In Harvey's Wake

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include Gov. Abbott's statements on tapping the Rainy Day Fund.

HOUSTON — Mayor Sylvester Turner said that a lack of immediate state funding for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts is forcing him to push for a property tax hike in this storm-battered city still reeling from the worst rainfall event in U.S. history.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Texas Tribune about the city’s on-going relief efforts, Turner also said Monday that the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers could have done a better job of warning people about the impacts of releasing water from reservoirs, which aggravated flooding in neighborhoods below the reservoirs. He also said that an untold number of houses could have been spared from extensive water damage if federal officials had funded flood control projects in years past.

The mayor said the storm will likely force city officials to rethink whether they let people rebuild homes and apartments in 100-year floodplains. Allowing that to happen, he added, "doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

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And, Turner said, he’s worried that a "bureaucratic maze" could slow relief money that Houstonians need to rebuild or relocate. "We need to get those housing dollars to them, like, yesterday," he said.

Turner said his biggest focus will be on making sure that the city's most vulnerable residents — the elderly, disabled, low-income workers and children — get back on their feet. He praised the residents of Houston four weeks after parts of the city were inundated with more than 50 inches of rain.

Dozens of Harris County residents died in the subsequent floods, which also damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of houses and vehicles. Turner said people in the area — even those whose houses were flooded or destroyed — continue to reach out and help fellow residents put their lives back together.

“So I reserve my biggest thank you for people themselves,” he said.

Houston officials estimate the total cost of paying for first responders’ overtime, debris collection that will take months and scores of other expenses associated with storm response and recovery will exceed $250 million.

Turner has drawn criticism for wanting to raise the city’s property tax rate for one year to bring in an additional $50 million, which would cost the owner of an average Houston house $48. Turner said he wouldn’t have proposed the tax hike if Gov. Greg Abbott had called for a special session so lawmakers could tap the state’s savings account, which has more than $10 billion, to help Houston and scores of other southeast Texas communities recover from the catastrophic storm.

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“If he told me he was going to tap it, I wouldn’t propose [the property tax hike],” Turner said.

Abbott has said the state will almost certainly tap into the account, though it's not yet known when that will happen, how much money will be taken or how funds will be spent.

"We need to first understand what obligations we’re going to have, how much they will amount to, and decide upon the best strategies to pay for that," Abbott said earlier this month.

State officials don't need to call a special session to fund Harvey relief. The Legislative Budget Board could redirect money from state agencies to relief efforts and then replace that money with funds from the rainy day fund when lawmakers return in January 2019.

Houston’s first public hearing on the proposed tax hike is Monday night.

Houston voters in 2010 agreed to pay for drainage projects with new fees expected to bring in billions over 20 years. But Turner said it’s still not enough to better prepare for catastrophic rain events, which are becoming more common in the rapidly developing region.

“That will help out some, but we still need the feds to do their part,” Turner said.

The mayor said that there are three long-planned flood control projects that could have been completed before Harvey but are languishing because Congress hasn’t funded them, including one to increase the capacity of Brays Bayou, a watershed that cuts through the city and is meant to prevent flooding. 

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But Turner sidestepped a question about federal leadership when asked if the Houston-area’s congressional delegation has been doing everything it can in recent years to mitigate damage from major rain events.

“Everyone needs to act with a degree of urgency,” Turner said. “We’re still waiting on the money. People do not build projects without money.”

Turner reiterated his support for a “coastal spine,” a multi-billion dollar physical barrier that would protect the region from a deadly storm surge during hurricanes. And, he said, the storm shows the need for an additional reservoir to hold rainwater and protect development.

He said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released more water from the Addicks and Barker reservoirs than they initially announced — and did not provide city officials or nearby residents with enough information about the impacts of such releases.

“The notice should have been a lot, lot better,” Turner said. “No question about that.”

A spokesman for the Corps said he could not comment Monday. The agency is the target of legal action over the releases.

Meanwhile, Turner wants federal officials to open more disaster recovery centers, which help residents apply for federal assistance. He said the handful of locations in the spread-out city can be difficult to reach, especially for low-income residents. 

“In many cases, they lost their mode of transportation,” Turner said.

The mayor likened the continuing recovery efforts to a marathon rather than a sprint. He said the rains may have flooded Houston, but it didn’t dampen its people’s spirits.

“I’m a native Houstonian,” he said. “This is a can-do city.”

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The physical damage from Hurricane Harvey is relatively easy to spot, assess and catalog. But it’s becoming more evident that the storm also seeped into every corner of government policy and politics. [Full story]

  • Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo called on state leaders to help the city rebuild after Hurricane Harvey, proposing a sales tax increase and saying infrastructure should be built to prevent the storm's destruction from recurring. [Full story]

  • Even with help from the state and other Texas cities, Houston's massive post-Harvey debris piles will take months to remove, local officials say. [Full story]

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