4UPDATE RESPONDING TO
PPE and sanitizer donations, mobile testing sites, and other ways Precinct 4 made a difference. PAGE 14
MEET MERCER'S PLANT HUNTERS
COUNTY GOVERNMENT EXPLAINED Page 12 ELEMENTS OF SCIENCE FALL/WINTER ISSUE 2020
Harris County Precinct 4
Commissioner R. Jack Cagle
THE QUEST FOR RARE PLANTS:
Meet Mercer’s Plant Hunters 6
Know Your Precinct 4 History
Exploring Precinct 4 from the Sky
RESPONDING TO THE PANDEMIC
Behind the Scenes of Precinct 4’s Road & Bridge Department
County Government Explained
What’s Old is New Again: Easy Upcycling Projects to Try Today
Serving the Community
Elements of Science
Rediscovering the Forgotten Akokisa Tribe
Precinct4Update Fall/Winter 2020 Precinct4Update is a biannual magazine available to residents free of charge featuring Harris County Precinct 4’s various events and activities, volunteer opportunities, project updates, news, and much more.
Contact www.hcp4.net 713-274-4050 14444 Holderrieth Road Tomball 77377 Editing Joe Stinebaker Cover photo by Crystal Simmons
Writing Joan Gould Crystal Simmons Taelor Smith Joe Stinebaker Kaci Woodrome
Want to know what’s happening in Precinct 4? Sign up to receive our quarterly calendar! Follow the link below to subscribe online.
Design Grace Diaz
printed on recycled paper
A message from
COMMISSIONER R. JACK CAGLE
'm pleased to bring you another exciting edition of Precinct4Update packed with information about nature, history, science, and updates from your friends in Precinct 4.
As we continue to adapt to life during the pandemic, let's keep in mind the diligent county employees working for you on the front lines. Our cover article offers a behind-the-scenes look at Harris County's Emergency Operations Center and provides updates on how your Precinct 4 team continues to serve the community. Want to make your community a better place? Understanding the basics of local government gives you the power to make a difference. In "Commissioners Court Explained," read about our "one size fits all" form of government, the responsibilities of Commissioners Court, and how to make your voice heard. Find out how your commissioner serves you by providing parks, roads, and other services, as well as how this position relates to Commissioners Court. As many of you know, Precinct 4 contains a treasure trove of history. This issue recognizes some of the historic buildings, cemeteries, and spaces that helped shape our community. Cathyrine Stewart, president of the Kohrville Community Association, shares how her group revamped the long-neglected Amos and Willis Woods cemeteries in "Know Your Precinct 4 History." This edition also offers a glimpse into the lifestyle of the Akokisa tribe, whose members once roamed the land from Spring Creek near Jones Park to Galveston. In recognition of this proud history, Jones Park features a recreated Akokisa village built using the tribe's original construction methods. I encourage you to read the article and check out this unique village in person or virtually. If you love gardening, don’t miss "The Quest for Rare Plants" to learn about the rare plant trade and how staff members at Mercer Botanic Gardens contribute to global plant conservation. "Elements
of Science" highlights Precinct 4's top science programs for both children and adults and details some of our most exciting contributions. This edition also includes fun upcycling ideas and information about your Road & Bridge Department. Read all this and more inside! If you'd like to help shape our next issue, I invite you to submit article ideas, important community projects, and other newsworthy events and concerns to our editor and communications director, Joe Stinebaker, at email@example.com. With your help, we hope to tailor Precinct4Update to reflect your needs and interests because it truly is "for you."
R. Jack Cagle
The Quest for Rare Plants:
MEET MERCERâ€™S PLANT HUNTERS story and photos by Crystal Simmons
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
ong before orchids became America's best-selling houseplant, they enchanted generations of Victorian-era Europeans willing to pay a premium for the exotic import. Beautiful, fragile, and, most importantly, exclusive, New World orchids rivaled art, fine wine, and even precious stones in their collectability. Unfortunately, the only way to find such a species was to fund expensive orchid-harvesting voyages to the forests and jungles of North and Central America. The result was disastrous. Plant hunters robbed entire ecosystems of the plants and nearly ended their occurrence in the wild. As perspectives on plant conservation changed, researchers, conservationists, and botanic gardens banded together to set new standards for acquiring rare plants. Vast networks of botanic gardens arose, and strict permitting laws now regulate collecting plants in the wild. As a result, some of the world's rarest plants now inhabit public spaces like Mercer Botanic Gardens, a 400-acre greenspace with 4,000 different kinds of plants, including 128 species that are rare or endangered. "Botanic gardens trade a lot of rare plants with each other for backups," says Jacob Martin, the greenhouse manager at Mercer Botanic Gardens. "The first thing we usually do when we receive a rare plant is to make a backup for ourselves and then share backups with other botanic gardens so the plant is never lost." Martin is part of a new breed of plant hunter who works to preserve rare and unusual plants. He often heads into the wild to collect seeds from edibles and plants found in jungles, forests, deserts, prairies, and coastal regions. This passion for wild plants has inspired him to take at least eight seed-collecting trips to areas including Ecuador, Costa Rica, and West Texas. Memorable finds include two popular species, Amazon coral tree (Erythrina amazonica), a tree from Ecuador dripping with hot pink, pointed blooms, and a wild papaya tree Vasconcellea cauliflora) in Costa Rica. Both are now growing in Mercer's Tropical Garden. “We grow a lot from seed so it acclimates to our region as it grows,” he says. “If I buy a plant from Florida, it needs to make entirely new leaves to be like Texas leaves. If it grows here from seed, it has a better chance of developing heat tolerance.” Martin also seeks rare plants from commercial growers like Plant Delights and Far Reaches Farm, businesses that work directly with botanists and botanical gardens to sustainably collect seeds in the field. “There are a few nurseries around the country that sell rare plants, and they do quite a lot of wild collecting,” says Martin. “If we need something, we can usually find someone with seeds.”
“We grow a lot from seed so it acclimates to our region as it grows,” Martin said. For more information about Mercer’s Center for Plant Conservation collection, visit bit.ly/update-cpc.
THIS PAGE (LEFT TO RIGHT) Jacob Martin stands next to an itoa tree wild-collected from Far Reaches Farm. Although they aren’t an endangered species, itoa trees are rarely encountered outside of China and Vietnam. Martin gently handles the globally imperiled bailey’s ball moss (Tillandsia baileyi) in Mercer’s greenhouse. OPPOSITE PAGE (TOP TO BOTTOM) Fire-Flame Bush (Woodfordia fruticosa) The moth orchid (Phalaenopsis amabilis) is a common houseplant once considered rare and unusual.
SPECIALTY GINGERS Ceil Dow, a ginger enthusiast, master gardener, and Mercer volunteer, has spent three decades forming partnerships in the gardening community and identifying the best ginger specialty nurseries. She uses this knowledge to secure new gingers for Mercer's collections and plant sales hosted by The Mercer Society (TMS), the nonprofit supporting the gardens. “After the ginger garden was remodeled and then damaged by the impact of Hurricane Harvey’s lengthy flooding, a number of gingers were lost,” she says. “I have kept old records and maps of the gingers in the garden and was able to add plants from my collection. My collection has grown to about 140 varieties, so I am still finding that I have a plant or two to add.” Since becoming a Mercer volunteer, Dow has donated 25 gingers to Mercer's collection, including the rare dancing lady ginger (Globba globulifera) that is native to Thailand. TMS has donated a similar amount, bringing Mercer’s collection to 150 types of gingers, including many scarce varieties. "If we come across a ginger that the gardens do not have, then The Mercer Society tries to donate it," she says. "It is huge fun to find some hard-to-find plants or plants that haven’t been around for a while."
CONSERVING RARE PLANTS At the heart of plant collecting is the desire to increase plant diversity. By sharing rare and native plants, botanic gardens around the world ensure that certain species persist. As Mercer's lead botanical researcher and botanist, Anita Tiller is part of this effort. She maintains a native seed bank and a rare and endangered native plant collection through the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC), a network of 63 botanical gardens, arboreta, and organizations working to promote plant diversity. "Mercer is responsible for nearly 30 plant species in the CPC's National Collection of Endangered Plants, but we shelter many other CPC plants as backups for our partner institutions," she says. "Some of these plants are displayed in Mercer's Endangered Species and Native Plant Garden for the public to view."
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
Finding an endangered species isn't always easy, though. If the plant is scarce, someone must head out into the field and collect wild seeds or propagation material. Wild collectors may be volunteers, researchers, students, or government employees. The elusive Texas screwstem (Bartonia paniculata ssp. texana), a diminutive member of the Gentian family and now part of Mercer's CPC collection, evaded collectors for years until sharp-eyed botanists from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Ft. Worth spotted it during a native plant status assessment. “This annual plant does not regularly make an appearance in the sites where it has been observed," says Tiller. "Separating the tiny dust-like seeds from the seed capsules is a challenge, and our initial germination trials have yet to produce seedlings. Still, we are optimistic." Plant rescues and donations also make up a sizable chunk of Mercer’s collection. As a Plant Rescue Center for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Mercer receives plants that were illegally smuggled into the United States and seized at airports or other ports of entry. One of the more recent rescues includes an endangered cycad from Mexico with sharply serrated leaflets. The plant is so rare that Mercer staff do not reveal its location or label it for fear of theft. IS HOME TO “Cycads are on the top approximately list of plants stolen from botanic gardens,” said Tiller. “Due to that are only theft, some botanic found here. gardens, such as Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, microchip their cycads because so many have been stolen from their collections.” Mercer has also received donated orchids, houseplants, and most recently, two critically endangered Microcycas calocoma cycads, plants that number less than 4,000 in the wild. Not only is the plant scarce, but it's also hard to collect, growing naturally on cliffs and difficult-to-find areas in a small region of western Cuba. As a result, immature plants cost approximately $250, and mature plants go for much more. Once Mercer receives a rare plant, people like Martin care for it while Mercer’s curators work to enter the specimen into a database shared with botanic gardens around the globe. "Texas is home to approximately 400 species of plants that are only found here," says Tiller. "Research and conservation efforts at botanic institutions like Mercer are vital for their survival. Our work at Mercer Botanical Center ensures other botanic institutions are aware of our inventory and have access to it for research and restoration."
p400OF PLANTS n
A great example of this partnership is Woodfordia fruticosa, a heat-loving woody shrub with sunset orange flowers that usually only grows in parts of India and the Middle East. Because of India's tightly regulated plant trade and the difficulty of growing the plant from seed, Woodfordia fruticosa is hard to find in the United States. Despite its scarcity, Martin stumbled upon the plant two years ago online. "It bloomed the first time this year," says Martin. "You probably won’t see this anywhere else in the United States. We only have it because we were able to grow it from seed."
Chinese golden banana (Musella lasiocarpa)
Chinese strawberry tree (Myrica rubra)
Palma corcho (Microcycas calocoma)
ercer Botanic Gardens works with a variety of organizations dedicated to improving plant diversity around the globe, including Botanic Gardens Conservation International. BGCI is the largest network of botanic gardens and plant experts in the world, with more than 625 members working to promote plant diversity. The organization features the only searchable global database of plant taxa and a plant exchange network for botanic gardens. BGCI KEY NUMBERS • 30% (105,634) of all landdwelling plant species are maintained in botanic gardens. • Approximately 41% (28,873) of threatened land-dwelling plant species are conserved in botanic gardens. • 20% (70,423) of land-dwelling plant species are threatened, although recent estimates show that this number now approaches 80,000. • The 625 institutional members of BGCI have collectively raised more than 375,000 rare and threatened seedlings. Learn more about their work at www.bgci.org.
Coyolito de cerro (Dioon spinulosum)
story by Taelor Smith and photos by Crystal Simmons
drive through Precinct 4 may reveal the same types of subdivisions, businesses, construction pockets, and vast areas of farmland found in any other area of Texas. What isn’t so obvious is the centuries of history hidden in northwest Harris County. Precinct 4 is home to nearly 50 historical markers that recognize buildings, cemeteries, and spaces that have played a significant role in the communities in which they’re nestled. Tomball is known for its German founders, and Humble for its oil fields. A lesser-known but valuable historical site is Amos Cemetery on Hufsmith-Kohrville Road in northwest Harris County. Like other historic structures in the area, the cemetery dates to the 1880s, a time when newly freed slaves sought new lives and land to build homes and communities. Monte Parks, Precinct 4 parks administrator, who has
more than 15 years of experience teaching Texas history as a programmer and tour guide at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
Center, says these families only wanted to make an honest living for themselves and their families. “These were freed slaves,” he says. “They didn’t have money to buy land, so they had to come out and work manual labor to save up enough money to buy their own land. After the Civil War, they took up the jobs that people didn’t want to do, hard back-breaking labor, and saved up their money, banded together, and bought land.” Amos Cemetery was founded by a small community of freed slaves from Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi. After migrating to Kohrville, Thomas Amos and his son-in-law, Duncan Kosse (now spelled Cossey), bought the property. About 200 people are buried in the historic plot. Not too far away, the Woods Cemetery was part of a community begun by approximately 10 families who first lived in Piney Point, just west of Houston, after leaving Georgia and Mississippi. When the group decided to migrate further north, it settled on land donated by Willis Woods. The families built a school, general store, church, and eventually a gravesite, Woods Cemetery, just behind today’s Lakewood Forest subdivision near Faulkey Gulley. It didn’t take long for the group to learn that the property they were sold was a terrible place for a community, as the gulley flooded frequently throughout the year. Within a few years, residents of the small area began to move. Willis Woods moved his family to the east side of what is now Hwy. 249, to Tomball. After the move, Woods married Sarah Amos and helped build the Kohrville community. They left behind the settlement near the gulley, including Woods Cemetery. Though most of the stones identifying the gravesites are now weathered or broken, the neighborhood that encompasses the grounds has helped ensure the cemetery is maintained and not forgotten. The Amos, Cossey, Williams, and Woods families still live on part of the property that was purchased in the 1800s by their ancestors. The Kohrville Community Association (KCA) is dedicated to honoring and maintaining the historical grounds of the Amos and Woods cemeteries. Since 2007, its members have rallied the community and family members of those interred to keep their memory alive. As president of the KCA, Cathryine Stewart takes this work to heart, as her parents, grandparents, siblings, and other family members are buried in Amos Cemetery. By organizing fundraisers, hosting community events, and staying involved in the community, KCA members have managed to bring awareness to the cemeteries and other historical sites in the area. Many of the volunteers that assist in maintaining the grounds include neighbors like Joe Beatty, and students from Klein ISD, Prairie View A&M University, and Texas Southern University.
photo by Taelor Smith
Stewart loves when students come to help because of their eagerness to learn. “We really see the value that it adds by them doing this,” she says. “It makes you proud to see young people who want to keep the community clean. The cemetery is like your life history. Even though we have so many family members who have passed on, it’s the story behind those pioneers that came here and bought land, started businesses, and worked to maintain the land around the area for all these years.” After the Lakewood Forest subdivision and the MUD drainage system running alongside the cemetery were built, Woods Cemetery was landlocked, which limited accessibility to the property. To get assistance with this issue, KCA members set out to build a relationship with Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle. It has proven to be beneficial for both sides. “We started working with Precinct 4 about two years ago after attending the Black History Luncheon at that time,” she says. “Mr. Cagle was there, and initially I had been in contact about there being no easement to the cemetery, and he assigned someone to help. After seeing him at another luncheon, I updated him on the situation, and he stepped in immediately to assist and has continued to be a great help with the organization.”
THE HISTORICAL SITES THROUGHOUT PRECINCT 4 ARE ALL OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE FORGOTTEN HISTORY OF RURAL NORTHWEST HARRIS COUNTY. The partnership inspired Cagle to task Precinct 4’s Legacy Trees Project to plant five Battle Oaks near the entrance of the Willis Woods Cemetery in March 2020. KCA members also became more involved at monthly Precinct 4 events. Building such relationships with area historical organizations creates an incredible, tight-knit community that Cagle says he strives to maintain.
Recognition by the Texas Historical Commission often takes several years to complete. KCA historian Joanne Green began the process to recognize Amos Cemetery in 2012. Unfortunately, most of Amos Cemetery’s history has been passed down orally. That lack of documentation slowed the process, but in the end, Green was successful. Knowing the background of German-born Paul Kohrmann – who established Kohrville – and the nearby historical Kohrville Family Cemetery contributed to the wealth of information needed to prove the cemetery’s historical value. Despite the odds, the cemetery succeeded and hosted its dedication ceremony in 2016. There are many other historical sites in Precinct 4 that offer such history. The Fallen Warriors Memorial near the Champions Forest neighborhood is a beautiful space honoring Texans who gave their lives fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, and Operation Enduring Freedom. Moonshine Hill near Humble commemorates the small tent town that developed after the first successful oil well was drilled, in turn creating one of the earliest economies in the area. Like Parks, visitors may find something unique about a historical site. “There are several sites in the Humble area that represent the architecture of the early days of Humble and a lot of the oil field history that is pretty neat as well,” he says. The historical sites throughout Precinct 4 are all opportunities to learn more about the forgotten history of rural northwest Harris County. Area founders did their best to provide a solid foundation for future communities and ample opportunities for growth. THIS PAGE KCA members Diane Starnes, Joanne Green, and Betty Pittman look on together at a grave marker in Woods Cemetery. OPPOSITE PAGE KCA President Cathyrine Stewart waters the newly planted trees at Woods Cemetery.
Exploring PRECINCT 4 FROM THE SKY
story and photos by Crystal Simmons
s a child, Randy Shewmaker built toy airplanes out of junk he found around the house. As he matured, he started experimenting with powered airplanes. "I've been building model powered airplanes since I was about 9," he says. "I was building model parts out of plastic bottles and building stick-and-tissue airplanes that were rubber-band powered. You'd wind them up and they'd go. I got seriously into the RC (radio control) hobby as soon as I could afford it." By then, it was the 1980s, and he was in his 30s. He'd spend Saturdays at hobby shops ogling the merchandise and imagining the possibilities. As soon as he could, he joined a radio-controlled airplane club. "I started out using an AM radio transmitter, which would probably cost $400 today," he says. "I used to like building kits and my own designs, and now I'm into building scale models. They're miniature representations of real airplanes. Some have a wingspan of 5 to 8 feet." Shewmaker is part of an increasingly rare breed of model airplane enthusiasts. The activity is like flying a real plane, only arguably more difficult. Instead of moving with the plane, pilots steer from the ground with a remote control. "You have to be taught to fly (a radio-controlled airplane)," says Shewmaker. "It's difficult, very difficult. It's counterintuitive. When it's going away from you, and you turn it right, it goes right. When it's coming towards you, and you turn it right, it goes left â€“ and this is happening at 80 to 100 miles per hour. You can't think about it. It has to become instinctual." 8
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
Shewmaker says he understands The SPARKS RC Club operates from Precinct 4's Dyess Park, one the appeal. "They have drone racing comof the few local fields where Shewmaker can practice and the only petitions through obstacles," says Shewmaker. model aircraft field in Precinct 4. Unfortunately, as perspectives and habits have changed over the past 40 years, interest in the club has declined. Youth today are more familiar with drones and Amazon than with radio-controlled airplanes and hobby shops, says Shewmaker. New restrictions on radio-controlled airplanes have also driven away some hobbyists. Because the Federal Aviation Administration doesn't distinguish between model airplanes and drones, users of "The pilots use virtual reality both devices must fulfill the same requirements, a burden to some goggles, and there is already a camera on the drone, so they see the enthusiasts. Now most Houston-area hobby world as if they were in the cockpit shops are closed, and the remaining of an airplane. How do you compete radio-controlled airplane hobbyists with that?" It's a good question. The SPARKS are Shewmaker's age. "Everyone seems to be 55 to 85," RC Club is officially open to drone he says. "We've had five members pilots who join the Academy of pass away in the last four years, Model Aeronautics, but making the and very few young members are practice field drone friendly presents challenges. Drones hover while joining." With fewer members joining and airplanes need speed and plenty older members leaving, club mem- of space to fly â€“ more like a soarbership has dwindled "It's difficult, very difficult. ing hawk, explains Shewmaker. A hoverto 55 over the past It's counterintuitive. When ing drone could cause two years from a high problems on the of 120. it's going away from you, field for operators of The trend isn't and you turn it right, it goes radio-controlled airunexpected. Millenright. When it's coming planes. nials and Generation Despite the chalZ came of age during towards you, and you turn lenges, Chris Cavathe era of social the club media, video games, it right, it goes left â€” and naugh, president, looks on this is happening at 80 to YouTube, and Netflix. the positive side. Model airplanes 100 miles per hour. You Although club memrepresent old technology that doesn't can't think about it. It has bership has dwindled, the activity is gel with the lifestyles to become instinctual." still alive and well. of younger crowds. Drones, though, set a new stan- The Academy of Model Aeronaudard for the recreational aircraft tics, the governing body of SPARKS, hobby. When drones hit the market, boasts more than 140,000 members they quickly picked up steam among nationwide. A modern website promoting the tech-savvy and eventually made their way to mainstream users. The discovery flights, tips for beginners, technology revolutionized the way hobby shops, and drone use almost beckons younger generations to people could experience the world. From then on, those once restrict- join. According to Cavanaugh, that's ed to the ground could explore areas the idea. usually reserved for bats, birds, and insects.
"We're certainly wanting to encourage and promote younger people coming to the hobby, and if drones are a way for that to happen, we'd support that," he says. Cavanaugh hopes drone users could come to appreciate the other side of the hobby. He points out that the radio-controlled airplane hobby can boost intelligence by teaching children about mechanics, physics, wind currents, and electronics, and promote family togetherness. He's seen many children take to the hobby at an early age with the right instruction. "It's a perfect way to get kids interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)," he says. "I've seen kids as young as 4 or 5 fly radio-controlled airplanes, and they're really good because they have good hand-eye coordination, and they have a parent teaching them." Most of all, he wants to pass on the skills he has spent decades perfecting. "I've been doing this off and on for the better half of half a century," he says. "It's just a fun thing to do. You learn a lot of skills. You learn how to build, how to maintain, and how to fly. It's a great family sport." Cavanaugh says it takes about $300 to get started, but the club offers resources for those interested in trying out the hobby before investing. He says flight simulators are an excellent way to practice without investing in an expensive piece of equipment. "We're willing to help those with an interest," he says. "If you want to come out and learn to fly, we'll find a way to make that happen." Members fly at the SPARKS RC field on most weekends. For more information, visit sparksrc.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. OPPOSITE PAGE Chris Cavanaugh, president of SPARKS RC Club, shows off his model RV-8 airplane with club member Randy Shewmaker.
Behind the Scenes of Precinct 4’s Road & Bridge Department story by Kaci Woodrome photos by Crystal Simmons
he most important jobs in our society and in our communities are commonly the least glamorous. “It’s not pretty and it’s monotonous, but it’s got to be done,” says Freddie Jebousek, general superintendent for Precinct 4’s Road & Bridge (R&B) Department. With more than 2,700 road miles and 327 bridges, Precinct 4’s 147 R&B employees stay busy. Because the coverage area is so large, much of their work is reactive and dependent on residents who call in work orders to Precinct 4’s Community Assistance Department. Fortunately, the workload is spread across three R&B camps throughout the precinct. The department works to uphold the quality and safety of public roadways by providing concrete and culvert repairs and installation, mowing, road striping, resurfacing and repaving projects, sign repair and replacement, sinkhole and pothole repairs, trash pickup, tree trimming, and more. Most R&B staff have their daily assignments in hand as the sun comes up – or earlier – collecting their needed equipment and supplies before heading out on the road as other businesses are just opening their doors. These assignments must be accomplished regardless of weather conditions, whether it’s a stifling 100 degrees outside or 40 degrees and raining. The department name is slightly misleading, as some residents in Harris County Precinct 4 confuse this maintenance department for one that builds new roads and bridges. Jebousek explains that “it’s any maintenance whatsoever that has to do with the road or the ditch or any sign that you see.” There are three main objectives for the R&B Department’s routine work each day: public safety, flood mitigation, and community aesthetics. 10
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
“Truly, the biggest thing for us is safety,” Jebousek says. “If the grass is so tall you can’t see, or if there’s something in the ditch that could be struck by a mower and hit a car or house, it could be dangerous.” When work orders are called in during the day, a supervisor visits the location to determine the action needed. The sign man for each R&B maintenance facility is typically the go-to employee for anything that can be handled alone quickly. “He’s the one that’s out every day patrolling his assigned area to make sure all road signs are in place,” Jebousek says. “Of course, the key one is the stop sign. That’s the most important one. He also makes sure that the street markers are installed so people know where they’re going, and he replaces old ones or any that are knocked down, because they get knocked down every day. It’s for the safety of all drivers to make sure all the signs are in place.” For other routine work, like mowing or ditch digging, crews usually remain on assignment until the work in one concentrated area is finished. Crews typically follow a route that can take up to four to six weeks to complete and then they start over.
“Tractors don’t go fast, so they stay in that one area and mow until they’re finished and then move on to the next area,” Jebousek says. “It’s the same with digging a ditch with a Gradall. We have one area that’s staked and ready for grade, so they may be there for three or four days.” Constituents call in if they notice standing water in a ditch, which is usually due to sediment and build-up from stormwater runoff that can affect the original grade. If the grade of the ditch doesn’t match the county surveys on record, the R&B crews dig it down and clean the culvert too. “We use what’s basically a big pressure washer that just blasts through the culverts and cleans out all the debris and mud out of it. If you dig the ditch and leave the mud in the culvert, it’s not doing any good – it goes hand in hand,” says Jebousek.
Since then, many have completed Swiftwater Rescue Training in preparation for future disasters in which they will again be called upon as first responders. Day in and day out, Precinct 4 residents can count on dedicated R&B staff to care for the community by helping provide safe, beautiful spaces to live and work. To submit a work order request for road and bridge maintenance, please contact Harris County Precinct 4’s Community Assistance Department by calling 832-927-4444 or visit bit.ly/update-assistance.
“Truly, the biggest thing for us is safety,” Jebousek says. Although it may seem trivial, picking up roadside trash is a crucial public safety service. If there’s a large object hidden beneath debris, a mower could sling it into a passing car or hit a pedestrian. “It’s a safety issue to send a trash crew ahead of the mowers,” Jebousek shares. Coincidentally, it’s a job that meets all three of the department’s objectives by ensuring public safety, alleviating potential flooding, and improving community aesthetics. While most of the department’s goals are met during daylight hours, it may come as a surprise to learn that R&B crews are on call 24 hours a day. “If a tree falls during a storm and blocks the road, we’re the ones that go out there and clean that up. If there’s a wreck at night where somebody knocks over a stop sign or a guard rail, we go out there in the middle of the night and fix the stop sign or put barrels up to block the guard rail. I don’t think people realize that,” Jebousek says. These calls usually come in from law enforcement officials through the county operator. But emergency response for the R&B Department doesn’t stop there. “During a storm, a hurricane, or a flood, or something of that nature, we’re the first ones that go out. We clear the roads before any of the cops and firemen can do their jobs. Before we do any debris removal, we first make sure the roads are passable,” Jebousek says. Acting immediately during an emergency has been second nature for most R&B employees for years – and Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle recognized that even more so during Hurricane Harvey. R&B crews were tasked with high-water rescues using dump trucks and other equipment.
COUNTY GOVERNMENT EXPLAINED
s a county commissioner in Loving County, Harlan Hopper represents maybe 30 or 40 constituents, mostly family and neighbors working the oil fields or ranches of rural West Texas. On the other side of this vast state, Harris County Commissioner R. Jack Cagle represents more people than 10 governors – about 1.3 million people living in the nation’s third-largest county. And while Loving and Harris counties have little in common, one thing they share is their “one size fits all” form of Texas county government. Four county commissioners. One county judge. A treasurer, a tax collector, a sheriff, and a county clerk. In Loving County, people pretty well understand what their county government does and how it works. That’s largely because at one time or another, most residents there have either lived with a county official or been one. And this is a small county after all (population ~ 160), so there really isn’t all that much county officials need to do. But 600 miles to the east, in the sound and the fury of Harris County, there’s ALWAYS something that needs doing. With nearly 5 million residents, Harris County is going places, or just coming back. Work crews are shoring up flood control projects, doctors and nurses are saving lives at county hospitals, and thousands of sheriff’s and
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
constable’s deputies are protecting lives out on the streets. So, in all that craziness, perhaps we can be forgiven if we’re not entirely familiar with the name of our district clerk or with what our county treasurer does. A little more than half of Harris County’s residents live in incorporated cities – Houston, Pasadena, Humble, and the like – and rely on those cities for many of their local government services. But more than 2 million others live in unincorporated Harris County, meaning the county is their only local government. Regardless of whether they live inside or outside a city, though, all Harris County residents rely on the county to provide their courthouses, public hospitals, jails, and flood control. Despite providing these crucial and seemingly high-profile services, county government sometimes slips under the public radar. Most major news outlets devote more time and resources to coverage of Houston city government. As a result, many county residents don’t know how their county government works or who is responsible for keeping such a huge metropolitan area moving.
STORY BY Joe Stinebaker PHOTOS BY Sarah Wiesner
The Texas Constitution doesn’t make it any easier. The state’s founders set up county government as a branch of state government, run by a “commissioners court” composed of five elected officials – a county judge and four commissioners. Despite the titles, the commissioners court isn’t really a court, and many county judges exercise virtually no judicial responsibilities; in fact, the last two Harris County “judges” haven’t even been lawyers. Now that they had the vernacular all in a proper kerfuffle, our state founders decided to take this unique amalgam and impose it on all 254 counties in the state, regardless of size. As a result, you get inequities such as the size of commissioners Cagle and Hopper’s constituencies. Every Texan has two representatives in county government, their commissioner (elected by precinct) and their county judge (elected countywide). Despite serving as the presiding officer of Commissioners Court, urban county judges generally have less responsibility, smaller budgets, and fewer staff than do commissioners, who are typically responsible for building and maintaining county roads, bridges, parks, and many neighborhood services. State law also greatly restricts county government’s authority. While the five members of Commissioners Courts are responsible for creating policy, setting tax rates, awarding contracts, and budgeting for county departments, they are largely barred from passing local ordinances unless explicitly permitted in advance by state law.
Management Office at 1001 Preston, Suite 500, in downtown Houston or submit their request online at appearancerequest.harriscountytx.gov prior to Commissioners Court. Alternatively, speakers may report to the lectern outside the Commissioners Courtroom on the ninth floor of the Harris County Administration Building at 1001 Preston St., Suite 934, in downtown Houston. Speakers are generally allowed three minutes when speaking on a topic within the agenda or one minute on topics not on the agenda.
GET INVOLVED Complete the “Appearance Request Form” In Person: 1001 Preston St., Suite 500, Houston TX Online: www.appearancerequest.harriscountytx.gov
Watch Online www.harriscountytx.gov/Government/Court-Agenda/ Court-Videos www.facebook.com/hcprecinct4
By the Numbers City of Houston
2,064,400 498,300 2,237,300
Other Cities Unincorporated
4,800,000 Total Population Estimates as of 1/1/2019
SOURCE Harris County Budget Office
Like many other political bodies, Harris County Commissioners Court members are elected through partisan elections. Three members – Judge Lina Hidalgo and commissioners Rodney Ellis (Precinct 1) and Adrian Garcia (Precinct 2) – are Democrats; commissioners Steve Radack (Precinct 3) and Cagle (Precinct 4) are Republicans. Controversial issues trigger volumes of inquiries to Commissioner Cagle’s office about how county residents can make their voices heard at Commissioners Court. Commissioner Cagle encourages his constituents to express their views by contacting him at cadir@hcp4. net or calling 832-927-4444. And by law, Commissioners Court meetings are public, so anyone may attend. Those wishing to speak before Commissioners Court are asked to complete the “Appearance Request Form” in the Budget
In the COVID era, however, Harris County has had to make some adjustments. Since March 24, all Commissioners Court meetings have been “virtual,” with each of the five members attending by video from satellite locations. County officials have gone to great lengths to ensure that these meetings function as closely as possible to preCOVID “normal.” In addition to the county’s online streaming of court meetings at www.harriscountytx.gov/Government/ Court-Agenda/Court-Videos, Commissioner Cagle’s office also livestreams court meetings from his official Facebook page at www.facebook.com/HCPrecinct4. Cagle’s Facebook page also allows viewers to comment on the proceedings online. Although these online meetings have resulted in numerous instances of the now-familiar refrain of “You’re muted!”, the meetings have generally been trouble-free. Much of the credit for that goes to Lucinda Silva, the county’s director of administrative services, who is responsible for coordinating as many as 70-75 telephone call-ins from constituents wishing to address the court throughout the meeting.
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
the Pandemic story and photos by Crystal Simmons
ark Sloan didn't see home for 21 brutal days during Hurricane Harvey. He spent mornings and nights shoulder to shoulder with command staff and afternoons and evenings crowded into Harris County's Emergency Operations Center (EOC). By the end of the 2017 storm, the center had swelled from the usual 44 people to more than 500. Those were the old days of disaster management. When the coronavirus pandemic reached Harris County, Sloan cleared out the EOC and sent half his staff home on rotating schedules. "One of the biggest things that came up is that I couldn't have 525 people sitting in the EOC," he says. "I had to tell people they couldn't come, and we have to do this on Zoom calls."
THIS PAGE Brian Murray, the public information officer of HCOHSEM, and Elizabeth Campbell, the social media coordinator, work to keep the public informed in Harris County’s Regional Joint Information Center.
Mark Sloan, the coordinator of HCOHSEM, looks out over a nearly empty Emergency Operations Center during the coronavirus pandemic.
BRINGING PARTNERS TOGETHER
For many Americans, watching the coronavirus devastate Italy was a turning point. Anxiety and fear gripped the nation as friends, family, and coworkers traded tales of martial law and armed soldiers patrolling the streets of Italy. Supply shortages and long grocery store lines became the norm as panicked shoppers stocked up on water and toilet paper. Seasoned emergency managers like Francisco Sanchez, the deputy coordinator with HCOHSEM, also carefully studied the behavior of this novel virus. "One of the things that informed our approach was that we weren't the first, second, third, fourth, or fifth community to deal with it," says Sanchez. "We saw what happened in China. We saw what it was doing in Europe. We saw what it was doing in Italy, Seattle, and other parts of the country. We watched very closely what they were doing, and we wanted to avoid that here." Harris County's first two COVID-19 diagnoses came in early March, not long after a Fort Bend County man tested positive. Harris County Public Health (HCPH) epidemiologists discovered that all of the infected residents had traveled overseas together. They deemed the disease isolated for Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020 the moment.
As the coordinator of the Harris County Office of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (HCOHSEM), Sloan has led responses for nearly 174 emergency activations since 2008, averaging two per month, plus many smaller incidents. Most of his work takes place inside Houston TranStar, a multi-agency campus built to withstand hurricane-force wind, with three backup generators and a 30,000-gallon water filtration system. During activations, Sloan is second-in-command only to the Harris County judge, who is constitutionally charged as the emergency management director. It is Sloan who brings together emergency operations staff, first responders, and partner organizations to work as one unit, capable of addressing significant emergencies and disasters. These incidents range from chemical spills and water main breaks to catastrophic hurricanes and pandemics. No response is ever the same. "Even if they are all hurricanes, there's a difference between Imelda and Ike and Harvey, Rita, and Katrina – they're all different, and we have to be able to react to them," says Sloan. "The same goes for a pandemic." 16
But more were soon to come. Reports started pouring in and by March 11, the City of Houston and Harris County had declared public health emergencies. Sloan and his team moved to Level 1 activation – maximum readiness. A bevy of restrictions soon followed, each more severe than the last. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner canceled the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and County Judge Lina Hidalgo set in motion a series of stay-home orders, eventually requiring masks in public. Public health officials began the scramble to secure tests and open testing sites. With materials in short supply, experts pushed handwashing, social distancing, and face coverings.
"Mitigation is probably the most effective way to address a disaster," says Sanchez. Keeping local leaders and the public informed also became a priority. Emergency operations staff sent out regular alerts and called local leaders and their liaisons daily, passing on infection rates, testing information, and threats. This information, along with guidance from Gov. Greg Abbott, helped shape policies across the county.
Without the public's cooperation, though, the virus would continue spreading. The communications departments at HCPH and HCOHSEM's Regional Joint Information Center embarked on a public information campaign promoting coronavirus safety tips and combating misinformation. "Communication is probably the single most crucial factor that determines our success," says Sanchez. "We can do a great job in the Emergency Operations Center, do all the right things, coordinate all the rescues, get everything our first responders need, and make sure they have all the information they need to do their jobs. But if we don't successfully communicate to the public what they need to do and what we're doing, we have failed that incident." Although the public's response to those messages varied, Sanchez believes strict measures were necessary to save lives. "Mitigation is probably the most effective way to address a disaster, and it's also the hardest sell because we're asking people to invest right now in something that's not happening but has the potential to happen," he says. PRECINCT 4 RESPONDS As news of the worsening COVID situation spread, all four Harris County commissioners canceled programs and closed community centers. Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle redirected staff to areas most in need. Employees sorted food for the Houston Food Bank, conducted welfare checks on vulnerable seniors, distributed masks and hand sanitizer, and organized a mask-making program among community members. He also notably kept all parks open, a rare bright spot in an otherwise dark situation. With most residents confined to their homes, the parks offered an escape from what was for many a mundane disaster. Parks staff worked on the front lines sterilizing offices, equipment, and restrooms up to four times daily and sectioning off high contact areas like playgrounds and picnic tables. Precinct 4 staff stationed at the EOC reported on county needs multiple times a day. Clif Edwards, the precinct’s director of logistics, played a crucial role in providing Precinct 4 resources for the COVID-19 response effort. "My job is to find out what they (emergency operations) want and bring that back to our people," he says. "Our Road & Bridge Department has been helping with things like directing traffic, cone setup, and providing equipment at the testing sites." Emergency managers also studied hospitals to understand their limitations and how they responded to surges in infection rates. In the early days of the virus, those uncertainties spurred Commissioners Court to approve a satellite hospital at NRG Park. When it became clear hospitals would not reach capacity, court members disbanded the facility.
(Story continues on Page 20.)
THIS PAGE (TOP TO BOTTOM) Clif Edwards, Precinct 4’s director of logistics, social distances in the EOC during the coronavirus pandemic. Jan Sexton, the director of Precinct 4 Encore!, works with an HCPH employee to set up a COVID-19 testing site at Lone Star College-Tomball. Trey Pryor packs canned goods while volunteering at the Houston Food Bank.
up·cy·cle /ˈəpˌsīkəl/ verb. To reuse discarded objects or material in such a way as to create product of higher quality or value than the original.
What’s Old is New Again: Easy Upcycling Projects to Try Today story by Joan Gould
hough it’s certainly not a new concept, the term “upcycling” was first introduced in the 1990s and later gained traction with the introduction of digital idea boards like Pinterest and websites like Etsy that emerged as avenues for selling handmade goods. There’s an endless variety of upcycled goods today, ranging from Conex boxes (large shipping containers) repurposed as upscale office buildings or retail stores, patio furniture made from wooden shipping pallets, and even antique silverware refashioned into jewelry. I’ve rounded up a few of my favorite upcycled projects to try, using materials you probably already have at home!
To find resources for recycling in your area, or more ways to repurpose everyday household items, visit www.recycleinfo.org/recycling-harris-county.html. Check out www.hcp4.net/learning for more upcycled project ideas. Post photos of your completed projects to social media using #P4Upcyle.
g Heartwarm in Hedgehog
T-Shirt Dog Toys
Plarn Picnic Mat
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
Upcycled Book Home Décor: Heartwarming Hedgehog How many times have you bought a book, read it once, and added it to your bookshelf, where it sat, never opened again? Dust off those old friends and give them new life by turning them into whimsical home décor accents. If you don’t have extra books at home, secondhand shops are gold mines for once-read books at bargain prices. Supplies • Old book, paperbacks work best • Folding bone (optional) • Glue gun (optional) • Felt, buttons, and googly eyes to decorate the finished hedgehog (optional) Instructions Step 1: Fold each page in half toward the spine. Step 2: Fold the top right corner of the previously folded pages into the spine to create a triangle. Step 3: Remove the book cover or fold it to match the hedgehog shape.
T-Shirt Dog Toys Your four-legged friends can benefit from upcycling too. If you have worn out tees taking up space in your closet, don’t spend a fortune buying new dog toys. Instead, upcycle old t-shirts to make durable dog toys for pennies. Tip: This project also works great with denim! Supplies: • Two old T-shirts • Scissors Instructions: Step 1: Cut the T-shirts into 1- to 2-inch-wide strips, at least 20 inches long for a total of 12 pieces. Step 2: Stack the pieces on top of each other, alternating colors, and tie into a knot. Make sure the knot is tight. Step 3: Divide the pieces into three sections with four strands each and braid until it reaches at least 10 inches long. Step 4: Tie another secure knot at the end of the braid. Step 5: Enjoy playtime with your pooch!
Step 4: Add the eyes, nose, and other felt accessories like flowers or bows.
SCAN THE QR CODE FOR VIDEO INSTRUCTIONS to make a heartwarming hedgehog, plus two bonus upcycled book and paper crafts! bit.ly/update-hedgehog
SCAN THE QR CODE FOR PRINTABLE INSTRUCTIONS! bit.ly/update-dog-toy
Plarn Picnic Mat Unless you’ve made the switch to reusable shopping bags, you probably have a cabinet overflowing with plastic grocery bags. In most areas, plastic grocery bags are not recyclable, so why not turn them into something useful? “Plarn” is a yarn-like material made from plastic grocery bags used to create surprisingly comfortable waterproof mats for picnics or the beach. Some crafters also make plarn bedrolls to donate to the homeless. Volunteers at the Tomball Community Center have been part of the plarn upcycling trend since 2016. After discovering a need for sleeping mats for Houston’s homeless, they began meeting weekly to crochet or weave sleeping mats from grocery bags. The group has made and donated more than 350 mats for area churches, police departments, and the homeless. They recently also started making plarn bags to hold belongings and toiletries.
If you don’t already know how to crochet, visit bit.ly/3cFECcI to watch a simple tutorial for beginners.
Supplies: • Grocery bags (a full-size mat uses approximately 900 – 1,000 bags) • 10mm or larger crochet hook Instructions: Step 1: Cut the handles and bottoms off each grocery bag, then cut each bag into four strips, which will look like loops. Step 2: Connect the loops making one long string of plarn. Step 3: Begin crocheting. For a blanket-sized mat, crochet about 48 inches across, and add crocheted rows until the mat reaches the desired length. Step 4: Tie a knot to finish the mat and hide the knot.
SCAN THE QR CODE FOR VIDEO INSTRUCTIONS! bit.ly/update-plarn 19
(Continued from Page 17.) As more tests became available, county health officials deployed mobile testing sites across the county and began aggressive contact tracing. Jan Sexton, Precinct 4’s director of Encore! senior programs and community centers, used her experience in disaster management to work with health officials to bring additional testing sites to Precinct 4, including Mangum-Howell Center, Barbara Bush Library, and the Lone Star College Creekside Center. "Precinct 4 Encore! has partners across the precinct that provide venues for our luncheons, dances, and bus trip pick-up locations," she says. "They graciously provided some of these locations to us as testing sites." Meanwhile, the uncertainty of the situation challenged leaders at every level of government. The novelty of the virus, paired with a lack of widespread testing and dubious information from other countries, left epidemiologists debating infection rates, fatality rates, and the reproduction rate of the virus. With data in short supply, leaders turned to the only clear indicator available: hospitalization rates.
As recently as mid-July, Harris County’s more than 4.7 million residents were continuing their battle against the worst of the pandemic . . . "There are known viruses that we have medication for and know how to treat, and there are viruses that are evolving, and we don't know how to treat them," says Sloan. "And we have to adapt to that until a vaccine is developed. That's the type of event we're dealing with for COVID – the unknown." Sloan says emergency managers and the public now have a better understanding of how to fight the virus. Masks, handwashing, and social distancing are now second nature. "As we've seen, restaurants and other activities can begin to open as long as we understand the risks and take precautions," he says. "But we didn't know that when we activated. There were things we had to learn and understand." As recently as mid-July, Harris County’s more than 4.7 million residents were continuing their battle against the worst of the pandemic and searching for a way to cope with the virus. Sloan remains hopeful that the public has the tools to recover. "As people have said, it's an invisible killer," he says. "There's an invisible war that's ongoing against the coronavirus. But now we are more on the offensive than the defensive." 20
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
The Community story and photos by Crystal Simmons
hen Italy went under lockdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, a photo of dolphins swimming through the brilliant blue canals of Venice soon began circulating online. Although the photo turned out to be fake, it held a sliver of truth: nature was healing. As cities around the globe shut down, air pollution decreased, family togetherness increased, and the outdoors experienced a renaissance. In Precinct 4, parks not only stayed open, they attracted new visitors. Though trips to work and retail centers decreased by 35%, Google data showed a 13% increase in visits to Harris County parks, dog parks, and gardens from March 29 to April 17. The trend isn't unexpected. Experts have long promoted nature as a mental wellness tool that relieves depression and soothes anxiety. At a time when cases of both reached record highs, parks provided an escape, a place to spread out and explore nature without fear. "We have witnessed people who had never biked the greenway trails, taken a kid fishing, ventured down a nature trail, or explored our white sand beaches along Spring Creek," says Precinct 4 Parks Director Dennis Johnston. He says more people are leaving their homes to fish along Spring Creek and Kickerillo-Mischer Preserve's Marshall Lake, to explore the forested trails of Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center, and to picnic among the wildflowers at Pundt Park. "Kayaking and canoeing are up, equestrian ridership is up, and visitors are discovering beautiful places they never knew existed at the end of a trail," he says. Johnston and his staff also watched people adapt to another way of life that's both kinder to nature and beneficial for humanity. Many companies abandoned traditional office life for telework, leading to less traffic, clearer skylines, and increased family togetherness. "All of a sudden, we didn't have to get the kids to soccer practice, dance class, and piano lessons," says Johnston. "The three hours we used to spend commuting in traffic became more time to spend with our families.
THIS PAGE (LEFT TO RIGHT) Chris Whitmeyer with Whitmeyer’s Distilling Co. and Julio Torres with Global Healing donate hand sanitizer to first responders. Diane Aceves with Precinct 4 Encore! helps sort food at Mangum-Howell Center after receiving a food delivery from the Houston Food Bank.
"Perhaps this ugly virus made us take a second look at rediscovering what is important in life and guess what? Right there under our noses, we found that local parks are important to maintaining our mental and physical well-being." READY TO SERVE While the parks department addressed the influx of visitors, other Precinct 4 employees served the community, too. As Harris County came to a standstill, Commissioner R. Jack Cagle canceled all Precinct 4 recreational programs, closed community centers, and sent employees out into the community to serve. Although most disasters in Harris County involve weather events, the COVID-19 pandemic required a different approach. Jan Sexton, the director of Precinct 4’s Encore! senior programs and community centers, leads a team of bus drivers, trip coordinators, community center staff, and event planners, all who work with adults older than 50. Given this expertise, the team handled a large portion of the relief effort, says Sexton. "We're not moving trees and power lines and rescuing people from high water," she says. "We're dealing with a health crisis and a worldwide pandemic. Our response has to be social-service oriented. And that's where my team excels." Encore! employees shifted from providing trips and recreational activities for older adults to helping feed the hungry. Staff members volunteered with the nonprofit CrowdSource Rescue to deliver food to vulnerable adults and visited the Houston Food Bank to help sort and package approximately 42,000 meals a day. Thanks to the close partnership between Encore! and the Houston Food Bank, Mangum-Howell Center was converted into a food sorting center. After a month, staff stationed at the sorting center had processed more than 23,000 bags of food.
To identify seniors who may suffer from food shortages, health problems, or mental illness, Encore! employees made nearly 16,000 care calls through June, each call lasting 15-30 minutes. Calls resulted in multiple food delivery signups and provided seniors a reprieve from the monotony of quarantine. And sometimes it was just nice to hear a caring voice, some of the seniors reported. Encore! Assistant Director Cyndi Hill worked with local seamstresses and nonprofits to make masks for the public and nonprofits, while others sourced donated disposable masks. By June, Precinct 4 staff members had given more than 31,500 masks to the public, local churches, partner sites, and chambers of commerce. Landon Reed, the assistant director of the precinct’s Community Assistance Department, worked with Whitmeyer's Distilling Co. to bring thousands of gallons of hand sanitizer to nonprofits, schools, and first responders across Precinct 4. Dozens of other Precinct 4 employees worked together to serve more than 2,700 vehicles at an all-day food and supply pick-up event at the former Pinemont Park and Ride. The precinct’s Road & Bridge Department directed traffic during the massive event and helped load and unload all the food and equipment. As the economy continues to recover, Precinct 4 employees are looking toward the return to normality, resuming limited programs and activities. But with no cure in sight, Cagle says Precinct 4 staff members stand ready to serve. "I want to thank these essential staff members who worked throughout this dangerous pandemic to serve their community," says Cagle. "They provided food for the hungry, phone calls for isolated seniors, and provided necessary supplies to our first responders. Although we don't know how long the virus may linger, I know that we can persevere if we remain united."
Elements of Science story by Joan Gould photos by Suzzanne Chapman, Grace Diaz, and Sarah Wiesner
he Houston-Galveston area topped the charts during the 2020 City Nature Challenge, an annual worldwide citizen science competition documenting urban biodiversity through the smartphone app iNaturalist. The Houston-Galveston area logged more than 27,000 observations and 3,300 unique species. Citizen science opportunities like the City Nature Challenge invite the public to experience science in a simple, straightforward way that has lasting impacts on monitoring and improving biodiversity, water conditions, and other ecology aspects. With its abundance of flora, fauna, and fascinating water ecology, Harris County Precinct 4 is a prime location for anyone with an interest in science to explore and learn about nature. Participating in citizen science is only one of the ways Precinct 4 facilitates scientific exploration for both children and adults and is making significant contributions to the scientific community. POWERS OF OBSERVATION Kris Linberk, Precinct 4 Trails As Parks (TAP) director and naturalist, brings an extensive educational and professional background in science education to Precinct 4. Before coming on board with TAP, Kris taught at the university level in Ecuador and worked for the state of Connecticut helping develop the “No Child Left Inside” curriculum, a program that strives to eliminate “nature deficit disorder” and connect kids to nature and the outdoors. “I live, breathe, and eat this stuff,” Linberk says. She incorporates her passion for nature and education into not only science-based programs like aquatic walks and dissection activities, but also canoeing, fishing, and geocaching – the core of Trails As Parks programming. “On a regular basis, we’ll put little nuggets of information for participants to digest as they can. When we do aquatic walks, it’s essentially a rapid bioassessment. We call it something a little bit more fun, a little less intimidating, but they’re still doing essential science,” Linberk says. TAP tailors these activities for the public, also offered as field trips for schoolage children to coincide with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) curriculum. Linberk says this provides a unique opportunity for children to learn concepts like animal adaptations, which they wouldn’t typically experience until later in their school career through activities like dissection. “It’s hard to teach interconnectivity and help kids understand that these aren’t separate learning boxes, that everything is a chain reaction, and by doing that in the field it solidifies this concept. It’s practical learning, rather than theoretical,” Linberk says.
THIS PAGE Kris Linberk demonstrates the diversity of aquatic life found in Precinct 4 identifies the organisms using a dichotomous key. OPPOSITE PAGE Jason Naivar conducts a water quality test of Spring Creek as part of the Texas Stream Team.
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
“When they get to delve into the muck, literally, and pull out all of these creatures and critters and identify them using dichotomous keys and identification kits that have been developed by stream ecologists, they really focus on the power of observation, the most fundamental skill in any science-related field.” Practical, hands-on learning is also integral to the programming at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center. A unique water ecology workshop led by Jason Naivar, an education program coordinator and naturalist, is available to the public and as part of the Gulf Coast Master Naturalist training. Naivar holds a degree in marine science and has experience in outdoor education, offshore environmental consulting, and marine biology, bringing a wealth of knowledge to Jones Park. And he is passionate about sharing his knowledge of the outdoors with others. ". . . partnerships are so important in citizen science and
science education in general,” Naivar says.
“New Gulf Coast Master Naturalists come out for a three-part science training,” he says. “We start with a water ecology presentation, then head to the aquatic lab for macroinvertebrate identification and hands-on water ecology exploration. We look at things like water chemistry for dissolved oxygen and pH, total dissolved solids, turbidity, and water temperature.” After the hands-on water ecology exploration, the group takes a pontoon boat tour along Spring Creek for a local ecology survey. Participants practice forming hypotheses and conclusions on a variety of topics like water quality and ecosystems based on their observations. At Jones Park, Naivar emphasizes that the benefits of science education are amplified by partnering with other organizations. “I’m always trying to reach out to other groups with expertise who are willing to share their time, because although we know a lot, we don’t know everything. I think that’s why partnerships are so important in citizen science and science education in general,” Naivar says.
Learn How You Can Get Involved! Visit the following Precinct 4 locations to find upcoming science-related programming. Trails As Parks www.hcp4.net/tap 713-274-4201 Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center www.hcp4.net/jones 281-446-8588 Mercer Botanic Gardens www.hcp4.net/mercer 713-274-4160 Kickerillo-Mischer Preserve www.hcp4.net/kmp 713-274-4299 23
CONTINUED EXPLORATION Science education in Precinct 4 continues beyond programs for kids and Master Naturalists. Unique internship opportunities are also available for college students interested in a science-based career. Interns with Precinct 4 learn and conduct research in various fields, participating in the planning and presentation of public programs. Many of them have also made significant contributions to the scientific community.
“I think it really surprises people what is in this building that’s a great service for the whole community,” says Suzzanne Chapman, Mercer’s botanical collections curator. "A few years ago, University of Texas student Edwin Umanzor worked to germinate the Neches River rose-mallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx), a rare, Texas-native hibiscus," says Anita Tiller, Mercer Botanic Gardens botanist. Mercer recently partnered with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to introduce the rare plant into the wild. Tiller explains that this species tends to quickly hybridize, so placing it near another hibiscus risks compromising it as a pure, rare species. Mercer Botanical Center is also making significant contributions to the scientific community through partnerships with Botanic Gardens Conservation International and other botanic organizations. “I think it really surprises people what is in this building that’s a great service for the whole community,” says Suzzanne Chapman, Mercer’s botanical collections curator. “Through Botanic Gardens Conservation International, we periodically upload our living plant inventory database that is shared with hundreds of botanic gardens worldwide,” Chapman says. “Other researchers contact us if we have information or plant material that will benefit their research." THIS PAGE (LEFT TO RIGHT) Neches River rose-mallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx) and specimens from the Mercer Botanic Center. OPPOSITE PAGE (LEFT TO RIGHT) Arielle Fike, former intern and current BCI staff member, and "Mosquito assassins" (Toxorhynchites rutilus) in larva stage.
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
Chapman says that research stretches the gamut from seed collecting protocols to genetic research, which they don’t do at Mercer, but the information is valuable to other partners, some of which have entire genetics facilities. Sharing seeds from Mercer’s rare plant seed bank has assisted graduate research projects at University of California, Davis; University of Wisconsin-Madison; and soon, Texas A&M University. Results from graduate research expands what is known about rare species. “As a network, we work together and share resources,” Chapman says. Precinct 4's Biological Control Initiative (BCI), a division of Harris County Precinct 4 that researches and develops natural mosquito control methods, has a strong relationship with Lone Star College Biotech Institute, offering internships to biotech students interested in studying science-related fields. Former intern and current BCI staff member Arielle Fike made significant contributions to the BCI program during her internship. "Arielle led one of the initial studies in comparing two vastly different rearing protocols for Toxorhynchites rutilus, one of the biological control agents in development,” explains Anita Schiller, BCI program director. "In the old model, we could not guarantee an output number. We would guesstimate and hope for the best,” says Schiller. “The precision of the new model allows us to establish and meet quotas.” CITIZEN SCIENTISTS IN THE COMMUNITY In addition to citizen science projects like the City Nature Challenge, and year-round contributions to iNaturalist, Precinct 4 staff and residents participate in several other citizen science projects like Project FeederWatch, a program through Cornell University’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology. By collecting data about birds that visit strategically placed feeders, participants can help scientists make long-term trend conclusions. Another project managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, called eBird, documents bird sightings to provide scientists with important information that can help determine the range and habitat of certain bird species. The information also provides valuable information for conservation efforts.
As avid supporters of citizen science, Linberk and Naivar contribute to the Texas Stream Team, hosted by the Houston-Galveston Area Council (HGAC).
Citizen science and science education are critical components to future scientific research and advancement. This citizen science program trains participants to conduct comprehensive water quality tests, including turbidity, pH, dissolved oxygen, and bacteria levels in various water sources, like Spring and Cypress creeks. “The Texas Stream Team offers more eyes on the community so the HGAC can get a bigger picture of what is going on and find the pollution sources in our local watershed,” says Linberk. Water quality information submitted to HGAC is available for the public to view online. Data points, when monitored over time, provide information used to change legislative or public behavior. A recent BCI pilot program known as Aedes Predator Pod (APP) enlisted citizen scientists to take home a pod of juvenile “mosquito assassins” (Toxorhynchites rutilus) to observe and submit data to the staff at BCI. “General feedback told us the project provided an engaging and interesting opportunity to become involved and served as a springboard to further scientific curiosity,” Schiller says. “After the inaugural phase, we gathered sufficient information to make necessary changes to the protocol.” An article published in the Florida Mosquito Control Association’s Wing Beats examined BCI’s APP project and how other mosquito and vector control departments can use that model for outreach efforts and tracking results in the community. Citizen science and science education are critical components to future scientific research and advancement. By providing more eyes on nature than what professional scientists alone can offer, the observations and reports provided by citizen scientists are invaluable to the scientific community and are a great way for the public to take an interest in the nature around them.
To learn more about how to get involved in citizen science, check out some of these online resources and apps. iNaturalist “Contributions to iNaturalist give a snapshot of the biodiversity in various regions and help both the public and scientists identify and locate various species. Data entered into iNaturalist is shared with data repositories like the Global Biodiversity Information Facility to help scientists find and use your data.” www.iNaturalist.org eBird Use eBird to document bird sightings that provide scientists with important information used to determine range and habitat and contribute to conservation efforts. www.ebird.org Project FeederWatch Track visitors to your feeders and help scientists collect data to make long-term trend conclusions. www.feederwatch.org Texas Stream Team A team of trained volunteers helps to monitors water quality by observing and recording data from our local water sheds. www.h-gac.com/texas-stream-team/default.aspx
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
Rediscovering the Forgotten Akokisa Tribe story by Taelor Smith photos by Crystal Simmons
f all the activities to experience at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center, a trip to the Akokisa Indian Village may be the most memorable. From the moment hikers head down the forested Homestead Trail and cross the threshold to the Redbud Hill Homestead, they’re treated to a hidden world preserved in time. The Akokisa were a sub-group of Atakapa-speaking natives who inhabited coastal prairies of southeast Texas. They lived undisturbed for many centuries until European exploration brought change to the region. Although Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca was the first to notate them in the 1530s, a French officer named Francois Simar de Bellisle gave the most detailed account of the tribe. Writings from these explorers depict the Akokisa as a hardy people well-known for tanning bear skins and traveling in giant cypress wood canoes. Jones Park staff member Jason Naivar says when faced with opposition, they could be fearless warriors. “De Bellisle was the first to document that when the Akokisa were victorious in battle, they would eat the flesh of the fallen warriors or chief,” Naivar says. “They did not do this for sustenance, but instead for a spiritual reason. Some accounts claim it was to absorb their power, while others state it was to keep their enemies from the afterlife. It is still being debated to this day.”
COLONIZERS FORCED THE AKOKISA OUT OF THE REGION WITHIN A SHORT TIME, THOUGH EVIDENCE HAS SHOWN TRIBAL MEMBERS WERE ABLE TO MERGE WITH OTHER NATIVE AMERICAN GROUPS IN EAST TEXAS. As nomads, the Akokisa traveled from Spring and Cypress creeks to spend summers near Galveston Island. With the change in location and technological advancements, food sources varied. In their earlier days, between 100 and 800 A.D., the Akokisa hunted deer and bison, but as time went on, their diet grew to include aquatic shellfish. Wild edibles were a mainstay in their diet, as they foraged nuts like acorn, black walnut, and greenbrier root that were carbohydrate-dense. Colonizers forced the Akokisa out of the region within a short time, though evidence has shown tribal members were able to merge with other Native American groups in east Texas. Jones Park staff, led by former Precinct 4 employee Carmine Stahl, first broke ground on the Akokisa Indian Village in 1987. Stahl researched the tribe extensively to recreate the village. Darlene Conley, the director at Jones Park, says Stahl’s in-depth findings helped create new programs that connected history and nature. “He knew so much about Texas history, wildlife, and wild edibles, and that’s how we based a lot of our programs here at Jones Park, by tying in Texas history with nature and how the two go hand-in-hand,” Conley says. When exploring the Akokisa Indian Village, visitors will find a council lodge, lean-to, brush arbor, chief’s hut, chickee, and sweat lodge. What’s remarkable is that park staff used historically accurate methods and materials to build the structures. 27
Experts believe the Akokisa tribes lashed together tree saplings by burying the ends and tying them to bend at the top. More young trees were laid horizontally around the structure to serve as a frame, and then strategically covered by palmetto fronds and bound with sinew. These dome-like dwellings, known as “wikiup,” were sturdy, yet mobile. More importantly, the structure provided protection from rain and shade from the heat. To maintain the structures, Jones Park staff use materials found in the park and a nearby oil field to rethatch the village structures each year. NATIVE AMERICAN HERITAGE DAY Precinct 4 honors the Akokisa and many other local tribes during Native American Heritage Day. First held at Jones Park in 2018, the event continues to grow significantly and is now hosted on the second Saturday of September annually. The celebration boasts activities that accurately reflect Native American culture, including dances by the Chikawa Aztec Dancers, animal tracking, archery, and basketry. Naivar says attendees often leave with much more knowledge and interest in Native Americans. “A lot of Texas history taught in schools only hints at Native American heritage, and is mostly about colonial events and people,” he says. “When visitors find an event where they’re able to learn about a different culture, they want to get involved.” There’s always so much to learn and appreciate while journeying the trails of Jones Park. Visitors are welcome to travel back in time to the days when Native Americans ruled the land. The village is open to the public each Wednesday and Saturday from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Live demonstrations of early settler’s skills are held on the second Saturday of the month at the same time.
Precinct4Update Spring/Summer 2020
“A lot of Texas history taught in schools only hints at Native American heritage, and is mostly about colonial events and people,” said Naivar.
THIS PAGE (TOP TO BOTTOM) A young boy learns about materials used by early settlers at Native American Heritage Day. Chikawa Conroe Aztec Dancers perform in traditional Native American regalia and headdress.
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