When criminal defense attorney Murray Newman woke up on the morning of Tuesday, May 26, he felt simultaneously relieved that he didn’t have any cases on the docket that day and worried on behalf of the attorneys who did.
Newman knew that if this were a typical morning, lawyers, judges and the rest would be at the Criminal Justice Center, home of the Harris County District Attorney's Office and site of 37 criminal courts. But Newman also realized that the previous night’s hours upon hours of torrential rain might mean that the center was currently languishing in water. He was right: The center and the tunnels connecting it to 1201 Baker and 701 North San Jacinto (both jails) had flooded, and there wasn't official word yet as to whether attorneys and their clients — some of whom had to leave their homes at the crack of dawn, for fear of arriving after the 9 a.m. docket call and having their bonds revoked — should show up for their day in court.
To some, including Newman, the flood and its aftermath raise questions about the decentralized nature of the courthouse’s communications with the public during natural disasters.
“There was no way to notify people of what was going on,” Newman said of the morning of May 26. That lack of communication poses a safety threat to defendants, he added, some of whom “will risk the high water to make sure they don’t risk getting put back into custody,”
Judge Kristin Guiney took it upon herself to tell anyone she could reach that morning that her court was closed that day. She posted a message to her Facebook wall, where her friends, including attorneys, could see it:
Meanwhile, Guiney fielded texts from other judges, who told her that they, too, had decided to temporarily shut down their courts. Guiney continued sharing the updates on her page until 7:30 AM, when the administrative judge decided that the center was officially closed. Two hours later, county officials met to address how to move courthouse proceedings forward. Why the justice center waited until 7:30 to make the call is unclear. Other county offices, like the tax assessor, sent out notices by 6:20, and the city sent out closure notices shortly before that.
On Thursday, May 28, the Harris County Sheriff's Office ushered 519 inmates through the tunnels, purged and scrubbed of bayou muck, to the Juvenile Justice Center, where 280 of their cases were disposed.
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When asked about flood-related emergency plans, Tom Gilliland of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office cited a deal that Harris County has with neighboring counties that states that if all of downtown is flooded, buses will move inmates from Harris County to jails in those other vicinities. But for that plan to come into effect, Gilliland said, the county would have to find itself in “a really catastrophic disaster.” He offered nothing in the way of an emergency plan for events like last month’s flood. “The flooding took us by surprise,” he said.
The thing is that the flooding shouldn’t have come as a surprise: The Criminal Justice Center, which sits a mere block and a half from Buffalo Bayou, has flooded during natural disasters before. Two years after the new building was unveiled in the fall of 1999, Tropical Storm Allison ruined its generators and lodged a refrigerator in its basement rafters, leaving attorneys to recover their belongings with the help of inmates and flashlights. Court was cancelled for a week, and the center was closed for a year. Nine years later, Hurricane Ike hit Houston, steeping the Criminal Justice Center in a sea of sewage.
“I think these disasters are a reminder that we need to do a better job developing an emergency plan for alerting the public about closures to avoid a situation where we’re putting somebody’s safety at risk,” Guiney said. “There has to be a better way.”