Hurricane Harvey becomes focal point in Houston-area races for Congress
Democrats on the ballot in communities hit hardest by Harvey argue that Republicans in office haven't done enough to prepare Texas for the next major hurricane.
In Harvey's Wake
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Editor's note: This story has been updated to include additional information about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessment of dams in the Houston area.
A year ago this week, Dayna Steele was standing in 29 inches of water inside her Seabrook home. Her family had already made it through Hurricane Ike in 2008, when the water in her home had come up even higher. Nearly nine years later, Hurricane Harvey would once again force Steele to rebuild.
But this time around, Steele was also a candidate for Congress. She had filed months earlier as a Democrat to challenge U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, in a historically Republican district that stretches northwest from Houston across eight counties. In the days and weeks after the storm, as she heard about the worry and confusion from others in the region, Steele found it amplified her desire to represent her community in Congress.
“We still have entirely too many blue tarps, empty homes," said Steele, who still sees local residents living in trailers parked in the driveways of their damaged homes. “It’s still a big issue."
A year after one of the worst storms in the state’s history, Steele is one of several Texas congressional candidates emphasizing Harvey as a key issue heading into November, honing in on the details of its aftermath, the region’s long-term recovery and whether enough is being done to prepare for when the next major hurricane arrives.
Steele’s opponent, Babin, was also personally impacted by Harvey. For a few hours, he and his family were stuck in their Woodville home due to flooding in their neighborhood. Three months later, Babin was a part of a group of Texans in Congress who teamed up to secure more Harvey relief after an initial proposal put forth by the White House was criticized as too small by many Texans.
Steele said when she travels around the district, she hears from voters that they either don't know who Babin is or say they never saw him in the aftermath of the storm.
Babin, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, has tweeted multiple times about his push to send additional federal aid to Texas. Recently Babin, along with other Houston-area congressional members, met with Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget at the White House, to discuss giving more money to the Army Corps for “future flood mitigation.” The congressman also tweeted that he toured disaster areas with U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan in the storm's immediate aftermath.
A similar back and forth — challengers accusing the incumbent of not being physically present after the storm or fighting hard enough for relief funding and the incumbent insisting otherwise — is emerging in multiple races in Harvey-impacted districts.
“The lack of response from our representative is visceral,” said Sri Kulkarni, a Democrat vying to unseat U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land. The prevailing sentiment from constituents in the Republican-leaning 22nd Congressional District, Kulkarni argued, is that "Pete Olson was absent on Harvey."
Olson pushed back on such allegations, writing in an email that helping his district recover from Harvey has been — and still is — one of his top priorities. He noted his work earlier this year helping secure an amendment to a congressional water infrastructure bill aimed at expediting Army Corps projects within disaster areas in multiple states, including Texas. The legislation is designed to encourage investments in channels, locks, ports and flood protection throughout the country. Olson added that he’s also helping rally congressional support to fund a major project that would protect the Texas Gulf Coast from deadly hurricane storm surge.
"I certainly want folks to know there are still resources available for Harvey recovery and I want folks to know how hard our congressional delegation worked to secure the $140 billion in emergency supplemental funding for the historic hurricane season of 2017," Olson said. "I’ll continue to fight for Texas’ share of federal disaster and flood mitigation funds if the voters give me that chance."
"Electing an advocate"
Harvey is playing out differently as an issue in two other Houston-area congressional races — in the 7th Congressional District, where Republican U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Houston is facing a high-profile challenge from Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, and in the 2nd Congressional District, where U.S. Rep. Ted Poe of Houston is retiring and two candidates are vying for the open seat.
In CD-7, Houstonians on both sides of the aisle say Culberson came through for the district after Harvey. But Fletcher is challenging his record before the historic flood, seeking to portray the region’s flood control problems as symptomatic of what she calls Culberson’s detachment from the district he has represented since 2001.
“This campaign is about electing an advocate for Houston — someone who will work across the community and prioritize our needs, instead of an ideologue that puts party over people, as John Culberson has done consistently for nine terms,” Fletcher wrote in an email. “John Culberson’s work over the last nine months cannot erase his failures over the last nine terms.”
Fletcher blamed Culberson in particular for neglecting two federally owned dams in the area that were built in the 1940s to protect downtown Houston from catastrophic flooding. Addicks and Barker became a flashpoint during Harvey when thousands of homes on both sides of the earthen structures were inundated. In 2009, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers discovered cracks and voids in the dams, classified them "unsafe" and said there was an "urgent and compelling" need for action. Yet Congress appropriated funds to to begin repairs on the dams, but didn't fully fund them — or a study of how stormwater runoff from new development in the area has stressed them — until after Harvey. The Army Corps has repeatedly emphasized that the dams are not at imminent risk of failure. Rather, it says they are considered in such critical condition because the agency's ranking system places greater weight on what the impacts would be if they ever failed (thousands of deaths, by its own estimates) than on their actual physical condition.
Culberson, meanwhile, said the Harris County Flood Control District has received every dollar of federal funding it has asked for during his tenure. Steve Fitzgerald, the flood control district’s chief engineer, said Culberson has helped the district compete for federal dollars.
“Congressman Culberson has been an asset to go to,” he said. “He and his staff are wonderful and always have been willing to help when we need his help."
Fletcher has also cast her opponent as a climate change denier who is out of touch with the district and the times. Culberson rejects that characterization, arguing that he believes in climate change — though he has in the past cast doubt on the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are its primary driver. He insists that he simply wants the best data possible before proposing policies.
“I’m confident humans are having an impact; my focus is on getting good, accurate, objective data to tell us what’s driving the changes in the climate,” he said.
In CD-2, where Poe is retiring, both Republican Dan Crenshaw and Democrat Tom Litton have pages on their website devoted to their views on addressing flooding in the region.
Crenshaw’s site outlines his "Realistic Flood Policy for Houston's future," which includes upgrading Addicks and Barker, exploring “the feasibility of a third reservoir in Cypress without delay" to would relieve pressure on those existing dams, and building “additional detention ponds along the tributaries leading into Lake Houston.”
“My role in Congress will be to exert pressure on the US Army Corps of Engineers ... to take action without delay. No multi-year studies. Action,” Crenshaw writes.
Crenshaw believes his advantage over his opponent is the extensive research he’s done of flooding and infrastructure. He contends that Litton doesn’t “know much about it.” Like Olson, he cited the importance of Water Resources Development Act that Congress passed earlier this year.
“You have to do the research in order to know that,” Crenshaw said. “If you’re not talking about [the Water Resources Development Act], you’re wasting everybody's time as a member of Congress.”
But Litton said he’s confident in his knowledge of the district's flooding issues, noting that he's a native Houstonian who has dealt with flooding in his home as far back as 2001 after Tropical Storm Allison. Litton says he's focused on the “critical improvements” needed in the district in terms of flood control, including the Addicks dam in particular. Like Fletcher, he blamed current and past representatives of the district for failing to secure funding to maintain the aging structure.
“They’re no longer sufficient,” Litton said. “We need to make real investments and smart investments ... We have to start doing things differently for our future. The state and federal government all have a role to play.”
No Harvey special session
While the federal role in Harvey relief has elevated the issue in congressional races, the impact on statewide and legislative races has been murkier. The Legislature has not met since the storm and isn't scheduled to do so until the next regular legislative session begins in January. Soon after Harvey, Gov. Greg Abbott said he didn’t see the need to hold a special session to tackle the storm’s aftermath or quickly tap into the state’s Rainy Day Fund. He argued the state needed time to get a clearer sense of the federal funding situation and long-term expenses before the Legislature hashed out how to employ the state’s savings account.
That’s been a position that some Democrats have hammered Abbott and other Republicans on.
"I was so frustrated seeing things that the state of Texas could have easily addressed in a special session," said Rita Lucido, a Democrat vying to unseat state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston. "We needed a special session very badly to take care of a whole range of issues."
Those issues included fixing infrastructure for areas like Meyerland, Bellaire, West Houston and Sugar Land that Lucido said could have been addressed at the state level. She said Huffman deserved some of the blame for not pushing Abbott to call a special session to address the immediate aftermath of Harvey.
Huffman did not respond to a request for comment. In the aftermath of Harvey, she toured heavily damaged areas in her district and hosted and attended events for Harvey victims, including a town hall with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. In November, Huffman penned an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle calling on local taxing entities to assist Harvey victims with immediately reappraising property impacted by the storm. She also mentioned infrastructure projects that needed immediate attention.
"We must fortify existing reservoirs and dams and start planning now for the construction of a third reservoir," Huffman wrote. "In fact, there are many infrastructure projects throughout Texas that need to be addressed and we should consider all ideas to mitigate or prevent future disasters."
That's a common message among both Democrats and Republicans — it’s not if another storm hits, it’s when. For Steele, the Seabrook Democrat who's vying to unseat Babin in Congress, the post-Harvey political chatter isn’t just another campaign platform — it’s personal.
"It’s down to the basic primal issues," Steele said. "When am I going to get a roof? When am I going to get a floor? When are they going to do something to stop this?"
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