$61 bil­lion sought for 'fu­ture proof­ing' state

Re­quest to Congress is sep­a­rate from storm re­cov­ery aid.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Will Weissert

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.

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