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While Federal Money Trickles Into Texas, Houston Is Preparing For The Next Big Flood

Hurricane Harvey caused an estimated $125 billion in damages, making it the most expensive disaster in the country last year

Houston in August 2017 days after Hurricane Harvey hit.

It’s been six months since Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast, damaging buildings, claiming or totally changing lives and inundating the southeastern part of the state with historic rainfall.

The storm caused an estimated $125 billion in damages, making it the most expensive disaster in the country last year. The hurricane’s tab makes it second only to Katrina in 2005.

Harvey wasn’t the storm to end all storms, however. There will be other disasters to come, and Gulf Coast communities like Houston need to plan for the next big hit even as they rebuild from the last one.  

On KERA’s Think, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Marvin Odum, former CEO of Shell Oil, now the recovery czar for the city, talked about the strides made since August and the challenges ahead.

Waiting on federal money

On many fronts, recovery in Houston is progressing, Turner said. Public transit was operating within a week of the storm, kids were back in school within a month, and debris was largely cleared by October, he said.

Now, his primary concern is housing.

“There are still literally thousands of people who are either out of their homes or in homes that need to be remediated, repaired or rebuilt in some form,” he said.

Turner said he’s especially concerned about housing for the elderly, people with special needs, residents in low-income communities and middle-income families who have exhausted their resources trying to rebuild.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The city so far has received about $424 million from FEMA through the Texas General Land Office, according to Turner.

“Those dollars are starting to flow down for housing repair, up to about $60,000 for some, depending on the damage of their homes,” he said.

Another $5 billion was approved in November by federal officials, but that money won’t be available until sometime in August or possibly later, Turner said.

And the $90 billion in disaster aid to be shared among states hit by last year’s hurricanes and wildfires won’t be available until the latter part of this year or next year, Turner said.

“We still need to move with a great deal of urgency,” he said.

Turner said nonprofits, volunteers and businesses have “really stepped up” while the city has been waiting on federal support.

Turner said the concentration of disasters last fall that followed Harvey — Hurricane Irma in Florida, Maria in Puerto Rico and the wildfires in California — has limited the amount of federal money available to Texas.

He also attributed the less-than-desired allocation to the Trump administration’s focus on tax reform and officials being “sensitive about adding to the federal debt” at the time.

Recovery Czar Marvin Odum.

Gov. Greg Abbott originally requested $61 billion for Texas alone.  

Marvin Odum has said the federal government could have paid more attention to Houston as the recovery effort began. 

“You can look at Houston now and say it’s a tale of two cities. It’s an incredibly resilient city [that] got back on its feet very quickly, but then you can get into areas and see absolute devastation,” Odum said. “If you’re in Washington, it looks sort of like everything’s OK.”

He said part of the job is keeping Washington’s focus on the tens of thousands of people who are still in need, despite the progress made.

Avoiding failure

Turner said the city cannot be restored to how it was before Harvey hit because homes and businesses have been flooded out too many times in the past.

The city needs to be more resilient for future storms, the mayor said. That means expanding bayous, adding more detention basins and reservoirs and elevating people’s homes.

And in the areas where these mitigation strategies were already in place, the city needs more resources to buy out the existing homes that flooded, Turner said.

“You have to rebuild, but at the same time, you have to execute your mitigation strategies,” Turner said. “Otherwise, the funding that we’re getting is simply funding for failure.”

Turner wants Harvey to be the example to transform and prepare the city going forward.

The Addicks Reservoir in Houston on Aug. 29, 2017.

Odum said the city’s rebuilding strategy breaks down into three categories: having clear principles, having strong partnerships and making hard choices.

He said the last one is key because there is more need than money available.

“It’s about recognizing the real need in the community, which is not always the loudest voice,” he said.

Like Turner, Odum also said nonprofit organizations and the state’s general “philanthropic spirit” will stretch the dollars the city has to use.

Rebuilding differently

In the aftermath of the storm, Greg Carbin with the National Weather Service noted the amount of hardscape development in Houston may also have been a factor in the historic flooding; there wasn’t enough soft ground to absorb huge amounts of water.

Turner says development with impervious surfaces, without surrounding green space, leaves no place for the water to go. On top of that, there are about nine bayous that traverse the city of Houston, Turner said.

“We can’t just build the same and expect a better result,” he said.

This month, the Houston City Council is expected to consider a building ordinance to mitigate the risk of flooding in the future, Turner said.

“It will probably cost a little bit more, but better to pay a little bit more on the front end than for homes and businesses to be destroyed on the back end, and then have to be rebuilt over and over and over again,” he said.

To listen to the entire Think interview, stream it or download the podcast.

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