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WASHINGTON – Even before Hurricane Harvey's scale of destruction in Houston was clear, the lead emergency response official in the federal government declared there would be “a new normal” in Texas.
In the coming days, weeks, months — and even years — it will be up to the state’s 38-member congressional delegation to imagine and legislate what that new normal looks like.
The scale of the damage is so staggering that most sources in the delegation cannot fathom what the lives of many of their constituents will look like past next week. But what is clear is that the federal government's role in rebuilding the Houston area is only beginning.
"In the coming months, Congress will play two main roles in the recovery process: funding and oversight," said Brent Colburn, a director of FEMA External Affairs during the Obama administration.
“They’ll need to approve the funds to rebuild, but we should also expect them to play an active role in making sure that the recovery dollars are spent wisely and efficiently."
For now, the federal government's role is to support local efforts with vehicles and supplies, back-filling expenses like overtime pay for law enforcement and emergency services and offering up the National Guard to rescue Texans.
But as legislators, their work truly begins when they return to Congress Tuesday following a summer recess.
The array of problems Harvey presents to the delegation affect every angle of policy: transportation, energy, housing, education, the environment, tax policy, emergency response and health care. And Texans have senior positions in Washington in all of those issues.
But, sources say, nothing matters more than money. And that means that other than the Senate Majority Whip, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, the four most important Texans in this crisis will likely turn out to be the members of the House Appropriations Committee: U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, John Carter, R-Round Rock, John Culberson, R-Houston, and Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth.
U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, projected the rebuilding process “will take many years.”
“Upon returning to Washington, I expect Democrats and Republicans to join together and do what Americans have always in times of extreme crisis: sacrifice self-interests for the greater good to help those reeling from catastrophe reclaim their lives.”
A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Dallas, stressed the urgency of the situation.
"Chairman Sessions wants to ensure the people of South Texas have the relief resources they need as soon as possible," Caroline Boothe told the Tribune.
So far, the delegation is working together, and they agree: The most immediate issue is money.
Jackson Lee got out early and asked for an initial round of $152 billion in support from the federal government. Similarly, Sessions asked earlier this week for a “clean" initial funding bill that will not include unrelated issues.
Neither are likely to happen, several Texas GOP congressional sources told the Tribune.
That is because Harvey did not happen in a vacuum. A week ago, members of Congress were already bracing for fights over keeping the government funded past Sept. 30, raising the debit limit and funding a border wall.
In a matter of days, Harvey displaced all of those priorities.
The most likely bet is there will be a short-term funding measure directed to Houston, its outlying areas and the rest of the affected Gulf Coast, according to delegation sources. That legislation will likely be part of one large deal that includes continuing to fund the government and raising the debt ceiling.
Vice President Mike Pence said on a Thursday trip to the region that he anticipated bipartisan support for the funding.
Then, later in the fall, Congress will likely take up a larger bill to address the Harvey aftermath, once members have a better handle on the magnitude of the destruction.
How President Donald Trump will react to this crisis is the largest unknown. In recent weeks, he threatened to shut down the government if Congress does not fund his proposed border wall.
That border wall already had a lukewarm response among the Texas members. But among several Texas staffers interviewed, the border wall is now an even more diminished priority.
A shutdown, however, is a downright chilling concept among Texans right now, as bureaucrats are needed to process FEMA and flood insurance claims for Harvey victims.
"I cannot see a government shutdown,” said a GOP delegation source who was not authorized to speak on the record, adding that he did not expect the threat of a shutdown to affect the emergency response.
“Where the government shutdown is really going to shut down are the employees who process [flood insurance] and FEMA grants,” he said.
Beyond looking back at past storms as their frames of reference, members and staffers alike in the delegation cannot even begin to imagine what Houston's future will look like. The circumstances are simply too overwhelming in their districts and, in many cases, in their personal lives.
There will be, however, an opportunity amid all of the destruction to re-evaluate how to prevent such destruction in the future and to improve life down the road. For instance, the city of New Orleans used Katrina to improve its decrepit public school system. And amid the destruction of Sandy, New Jersey officials found ways to improve structural architecture and to create more useful and aesthetic sea walls.
”Every time you rebuild you have the opportunity to rebuild stronger,” said Colburn, the Obama FEMA official. “But it doesn't just happen, it has to be a conscious decision, and it takes hard and dedicated work from everyone involved.”
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