The Basement Tapes

Muni Channel disaster drill: Keep to the high ground!

Some things are just common sense for those of us who've spent a lifetime on this spongy coastal plain overlaid with spiderwebs of concrete and steel, and prone to periodic drenching.

We don't have subways like East Coast cities, and most homes here don't have basements. The few who do have rooms below ground level mostly use them for recreation or guest space with expendable furnishings. The reason: H2O has a mind of its own.

Early in the last century, folks of means who built in the bayou-bracketed zone now encircled by the Loop took that extra step of elevating house structures on concrete blocks, effectively adding another two feet of flood insurance. It's called pier-and-beam construction. As suburbs later raced beyond the horizon, developers cut costs and built ground-level concrete slabs, forfeiting the safety margin and bringing the street to the front door.

Office towers rose ever higher. Their subterranean spaces between support pylons became a convenient place to put vital but unsightly electronic and maintenance functions. Upper-floor rooms with a view went to executives, not techies and electricians.

The illusion that nature has been conquered on the Gulf Coast led to the ultimate hubris that Allison exposed: computers and laboratories full of experimental animals quartered below ground in the Medical Center; manuscripts and irreplaceable musical instruments stored in the bowels of the downtown arts complex; low-level air-intake shafts that flooded the new Criminal Justice Center. And structures our grandfathers' generation commissioned, like the county civil courthouse, made it through the deluge largely untouched. The more that Houston's design and engineering community learns, the more it seems to forget about the nature of the place.

Take, for example, the City of Houston's Municipal Channel. The cable operation funded by millions in cable franchise fees provides four channels feeding a 24-hour stream of educational and public information. You'd think such an invaluable civil asset in times of emergency would be situated in a place as invulnerable to the elements as could be managed. And until late 1999, the Muni Channel production facilities and studios occupied a third-floor suite at 601 Sawyer, not far from Buffalo Bayou but high above the reach of floodwaters.

Meanwhile, the city had purchased Houston Lighting and Power's former downtown headquarters and spent millions in a controversial renovation project. Because 611 Walker was a short walk from City Hall, officials got the bright idea to relocate the Muni Channel to this newly christened Bob Lanier Building. But where to put it? Well, wasn't there already a studio space in the sub-basement that the light company had used for media productions?

As hard as it may be to believe postdeluge, no one associated with the move seems to have asked a single question about the wisdom of putting a TV station in a second-level basement. Dan Jones, the former City Hall jack-of-all-trades who served under four mayors, had a role overseeing the Walker building project. He recalls that former councilwoman Martha Wong complained about different city agencies having their own production outfits, "and the idea was to put Muni in a place where all the departments could use it as a production outfit."

During the process no one raised the issue of possible flooding, says Jones.

"The fact of the matter is all of the engineers and all of the architects in the entire city of Houston felt that level was flood- safe, as evidenced by the city of Houston's tunnel level."

After the city purchased 611 Walker, officials belatedly discovered structural design flaws. "So we went back in and spent several million dollars for hurricane protection," recalls Jones. "There was an enormous amount of thought put into storms and that building. The issue of that level flooding was not brought forward by the architects and engineers and storm experts."

In retrospect, Jones admits that anything on the third floor of the Sawyer Street Building "is more safe than anything you put in the basement."

As of last week, the Muni Channel's four services -- including broadcasts of Houston Independent School District and Houston Community College programming -- remained off the air, with a somewhat understated notice that the channels were "experiencing technical difficulties."

A quick tour of the trashed basement with Muni Channel officials puts some perspective on those "difficulties": an estimated $2 million in damaged or destroyed equipment and furnishings -- and a large part of the staff out of work for the 40 to 60 days necessary to find and relocate to new digs. Limited broadcasting will resume from temporary facilities this week.

Operations manager Dwight Williams recounts the call he received from technicians inside the station at 2 a.m. on June 9. Water had begun running down the basement walls and into the main studio.

"I told them cover up everything 'cause this is some kind of leak and we'll work through this. Then they called me back and said, 'Look, we're in ankle-deep water here.' " Williams ordered the crew to shut everything off and evacuate. By then, water pouring in from the ground-floor level had been joined by another inundation flowing from the City Hall Annex through the tunnel system and into the basement. Two weeks later the area was still drying out.

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