Members of Congress from Houston hosted a public inquiry with local leaders in Bayou City on Friday to address why Houston and Harris County were both awarded zero dollars in the latest wave of federal Harvey relief funding.
Local county and city elected officials assembled as panelists made it clear the main culprit was Texas Land Commissioner George P, Bush, the man leading the state agency responsible for distributing federal relief funds slated for flooding mitigation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Both the city and county applied for $1.3 billion of that money, but last month, Bush surprised Houston City Council and Harris County Commissioners Court by announcing that they would instead receive zero dollars.
That fact seemed absurd to everyone in the room on Friday considering Harvey flooded the city and county in 2017.
“Harris County is the only county in the state of Texas that has experienced three consecutive years of flooding disasters, in 2015, 2016, and 2017,” said Rep. Al Green.
“The fate, hopes, and dreams of the suffering are in the hands of one man,” Green said, referring to Bush.
Rep. Slyvia Garcia said she had never seen Houston or Harris County left out of any Harvey-related federal funding state action plan. She said Hurricane Harvey caused $62 billion in damages to the Houston area (statewide damages were an estimated $125 billion) and said many residents were still recovering.
“I’m baffled by the fact that Commissioner Bush thinks it’s okay to withhold necessary aid to our families,” Garcia said. “This is not a partisan issue, this is about rebuilding our communities in a fair and equitable way.”
Both Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said it was crucial for the region to receive the federal mitigation funds.
“This year, hurricane season started earlier,” Mayor Turner said. “Our climate impact assessment released August 2020 indicates that climate events will only continue to threaten our region with more extreme rainfall events.”
Turner said the latest models and data from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed that the region’s floodplains had only expanded and that the city and county’s systems would need to handle more water.
Turner pointed out that Houston and Harris County had received at least 50 percent of the relief funding in other federal programs, but not for Community Development Block Grant – Mitigation (CDBG-MIT) funds that were now being discussed.
“It is as if Hurricane Harvey did not hit the city of Houston,” Turner said. “I find that highly distributing.”
Citing a $2.5 billion bond Harris County voters approved a year after Harvey, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said local government was invested in flooding mitigation too.
“Look, we’re doing our part,” Hidalgo said. “We’re putting skin in the game, but we need active and good partners in the state and federal government.”
In the weeks since Bush’s announcement, the land commissioner has deflected blame on the Biden administration. HUD has rightfully pointed out that the state of Texas has “full responsibility” when it comes to the distribution of those federal mitigation funds, including the development of formulas that determine how much cities and counties get.
Many local leaders complained about the lack of transparency surrounding the Texas General Land Office, as well as the distribution formulas that elected officials in Houston had long raised issues with. Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said his office was “pencil whipped” by the complex formulas.
“At the end of the day, I think what you have is people coming up with a process to justify what they wanted to do,” Ellis said. “And It does appear it was a tremendous amount of politics going into these conversations.”
Houston City Council Member Abbie Kamin said she reached out to the Texas General Land Office after last month’s announcement but was given a cold shoulder. “I wanted to understand the formula and I was told GLO staff was too busy to meet with Houston City Council on this,” Kamin said.
Following criticism about his decision, Bush posted an apology on Twitter last month and pledged $750 million for flooding mitigation efforts.
But lawmakers and local leaders are skeptical; until Bush’s office submits an amended action plan and HUD approves it, the funds may as well not exist. And when asked by Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee if $750 million would be enough to properly fund flooding mitigation projects, local leaders resoundingly said no.
“It appears to me that the commissioner, unfortunately, is playing games,” said Rep. Al Green. “He’s playing games with the lives of people who can ill afford to have this continue for a prolonged period of time.”
Photo: Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images