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Abbott versus Houston on Harvey funds

I have three things to say about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott blasted the city of Houston for its response to Hurricane Harvey Wednesday, critiquing what he described as a lack of sound financial planning and sluggish progress repairing flooded homes.

The governor’s assessment, which he delivered in two terse letters Wednesday, was prompted by a request Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and 55 other Gulf Coast mayors and county judges sent Abbott on Tuesday, requesting state help meeting the local match for a key federal disaster mitigation program.

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is a standard aid process triggered after every federally declared disaster. In the case of Harvey, Texas will receive about $1.1 billion in mitigation funds, $500 million of which is available to local governments now. Local leaders must compete for the dollars and provide a 25 percent match to fund selected projects; FEMA covers the other 75 percent.

“The states of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Georgia and Colorado have provided for local matches in situations utilizing HMGP,” the 57 Gulf Coast leaders wrote to Abbott. “We ask that the state of Texas make a similar effort in joining local jurisdictions as a partner in flood mitigation.”

Abbott, in his response to Turner, said he had worked to ensure local governments could use federal block grants to provide that match.

“Texas Department of Emergency Management has received zero applications from the city of Houston to access this funding, meaning there is hundreds of millions of dollars sitting on the table for your use,” Abbott added. “It is perplexing that you are seeking more funding when you have shown no ability to spend what you already have access to.”

This response confused and angered some local officials. Not only are the mitigation funds subject to a competitive application process, they said, but the hundreds of millions of dollars Abbott referenced are the exact funds they are seeking the governor’s help in matching to be able to use.

[…]

Emmett added that using federal block grants for the mitigation program — something Abbott mentioned in another recent letter to county officials — would cannibalize dollars needed for home repairs and additional infrastructure projects.

“It defies logic as to why you’d take federal dollars and, instead of using them for the purpose of relief and prevention, you’d use them as your local match for other federal dollars,” Emmett said.

Emmett said he was taken aback by Abbott’s letter to Turner.

“The tone of the governor’s letter is troublesome, and I don’t think it recognizes reality. All of us are merely seeking to speed up recovery and to take the burden off local taxpayers,” Emmett said. “Why that deserves a lecture I don’t know.”

In addition, Emmett and Turner said, the governor only selectively referenced the federal notice that authorizes the use of block grants as matching funds. The same filing also stresses the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s efforts to “promote policies that require state and local financial participation to ensure their shared commitment and responsibility for long-term recovery and future disaster risk reduction” and states “HUD expects grantees to financially contribute to their recovery through the use of reserve or ‘rainy day’ funds, borrowing authority, or retargeting of existing financial resources.”

“’Rainy day fund.’ That was an interesting choice of words that HUD used,” Emmett said.

1. As we know, the state’s “rainy day fund” is more properly known as the Economic Stabilization Fund, and it was originally intended as a way to stretch revenues during lean economic times, so that the budget didn’t have to be cut in drastic or harmful ways. That purpose more or less went out the window in 2011 when Rick Perry unilaterally declared that the fund could not be used to help with budge shortfalls because we needed to make sure it was sufficiently flush in the event that emergency funds were needed to recover from a natural disaster. You know, like Hurricane Harvey. As much as I decry the Perry decree about the rainy day fund and grind my teeth when I hear people on my side buy into that framing, I have to say that it does make for a very easy to grasp criticism of Greg Abbott. We have a rainy day fund, and it doesn’t get any rainier than Harvey, so why aren’t we using it?

2. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Abbott is completely right in his criticism of Mayor Turner and all the other local officials who reached out to him for help. Which do you think makes for better politics, writing a bitchy, scolding letter that airs a bunch of grievances about how these local officials failed to follow bureaucratic processes correctly, or swooping in like a rich uncle and making a show of cutting red tape, providing cash, getting things done, and aiming your criticism at the feds for dragging their feet? I think you can guess which option I’d choose. Maybe that’s only something a guy like Abbott (or Perry) does when there’s a Democrat in the White House to serve as the bad guy, I don’t know.

3. Like Campos, I’d like to know more about what not only Judge Emmett thinks about all this, but also the Republican officeholders on the ballot here whose electoral fortunes will be at least somewhat connected to Abbott’s in Harris County. As you know, I already think Dems here are poised to do well this fall. If I’m right, then the main hope for survival may be to put a little distance between oneself and the less-helpful-than-he-could-be Republican Governor.

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will consider calling a special election for August 25 — the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey — to ask voters to OK a massive bond referendum for flood control projects.

The amount of the referendum has yet to be determined as the county continues to assess its needs and as other funds, including as federal grants, become available. At least three members of Commissioners Court said Friday they envision a measure that could reach $2.5 billion.

[…]

The referendum could help finance property buyouts, as well as a range of infrastructure projects, such as the widening and deepening of bayous or the construction of a much-discussed third reservoir in northwest Harris County.

Tuesday’s vote follows months of wrangling over the logistics of holding the bond election, including the cost of holding a special election and the ideal date to ensure voters turn out to support the measure.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Friday said he supports presenting the bond referendum to voters during the November general election, when turnout is expected to be considerable as voters weigh in on mid-term congressional elections.

“Without evidence of a clear path to victory for a summer-time bond election, which is likely to have low turnout, I have serious reservations about the proposed August date,” Ellis said. “The future of Harris County hinges on the success of this flood bond.”

It also is not yet clear what the bond referendum will include. Harris County Flood Control District Director of Operations Matt Zeve said that would be determined after Tuesday’s discussion at Commissioners Court.

County officials have said the necessity for bond money grows as federal grants pour in to prepare the Houston area for future floods or to recover from Harvey, many of which require a sometimes hefty financial match from local governments.

“The risk is that they may allocate the funds elsewhere and, thus, become unavailable for our region,” Emmett states in the proposed letter to Abbott.

See here, here, and here for the background. I get the reason for wanting to do this as quickly as possible, as grant money may get grabbed up by other places before we could approve a November referendum. August is a weird time for an election – looking at the County Clerk election result archives, the only August date I see is in 2014, for a special election runoff in SD04, which is only part of the county.

The last election that wasn’t in March or May or November that included the entire county was the 2003 Constitutional Amendment special election, which included the infamous tort “reform” measure and which was done in September specifically to reduce turnout from the Houston area, since we had an open seat Mayoral race that November. Turnout for that, which was a state election and not a county election, was 238,334, or 13.38% of registered voters. We have more registered voters now, but that percentage would still put us south of 300K. Compare that to the November 2014 general election, which had 688,018 voters, which was still only 33.65% turnout. I’d bet on November this year being closer to 800K voters, and likely a lot more Democratic than either of those other two contexts.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a need to get this done, and the one year anniversary of Harvey as a rallying cry, but a smaller electorate that may be more likely to not support any kind of spending measure. You also need Greg Abbott’s approval to hold this election, which you’ll probably get but is still an unknown factor. On the other hand, you could have a November vote with a bigger and likely friendlier electorate, but you risk losing out on some grant money, and maybe that much farther away from Harvey people will feel less of a sense of urgency to do something, or at least something that may be historically big. All things considered, my preference is still November, but we’ll see what Commissioners Court decides.

Flood tunnels

It’s so crazy, it just might work.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is exploring the possibility of building several massive, deep tunnels aimed at keeping storm water out of flood-prone neighborhoods and carry it underground for miles to the Houston Ship Channel during major storms.

Never before tried around Houston, the project likely would cost several billion dollars and it is not clear where the money would come from, officials said. Specialized machines methodically digging 100 to 200 feet underground would take several years to complete the tunnels, which would seek to drain floodwaters from bayous across the county.

Officials with the flood control district said the idea could be a bold answer to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, and dramatically improve Houston’s defenses against deadly floods where other strategies have fallen short.

“What the flood control district has been doing for decades doesn’t occur fast enough or it doesn’t have the benefits that the public really wants,” said Matthew Zeve, director of operations at the flood control district. “We’ve been challenged to try to think of new ideas and new strategies and this is an answer to that challenge.”

[…]

A feasibility study is expected to cost around $400,000 and be completed by October.

News of the proposal fueled optimism and skepticism Friday — optimism that Harvey finally could force radical changes to Houston’s flood control strategy, and skepticism that such a monumental project could be accomplished when much less ambitious ideas have languished for decades.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, said in a statement he is “encouraged” the flood control district “is thinking outside the box and plans to conduct a feasibility study on this proposal. It certainly seems like this type of project could be partially funded by FEMA hazard mitigation grants and, perhaps, through other federal sources, as well.”

Houston’s flood czar, drainage engineer and former city councilman Steve Costello, said the project could be a potential paradigm shift for the region’s flood risk.

“We’re trying to lower the risk; we’re never going to be able to totally eliminate the risk,” Costello said, referencing efforts to improve drainage through local projects. “Well, a tunnel system, quite possibly, could eliminate the risk.”

As expensive and complex as it would be – Costello said he was told it could cost perhaps $100 million per mile, in Houston’s soils – he said tunnels may be the most cost-effective way to achieve the gold standard of 100-year storm protection in every major channel.

Jim Thompson, regional CEO for engineering Giant AECOM, said the tunnels are “worthy projects” that warrant further study, but said officials ought to prioritize long-identified projects along bayous and city streets first.

“Would it provide the cure-all relief that everybody is seeking? No,” Thompson said. “Would it provide a noticeable decrease in flood levels and risk of flooding? The answer is possibly yes.”

There’s a connection to Elon Musk in all this, because of course there is. Other cities, like Tokyo, have similar tunnels, so the idea is neither crazy nor unprecedented. But like all things, until and unless there’s a budget and an appropriation, it’s just an idea. Commissioners Court has approved the feasibility study, so we’ll see what they come up with.

Houston’s flood mitigation priorities

The sooner the better with this.

Stephen Costello

Converting a defunct golf course and dormant landfills into detention basins, digging new channels and buying out or elevating scores of homes are among Houston leaders’ key priorities as Hurricane Harvey recovery funds begin flowing to the Texas Gulf coast.

Houston flood czar Steve Costello on Wednesday presented to city council a list of 13 projects Houston plans to submit to state officials in competition for the first $500 million of an expected $1 billion in FEMA mitigation aid released after Harvey.

The projects would cover a handful of watersheds and would cost a combined $723 million, according to preliminary estimates.

“There’s a lot of variables here. We, first of all, need to see if the state is willing to support them,” Costello said. “These projects all collectively are about $700 million and there’s only $1 billion for the entire state, so some of these projects won’t make the list.”

Costello said he expects to submit initial paperwork to the state on the first group of projects within days. As state officials agree the submitted items are worthwhile, he said, the city will return to drafting the more detailed grant applications — including cost-benefit analyses required by FEMA — that are due in June.

[…]

Costello said he selected projects based on their potential impact, the opportunity for the city to partner with other governments to complete them, and the extent to which the projects were ready to be built quickly. Many of the ideas, he added, existed before Harvey but have gotten renewed focus since the storm.

Click over to see the list. The priorities make sense, as does the idea of partnering with other entities where possible. Not everything will get funded, but you have to assume we’ll get a lot of what we’re asking for. And what we don’t get, the state will need to step up and fill in. We can’t afford not to take this very seriously.

So where are we on Harvey response?

Stuff is happening.

Local and state leaders are moving toward a major, lengthy and costly overhaul of the region’s flood defenses that includes regulating developmentmassive buyouts of flood-prone properties and flood-prevention projects that have been discussed for decades but never built.

Few of the initiatives will be complete before hurricane season starts in June, but nearly six months after Hurricane Harvey ripped through the Texas Gulf Coast and devastated the nation’s fourth-largest city, leaders are seeking to address long-ignored shortcomings laid bare by one of the most intense rainstorms in U.S. history.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he can write a check for a third reservoir to better protect areas west of Houston from inundation as well as attempt to avoid the types of releases from Addicks and Barker dams that swamped Houston downstream during Harvey.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to join Harris County in strengthening regulation on the region’s rapid development to protect the city’s population from floodwaters and alleviate the burden on taxpayers to repair and rebuild flood-prone properties.

Harris County leaders want a major bond issue – and a corresponding increase in property taxes – this year to pay for bayou drainage projects and, possibly, broad buyouts in flood-prone areas.

There’s also broad support for legislation that would require buyers of property in reservoir flood pools, which are dry much of the time, to be notified of flooding risks; 30,000 homes have been built in the flood pools of Addicks and Barker, and many owners say they had no idea they were living in an area designed to hold water during times of heavy rain. More than 9,000 of those homes flooded during Harvey.

Some of the local response has been slowed as officials waited to see what Congress will be willing to fund, a logjam that started to break late in the week with the approval of nearly $90 billion for victims of this year’s storms and natural disasters – much of it for recovery, not prevention. But state and local officials tell the Houston Chronicle they remain committed to broader improvements.

That was written before the Congressional budget deal was reached, so that obstacle should be removed, though it’s still not totally clear what that will mean. County Commissioners will need to figure that out for the bond referendum they’re planning. There are now more FEMA funds available for recovery, which is nice but makes you wonder why it took so long.

It’s a little hard for me as someone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey to judge if “enough” progress has been made. My friends who were flooded out are still dealing with it; one family is about to move back into their repaired home, which was damaged by the dam releases, another has made the decision to sell and live elsewhere, others are in similar places. I can’t speak for them, but we will all have the opportunity to listen to them as the elections approach. I have to assume that every elected official is going to have to answer for his or her actions and decisions during and after Harvey. I feel like this could be a point of weakness for Greg Abbott, and I think that Andrew White’s campaign ad touting his actions during Harvey is a smart move. It’s too soon to say how much of an effect Harvey will have on November – I don’t get the sense that it’s a difference maker in the primaries, but at least on the Democratic side that may be because no one disagrees with the notion that more can and should have been done to aid the recovery and mitigate against future floods – but it will be there. The time to take action to shield oneself against charges that one’s response was inadequate is rapidly running out, if it hasn’t already.

Harvey’s lingering health effects

It’s going to be a long time before we can really say we have put Hurricane Harvey behind us.

Three months after Hurricane Harvey, local health officials now are beginning to see the storm after the storm.

In Harris County and the other hardest-hit regions of Texas, 17 percent of those who had houses damaged or suffered income loss report that someone in their household has a new or worsening health condition. A sweeping new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation shows a similar proportion feels their own mental health has worsened.

“We’re not anywhere near the end yet,” cautioned Dr. Cindy Rispin, a family physician with the Memorial Hermann Medical Group in League City.

Researchers surveyed more than 1,600 Texans in 24 affected counties to gauge their personal recovery. The report released Tuesday found a region still reeling in ways obvious and hidden.

[…]

More than four in 10 residents surveyed for the “Early Assessment of Hurricane Harvey’s Impact on Vulnerable Texans in the Gulf Coast Region” report said their homes had hurricane damage. Three percent reported their homes were destroyed.

Among those whose homes were damaged, nearly half said they had homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, but only 23 percent had flood insurance.

“We’re going to see foreclosures hit. It will probably be people that financially were in a tight spot already,” real estate agent Matthew Guzman said in a recent interview.

Perhaps most ominous is the quiet toll Harvey is still taking, months later, on people’s physical and mental health.

Worse, many storm victims were already uninsured in a state that leads the nation in those without coverage. Even those with coverage complained they cannot afford health care, especially as longtime doctors are no longer nearby when people become displaced. About six in 10 say they have skipped or postponed needed treatment, cut back on medication or struggled to get mental health care.

An executive summary of the poll, with links to all the poll data, is here. Some sobering facts from the summary:

About half of those who have applied for disaster assistance from FEMA or the SBA say their application is still pending or has been denied, and many of those who were denied say they were not told the reason for the denial and were not given information on how to resubmit their application. About a quarter of those whose homes were damaged say they had any flood insurance. Four in ten of those who were affected say they expect none of their financial losses to be covered by insurance or other assistance.

The financial situations of most people affected by Harvey are tenuous. About half of affected residents say they have no savings whatsoever, and another quarter say that if they lost their job or other source of income, their savings would be exhausted in less than 6 months.

Nearly half of affected residents say they are not getting the help they need to recover from the hurricane. Particular areas that stand out where residents say they need more help include applying for disaster assistance and repairing damage to their homes.

Local, county, and state governments receive high marks from residents for their response to Hurricane Harvey so far. Residents are more mixed in their views of how the U.S. Congress has responded, and responses tilt negative when it comes to President Trump’s response. Four in ten affected residents are not confident relief funds will benefit those most in need.

I wish I could say people are being needlessly pessimistic, but I can’t. ThinkProgress and the Trib have more.

Texas v the feds, disaster recovery funding edition

This would be quite entertaining to watch, if the stakes weren’t so high.

Texas Republicans on Friday panned the White House’s latest disaster aid request, with Gov. Greg Abbott calling it “completely inadequate” for the state’s needs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

President Donald Trump’s administration was quick to respond, calling on the state to pony up its own dollars to help with the recovery.

Unveiled earlier Friday, the request seeks $44 billion from Congress to assist with the Harvey aftermath, as well as the recoveries from other recent hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While not final, the number is far less than the $61 billion proposal that Abbott had submitted for Texas alone to Congress last month.

“What was offered up by Mick Mulvaney and [his Office of Management and Budget] is completely inadequate for the needs of the state of Texas and I believe does not live up to what the president wants to achieve,” Abbott said at a Texas Capitol news conference called to unveil a $5 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The president has told me privately what he’s said publicly, and that is that he wants to be the builder president,” Abbott added. “The president has said that he wants this to be the best recovery from a disaster ever.”

In Washington, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the amount in the request — and put the onus on Texas to tap its funds for Harvey recovery.

“Up until this point, Texas has not put any state dollars into this process,” Sanders told reporters. “We feel strongly that they should step up and play a role and work with the federal government in this process. We did a thorough assessment and that was completed and this was the number that we put forward to Congress today.”

See here for the background. I would just note that the Republicans have been working hard at passing a huge tax cut for billionaires, so there hasn’t been much time for small stuff like this. Priorities, you know.

There’s one other thing to consider here, which I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere yet, and that’s that this could turn into a big political liability for the Republicans, from Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz to the various members of Congress. The campaign ads write themselves: “Your party controls the government, and you couldn’t get anything done to help with the recovery. What good are you?” Maybe Abbott can survive that, against a low-profile opponent, but I sure wouldn’t want to be John Culberson or Ted Cruz and have that hanging around my neck. Maybe Trump and Congress get their act together on this and turn this into a positive for their team. They certainly have the incentive for it. They just don’t have the track record, or the ideological impulses. Keep an eye on it, that’s all I’m saying. A statement from Mayor Turner is here, and the Chron has more.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for federal Harvey recovery money

Settle in for the long haul.

It could be months, if not years, before southeast Texans and scores of counties and cities receive federal funds to pay for the long-term rebuilding and recovery of homes and communities battered by Hurricane Harvey’s epic rains.

Federal Emergency Management Agency money for short-term relief like debris removal and some house repairs is already flowing to people and government agencies. But state lawmakers were told Monday that Housing and Urban Development disaster relief funds, which includes money for extensive home repairs or rebuilds, could take seven to 32 months to work their way through bureaucratic processes and several layers of government agencies.

“It could be some time,” Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush told the House Urban Affairs Committee.

[…]

People affected by disasters receive HUD disaster relief funds, which are distributed as grants from various government agencies and non-profits. Before the government agencies can disperse the money, they must develop an action plan that HUD approves. The public must also have a chance to comment on the plan, a process that can take 30 to 60 days. Texas officials have asked that time period be reduced to seven days.

State officials told lawmakers that immediate FEMA payments are for homes that are up to 50 percent damaged. Long-term HUD disaster relief funds cover homes damaged beyond that threshold, they said.

Beth Van Duyne, the regional HUD administrator for Texas and four other states, said the agency is working to fast-track all processes.

“What we’re trying to do is make those time periods in between as tight as possible, realizing people need help today,” she said in an interview with The Texas Tribune last month.

The funds also come with certain limitations on how they can be spent and who should receive them. Congress approved $7.4 billion in HUD disaster relief funds last month. But that may have to be shared with Florida and Puerto Rico, which have each been hit by hurricanes in the weeks after Harvey battered Texas, unless legislators approve another aid package.

State officials said it could be November before HUD releases allocations and the stipulations on how such funds can be spent. From there, the state’s General Land Office plans to work with metropolitan planning organizations to develop disbursement plans and determine how to divvy money up across such a wide swath of the state.

Part of the deliberateness is just that you need to know who needs how much for what. You want funds to go to those who need them, so you have to do some due diligence. That’s one reason why it’s necessary to have funding from multiple sources, including the state, since different agencies and commissions and whatnot can attack various aspects of the overall need. In the meantime, we’re asking for more from the feds, and we’re going to need that and still more beyond it. It’s not just the things that need to be rebuilt, it’s people’s lives. So much of that is harder to see up front, but we’ll see the effects of it for years, if not generations.

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.

More on recapture and the Rainy Day Fund

There are some conditions that have to be met to get our recapture money back.

Houston Independent School District won’t have to hand millions of dollars to the state to spend at other schools if HISD needs that money to recover from Hurricane Harvey, but the district will have to apply for that money, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Friday.

The same goes for any of the roughly 250 school districts in declared disaster areas that are required to pay so-called recapture payments to the state as part of the “Robin Hood” program that siphons money from property wealthy school districts to give to property poor ones.

Morath, who leads the Texas Education Agency, said school districts will need to apply for the funds with the state and pay any recapture money not need for Harvey recovery. First, districts will have to exhaust their insurance and federal aid before trying to tap that money, he said.

“They have to have exhausted all their other funding sources first,” said Morath.

See here for the background. I get it, we want to make sure that all sources of recovery revenue are fully tapped. Let’s just make sure this doesn’t turn into a reason to nickel-and-dime the school districts, or to bury them under paperwork. The priority is the kids and their schools and teachers. We should not lose sight of that.

In related news, the state may make a bigger commitment to helping school districts recover.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Education Commissioner Mike Morath signaled Wednesday that the state will use rainy day funds to help schools saddled with Hurricane Harvey-related expenses, but the chances are slim that the state will delay state standardized tests planned for next spring.

Patrick, a Houston Republican, made vows to close to 45 superintendents from storm damaged areas in southeast Texas that he would support holding funding at current levels for school districts losing students due to Harvey, and for increasing money for school systems gaining displaced students.

[…]

Morath’s statements came one day after Patrick met with superintendents vowing state aid for storm-related costs not covered by insurance or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The promise came during a meeting Tuesday between Patrick and administrators of school districts affected by flooding.

In a press release sent late Wednesday, Patrick doubled down on that support, but stopped short of promising the state would cover all costs not covered by insurance plans and federal agencies.

The state aid could help prevent deep financial cuts in the hardest-hit school districts, and it could keep districts’ “rainy day” funds intact. Several districts, including Houston and Aldine ISDs, dipped into their reserve funds this year to balance their budgets.

In a statement, Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said Patrick “made it clear that it was his goal for districts to be made whole financially, both in terms of funding related to student attendance and facility repairs.” District officials don’t have an estimate of storm-related costs, but Kingwood High School, home to 2,800 students, will be closed for at least several months due to flood damage.

“The state’s intent to protect schools will help make a very difficult year more manageable, and we are encouraged,” Fagen said.

I’m glad, but I’m not inclined to take Dan Patrick’s word on anything, so I’ll want to see how this plays out. I can’t think of a good reason why the state shouldn’t completely fill any gaps that are left by insurance and the feds. There’s plenty of money in the Rainy Day Fund, and using it in this fashion would help districts avoid painful cuts or possibly tax increases. There needs to be a commitment to getting every district, school, and student back to where they were before the storm. If that’s asking for a lot, well, Harvey did a lot of damage. Are we going to shrug our shoulders, or are we going to be up to the challenge?

Emmett calls for changes to county’s flood strategy

Good to see.

Judge Ed Emmett

Calling Tropical Storm Harvey’s devastation a “game-changer,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Monday called for a sweeping reexamination of the region’s flood control strategy, a process that could include billions of dollars to upgrade aging dams, building a new storm water reservoir and ramping up regulations to tamp down booming development in flood-prone areas.

The set of options outlined by Emmett on Monday, if implemented, would be the biggest change in decades to how the Houston region protects against its perennial rains and floods. Emmett said everything would be on the table, including large-scale buyouts, banding with surrounding counties to create a regional flood control district and seeking authority from the state to levy a sales tax to pay for what likely would be a massive initiative.

Emmett, a Republican who has served as county judge since 2007 and largely is seen as a pragmatist, likened the changes to a post-flood push in the 1930s that led to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District and the construction of the Addicks and Barker dams on the city’s west side, which today protect thousands of homes of homes, downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“We can’t continue to say these are anomalies,” Emmett said. “You’ve got to say, ‘We’re in a new normal, so how are we going to react to it?'”

Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and frequent critic of Harris County’s flood control strategy, was encouraged after hearing Emmett’s comments Monday.

“This is the single best piece of news I have heard post-Harvey from any elected official,” said Blackburn, who has sued the county on several occasions and co-directs Rice University’s center on Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters. “I would like to hear every one of them say that.”

[…]

Included in the options Emmett outlined Monday were buyouts, not just of individual homes, but whole tracts of land. He said a wish-list of homes that are not already being targeted by projects, such as the upgrades on Brays Bayou, could cost $2.5 billion.

A regional flood control district could be modeled after the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, created in 1975 to oversee the conversion from well water to surface water after sinking ground alarmed residents and public officials.

Emmett said given the repetitive flooding, the 100-year standard the county uses to design projects and regulate development, would need to be reexamined.

“We basically had three 500-year events in two years,’ he said.

An additional reservoir and a levee in the northwest part of the county to back floodwaters from Cypress Creek – both part of the options Emmett outlined – had been part of an original U.S. Army Corps plan when it built the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Those projects failed to materialize, however, and land costs became prohibitive as people moved in.

As we now know, this includes a bond issue of up to $1 billion. On top of that, Commissioners Court has filed an application with FEMA to buy out some houses in high risk areas. Emmett has also mentioned federal funds for some projects, which state officials are also seeking, reallocating the county budget to put more of an emphasis on flood mitigation, and maybe asking the Lege to provide another revenue stream such as a sales tax. Some of this may now be mooted by the bond issue, and some of it may be discarded for lack of support. The important thing is to get the conversation started, so kudos to the county for that.

Council to hold hearings on proposed tax rate increase

Here’s your chance to be heard.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council set the ball rolling Wednesday on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed 8.9 percent tax rate hike to help fund Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey, in what would be the first hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The council voted to schedule three public hearings on the issue, which is expected to reach a formal vote on Oct. 18.

Those hearings will be held at City Hall on:

Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 11 at 9 a.m.

[…]

The mayor said his staff will work over the next two to three weeks to better estimate what the insurance policies will cover, what the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse, and what the city will be left to pay itself.

After that review, Turner said, the proposed 8.9 percent increase could be reduced.

See here for the background. Campos says he wants specifics. Sounds like we ought to have them by the end of this process. I note in passing that the Harris County GOP has put out a statement opposing this proposal. I say no trash collection for them until all the Harvey debris has been carted off, too.

Mayor seeks one-year tax hike for Harvey cleanup

This stuff isn’t going to pay for itself, you know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask City Council to approve an 8.9 percent hike in the city’s tax rate this fall to help Houston recover from Tropical Storm Harvey, in what would be the first tax rate hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The average Houston homeowner would pay $118 more in property taxes next year under the proposal, which will begin a series of public hearings later this month and reach a formal vote in mid-October.

The tax rate would rise from 58.64 cents per $100 of appraised value – the lowest city tax rate since the late 1980s – to 63.87 cents. That was the rate from 2009 through 2013, when a 13-year-old voter-imposed limit on Houston’s property tax collections first began forcing City Council to cut the rate each year to avoid bringing in more revenue than was allowed.

Turner is able to propose an increase beyond the strictures of the revenue cap – allowing the city to collect an extra $113 million for one year – because Harvey placed Houston under a federal disaster declaration.

“If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is. What we’re able to recoup from one year, the $113 million, will not even be enough to cover the expenses we will have incurred,” Turner said Monday. “What we don’t get from the feds we’ll have to come up with ourselves. I would be not doing my job if I did not advance it.”

Debris removal could cost more than $200 million and will require Houston to foot 10 percent of the bill without being reimbursed. The city also lost 334 vehicles to floodwaters and saw its municipal courts complex, city hall and its adjacent annex and two wastewater treatment plants knocked offline.

[…]

If adopted, the higher rate would take effect only for homeowners’ January 2018 tax bills. Come the following January, the emergency period would end and the city’s tax rate again would be dictated by the voter-imposed cap, which limits the annual growth of Houston’s property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston and key revenue cap proponent, said he wants to speak with the mayor to remind him that homeowners’ assessed values are rising, meaning a tax rate hike would amount to a double increase.

Bettencourt refrained from outright criticism of the proposal and praised much of the mayor’s response to the storm. He urged caution on the tax proposal, however.

“The rate is just one half of the equation. The other half is how much the value has gone up,” he said. “This is a delicate public policy issue because we’ve got Houstonians that are literally flooded out of their homes and many people have been affected so they’re not in a position to pay the bill easily, much less if it increases.”

The average Houstonian in a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption sends $1,321 to City Hall annually. Turner’s proposal would see that bill rise by $117.86 next year.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Thanks to the revenue cap charter amendment, this can only be a one-year increase. The rate will be what we had from 2008 to 2013, so it’s not like this is some unprecedented assessment. The city can’t run a deficit, and it can’t borrow money without getting authorization from the voters. The property tax rate is basically the only mechanism the city has to raise this kind of money. The city will get some federal funds, but it may not have control over their appropriation, and some of those funds as noted in the story are contingent on the city putting up money as well. Lord only knows what the state will pay for, and the county will do its own thing.

The point here is that the city has some big unexpected bills to pay. It has to pay for a lot of overtime for police officers and firefighters who were rescuing people during the floods and who are dealing with aftereffects like traffic control. It has to pay for a lot of overtime to Solid Waste employees who are working to pick up the enormous piles of trash around the city. Your taxes are going up by a couple hundred bucks to pay for this. If you have a problem with that, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I can’t abide that kind of thinking.

Some people will say that we should find costs to cut instead. I will remind you that the vast majority of the city’s expenses are for personnel, and in this particular case the extra unbudgeted expenses are largely for overtime pay. Unless you think all these people should have worked for free, this argument is nonsense. Every time a government entity faces a budget shortfall, I hear people justify cutting programs and services as “shared sacrifice”. In my experience, most of the people who say that aren’t themselves sacrificing much of anything. The difference between those cuts and this rate increase is that this time the bulk of the sacrifice is being felt by a different crowd. If you don’t like it, maybe keep that in mind for the next time.

To address Sen. Bettencourt’s concern, I’m fine with exempting the people who were flooded out from the rate increase. If you filed a FEMA claim, you get to be assessed at the current rate. As for the Council members quoted in the story who say they can’t go along with this, I say no trash gets collected in their neighborhoods until every last piece of Harvey debris has been carted off. There’s a little shared sacrifice for you. The Press has more.

Did Steve Radack really say that?

Apparently so.

Commissioner Steve Radack

Commissioner Steve Radack

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack recently said some people want to get flooded so they can cash in, and he’s not backing down from his comments.

Radack says this was one minute of a 90-minute community meeting in Cypress last Thursday night. However, to the audience of flood victims, it didn’t go over well.

[…]

“Frankly, over the years, and the many years I’ve been doing this… they frankly enjoy floods. They’d like to see a flood about every 7 years, because they want new cars, they want their homes redone,” Radack said at the meeting.

“I know flooding is tragic, I’ve dealt with it for more than two decades,” he told KHOU 11 News when he sat down for an interview.

Radack says he was talking about fraud and telling the truth.

“There are people who take advantage of FEMA money and then there are people who tragically need the FEMA money, but they don’t have the insurance,” Radack said.

“That’s not the way it is for most people,” said Cynthia Neely, who is a board member with Residents Against Flooding.

She recorded the video at the meeting.

“A leader should not talk like that to people who are hurting,” Neely said.

There’s video at the link above and at Click2Houston, where Radack made a similar defense of his remarks. I’ve not watched the video, so I can’t say if the full context changes the way that sounded. I’ve no doubt there are people who defraud their insurance and government agencies like FEMA, but to imply that a significant portion of the population looks forward to the opportunity to commit fraud seems more than a little excessive. Maybe cite a number or two to back up your assertion and not give them impression that you’re just pulling this out from your nether regions. If he doesn’t have some facts and figures at hand – again, I haven’t watched the video, so maybe he does have them – then he deserves the heat he’s getting. To answer the question that was posted along with this story on my Facebook page, yes he is up for election this November. Radack faces Jenifer Pool in what ought to be an easy win for him; he certainly has the overwhelming financial advantage. Perhaps this will make it a bit harder.

Disaster declaration made

From the inbox:

HoustonSeal

Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s office today confirmed that President Obama has approved the governor’s request for a federal disaster declaration for Fayette, Grimes, Harris and Parker counties. The action paves the way for federal recovery assistance to begin flowing into the Houston area.

“I hope this leads to help for all of our residents who were impacted by the flooding, including our most vulnerable residents in the 17 apartment complexes in the Greenspoint area,” said Mayor Sylvester Turner. “Many of these families have lost everything and they do not have the financial means to recover. They have a whole host of needs that include housing, transportation and more. I urge the Federal Emergency Management Agency to be flexible in its decision making regarding assistance for these residents.”

More than 1900 apartment units were damaged in the 17 complexes in Greenspoint. Approximately 200 of these units took in as much as six feet of water. In addition, hundreds of single-family homes in Houston along White Oak and Brays Bayous also suffered extensive damage.

Houston residents and business owners who sustained losses in Harris County can apply for assistance by registering online at www.DisasterAssistance.gov, calling 1-800-621-FEMA (3362), or by a web enabled mobile device at m.fema.gov.

The City of Houston has established a website to help residents navigate the disaster recovery process, which includes the latest information from FEMA, as well as ways to receive and give help following the flooding. Visit houstonrecovers.org for more information.

Here’s the Chron story. If you or someone you know has been affected by this flood, do be sure you get the help you need.

Also of interest for county residents:

The Harris County engineering department has opened a phone line for residents seeking information on permits and inspections they may need to rebuild flood-damaged homes.

Residents can call 713-274-3880 from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. daily.

Depending on where residents live and the type of structural repair necessary, they might need an inspection and development permit from the county. County officials are encouraging people to call the number to sort out what steps they need to take.

Again, please get all the help you need, and take all necessary steps to protect yourself from unscrupulous operators who would try to cheat or deceive you in making repairs.

Katrina, ten years after

Hurricane Katrina made landfall ten years ago this weekend. The Chron looks at the role Houston played in the aftermath, and the changes that resulted.

Before and after Katrina’s Aug. 29 landfall as a strong Category 3 storm, more than 1 million people fled Louisiana and coastal Mississippi. As many as 250,000 landed in Houston – more than 27,000 of the most traumatized arriving at the Astrodome and other Houston shelters in a 500-bus caravan from the drowned Big Easy. By October 2005, approximately 100,000 evacuees temporarily had made Houston their home.

Today, perhaps heeding the oft-tendered advice of Katrina-era Mayor Bill White to “look forward, not backward,” as many as 40,000, by some estimates, permanently have settled in the Houston metro area.

“We no longer think of them as evacuees,” said Mayor Annise Parker. “They are Houstonians in every sense of the word and we are happy to have them.”

In the excruciating days after Katrina’s onslaught, Houston responded with open arms. As many 60,000 residents volunteered to help. From a downtown command center, White, assisted by then-Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and business, civic and faith leaders, oversaw a multi-million dollar campaign to house, feed, train and provide health care for the newcomers.

“Houston,” said White, “showed how to combine competence and compassion, and that was done at a time when public officials at the federal and other levels fumbled the ball.”

For his leadership, White later received the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum’s Profile in Courage Award.

But throughout the city there were largely unremarked instances of kindness.

Within weeks of arriving in Houston, the Rev. Gary Mack, a pastor at New Orleans’ Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, was contacted by Houston First Baptist Church with an offer of assistance. Mack was offered use of a chapel to preach to his displaced congregation and a salary. Food and furniture were collected for church members in need.

“Coming from New Orleans, we had pretty much been living in our own communities,” Mack said. “Seldom have African-American churches and Caucasian churches gotten together in this way. Katrina tore down those walls. It was a totally new perspective of worship and God’s goodness.”

Still, for thousands of the displaced, overcoming Katrina’s hardship was daunting.

The storm flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, killed more than 1,800 people in five states and caused more than $135 billion in damage. Federal and private insurance companies paid more than $57 billion in claims, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency pumped more than $131 billion into stricken states for public works and other recovery efforts.

By July 2006, New Orleans’ 2000 population had dropped by more than half. And while the city’s population has rebounded to 80 percent of its pre-storm total, vast tracts of low-lying inner city neighborhoods remain derelict and virtually unpeopled.

Full coverage from the Chron is here. I don’t have any wisdom to offer here. I’ve been spending the week reading what other folks have been saying about this disaster that was as much political as it was natural. See Jamelle Bouie and this three part series from D.R. Tucker for some of the stronger examples. I also recommend this Urban Edge story debunking the myth that there was a crime wave in Houston following the arrival of Katrina evacuees. I fear we still haven’t learned what this tragedy should have taught us. Texas Leftist, Vice, and TPM have more.

Monday House action

The main action on Monday in the House was the House Redistricting Committee hearing. Where there’s a redistricting hearing, there’s Greg with a liveblogging session. Pay close attention to the stuff Greg writes about the questions that the Dems, in particular Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer (TMF) are asking, because they’re all about the future court fights. A big part of this has to do with who is advising the committee on legal matters, and why the Attorney General is not being made to testify before the committee.

Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer

TMF turns his attention to [David] Archer [of the Texas Legislative Council], asking if there are legal issues seen in [Rep. Yvonne] Davis’ map. Archer notes that the plan is within the committee’s “discretion.” This is pretty much what TMF wants to hear. [Rep.] Senfronia [Thompson] has some questions for Archer, affirming his redistricting bona fides, which leads TMF to follow up with questions to affirm his legal bona fides re: redistricting. He then turns his back & forth with a point that it is the Att. General that ultimately defines those legal points on behalf of the state. He’s trying to back Archer up to a point where Archer can’t offer the answer TMF is fishing for. Archer says he’s “not trying to pass the buck …”, but he seems to realize the corner TMF is trying to paint him into. TMF notes that there is a limit to the advice that Lege Council can give, which builds from Archer’s own statements. He’s building the new court case for MALC pretty well. There are points in this line of questioning that are pure genius to observe. Archer is doing his best to just not break down and say: “Yeah, you need to talk to the Att. General’s office about that.”

TMF is done with Archer for now. Davis follows up by asking Archer about Sec. 2. This is going to be her strongest case for her plan being “legally required.” Ultimately, that definition comes down to the mood of the chair, the barometric pressure, and a number of other issues having nothing to do with law. But it’s a good marker for her to put down on this plan. Davis is exasperated with his analysis, saying he’s not being helpful to the committee by not giving any solid yesses and nos. The nut of this is that Archer’s position with the Lege Council isn’t an advocacy position, it’s a non-partisan role. With that, Davis picks up on TMF’s bigger argument – that this isn’t helping the committee determine what is legally required. It’s coming across as picking on Archer a little (something that TMF avoids in his questioning). But this is aimed at the court, not [David] Archer.

[…]

TMF picks up his opening from [Rep. Jason] Villalba’s questioning, asking again whether Archer is the best person to testify. Let me repeat: Villalba not only extracted testimony from Archer that wasn’t helpful to his side, but he also allows TMF to work in a further point about the inadequacy of Lege Council to be the ones offering legal advice to the committee. He also asks whether Archer would advise that there should be more minority-opportunity districts. Archer begins by answering that he “sees opportunities” but concludes with a “no.” TMF is also asking more questions that sidestep whether or not he thinks Lege Council is the appropriate resource for the committee. This is some more impressive TMF-ery. If the state wants to make the case that Lege Council is perfectly valid and fine, then expect comments like “sees opportunities” to come back around in the courts. This is the grand pitfall of the Lege Council not being in a position to advocate for anything – Archer is obviously trying to be neutral to all sides, but the flipside of that approach is that they aren’t going to say that the interim map is a solid slam dunk that doesn’t need tweaking. It gives TMF the ability to take Archer’s comments to court and get some kind of win (major or minor) regardless of whether the Att. General’s unwillingness to testify is ruled significant. Seriously, this is better than Perry Mason reruns. Along the same lines as above, TMF asks Archer to clarify his comment about “minimizing risk” and “insulation of risk” by taking more legislative action on the map. This won’t be the last time we hear those terms.

[Rep. Richard] Raymond follows that up with some clarity on whether a plan passed by the Lege would have to get preclearance from the DOJ (Yes, it will). Raymond then replays some history by noting that the AG’s office took the preclearance route of the DC Circuit court rather than DOJ last time. Archer notes that the AG has the same discretion of where to take preclearance this time around. Bottom line: I think we can expect this to go back through the DC court.

Texas Redistricting has a more concise wrapup. Both note that HB3, the bill for the House, passed 9-5 when motioned to a vote, but that’s not a majority of the committee and thus technically can’t be brought to the full floor. Instead, HB1 – the bill that does all of three of the affected bodies – was brought up and passed along part lines, despite objections that it brings up the same measure, since HB2 (the Senate bill) had already been approved. It’s getting wild around here, so be on high alert for shenanigans and points of order. I suspect that in the end the House will be as pro forma as the Senate was, and will do whatever it needs to do to get the maps approved.

There were other items of business in the House as well. The possibilities for the Public Integrity Unit warranted their own post. On the matter of the recent items added to the session call, these are the words of a House Speaker who has to deal with wingnut abortion legislation but isn’t exactly thrilled about it.

The House State Affairs Committee is expected to have a hearing on abortion bills Thursday, with consideration by the full chamber possible this weekend.

[…]

“I haven’t seen a bill come from the Senate yet, but I would assume that there would be support in the House, yes,” House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, said Monday.

Asked about Perry adding the abortion issue to the agenda, Straus said, “It’s the governor’s prerogative to add issues to a special session. He controls the agenda during a special session. It’s certainly a right he exercises freely.”

The Senate is expected to approve the bill that was voted out of committee on Friday today. The session ends on the 25th, and while Perry can call more sessions till the cows come home, if this or any other bill hasn’t passed by then, it would have to start over from scratch in a new session.

Finally, a panel of House members will join Perry and Abbott in calling on President Obama to reconsider the denial of federal emergency aid to West. I don’t have any issue with that, though you’d thin that the Congressional delegation, including our two Senators, would be the ones to take the lead on this.

I hate you! I need disaster relief!

Care to guess who is the biggest requestor of federal disaster relief funds since 2001? Why, none other than Governor Rick “Secession 4 Eva!” Perry, that’s who.

According to FEMA’s website, Texas has been the site of 13 “major disaster declarations” since Perry took office following George W. Bush’s departure in 2001. That includes five instances of severe storms and flooding, two tropical storms, one “extreme wildfire threat,” and Hurricanes Claudette, Rita, Dolly, and Ike. (Texas received significant federal assistance following Hurricane Katrina, but it did not appear on FEMA’s website in the “major disaster declaration” category.)

David Riedman, a public information specialist at FEMA, explained to me that a major disaster declaration is issued when a governor “determines the state’s resources are overrun.” From that point forward, the federal government, under federal law, is required to reimburse the state for at least 75 percent of the cost of recovery. Help is primarily targeted at rebuilding roads and bridges, debris removal, and reparing damage to public buildings. In the relief efforts that are still under way from the damage done by Hurricane Ike, the federal government is reimbursing Texas for 100 percent of all expenses, according to Riedman.

In fact, since FEMA’s record-keeping began, Texas has received federal disaster assistance more times than any other state.

Is it possible to wear out the word “hypocrite”. I mean, actually render it unusable due to too many invocations of it? If such a thing can be done, Rick Perry will be the cause.

By the way, even Sarah Palin is accepting stimulus funds for unemployment insurance. It’s just so hard to remain pure these days, isn’t it?

UTMB hopsital to stay in Galveston

This is a pleasant surprise.

The University of Texas Medical Branch hospital, still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Ike, will remain on Galveston Island under a plan approved today.

The decision by the University of Texas Board of Regents not to move patient beds, teaching and research facilities inland should be positive news to area elected officials and local citizens who wanted to the damaged operation to remain. The plan, however, depends on new funding from the Legislature over time.

“This board, by this vote, is deeply committed to the future of keeping UTMB on Galveston Island, but this decision is not our decision alone,” said board chairman Scott Caven Jr., referring to the need for recovery money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, philanthropic sources and the state.

[…]

The regents had been considering a consultant’s recommendation that some beds be moved off the island to compensate for the as much as $710 million in damage and losses caused by the hurricane, which came ashore in Galveston in September, destroying lower floors at UTMB’s John Sealy Hospital.

The $285,000 consultant’s report recommended that the hospital be rebuilt in League City, saying it had a better chance there of making a profit by competing for paying patients.

So they rejected the KSA report after all. I’ll be darned.

State Rep. Craig Eiland, D-Galveston, applauded the regents’ decision to rebuild the island campus. He said the effort, including the renovation of a damaged hospital and the construction of a new medical tower, could cost as much as $1 billion over time.

“We’ve come a long way, and we’re on the right path, and we’re all moving in the same direction,” he said. “We’ve still got to get to May. We’ve got to make sure that the Legislature funds the plan.”

Well, yeah, comparatively speaking that will be the hard work. But at least now there’s a tangible reason to fight for that funding, and I think this will make it harder to oppose it. Assuming we ever finish up with the single most important issue facing Texas today and get on to the lesser matters, we’ll see how that goes. Hair Balls has more.

Hurricane relief spending

So as noted, hurricane relief has been designated as emergency items by Governor Perry for the Legislature. They will have their work cut out for them.

Ike and two other hurricanes — Dolly and Gustav — struck Texas last year and took a $1.7 billion chunk out of the current state budget, legislative analysts told the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.

The news may force lawmakers to tighten spending even further for the 2010-11 budget cycle or dig deeper into the state’s rainy day savings account.

I’m sorry, but I don’t see how this is even remotely a difficult choice. We have over $9 billion in the Rainy Day Fund. Hurricane damage would seem to me to be the epitome of that fund’s purpose – you can’t get much rainier than a hurricane, after all. Especially in tough times, when across the board cutbacks are already being proposed, why wouldn’t you use the Rainy Day Fund for hurricane relief? I really can’t think of a good reason.

Complicating the picture is the uncertainty over the state’s continuing effort to persuade the federal government to pick up much of the hurricane tab.

Most of the state’s storm-related costs, $1.6 billion, were blamed on Ike. They include damages to buildings and other facilities, overtime and travel expenses for state troopers and other emergency workers, evacuation costs and emergency supplies.

[…]

Much of the money could be reimbursed by the federal government, but state officials remain in a protracted dispute with Washington over how much the Federal Emergency Management Agency should pay.

Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger blamed the dispute with FEMA for Texas’ failure to pay $134 million still owed bus companies and other vendors who helped the state during the Ike emergency.

Following questions raised by Senate Finance Chairman Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, she said the bills will be paid.

“Is the credit bureau calling us?” Ogden asked “We are not broke. Why aren’t we paying these bills?”

The potential federal reimbursement to state government for hurricane-related expenses could be as much as $1 billion, the Legislative Budget Board estimated.

I don’t even know what to say about this. The amount in dispute is, relatively speaking, a pittance. An amount eight times as much hinges on it. What the hell are we doing?

Reliant roof repaired

And just in time for rodeo season.

Reliant Stadium’s retractable roof has lost its gap-tooth look and should be as good as new in plenty of time for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which runs March 3-22.

The five giant panels that were torn asunder by the fury of Hurricane Ike — or debris flung through the air by the storm — in the wee hours of Sept. 13 have been replaced and the process of tightening, stretching and waterproofing the new pieces is well under way with completion expected by mid-February.

[…]

The repairs, to be paid for by Harris County’s insurance policy on the stadium and FEMA funds, are going to cost approximately $4 million. Investigators for Birdair and the insurance adjusters are just now beginning to study the damaged panels to determine why they came down, but there’s some evidence to suggest they were struck with airborne projectiles pried loose from nearby structures.

Glad they were able to get it done. And it means that the Texans will be able to close the roof as they had done before. Staphanie Stradley suggests what their policy on roof closings should be based on the open-roof experience they had this past year.

Somewhat ironically, that story appeared on the same day as this one.

Donations to speed the Gulf Coast’s recovery from Hurricane Ike have slowed dramatically, and two of the three major funds say they are ending their efforts to raise money.

“If someone comes in, we’re happy to talk to them but we’re not in an active fundraising mode,” said Ann Neeson, vice president of donor relations at the United Way of Greater Houston, which raised $5.8 million for hurricane recovery.

Ditto for the Gulf Coast Ike Relief Fund. It has raised $11.8 million, and administrators expect to have all the money distributed by late next month.

The need, however, remains.

“Twelve million dollars is a lot of money until you start giving it out based on the needs,” said Albert Myres, a Reliant Energy executive who is administering the Ike Relief Fund. “Could we have used $50 million? Probably. Easily.”

Those on the front lines agree.

“I get calls, and people are crying,” said Julie Reid of the Lutheran Inter-City Network Coalition-Houston. “They’re ready to give up because Houston has basically moved on.”

Windstorm insurance and hurricane relief are two of the issues that have been designated as emergency items by Governor Perry for the ongoing legislative session. That means any bills passed and signed can take effect immediately, instead of after 90 days as is the norm. Maybe that will help some, and maybe there’ll be more federal money coming. Whatever it is, it won’t be enough.