COLLEGE STATION, Texas— Texas is lobbying the federal government for $61 billion for infrastructure improvements after Hurricane Harvey’s destruction, arguing that the staggering amount is necessary to “future proof” before the next great storm.
Whether Congress will oblige is anyone’s guess.
The Texas coast has been hit by three major hurricanes since 2006, and Houston, 40 miles inland, saw Harvey trigger its third “500-year” flood in the past three years alone. Everyone agrees on the need for long-term improvements for America’s fourth-largest city and other especially storm-prone parts of the state. But Congress may be unwilling or unable to pay for them, given the vast sums that will go toward Texas’ immediate recovery needs, not to mention toward helping Florida, Puerto Rico and California recover from their own recent disasters.
Congress already approved $15 billion in aid for Harvey in September, but four Texas Republican congressmen were among those who opposed it because the measure also included a federal debt ceiling deal that funded the government for three more months. Last month, President Donald Trump signed off on an additional $36.5 billion to go toward recovery efforts from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the California wildfires.
Texas outlined its proposed infrastructure improvements and upgrades in a report that it sent to Congress. But that request is separate from the past funding packages and from the estimated $50-plus billion in federal assistance the state is expected to need to repair and rebuild housing.
Still, those charged with leading Texas’ recovery say Congress can’t afford not to comply.
“We all know it’s going to happen again. There’s going to be another storm,” said Billy Hamilton, No. 2 to the state’s Harvey “recovery czar,” John Sharp. “So, instead of paying us over and over to fix these houses every three years, give us enough money to fix the problem.”
Sharp, who is also the chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, said Texas hustled to compile its report detailing the $61 billion in needs to get ahead of disaster relief requests from Florida and elsewhere.
“Our experience in the past has taught us that early birds do get the worms,” he said.
That’s no guarantee. With the Republican-majority focused more on tax cuts, ponying up such a sizeable future investment may be a long shot. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the chamber’s Majority Whip, has been an advocate for speedy approval of disaster relief, but he concedes that final funding numbers haven’t been reached.
Harvey hit as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25, killing more than 80 people and triggering historic rainfall in parts of Houston. Sharp’s commission estimates that Harvey caused $180 billion in total damage.
Roughly 60 per cent of the $61 billion being sought for future proofing would go toward projects to combat flooding, such as new reservoirs and dike systems, reinforced sea walls and constructing a physical barrier to better protect the Gulf Coast. A third of it would be used to buy out homes in flood-prone areas and the rest would go toward roads, water service projects and hazard mitigation.
That estimate was based on hundreds of funding requests from county and local officials, as well as past projects planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all which were then vetted by state experts for feasibility and maximum future impact.
As Texas waits to see if Congress will come through, commission leaders are travelling to some of the hardest-hit areas, where they will discuss with county and local officials how hundreds of post-storm funding requests made it into the report, and solicit necessary updates and additions.
Next week features visits to the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, Victoria, near where Harvey came ashore, and Beaumont, where the water system failed because of Harvey’s flooding. The commission will be in Houston and Corpus Christi after Thanksgiving.
Its directors will also stress how important it is for local officials to apply directly for federal assistance and to track expenditures for future reimbursement. Communities could face audits years later and be forced to repay some federal assistance if they miss deadlines or can’t prove how money was spent. The commission has also trained 40 officials to help county and local leaders better navigate federal paperwork.
One area they will visit is Matagorda County, south of Houston, where County Judge Nate McDonald praised the commission’s work but called the $61 billion for future proofing “a tough sell.”
The commission’s report includes more than $58 million in projects for McDonald’s county and surrounding areas, including repairing roads and bridges, restoring a damaged coastal sea wall system and improving existing levees and drainage networks.
“You’re looking at new projects that may have some political risks,” said McDonald. “But it’s never going to be cheaper to build these things than it is today.”
Gov. Greg Abbott was in Washington last week promoting the report, and he’ll be back there with Sharp next week. Both caution that funding may not come all at once, but could start to be approved in a supplemental spending plan before Congress adjourns for the holidays.
“We’re shortly going to find out whether this federal government believes that you ought to help folks during disasters,” Sharp said.