In Harvey's Wake

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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from Greg Abbott

Texas needs an additional $61 billion in federal disaster recovery money for infrastructure alone after Hurricane Harvey’s devastation, according to a report from the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas that was delivered to members of Congress Tuesday.

Compiled at Gov. Greg Abbott's request, the report was released on the day the governor traveled to the U.S. Capitol to talk Hurricane Harvey relief with congressional leaders.

Speaking with reporters in the hallways of the Capitol Tuesday afternoon, Abbott said he'd had a “well-reasoned discussion” where he stressed that rebuilding the state’s Gulf coast was in the country’s best national security and economic interests.

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“We are asking not for any handouts or for anything unusual, but we are asking for funding that will flood the entire region that was impacted so that the federal government, the state government, and the local government are not going to be facing these ongoing out-of-pocket costs,” Abbott said as he held a binder containing the 301-page report.

The $61 billion is in addition to money the state already anticipates receiving from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from the federal housing department, which distributes disaster recovery grants aimed at long-term rebuilding.

John Sharp, who leads the commission charged with overseeing Harvey recovery efforts, said the report would evolve as the state continued to work with local official to document their needs.

“We wanted to illustrate the size of the assistance we need and the type of projects,” Sharp said. “Just because a project is on the list does not mean it will be funded and just because a project is not on the list doesn’t mean it can’t be funded if a mayor or county judge brings it to us.”

About 61 percent of the funds would go to projects aimed at flood control and 33 percent toward housing, an analysis provided with the report shows. The remaining amounts are divided among hazard mitigation, roadways, and water services projects.

In the aftermath of the storm, Sharp asked local officials in areas hit by Harvey to document their needs. The commission then reviewed their requests with a panel of experts to compile the report.

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According to the report, local officials were instructed to focus on infrastructure, not housing needs, which will receive funding separately through a grant program from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The projects in the report range from major flood control and mitigation projects like building a "coastal spine" storm surge barrier to proposals for rebuilding public facilities like water treatment plants and police stations, purchasing high-water rescue vehicles, and repairing streets and bridges.

Several cities — including Beaumont, Pearland, Danbury and Simonton — and counties such as Harris, Fort Bend, Liberty, Victoria, and Montgomery also requested funds to buy out homeowners who have suffered repeated flooding in recent years. 

The requests include:

  • $12 billion for the Galveston County Coastal Spine, part of the larger "Ike Dike," a barrier aimed at protecting  coastal areas from hurricane storm surge.
  • $9 billion for housing assistance in the City of Houston, which would help rebuild 85,000 single and multi-family housing units damaged by Harvey.
  • $6 billion to buy land, easements, and rights-of-way around Buffalo Bayou and the Addicks and Barker reservoirs.
  • $2 billion for "coast-wide critical infrastructure protection,” described as flood control and other mitigation projects around critical public infrastructure such as “power plants, communication networks, prison systems, etc.”
  • $466 million for the Port of Houston to “create resiliency” and harden the Houston Ship Channel.
  • $115 million to repair 113 county buildings in Harris County.

Abbott appointed Sharp, who is the chancellor of Texas A&M University and a former legislator, railroad commissioner and state comptroller, to oversee the commission in early September.

So far, Congress has agreed to spend more than $51 billion on disaster relief in the past two months. But it is unclear what Texas’s share of that money will be, because it will be divided between the states and territories devastated by three deadly hurricanes and fatal wildfires.

Abbott struck a far more conciliatory tone than recent comments he made about the delegation's performance. 

"The Texas delegation is working very collaboratively and very cohesively as an entire team to ensure that their fellow Texans are going to be helped out in the way they need to be helped out," he told reporters after meeting with most of the delegation on the Senate-side of the U.S. Capitol. 

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But inside the meeting, he caught some flak from the dean of the delegation.  

U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, told the governor that his comments to the Houston Chronicle suggesting the delegation lacked backbone "were not helpful," according to several sources in the room. 

It all started earlier this month, when nearly all of the delegation requested from their colleagues $18.7 billion in aid to the state. 

A week later, the arm of the U.S. House tasked with spending decisions, the House Appropriations Committee, mostly ignored that request in a subsequent disaster spending bill. That left many Texas leaders concerned that the state would fall behind as a priority as natural disasters increased around the country. 

While unhappy, many of Texas' federal legislators said they were operating under the belief that their colleagues would come through with more money directly intended for Texas in November. 

But Abbott upset many of the Texas members of Congress when he told the Houston Chronicle they needed to get "a stiff spine."

Barton's remarks were an an indication that some of that irritation lingered on Tuesday.

Spokespeople for Abbott and Barton did not respond to requests for comment about what was said in the meeting.

Otherwise, the meeting centered around a theme of unity and focusing the rank and power of a 38-member voting bloc to leverage aid for the state. 

"The way this funding typically happens is in multiple tranches, and we’re asking for a large amount of money, but we’ve included in our ask, extensive damages across the entire region," Abbott said after the meeting. "We may or may not get all of it in the first round of funding, but as the president has made clear, he is proud of the way Texas has responded, and he wants Texas to be able to be able to respond very effectively."

Besides that meeting, the governor met with all the major players who control funding: White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan and U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy. 

"The $18 billion wasn’t problematic because of the amount, it just wasn't the right funding for the appropriation that was at issue at that particular time," he said, explaining how he predicts the legislation will move in the coming months. "Part of the right time, as Mick Mulvaney pointed out, is going to be in the next supplemental appropriation that will be offered up in a couple of weeks, where we are hoping that a large part of this will be funded."

"Everyone wants to make sure resources are going to be provided to help both rebuild, but rebuild Texas in a smart way so that the greater Houston area, the Beaumont area, other areas will not be subjected to repeat floods and so we are working on the right strategies and to fund all the right strategies, but also working to do it as quickly as possible," Abbott added.

Abby Livingston and Claire Allbright contributed reporting for this story from Washington, D.C.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • The measure drew some pushback from Texans in Congress, who wanted to see more money for communities upended by Hurricane Harvey. [Full story]

  • All five living former U.S. presidents gathered at Texas A&M University Saturday night to raise money to benefit the victims of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. [Full story]

  • Some — but not all — southeast Texans could see property tax breaks after the hurricane damaged their homes. The inequity has reignited intra-GOP tensions from earlier this year over disaster-related property tax re-assessments. [Full story]

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