In Harvey's Wake

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Houston’s police chief called on state leaders to help the city rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, saying the effort shouldn’t rest on Mayor Sylvester Turner's shoulders alone. 

"Nobody's going to come and rebuild the city of Houston for free. Unless someone has a magic pill that we can just give somebody and say, 'You will build this for free, you will fix it for free,' it's got to be paid," Chief Art Acevedo said Saturday. "Maybe in the long term they can look at either the property tax or a one-cent sales tax for three years. For me, the Legislature – we shouldn't put it all on poor Sylvester Turner. The Legislature needs to step up."

The remark was made during an interview at the annual Texas Tribune Festival in Austin, during which Acevedo recounted the preparation for and response to the state’s biggest-ever natural disaster. At one point, he described the flooding as the "most surreal experience of my career."

Acevedo noted during the interview that Houston is a "huge economic engine" for the state. But critics have cited the city's lax zoning regulations as a major factor in the unprecedented flooding that accompanied Harvey. Acevedo said that “you can’t stop growth” but that it should be managed with a system of dams and other mitigation measures. 

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“You can tighten your belt now” to fund the infrastructure, “or you can pay a lot more, one event at a time,” he said.

Asked if he blames state leaders for not taking climate change seriously, Acevedo said he believes in global warming. "If we're not going to do something about climate change, then you better do something about the impact that climate change is going to have," he said. "We know that scientists, people a lot more intelligent and more educated than 90 percent of our politicians, and much more educated than I am ... say it's a problem."

Turner has gotten flak for proposing a property tax increase to fund rebuilding efforts while many residents are struggling to get back on their feet. But Acevedo on Saturday proposed a funding mechanism he said would "have a much greater impact." 

"The governor, lieutenant governor, legislative leaders need to say, 'Let's do a one-cent sales tax for the next three years,'" Acevedo said. "That's more of a user tax. People that really can't afford it aren't going to spend it anyway. I don't think anybody will go bankrupt over one cent."

Acevedo also hit back at criticism over city officials’ decision not to order evacuations in the lead-up to the storm. The police chief questioned the logistics of evacuating a metropolitan area home to millions and referenced Hurricane Rita in 2005, which was linked to 139 deaths — dozens of which occurred while people were evacuating. Turner has said Rita's legacy played a role in his decision, and Acevedo on Saturday did not hesitate to support the shelter-in-place orders and limited evacuations that were called for.

Hurricane Harvey was a topic elsewhere at the Festival.

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At a panel on flooding earlier Saturday, Houston's newly appointed flood czar, Stephen Costello, said the city was facing unprecedented financial needs for Hurricane Harvey recovery and that at least some of that money is going to have to come from the state and local governments. 

Costello said the public will need to "get over" a "no new taxes" mentality in order to fund flood mitigation infrastructure projects for the future.  

Other speakers at the flood panel offered endorsement for the construction of a "coastal spine," an expansive — and expensive — barrier to protect the region from storm surges.

"That's a wall I can support," said State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston. She also said the state should tap the Rainy Day Fund for recovery needs.

Panelists also said there is a need for more undeveloped land in Houston that can help naturally absorb flood waters.

"You're going to see more of this 'grey to green' concept," said Costello.

Katie Riordan contributed to this report.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Local, state and federal officials took to national airwaves to discuss recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey and project a largely positive message. [Full story]

  • Floodwaters have ebbed, but many parts of the state still face environmental hazards and other risks in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. [Full story]

  • The meteorological firm AccuWeather estimates the storm's impact on gross domestic product will be $190 billion – one percent of the U.S.'s current GDP – and more costly than Katrina and Sandy combined. [Full story]

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