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Local, state and federal officials took to national airwaves Sunday to discuss recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey and project a largely positive message.
Both Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Gov. Greg Abbott were interviewed on several Sunday morning news programs.
"This is a can-do city; we’re not going to engage in a pity party," Turner said in an interview on "Face the Nation." "We are getting back on our feet, and we are open for business."
On "Meet the Press," Turner said the city's airport and port were now open and that public transit had resumed its normal schedule. Over 95 percent of the city is dry, he said, and the downtown convention center, which had housed 10,000 displaced Houstonians at one point, was now down to 1,400.
Recovery will center on removing debris and "housing, housing, housing," Turner said.
Environmental concerns continue
Turner specifically addressed a report from the Associated Press that found many of the area's ultra-polluted Superfund sites are flooded, raising concerns about the spread of toxins. "I feel very comfortable about our water system; the system is safe," he told "Meet the Press," adding that most of those sites are outside the city itself. "I can't speak to specifically whether or not the EPA is on the ground. It certainly would be important to have them on the ground."
The EPA released a statement Sunday saying the agency has experts embedded with local, state and federal authorities, and worked to "secure Superfund sites before the hurricane hit." The EPA has determined 13 sites have been flooded or possibly damaged. Of them, 11 are inaccessible to agency personnel; the other two have been inspected and don't need emergency cleanup, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said in a news release Saturday.
After a series of explosions at an Arkema Inc. plant in Crosby yielded plumes of black smoke and fire last week, the company burned its six remaining chemical containers Sunday. The local fire marshal's office told the Houston Chronicle the action was a "proactive approach to minimize the impacts to the community." But the company had previously said it would not destroy the chemicals, and the Chronicle said notice wasn't given Sunday until after the ignition operations had begun.
In a statement, the EPA and TCEQ said the remaining containers were at risk of catching fire over the next few days, and that the "controlled burn" was meant to prevent additional damage to the facility and surrounding area. A 1.5 mile radius around the plant has been evacuated since Tuesday.
Federal response praised
Turner and Abbott on Sunday praised efforts from the federal government. Turner said his Saturday meeting with Trump, the first since Harvey's landfall, was a productive one. In messages posted to Twitter, Turner said he asked for federal assistance in cleaning up storm debris and for expedited relief for first responders.
Abbott said in an interview on "This Week" that "the federal government has operated seamlessly with the state of Texas as well as with our local governments."
And Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on "Fox News Sunday" that he and Trump believe Harvey relief funds for Texas should be tied to an increase in the debt limit. Trump on Friday called for $7.9 billion in federal assistance, a first installment in what’s expected to be a more expansive relief package.
“We need to put politics aside. We need to make sure that we can get to Texas the appropriate amount of money to rebuild the state,” Mnuchin said.
Recovery cost continues to grow
But difficulties remain for Houston and coastline areas that were hit hardest by the storm.
Abbott told "Fox News Sunday" that the cost of storm recovery could reach $180 billion in federal funds — $60 billion more than was required to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. "The geographic area and the population affected by this horrific hurricane and flooding ... is far larger," he said.
When the host of "This Week" noted that Houston was built on a floodplain, Abbott said, "It would be insane for us to rebuild on property that has been flooded multiple times. I think everybody probably is in agreement that there are better strategies that we must employ."
The mandatory evacuation of 4,600 flooded homes in parts of west Houston began Sunday morning, after Turner announced it was necessary "to prevent harm to residents and make first responder work more feasible in that zone." He added that water released from two reservoirs by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could "result in standing water in homes for two weeks." That order could remain in place for 10 days, Turner said on "Meet the Press."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Saturday it had approved giving $114.7 million, including $33.6 million for housing, to help 161,000 applicants weather the impacts of the storm, the Chronicle reported. The agency has received 507,000 applications for assistance.
FEMA Administrator Brock Long said in an interview on "Face the Nation" Sunday, "This is a wakeup call. People cannot depend solely on the Federal Emergency Management Agency."
He said Texas "is a model," but that local and state officials across the country need "to give their governors and their emergency management directors the full budgets that they need to be fully staffed, to design rainy day funds, to have your own standalone individual assistance and public assistance programs."
The Chronicle reported that more than 10,000 students in the Houston Independent School District will likely start classes in temporary facilities, as 200 of the 245 inspected schools in the district were damaged by the storm. Hundreds of districts across the state have experienced delays due to damage from Harvey, including several that face indefinite closure.
And in Beaumont, residents spent a fourth day without drinking water. Officials told ABC News it could take days or weeks to have the water pumps repaired.
Read related Tribune coverage:
President Donald Trump returned to Texas on Saturday to check in on the Hurricane Harvey recovery effort and meet with victims of the storm that ravaged southeast Texas. [Full story]
According to a preliminary analysis by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at least 150,000 properties may have likely been affected by the floodwaters of Hurricane Harvey. A majority of these properties — at least 96,000 — are located in Harris County. [Full story]
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 Southeast Texas' "new normal" will look like after Hurricane Harvey. [Full story]