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What the Harvey needs are from the state

It’s not just about recovery. The long term needs, including mitigation against future events like Harvey, is where the real money will need to be spent.

More than one month after Harvey’s deluge hit, local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, testified at a state House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing that more than $370 million worth of debris removal and repair work on more than 50 government buildings has strained local coffers, necessitating quick aid and reimbursement from the federal or state government.

They also emphasized what likely will greatly exceed the costs of immediate recovery: how to prepare for the next storm. That could include billions of dollars for large-scale buyouts, a third reservoir on Houston’s west side, a reservoir on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County and hundreds of millions of dollars to jump start bayou improvement projects that have slowed in recent years without federal funding.

“There’s going to come a time where we have taken all the money from the feds, we have gotten all the money we’re going to get from the state, and we’re going to have to decide: What kind of community do we want to be?” Emmett said at the hearing.

Harvey’s record-smashing rainfall and floods damaged more than 136,000 homes and other buildings in Harris County and killed nearly 80 people across the state.

The Texas House Appropriations Committee and Urban Affairs Committee met at the University of Houston on Monday to understand public costs and where reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. Congressional appropriations were being directed in the storm’s wake.

Emmett, Turner and Fort Bend County officials testified, as did Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, who is coordinating the state’s recovery efforts. The heads of several other state agencies also testified.

The hearing came just three days after Gov. Greg Abbott visited Houston and presented Turner with a check for $50 million. The check almost immediately was spoken for, Turner said, mostly for debris removal and insurance costs.

Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Houston, said Harvey, in theory, qualified as the “perfect reason” to use the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” a savings account comprised of billions in excess oil and gas taxes.

Abbott had indicated as much last week but said he would tap existing state emergency funds and reimburse them from the Rainy Day Fund when the Legislature next meets in 2019.

“Before the Legislature acts, we need to ensure what the expenses are that the state is responsible for,” Zerwas said.

Yes, that would be nice to know. There were other hearings this week as well.

The first order of business, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the House Natural Resources Committee, needs to be a flood control plan for the entire state — and the Gulf Coast in particular.

The Texas Water Development Board is already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan, with the help of $600,000 state lawmakers gave them earlier this year. Lawmakers haven’t yet promised to back any of the projects that end up in the plan.

Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said Harris County intends to put together its own flood control plan in the meantime, add up the costs of its recommended projects, then see how much the federal and state government want to contribute. He said he’ll be the first to push for a local bond package to make up the difference.

Property taxes are “the most miserable tax created,” Emmett said. “But it’s what we’ve been given to work with so we don’t have a choice.”

Emmett said Harris County’s plan likely will include another major dam to catch runoff during storms and relieve pressure on two existing reservoirs, Addicks and Barker. Those reservoirs, which filled to historic levels during Harvey, flooded thousands of homes that may not have been inundated with additional protections.

Emmett and the city of Houston’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, suggested the state tap its savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for such a project, estimated to cost at least $300 million. (Gov. Greg Abbott has said lawmakers can tap that fund in 2019 or sooner if they need it for Harvey relief; so far, he has written Houston a $50 million out of a state disaster relief fund.)

Costello said Texas should also consider creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support flood control projects similar to one the state’s voters approved in 2013 for water supply projects.

So far all of the talk is constructive, and even Dan Patrick is doing his part. The real test will be whether we follow up on any of this when the Lege reconvenes. Also, while this doesn’t directly answer my question about the SWIFT fund, but it does clearly suggest that it’s not intended for this kind of infrastructure. Which makes sense, given when it was created, but I had wondered if there was some flexibility built in. I would hope there would be plenty of support for a similar fund for flood mitigation.

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