$61 billion sought for 'future proofing' state
Request to Congress is separate from storm recovery aid.
Texas officials COLLEGE STATION — are lobbying the federal government for $61 billion for infrastructure improvements after Hurricane Harvey’s destruction, arguing that the staggering amount is necessary to “future proof” before the next great storm.
Whether Congress will oblige is anyone’s guess.
The Texas coast has been hit by three major hurricanes since 2006, and Houston, 40 miles inland, saw Harvey trigger its third “500-year” flood in the past three years alone. Everyone agrees on the need for long-term improvements for America’s fourth-largest city and other especially stormprone parts of the state. But Congress may be unwilling or unable to pay for them, given the vast sums that will go toward Texas’ immediate recovery needs, not to mention toward helping Florida, Puerto Rico and California recover from their own recent disasters.
Congress already approved $15 billion in aid for Harvey in September, but four Texas Republican congressmen were among those who opposed it because the mea- sure also included a federal debt ceiling deal that funded the government for three more months. Last month, President Donald Trump signed off on putting an additional $36.5 billion toward efforts to recover from hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, and the California wildfires.
Texas outlined its proposed infrastructure improvements and upgrades in a report that it sent to Congress. But that request is separate from the past funding packages and from the estimated $50 billion-plus in federal assis-
tance the state is expected to need to repair and rebuild housing.
Still, those charged with leading Texas’ recovery say Congress can’t afford not to comply.
“We all know it’s going to happen again. There’s going to be another storm,” said Billy Hamilton, No. 2 to the state’s Harvey “recov- ery czar,” John Sharp. “So, instead of paying us over and over to fix these houses every three years, give us enough money to fix the problem.”
Sharp, who is also the chancellor of the Texas A&M University system, said Texas hustled to compile its report detailing the $61 billion in needs to get ahead of disas- ter relief requests from Flor
ida and elsewhere. “Our experience in the past has taught us that early birds do get the worms,” he said.
That’s no guarantee. With the Republican-majority Congress focused more on tax cuts, ponying up such a sizable investment in the future may be a long shot. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the chamber’s No. 2 Republican, has been an advocate for speedy approval of disas- ter relief, but he concedes that final funding numbers haven’t been reached.
Harvey hit as a Category 4 hurricane on Aug. 25, kill-
ing more than 80 people and triggering historic rainfall in parts of the Houston area. Sharp’s commission esti- mates that Harvey caused $180 billion in damage.
Roughly 60 percent of the $61 billion being sought for future proofing would go toward projects to combat flooding, such as new reser- voirs and dike systems, rein- forced sea walls and constructing a physical barrier to better protect the Gulf Coast. A third of it would be used to buy out homes in flood-prone areas, and
the rest would go toward roads, water service proj- ects and hazard mitigation.
That estimate was based on hundreds of funding requests from county and local officials, as well as past projects planned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — all which were then vetted by state experts for feasi-
bility and maximum future impact.
As Texas waits to see if Congress will come through, commission leaders are trav- eling to some of the hardesthit areas, where they will dis
cuss with county and local officials how hundreds of post-storm funding requests made it into the report, and solicit necessary updates and additions.
This week features visits to the Houston suburb of Sugar Land; Victoria, near where Harvey came ashore;
and Beaumont, where the water system failed because of Harvey’s flooding. The commission will be in Hous- ton and Corpus Christi after Thanksgiving.
Its directors will also stress how important it is for local officials to apply directly for federal assistance and
to track expenditures for future reimbursement. Communities could face audits years later and be forced to repay some federal assistance if they miss deadlines or can’t prove how money was spent. The commission
has also trained 40 officials to help county and local leaders better navigate federal paperwork.
One area they will visit is Matagorda County, south of Houston, where County Judge Nate McDonald praised the commission’s work but called the $61 billion for future proofing a “tough sell.”
The commission’s report includes more than $58 million in projects for McDonald’s county and surround
ing areas, including repairing roads and bridges, restoring a damaged coastal sea wall system and improving existing levees and drainage networks.
“You’re looking at new projects that may have some
political risks,” said McDonald. “But it’s never going to be cheaper to build these things than it is today.”
Gov. Greg Abbott was in Washington last week promoting the report, and he’ll be back there with Sharp next week. Both caution that funding may not come all at once, but could start to be approved in a supplemental spending plan before Congress adjourns for the holidays.
“We’re shortly going to find out whether this federal government believes that you ought to help folks during disasters,” Sharp said.
Water rushes from a large sinkhole on FM 762 in Rosenberg, near Houston, on Aug. 27, as then-Tropical Storm Harvey pounded the region. Texas officials are hoping the federal government will fund $61 billion in projects to bolster infrastructure against future storms.
A temporary road leads to the Heights at Park Row apartment complex in Houston in September, after Hurricane Harvey flooded the main road to the complex. Officials say much of the $61 billion sought would combat flooding.