say) to upgrade South Texas colleges, but Lieutenant Governor Bob Bullock promptly warned them that no money was available. The problem for Morales is that a victory in the Supreme Court might ruin him politically.

Tags: POLITICS

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