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Commissioners Court partially fills the flood bond funding gap

Good.

Harris County Commissioners Court took initial steps this week to plug a $1.4 billion funding hole for its flood bond program by diverting revenue from the county’s toll roads system.

Court members also laid out a “backstop” plan to use Harris County Toll Road Authority debt for drainage projects in case federal matching funds, distributed by the state General Land Office, do not arrive.

“The hope is that GLO comes in before we have to use either of those,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “If they don’t, we’ll look at HCTRA funds first, and then, worst comes to worst, we’ll look at the road and bridge funds.”

Repurposing the toll road revenue, which court members unanimously approved Tuesday, ensures that $535 million worth of drainage projects across all four commissioner precincts are fully funded and can be completed in the next three to five years.

That will allow the Harris County Flood Control District to provide a modicum of immediate protection to neighborhoods while the county searches for money to complete larger, longer-term projects. The 91 projects will protect about 45,000 homes, according to the district.

The court transferred $230 million in surplus toll road revenue, which largely was derived from last year’s refinancing of Harris County Toll Road Authority debt. The sum will be divided evenly between the precincts.

In addition, Commissioners Court approved using $315 million in toll road revenue, road debt or funds from other county sources to complete the drainage projects in case federal help never comes. Toll road debt must be used for a transportation purpose, and therefore can only be used for flood control projects that in some way involve a road or bridge.

That will free up $115 million in flood bond money that was intended for this purpose. That money now can be used to fill massive funding shortfalls in several watersheds, including Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River.

See here and here for the background. There was a Chron story from a couple of days before this that went into the experiences of the neighborhoods that were the most affected by the way the funding was structured for this. I drafted a post for that but didn’t get to publishing it before the Court acted. Fine by me for that to become obsolete. There’s still more to be done to fix this, but we’re off to a good start.

Now it gets harder to vaccinate people

We reached this point pretty quickly. The hill gets steeper from here.

After months of not having enough COVID-19 vaccines to meet demand, Texas suddenly appears to have plenty of shots but not as many people lining up to receive them, even though more than three quarters of the state still isn’t fully vaccinated.

Almost 7 million Texans have been vaccinated against COVID-19 — more than 23% of the state’s population — and health officials say they are starting to see lower demand at public vaccination sites. Recent data show reported vaccine doses have decreased: The number of people who have gotten at least one shot in Texas grew by over 1 million during the week ending April 14; the following week the number dropped to about 660,000.

Across Texas, local leaders are trying to ramp up outreach efforts and fill more appointments. Houston’s FEMA hub at NRG Park is now offering walk-in slots, a shift from prior appointment-only requirements that kept some residents from getting early doses. The state will also be rolling out a TV campaign to boost vaccinations, Department of State Health Services spokesperson Chris Van Deusen told the Wall Street Journal.

Local health officials say efforts to vaccinate older Texans have been successful: As of April 21, nearly 60% of Texans age 65 and older have been fully vaccinated. Since the state opened vaccinations to all adults on March 29, around one-fifth of Texans between 16 to 49 years old — who make up the biggest proportion of eligible adults — have been fully vaccinated.

“It seems we’re getting to the point that most people eager to get vaccinated have gotten at least their first dose,” Imelda Garcia, associate commissioner of laboratory and infectious disease services for DSHS, said during a Thursday press conference. “The next phase will be about helping ensure that vaccine is more easily available to those folks who are not going to go as far out of their way.”

Nationally, vaccine supply may outpace demand within the next month, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health nonprofit.

Vaccination rates vary across Texas: most large urban and suburban counties, except for Tarrant County, are above the overall state rate in terms of the percentage of people who have received at least one dose. Along the border, a region that has been particularly hard hit by the pandemic, more than 40% of the population in many counties, including El Paso, Starr and Cameron, have gotten a dose — compared with 36% statewide.

[…]

Texas’ vaccination efforts are still missing people who have faced obstacles for months, said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. Some lack internet access or the computer skills to make an online appointment, while others lack transportation to reach a vaccine provider.

And Black and Hispanic Texans continue to be vaccinated at lower rates than whites, even as appointments become more available across the state.

According to the embedded map in the story, Harris County has fully vaccinated 22.8% of its residents, which is a bit below the statewide average of 23.6%. However, more than twice as many people have had at least one shot, which by my calculation is 56.7% of the Harris population, and that’s pretty darn good. In theory, in a month’s time our baseline number should be close to sixty percent. The one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine has been resumed, and that should help with some of the harder-to-reach folks as well, since it only requires the one appointment.

There’s a lot of effort going on now to reach the people who have obstacles to getting vaccinated, and while that will take more time I believe they will get there. That leaves the anti-vax zealots, and I have no more idea how to reach them than you do. That said, there is one obvious strategy to maybe draw some of the more resistant folks out of the woodwork:

There are public policy “interventions” that can encourage further adoption: publicizing how safe the vaccine has been so far for people who’ve gotten it, stocking doctors’ offices and mobile clinics to make the shots more convenient, tying access to public spaces to being fully vaxxed, promising to eliminate mask mandates and other societywide restrictions once a certain percentage of the population has gotten its doses, and so forth.

Those are among the suggestions you’ll find being made by individuals arguing against the one really obvious way to get people to do something: paying them. Economist Robert Litan, former Democratic presidential long shot John Delaney, and an Oxford professor named Julian Savulescu are among those who’ve proposed such cash-for-vax payments; Litan would make them $1,000 and Delaney $1,500. In response, ethicists affiliated with the University of Washington and the Cornell and University of Pennsylvania medical schools have written, in the Journal of Medical Ethics and Journal of the American Medical Association, that it would be a bad idea.

The arguments against payment are reasonable ones: It’s crude and coercive to put proportionally huge pressure on lower-wealth citizens to do something that they might not want to; the idea that you get something like “hazard pay” for taking a vaccine might convince people it is risky; and setting a precedent of paying people to protect their health might make them less likely to take vaccines and follow guidelines in the future if there’s no money in it. Localized and incentive-driven initiatives like the ones described above, ethicists say, are more likely to build the long-term trust between officials and residents that will be crucial to ending this pandemic and preventing future ones.

The problem with this case is that it exists for the most part in an abstracted, theorized version of the United States that is populated by individuals making good-faith decisions based on credible public information and conversations with medical professionals. Our actual country, however, is one in which one of the two major parties sees an advantage in the weaponized misunderstanding of medical science, celebrity influencers build followings by pretending to uncover sinister threats everywhere, and media outlets spam every speciously correlated story about someone having a health problem after getting a shot into millions of pockets multiple times a day. Informational and incentive-based campaigns to reach people who have genuine, medically oriented hesitations about the vaccine are good ideas that should definitely be pursued. Does anyone honestly think they’re going to be enough? This is a fractured polity we’re dealing with here, folks!

Contemporary Americans self-evidently do not share a common trust in any government or media institution. On the other hand, almost all of us still appreciate and believe in the institution of the United States dollar, and the ways it can be earned and spent.

Maybe most of these people are die-hard Trumpers. As the author notes, those folks happily cashed their Biden stimulus checks. Money talks. It sticks in my craw to reward this kind of selfish and self-destructive behavior, too, but in the end the more vaccinated people the better off we all are, especially those who have legitimate medical reasons for not getting vaxxed. There is an inverse to this approach, which I’ll get to in another post. Put me down as being in favor of all reasonable strategies for getting as many shots in arms as we can.

Get your shot at the airport

I applaud the creative thinking, which we will continue to need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Parking lots at Bush and Hobby airports soon will be home to mass vaccination clinics for the Houston Health Department, as the supply of shots continues to ramp up.

City Council unanimously approved lease arrangements at the airports Wednesday.

The site at Bush’s The Parking Spot opened Tuesday under a short-term lease agreement, with some 6,665 people scheduled to get shots there this week. It is not clear yet when the Hobby location of The Parking Spot will open for vaccinations, although the request for council action said it is necessary “for this operation to begin immediately.”

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes the number of doses coming to the city will “exponentially increase” since the state has opened the eligibility requirements. If that happens, he said the city can open “many more locations” for people to get a vaccine, along with mobile sites that move around the city to reach people who have trouble leaving their homes.

“Please go and get the vaccination where you can, or sign up to receive it,” Turner said. “The goal is to increase the number of sites.”

The request for council action on the airport leases said the Health Department anticipates receiving a large number of vaccines on a more routine basis.

The new sites would double the number of the city’s main vaccination sites, according to the Health Department. It also operates clinics at Delmar Stadium and the Bayou City Event Center. Those four sites are designed to ramp up to 3,000 doses per day, six days per week, when the supply allows. The clinics at Bush Airport, Delmar and Bayou City Event Center are giving out between 1,000 and 2,500 doses per day currently.

The city has also benefited from a federal vaccination site at NRG Stadium, capable of giving 6,000 shots per day. The Health Department said it will consider continuing that site when the Federal Emergency Management Agency demobilizes it, likely sometime in April.

The city also uses health centers, multi-service centers and partnerships with clinics, pharmacies, churches and other groups to distribute the vaccine.

As the story notes, the airport parking lots are a lot less busy now than they usually are, for all the obvious reasons. The city owns the airports, which minimizes the cost involved, which will be covered by federal grant money anyway. The city and Harris County have also asked FEMA to keep the NRG site open at least through the end of May. We’ll see how they respond.

Basically, the city of Houston and Harris County seem to be doing everything they reasonably can to get as many shots into arms as possible. Equity remains an issue, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo brings up.

As Harris County crossed the threshold of one million COVID-19 vaccine shots into the arms of local residents Thursday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pleaded with local vaccine providers to do a better job of getting doses to the county’s hard-hit minority communities.

Even though she acknowledged that hitting the million dose mark is “wonderful news,” she said during a Thursday press conference that only 12.1 percent of Harris County residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to the 11 percent of all Texans that were fully-vaccinated as of Tuesday.

Hidalgo also pointed out how Black and Hispanic residents still aren’t getting vaccinated at the same rate as white and Asian residents, and challenged other local vaccinators to follow Harris County’s lead by making a concerted effort to change those trends.

“We’ve been going door-to-door in the hardest hit communities to get folks to register for our waitlist, but we need other providers in Harris County to join the effort more forcefully,” Hidalgo said.

“Every organization that administers vaccines in this county has a moral responsibility to reach the hardest hit residents,” she continued.

Again, I think the city and the county have done pretty well here, and I’d bet we would not be above the state baseline for vaccinations if that were not the case. There’s always room for improvement, and since the Black and Latino populations tend to be younger than the Anglo population, the opening of vaccine eligibility to all should help even things out a bit as well. It is up to all providers to do their part.

Flood funding shortfall

Still trying to understand this.

Harris County on Tuesday revealed a $1.4 billion shortfall in funding for flood control projects under the bond program voters approved in 2018, a massive miscalculation that threatens to cause construction delays and cost taxpayers more than expected.

Budget Officer David Berry told Commissioners Court that projected funding from state and federal partners, which was supposed to supplement the $2.5 billion investment by county taxpayers, has not materialized. As a result, the county has committed to doing more work than it currently can afford to do.

“The hope after Hurricane Harvey that federal and state partners would really be focused on Harris County, where we saw the worst damage, has not altogether turned out to be true,” Berry said.

Berry said the county believes it can secure an additional $100 to $500 million from the state and federal governments, but that still leaves “a substantial gap.”

Projects in several watersheds are close to fully funded, though planned improvements in three — Halls Bayou, Greens Bayou and the San Jacinto River — have less than half the necessary dollars. Harris County Flood Control District Executive Director Russ Poppe said no projects will be delayed so long as the funding gap is closed by the end of this year.

The bond program currently is projected to be completed around 2028. The flood control district has spent money to design some projects in anticipation of receiving matching funds to begin construction.

[…]

Poppe said the shortfall dates back to early 2018, when Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act. The measure provided a collective $66 billion to the Army Corps of Engineers, Department of Housing and Urban Development and FEMA to help the country recover from the previous year’s destructive storm season, which included hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Harris County and the city of Houston in 2019 received $1 billion each from HUD to repair and rebuild Harvey-damaged homes; the county received an additional $225 million from FEMA for buyouts.

Poppe said the county planned on receiving an additional $1 billion from HUD for flood control projects.

“The logic was … the federal government can get a level of protection on that investment they just made,” Poppe said.

That funding flowed from Washington through the state General Land Office, however, which decided instead to ask Texas cities and counties to apply for individual grants. Poppe said his office has made $900 million in requests, which he hoped would be decided later in the spring.

What’s not clear to me from this is how much of it was an over-estimation on the part of Harris County in putting together the 2018 referendum how much money from the feds and the state would be available, how much is money that we should have reasonably expected that wasn’t appropriated by the feds, and how much is just sitting there in the Land Commissioner’s office waiting to be handed out to cities and counties. All three can be addressed in one way or another, but getting the Land Commissioner to get off his ass and give us the money we’ve applied for would be the most direct. I fully expect there to be a massive infrastructure bill taken up (and hopefully passed) by Congress later this year, which can certainly include more funds for flooding projects (and maybe even the ever-elusive Ike Dike), but that depends on things that are out of our control right now. Commissioners Court has directed th flood control district to come up with a plan to secure more funds by June 30, and the commitment is there to complete the project list one way or another, which is what the voters were promised. Whatever the underlying issue is, let’s figure this out and get this moving forward.

Why is Greg Abbott doing so little to help Texas recover from the freeze?

If this Politico story doesn’t make you mad, then either you’re a Greg Abbott shill or you really need to check your priors.

Assessing the effectiveness of disaster response is a famously fraught political game. What looks like a master class in bureaucratic crisis management from inside an emergency operations center can seem laughably insufficient to the people bundled in blankets outside an overwhelmed food bank. But all sorts of Texans, from shivering private citizens to frustrated public officials, say that Texas’ state leaders failed them.

In the face of a monstrous storm Abbott’s response was tepid, at best. He didn’t deploy the National Guard in any sizable numbers before, during or after the storm. There are no state aid facilities handing out water or food. In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, Abbott asked for direct financial assistance and help with emergency services. Normally, governors, including Abbott, request military help, money for local governments and hazard mitigation to make sure properties are habitable, and even social services. But not not this time. His request was comparatively minuscule. His office in Austin did not respond to a request for comment.

The storm revealed an uncomfortable power-play between GOP leaders in Austin and their mostly Democratic counterparts in the state’s big cities. In Texas, examples of local autonomy routinely run afoul of a governor who jealously guards his prerogatives to override everything from plastic bag bans to mandatory mask orders. But when the cities are in crisis, the sense is that it’s their problem to sort out, not his. Millions of Texans have nearly frozen in the dark and have been on a boil-water notice, without running water in days.

“The state government must provide emergency assistance to repair water infrastructure, or we risk millions being without water for a week,” Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and housing secretary, pleaded on Twitter. Abbott “failed to prepare for this storm, was too slow to respond, and now blames everyone but himself for this mess.”

[…]

In his Feb. 13 letter to Biden, it was what the governor didn’t ask for that stuck out. He asked for no military help with logistics or aid distribution. He didn’t ask for disaster unemployment insurance, money for local governments, not even hazard mitigation for damaged homes, not even food or water. He asked for no military assistance. Abbott asked only for direct financial assistance for individuals and help keeping emergency services going until the storm passed.

In sharp contrast, Abbott asked for and got massive federal help before Hurricane Harvey even came ashore in August 2017. At his request, FEMA pre-positioned people and supplies, linking up with the Texas Emergency Management Agency, bringing in over 1 million meals, 3 million bottles of water, blankets and cots, and providing medical services to more than 5,000 Texans. The federal government even brought in 210,000 pounds of hay for livestock, according to FEMA’s 2017 after-action report. The Air Force flew 30 missions, mostly ferrying supplies. Abbott activated all 30,000 members of the Texas National Guard. But none of that happened this time.

Abbott was in a different political situation. On the one hand there was a Democratic president in office, not his old ally Donald Trump. On the other hand, Abbott’s biggest threat, as he prepares to run for reelection in 2022 and possibly the presidency in 2024, isn’t to his left but to his right. Florida transplant Allen West chairs the Texas GOP and is even calling for secession.

“My sense is that Abbott is calibrating his relationship with a Democratic president,” said James Henson, a political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. Despite the human toll, Abbott, say, doesn’t want ads in 2022 portraying him as hat-in-hand to Biden. “The Republicans just want to do the bare essential here, and they don’t want to do too much. Plus, Abbott doesn’t want this storm to be the focus of another news cycle.”

“Federal assistance is needed to lessen the threat of disaster, save lives, and protect property, public health and safety,” he wrote to Biden without mentioning the long tail of the storm, prolonged lack of water, and the likelihood of continuing financial turmoil about how to pay bills as simple as essential as next month’s rent. And potentially worse: the rising specter of hunger in the poor parts of San Antonio and all of South Texas.

With little help from the state, the aid task has fallen on the local government, private citizens and local charities. Bexar County here was one of dozens forced to issue boil-water notices. Now, the city is still distributing water bottles for 14 days straight. Firefighters and fire department cadets loaded 31 pallets in cars at the parking lot of Our Lady of the Lake University on Sunday, Feb. 21.

“We still have lots of people without water,” said the firefighter in charge, who would only identify herself as Bertha. “As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve seen nothing like this.”

[…]

So, FEMA has shipped generators, for example, but there is little need for them now that the power is back on. The usual National Guard and active military response is almost completely absent. At FEMA’s direction, the Air Force has been ferrying water from Joint Base Charleston, S.C. and Joint Base Travis, Calif., aboard C-17s to Texas, according to military officials. Marines in Fort Worth and Army troops here in San Antonio have handed out water on the order of local commanders. But that’s it. That’s all the military help there is.

Asked if the lack of military help, which was out in force during Ike and Harvey before, wasn’t coming because the governor hadn’t asked, a Defense Department official sheepishly responded: “I didn’t want to say that but yes. Usually, the governor asks for help.”

Critics of the governor see Abbott’s political ambitions at play. He is running for reelection and said to be eyeballing a presidential run. And so, the less he asks of the federal government the more he can claim in 2022 or 2024, that he doesn’t ask Washington for help. He can’t seem beholden to Washington, pressed from his right by hard-liners West, or his powerful right-wing lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick.

“Abbott doesn’t want to be seen with both hands out to the government,” said Henson, at the University of Texas. “If Republicans can get away with doing the bare minimum, they can have their cake and eat it, too.”

Absolutely infuriating. I didn’t know any of this before I read this story, and as much as I can’t stand Greg Abbott, it had never occurred to me that he wouldn’t ask the feds for all the help he could get. I still can’t quite fathom it. However angry you are at Greg Abbott, you need to be angrier, and you need to make sure everyone you know is angry at him. This cannot stand.

Biden’s visit to Houston

It’s so nice to have a normal, functional person as President, isn’t it?

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden, in his first trip to Texas since taking office, toured Houston on Friday to size up the aftermath of the state’s recent winter weather crisis and promote the national coronavirus vaccination campaign.

“We will be true partners to help you recover and rebuild from the storm and this pandemic and economic crisis,” Biden said during a late afternoon speech outside NRG Stadium, the site of a vaccination mega-center. He promised his administration is in it “for the long haul.”

Biden hailed the mega-center — one of three federally backed mass vaccination clinics in Texas — as a key part of his strategy to have 100 million vaccine doses administered in his first 100 days in office. The country reached the halfway mark Thursday.

“The more people get vaccinated the faster we’ll beat this pandemic,” Biden said, reassuring Americans that the vaccines are “safe and effective” and cautioning that it is still “not the time to relax” measures such as social distancing and mask-wearing.

Gov. Greg Abbott, who joined Biden in Houston, said Thursday his office is looking at when it could lift all statewide orders related to the pandemic. That would include the statewide mask mandate that Abbott issued last summer. He said an announcement could be coming “pretty soon.”

Biden on Friday spoke from a parking lot outside the stadium, in front of a FEMA trailer and a row of health care workers who administer vaccines.

[…]

On the flight to Houston, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Biden’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters there is a need going forward for the federal government, states and the private sector to incentivize building the “kind of resilient infrastructure that we can truly depend on in the future.” Sherwood-Randall avoided prescribing specific proposals for Texas but noted the state made the decision to have its own grid and that meant that it lacked the “kind of backup in terms of supply or generation capability that they needed to have in this crisis.”

Before Biden spoke near the vaccination facility, he toured the Harris County Emergency Operations Center, where the county judge, Lina Hidalgo, explained how the building “has been our home away from home for five months” — first due to the pandemic and then during the winter freeze. Biden told officials they have a “hell of an operation here.”

“It’s probably the best one in the country,” the president said, according to a pool report. “You’re saving peoples’ lives. As my mother would say, you’re doing God’s work.”

As Biden saw the Emergency Operations Center, First Lady Jill Biden and Cecilia Abbott volunteered at the Houston Food Bank, packing bags for a program that provides food to students on weekends who depend on school meals during the week. After the president was done at the Emergency Operations Center, he met up with his wife to tour the food bank and meet with volunteers.

Politically, the trip marked Texas Republican leaders’ first face-to-face encounter at home with a new Democratic president whose policies they have vowed to resist. And Biden is aware — during a virtual meeting with a group of governors Thursday, he told Abbott, “I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to coming down tomorrow, to Houston, to be with you.”

See here for the background. As noted in the story, Sen. Cornyn was with Biden and Abbott in Houston, while Sen. Cruz was not, as he did not ask to be. I think we can all agree that that was for the best. I don’t know what President Biden would have said if someone had asked him about Abbott’s eagerness to lift the statewide mask mandate, but allow me to roll me eyes and heave a sigh of despair in his stead. Biden’s willingness to be a partner in the recovery is admirable and welcome and of course should be exactly what we expect, but it appears to be a one-way street. I’ll get to that in another post. I will say this much: Someone needs to be spending a few million dollars here in Texas highlighting what the President is doing to help not only the COVID vaccination effort but also the freeze recovery effort, to make sure that the credit goes where it belongs. Those approval ratings aren’t going to maintain themselves. The Chron has more.

Vaccination progress

Making progress.

One in eight Harris County residents 16 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines, according to state and local data.

A Chronicle analysis found that the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines have gone to 12.4 percent of the county’s population in that age range, or 447,861 people.

That number is expected to rise as the Federal Emergency Management Agency opens a vaccine supersite in Houston at NRG Park. The site can vaccinate 42,000 people per week, targeting residents in high-risk ZIP codes.

Federal regulators are also likely to authorize the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, boosting vaccine supply at a critical time, when some say the inventory does not match demand. On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it had reviewed the pharmaceutical giant’s trial data and determined it was consistent with the recommendations of the emergency use guidelines.

That’s about nine percent of the total population in Harris County, and a bit less than half of these people have gotten both dose. With the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine on its way, we should really make a dent in the numbers quickly.

The super sites should help, too, even if people had to wait longer than they expected on the first day.

Lauren Lefebvre, regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said late Wednesday that there were a variety of reasons for the delays. Some people had issues with the electronic codes required to check in for appointments, and officials may tweak some of their procedures to decrease the amount of paperwork required to enter.

Traffic issues were further exacerbated by cars arriving early or late. Lefebvre said FEMA expects to add more workers in the coming days, and some of the traffic routes could change around the stadium to ease the flow of cars trying to enter.

The city and county have made vulnerable populations — including the unhoused, and those without Internet or the ability to travel — a focal point of their pandemic response. The NRG site is drive-in only, which has raised concerns about equitable access.

Houston Health Department Director Stephen Williams added that the NRG site is only one part of the city’s broader vaccination efforts, and will open up availability for “other providers, many of which are located in hard-hit areas but have been unable to keep up with demand.

“Of course we’re trying to target those individuals who are most vulnerable, but (NRG) is not exclusively for individuals that are most vulnerable,” he said. “Having an additional 6,000 slots to see people is a really good thing for Houston and Harris County — and we don’t want to minimize the value of that — but it isn’t everything.”

Yes, more is still needed. But we’re way ahead of where we were in January, and the curve is sloping upward.

President Biden will visit Houston on Friday

Here he comes.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden plans to come to Texas on Friday in the wake of extensive winter storm damage in the state.

The president and First Lady Jill Biden will travel to Houston, according to a White House announcement. Biden has engaged from afar with state and local officials but stated a reluctance to come to Texas too soon because he didn’t want his traveling entourage to pull resources from the crisis at hand.

“When the president lands in a city in America it has a long tail,” he told reporters on Friday.

At a briefing soon after the announcement, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden would “meet with local leaders to discuss the winter storm, relief efforts, progress toward recovery and the incredible resilience shown by the people of Houston and Texas.”

“While in Texas, the president will also visit a COVID health center where vaccines are being distributed,” she said.

Psaki said more details of the trip are coming together and that the White House will have further information soon.

See here for the background. I’m sure Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo will be among those “local leaders”. I remain curious as to whether any Republicans will care to meet with him. I expect Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick will have been invited, but who knows what they will do. There was a time when this would not have been particularly mysterious, but here we are. The Chron has more.

On informing the public during an emergency

Another thing the state didn’t do well.

As millions of Texans fought to survive brutal winter weather without power and water, Gov. Greg Abbott told residents Wednesday to search for emergency warming shelters on Google and to call 311 for additional assistance.

The only problem: Many people lacked internet access, cellphone service and the ability to watch the governor’s press conferences. When the power went out, the state suddenly lost the ability to provide essential information to people desperately in need of help.

“Telling people to Google it is not OK. It’s the result of non-imaginative or non-planning in general, and it’s very, very unfortunate,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a senior research scholar for Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. “And I think there needs to be some accountability for why they hadn’t made the infrastructure more resilient, and also why they hadn’t planned for a situation where the power’s out.”

During natural disasters and other humanitarian crises, the Texas Division of Emergency Management can use the national Emergency Alert System to share important updates, including for weather events, with Texans in specific areas. Impacted residents of the state would immediately receive a cellphone notification through that system with basic information like boil water notices or updates on when power might be restored.

But according to residents and lawmakers around the state, TDEM failed to provide such emergency alerts during this crisis, effectively leaving Texans without the kind of information necessary for living through a disaster. Instead, Abbott and TDEM officials encouraged people to search for resources on social media or Google.

[…]

Although many state officials blamed the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the state’s power grid operator, for a lack of warning about prolonged outages, Texans pointed out that the extreme weather conditions should have warranted emergency messages anyway.

“Even if they didn’t know the power outages were coming, just the temperatures alone should have been enough to have massive warnings to people of what is possible,” [Austin resident Suzanne] Wallen said. “The icing of trees and the icing of power lines, all of that is kind of basic dangerous weather information.”

Communicating the right information to people in a timely manner often becomes a life or death situation during disasters like this, Redlener said. Especially when people lose access to clean water, they need to know immediately that they should stop drinking their tap water before boiling it.

And even though TDEM may not have been prepared to send out emergency alerts before people started losing power, the state agency still could have shared information through the national alert system when the situation became dire for people across Texas.

“From so many different perspectives, this is an example of a very poorly planned disaster response, and there’s all kinds of things that could have been better, including the communication issues,” Redlener said.

We received numerous alerts from the city of Houston and Harris County, before and during the disaster. There were automated calls to the landline and to our cells, plus emergency alerts on the cell and emails. Not all of these worked during power and Internet or cellular outages, but a lot of people still have good old-fashioned landlines (ours is now VOIP and so less useful at these times, but we still had those other methods). If power and cable are down, AM/FM radio still works. There were plenty of options available to the state, and there’s no reason why a lot of information couldn’t have been broadcast by all available means well in advance of the freeze. Space City Weather was warning about arctic conditions five days in advance of Monday’s frigid temps. Not everyone will get the message, of course, and not all who do will heed it, but a lot more could have been done. It’s of a piece with the overall lack of planning to keep the electric grid up and running in the first place.

Even worse than all that is stuff like this.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said his office has heard from the White House during this week’s winter freeze, but Gov. Greg Abbott has not reached out at all.

The mayor first raised the lack of communication in an interview Friday morning with MSNBC, telling Stephanie Ruhle he had not heard from the governor’s office as millions went without power and water this week.

“I have not talked to the governor at any time during this crisis,” Turner said. “I have not talked to the governor, but we’re pushing forward.”

At a press conference later Friday morning, Turner said the state has sent National Guard troops to help staff a warming center at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The Texas Department of Transportation also has been “very, very helpful,” the mayor said.

“Between TxDOT and the National Guard, they have provided some assistance,” Turner said.

Asked whether he or his staff has reached out to Abbott, Turner said: “I have been very laser-focused on dealing with the situation right here in the city of Houston. The White House has reached out to me several times, and we’ve had those communications.”

It’s not just Mayor Turner and Houston that have been ignored by Greg Abbott. San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, along with Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins have said the same thing. I don’t even know what to think about that. I have no idea what Abbott is doing. He was actually pretty visible during Hurricane Harvey, so it’s not like he doesn’t know how to do this sort of thing, and he surely knows that being out in front of an emergency and being visibly in charge and helping others is a boon to one’s image (unlike some other politicians I could name). But by far the bulk of the heavy lifting is being done by local officials and third parties. It’s beyond bizarre.

We can get back to vaccinations

Federal vaccination super site opening this week.

COVID-19 vaccination efforts are about to significantly ramp up next week in Houston.

The region’s first vaccination “super site” will open on Tuesday at NRG Stadium, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced on Twitter Friday afternoon.

The site will vaccinate 42,000 people per week for three weeks, Hidalgo said.

The site is one of three in Texas backed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The two other Texas super sites are located in Dallas-Fort Worth at AT&T Stadium and Fair Park, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The opening of the super site means Houstonians who signed up via the city or county’s vaccine waitlist should keep an eye out for updates on when they may be able to schedule an appointment. Residents who have yet to sign up for either waitlist are encouraged to do so.

See here for the background. COVID vaccinations pretty much came to a halt last week, which puts a bit of a crimp in the pace to get 100 million vaccinations administered in the first 100 days of the Biden administration, but they had been running ahead of pace and should be able to get back on track. Sure is nice to be able to type and read those words and nod along instead of scoffing, isn’t it?

Here comes President Biden

Visiting next week for disaster-related matters, itinerary TBD.

President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden said Friday that he’ll sign a major disaster declaration for Texas after millions in the state suffered power outages and water disruptions during prolonged freezing temperatures. He’s also expected to visit Texas soon.

Biden already signed an emergency declaration for Texas on Feb. 14, which authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide the state with critical equipment, like generators, and other resources like water and diesel to alleviate the effects of the disaster. A major disaster declaration is distinct from an emergency declaration. It essentially provides a wider range of assistance through “federal assistance programs for individuals and public infrastructure.”

“I’m going to sign that declaration once it’s in front of me,” he said Friday.

An emergency declaration functions as a supplement to state and local emergency services, while a major disaster declaration is issued if the president determines a disaster “has caused damage of such severity that it is beyond the combined capabilities of state and local governments to respond,” according to FEMA’s website.

The declaration allows for various assistance programs at the discretion of the governor’s specific request, and it can include programs for crisis counseling, disaster case management, disaster unemployment assistance and legal services, among others. Biden told reporters on Friday that he has already directed various federal agencies, like the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services, to continue assisting Texans through the crisis.

The major disaster declaration has been singed. Nice to have a President who doesn’t require some bizarre loyalty tests before performing the normal duties of serving the public, isn’t it? I seem to recall President Obama was like that, too – it’s hard to remember things from so many millions of years ago, but that’s the way I remember it. I will be very interested to see who besides Greg Abbott, who I presume will have to be there, will greet him. Might be a bit awkward, what with the whole sedition-and-insurrection thing. Dan Patrick might chip a tooth, he’d be gritting his teeth so hard. If we don’t get at least one meme-worthy photo out of this, I will be mildly disappointed. Anyway, maybe there will be a public appearance or two, so keep your calendar open.

Here come the super-sites

Cool.

Texas is working with the federal government to open vaccination “super sites” that could administer upward of 5,000 COVID-19 vaccines per day, Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday.

Houston and Dallas will likely host the initial two sites, Abbott said, with “possible expansion to other locations.” They would be open every day for eight weeks, offering as many as 672,000 shots between them.

The sites would be the largest to administer COVID-19 vaccines in Texas, which has lost more than 35,000 residents to the coronavirus. They come at the beginning of an increased federal presence in the state’s vaccine rollout, as President Joe Biden has promised to scale up vaccine distribution as quickly as possible.

In recent weeks, Texas officials have employed a similar strategy at the state level, designating about 80 vaccination “hubs” statewide that receive most of the weekly vaccine allotment. The largest hubs clock in just above 10,000 doses a week, though allocations vary by site.

Lauren Lefebvre, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said officials are working with Texas on the specifics for the super sites, which weren’t solidified yet Monday. The agency is partnering with state governments across the nation to pilot up to 100 community vaccination centers primarily staffed by federal employees.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the “super site” announcement was “good news” that would allow county officials to begin chipping away at a vaccination waitlist including roughly 300,000 residents — far exceeding available doses.

“The sooner we increase vaccine supply, the faster we can reach herd immunity,” she tweeted. “We’re ready to support state and Biden administration efforts to distribute more vaccines.”

See here for some background. According to the Trib, FEMA brings its own supply of the vaccine, which is separate from the weekly allotment the state gets from the CDC. That ought to help ease the supply burden a bit. Good news all around.

More vaccines coming

Still not enough, but getting better.

Texas this week expects to receive more than half a million first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from the federal government, state health officials announced Friday.

The 520,425 doses will be shipped to 344 providers, including 82 hubs, in 166 counties across the state, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Officials attributed the boost in available vaccine to a 30 percent increase in Moderna doses being sent to the state and a “one-time return” of 126,750 doses of the Pfizer vaccine that the state had been required set aside for a program that overestimated the number of needed doses.

Doses that had been set aside, for a long-term care facilities program, will specifically go to providers located in counties that have been allocated “significantly” fewer vaccines than their share of the population, including in the suburban Houston area, health officials said.

[…]

As of Friday, providers across the state had administered about 2.2 million doses, according to DSHS. More than 1.75 million people had received at least one dose while more than 410,000 people were considered fully vaccinated.

Reread that last paragraph, please. When you see “the state had administered about 2.2 million doses” of the COVID vaccine, do you think “2.2 million people have been vaccinated for COVID”? Because if you do, and I wouldn’t blame you if you do, what do you then think when you read “1.75 million people had received at least one dose while more than 410,000 people were considered fully vaccinated”? It’s a very different reality, isn’t it? That’s the magnitude of the problem here.

For what it’s worth, the 520K doses is almost exactly what would be needed to meet the 75K per day goal that Greg Abbott has set. (We’ll put aside the second-shot question for the moment.) Again, though, this puts us in range of getting everyone vaccinated in a little more than a year. We don’t have that kind of time. We need to be aiming for something like one million vaccinations per week, or close to 150K per day, to get this done in a timely fashion, and that’s still a duration of more than six months. Federal help is coming – in fact, it’s already here – and I expect to see our daily and weekly totals rise soon, but we really need to appreciate how massive the scope of this project is, and how far behind we already are thanks to the criminal incompetence and negligence of the previous administration and its enablers. Be very, very upset about this.

Who needs testing?

Not a great idea.

The Trump administration is planning to end federal support for some coronavirus testing sites across the nation at the end of the month — including seven in Texas, where confirmed cases of COVID are spiking.

An array of Texas officials from the city to the state House and Congress are urging the White House to rethink the move, warning of “catastrophic cascading consequences” of pulling federal support for testing sites, four of which are in Houston and Harris County and administer thousands of tests per day. City officials say the sites won’t close, but keeping them open without federal help will drain much-needed resources as the city works to expand testing and build a contact tracing network.

A Trump administration official said the sites are part of a “now antiquated program” the federal government is moving away from as it works to expand testing options. But Houston officials consider two of those sites — the largest in the city, administering up to 500 tests each per day — the backbone of its testing efforts.

Texas has seen a 146-percent increase in lab-confirmed COVID-19 hospitalizations since Memorial Day and Houston could soon be the country’s worst-hit city, health officials have warned.

“Now is the time to be ramping up our testing capabilities, not slowing it down,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat who led a letter to the heads of FEMA and Health and Human Services on Tuesday. Houston Democratic U.S. Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher also signed the letter.

Also pushing back on the plan is a group of 20 members of the Texas House and Senate representing Harris County and U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican.

[…]

The Trump administration has long planned to end federal support for the sites and transition them to state and local control. It has pushed back the plan at least once, in April, when it extended support for the sites until the end of June at the urging of local lawmakers including Houston Democrats and the state’s Republican U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Cruz.

Officials are asking the administration to to push the deadline back to the end of August, saying ending federal support for the sites now could hinder attempts local attempts to build up contact tracing networks and other efforts to control the outbreak.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Wednesday that the city will keep the testing sites open, but it will strain the city’s resources to do so. The city’s health department is working on a transition plan as officials push for the federal government to reconsider.

The federal government should be paying for this. It’s not even a question. This is not something that should be competing for city financial resources. Turn on the federal spigot, and keep it on until we don’t need testing at scale anymore. I can’t believe we are having this discussion.

Credit to Talking Points Memo for breaking the original story, which has been picked up by national media, and which apparently led to an epic meltdown by the spokesperson for HHS on a conference call with reporters. The Trib has more.

Once again, we wait for disaster relief funds

At least people know the drill by now.

Five deaths are linked to floods from Tropical Storm Imelda, the worst storm in Texas since Hurricane Harvey and one of the wettest tropical cyclones in the nation’s history, according to the National Weather Service.

Imelda dumped as much as 43 inches of rain in some parts of southeast Texas, according to the National Weather Service. In comparison, Harvey dropped about 60 inches of rain.

Although Gov. Greg Abbott declared a state of emergency Thursday morning, it does not qualify individuals for financial aid. That would have to come from a federal disaster declaration, which would release federal dollars for public assistance or individual assistance. Federal Emergency Management Agency agents began doing damage assessments Monday morning, said a FEMA spokesperson. It’s unclear how long that will take, the spokesperson said.

Public assistance is money reimbursed to state and local governments and certain nonprofit organizations for the cost of disaster-related repairs and protective measures, according to the FEMA website. The affected area must reach a little over $37 million in public damages to qualify, according to Seth Christensen, a representative for the Texas Division of Emergency Management. For individual assistance, paid out to individuals for housing and other disaster-related needs, there need to be 800 homes that took in 18 inches or more of water and are not covered by insurance, Christensen said.

We’ll see about that. And we’ll see about Donald Trump’s promise that federal aid will be expedited, because we all know how good to his word Donald Trump is. Maybe this time we’ll get it before the next 500-year storm hits. The Chron has more.

Some flood mitigation funds are coming

Good.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has awarded Houston its first grant aimed at mitigating flooding since Hurricane Harvey hit nearly two years ago, laying the groundwork for new gates on the Lake Houston dam and detention basins in Inwood Forest.

Both projects have estimated price tags of about $47 million, with $35 million coming from the federal government. The state, through legislation passed during the recent session, will cover about $9 million for each, with the city paying the rest.

The announcement drew swift praise from local and federal officials, who had been awaiting the money since Houston applied last year.

“This is a breakthrough moment for the City and one we have been waiting for very patiently,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “Houston has bounced back from Harvey, but we need the federal government as a full partner as we work to prevent flooding from the next storms that will surely come.”

[…]

The Lake Houston project will add 10 gates to the dam, allowing the city to release larger amounts of water ahead of heavy rains. In a news release, Turner’s office said the project would protect about 35,000 residents and 5,000 structures.

Meanwhile, the Inwood basin project is a joint venture between the city and Harris County, who are aiming to build 12 detention basins on a defunct golf course in northwest Houston. The basins will be able to hold about 1,200 acre-feet of water, which equals roughly 592 Olympic-size swimming pools, or enough water to fill the Astrodome, Turner’s office said.

Here’s the Mayor’s press release, which has more details. The projects are slated to be done by 2022. I don’t have anything to add to this, I’m just glad it’s happening.

More floodplain buyouts

Gonna keep seeing more of these.

Fifteen months after Hurricane Harvey flooded more than 200,000 area homes and apartments, Harris County has begun purchasing homes in the floodplain using funds voters overwhelmingly approved in this summer’s $2.5 billion flood infrastructure bond.

Using matching funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Harris County in the past month has purchased 12 homes. For this program, which combines local and federal dollars, the Harris County Flood Control District has used $53 million in bond funds to secure $159 million from FEMA. Another 512 homes are in the buyout process, and up to 400 more could be purchased using this funding source.

James Wade, director of the flood control district’s buyout program, said his staff aims to leverage local funding to secure federal dollars, which lessens the burden for Harris County taxpayers. Homes the county is targeting for buyouts are so susceptible to flooding that engineers have concluded the cost to protect them cannot be justified.

“There’s no practical flood control project that can save them,” Wade said.

Over the course of the decade-long bond program, the flood control district plans to use around $180 million in local funding, plus $550 million from federal partners, to purchase as many as 3,600 buildings in the floodplain. That total would more than double the number of homes the flood control district’s buyout program has purchased in its 33-year history.

Harris County plans to focus many of the buyouts on the San Jacinto River watershed, though the dozen homes purchased to date include properties on Vince Bayou, White Oak Bayou, Cypress Creek and Vogel Creek.

Not much to add to this. Buyouts are a necessary tool in the kit, but they’re also necessarily going to be limited in scope. I’m curious what our incoming County Judge thinks about the progress of this program, but it will remain a mystery to me, as she was not quoted in the story.

One year out from Harvey

We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

One year after Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas coast, 8 percent of the people impacted by the disaster have not been able to return to their homes, according to a report from two nonprofits that surveyed Texans about how the storm affected their finances, health and living conditions.

Fifteen percent of the hundreds of thousands of homes damaged by the storm are still unlivable. And of the 1,651 people from 24 counties who answered the survey, 30 percent of those impacted by the storm said their lives are still “somewhat” or “very” disrupted by the devastating storm’s lingering damage.

Those survey results, released by The Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation on Thursday, may be the clearest picture of how many people are still struggling to put their lives back together after Harvey. Federal and state officials aren’t keeping track of how many people remain displaced.

[…]

While most survey respondents said their financial situations and quality of life are about the same as they were before Harvey, 23 percent said that Harvey worsened their financial situation and 17 percent said it lowered their quality of life. Twelve percent of respondents said their financial situation is better and 11 percent said their quality of life has improved.

But the results found that people of color, those with lower incomes and people living in certain geographic areas are not recovering as quickly as many Texans.

“This survey shows how much Harvey continues to haunt many across coastal Texas, with significant shares reporting ongoing challenges with their housing, finances and health,” Drew Altman, president and CEO of the Kaiser Family Foundation, said in a prepared statement.

Among black Texans impacted by the storm, 60 percent say they are not getting the help they need. That compares to 40 percent of Hispanic respondents and 33 percent of white respondents.

For example, Kashmere and Trinity Gardens One Year After Harvey: A Follow-Up Report by Lara Purser:

Rosa Randle, a senior, isn’t the only Kashmere Gardens resident wandering through this labyrinth without a map. She remains in limbo. Lacking critical assistance a year after Hurricane Harvey landed, Ms. Randle’s story is all too common. Mr. Keith Downey, Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood President, says he receives calls and texts like hers daily. Nearly one year after reporting on Kashmere Gardens after Harvey, I found residents and community leaders are engaged in short-term relief and recovery as well as long-term planning.

“Posting a flyer just won’t do,” Mr. Downey quips when asked how residents – many of whom lack internet access – successfully connect with Harvey relief services. Handshakes. Hugging. Hearing. That is the gospel Mr. Downey preaches. Human connection helps build trust, he says, and that personal touch encourages residents to advocate for their own needs. He estimates at least 40 percent of Harvey-affected residents in his community are living in homes still needing remediation, are in various stages of repair, or remain displaced altogether and faults his community’s lack of political and economic influence for delays in receiving assistance. FEMA data analysis by non-profit Texas Housers confirms that the highest concentration of residents with unmet housing needs a year after Harvey are in low-income, minority neighborhoods like Kashmere Gardens, where the median household income hovers around $23,000.

The Center for Disease Control ranks Kashmere Gardens among the nation’s most socially vulnerable neighborhoods, as determined by “degree to which a community exhibits… high poverty, low percentage of vehicle access, [and] crowded households.” In short: Hurricane Harvey continues to complicate lives that were complicated enough already.

The canyons of flooded waste are gone making ongoing struggles less visible. It’s hard to understate the extent of loss in this community of 10,000 residents. Based on City of Houston estimates, the Community Design Resource Center at the University of Houston found that a staggering 79 percent of all homes in the Kashmere Gardens Super Neighborhood flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Data from the United Way Community Profile for the 77028 zip code, which includes parts of Kashmere Gardens, show there were twice as many applicants with FEMA Verified Loss (FVL) as other Harris County zip codes. Just half of these FVL applicants received any level of FEMA assistance. Of those households “lucky” enough to get FEMA aid, four in ten still had thousands of dollars of unmet needs in that zip code. This substantial gap in assistance has been met in piecemeal fashion through an estimated 50 organizations and agencies servicing the area. But as Ms. Randle’s experience illustrates, securing help is a long and frustrating journey.

And it’s not just in Houston.

Nobody knows exactly how many of Rockport’s roughly 10,000 residents left after Harvey blasted through here as a Category 4 storm on Aug. 25, 2017, but a loose consensus among local officials is that population is down about 20 percent. According to the Aransas County Independent School District, student enrollment fell about 15 percent after the hurricane, and [Aransas County Judge Burt] Mills estimates the county lost about one-quarter of its taxable property.

A survey released this week by the Kaiser Family and Episcopal Health foundations found that 62 percent of people in coastal areas hit by Harvey, including Aransas County, suffered damage to their homes, while 27 percent said someone in their household experienced job or income loss. Eight percent of the respondents said they haven’t been able to return home.

But Mills is optimistic that the majority of the people who left won’t stay gone forever.

“They’re gonna come back,” he said. “This is home. This is my little piece of paradise, and I believe everybody that lives in Aransas County feels that way.”

But whether Rockport and the surrounding communities can make a complete rebound will depend on their ability to provide affordable housing for the lower-income workers displaced by the storm whose labor fuels the local tourism economy, and on their ability to withstand the rising tides and more extreme storms forecasted for a warming planet.

Go read the rest of both stories. Those of us who are lucky enough to not have been affected by Harvey, or who have been able to get back on our feet, need to remember and advocate for those of us who haven’t been so lucky. We are all in this together. ThinkProgress has more.

A better match from FEMA

Good news.

Federal officials have agreed to count volunteer work hours and donated materials toward the local match required for disaster recovery grants to repair streets, buildings, utilities, parks and other public facilities — a national policy change, initiated in Houston, that could save local governments tens of millions of dollars.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency agreed to expand its acceptance of volunteer hours and donated supplies after months of discussions with leaders of Houston’s Hurricane Harvey recovery effort. The change is retroactive to Aug. 23, 2017 — two days before the official declaration of Harvey as a major disaster.

Typically, local governments must match 25 percent of the federal government’s contributions during a disaster and its aftermath, and only can count volunteer hours and donated materials toward that match in the removal of storm debris and immediate emergency response efforts, such as sheltering victims. For Harvey, the Trump administration agreed to drop the local match to 10 percent.

Even with the change, Mayor Sylvester Turner said, Houston will still be responsible for a projected local match of $250 million.

“For the first time in FEMA’s history, they are allowing this volunteer program on permanent repairs to be used as a part of that 10 percent local match, and they’re not only allowing it for the city of Houston — for our region — but it’s a national initiative that they would allow in all other disasters now going forward,” Turner said. “That’s a monumental shift, because most local governments are hard-pressed to come up with that 10 percent match.”

There are still a lot of details to work out about what kind of work would count, how to track it and tally it up, and how to ensure that federal procurement rules are obeyed, but the decision to go this way will be a big help to Houston and other communities rebuilding after disasters. Kudos to all for making this happen.

Council approves initial Harvey housing aid

It’s a start.

Houston City Council has approved a plan to direct how the first long-term federal housing aid headed this way after Hurricane Harvey will be spent, targeting $600 million to repair or build single-family homes and $375 million to fix or construct apartments.

The action plan is a key step in the city’s effort to draw on $1.15 billion in federal housing aid, part of the $5 billion allocated to Texas from Congress’ first hurricane-related appropriation last fall. Harris County will get a similar amount.

The plan now awaits approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, after which it will be attached as an amendment to the Texas General Land Office’s plan that addresses recovery along the rest of the Gulf Coast.

HUD approved the state’s plan this week, though housing advocates have filed a complaint against it, aiming to ensure the recovery money will benefit low-income Texans and people of color.

At least 70 percent of the HUD funds must benefit families making no more than 80 percent of the area’s median household income, or about $60,000 for a family of four. The funds must address the city’s “unmet housing need” — families displaced by the storm whose lives and homes were not restored to normal with whatever aid they may have received from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Small Business Administration.

The city’s action plan is here, and data from the community engagements is here. A Chron story about that housing discrimination complaint is here. There’s a lot going on with this, and a lot of people who are still in need as we are already in the next hurricane season. We need to get this right. ThinkProgress has more.

Abbott versus Houston on Harvey funds

I have three things to say about this.

Gov. Greg Abbott blasted the city of Houston for its response to Hurricane Harvey Wednesday, critiquing what he described as a lack of sound financial planning and sluggish progress repairing flooded homes.

The governor’s assessment, which he delivered in two terse letters Wednesday, was prompted by a request Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and 55 other Gulf Coast mayors and county judges sent Abbott on Tuesday, requesting state help meeting the local match for a key federal disaster mitigation program.

FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is a standard aid process triggered after every federally declared disaster. In the case of Harvey, Texas will receive about $1.1 billion in mitigation funds, $500 million of which is available to local governments now. Local leaders must compete for the dollars and provide a 25 percent match to fund selected projects; FEMA covers the other 75 percent.

“The states of Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Virginia, Georgia and Colorado have provided for local matches in situations utilizing HMGP,” the 57 Gulf Coast leaders wrote to Abbott. “We ask that the state of Texas make a similar effort in joining local jurisdictions as a partner in flood mitigation.”

Abbott, in his response to Turner, said he had worked to ensure local governments could use federal block grants to provide that match.

“Texas Department of Emergency Management has received zero applications from the city of Houston to access this funding, meaning there is hundreds of millions of dollars sitting on the table for your use,” Abbott added. “It is perplexing that you are seeking more funding when you have shown no ability to spend what you already have access to.”

This response confused and angered some local officials. Not only are the mitigation funds subject to a competitive application process, they said, but the hundreds of millions of dollars Abbott referenced are the exact funds they are seeking the governor’s help in matching to be able to use.

[…]

Emmett added that using federal block grants for the mitigation program — something Abbott mentioned in another recent letter to county officials — would cannibalize dollars needed for home repairs and additional infrastructure projects.

“It defies logic as to why you’d take federal dollars and, instead of using them for the purpose of relief and prevention, you’d use them as your local match for other federal dollars,” Emmett said.

Emmett said he was taken aback by Abbott’s letter to Turner.

“The tone of the governor’s letter is troublesome, and I don’t think it recognizes reality. All of us are merely seeking to speed up recovery and to take the burden off local taxpayers,” Emmett said. “Why that deserves a lecture I don’t know.”

In addition, Emmett and Turner said, the governor only selectively referenced the federal notice that authorizes the use of block grants as matching funds. The same filing also stresses the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s efforts to “promote policies that require state and local financial participation to ensure their shared commitment and responsibility for long-term recovery and future disaster risk reduction” and states “HUD expects grantees to financially contribute to their recovery through the use of reserve or ‘rainy day’ funds, borrowing authority, or retargeting of existing financial resources.”

“’Rainy day fund.’ That was an interesting choice of words that HUD used,” Emmett said.

1. As we know, the state’s “rainy day fund” is more properly known as the Economic Stabilization Fund, and it was originally intended as a way to stretch revenues during lean economic times, so that the budget didn’t have to be cut in drastic or harmful ways. That purpose more or less went out the window in 2011 when Rick Perry unilaterally declared that the fund could not be used to help with budge shortfalls because we needed to make sure it was sufficiently flush in the event that emergency funds were needed to recover from a natural disaster. You know, like Hurricane Harvey. As much as I decry the Perry decree about the rainy day fund and grind my teeth when I hear people on my side buy into that framing, I have to say that it does make for a very easy to grasp criticism of Greg Abbott. We have a rainy day fund, and it doesn’t get any rainier than Harvey, so why aren’t we using it?

2. Let’s grant for the sake of argument that Abbott is completely right in his criticism of Mayor Turner and all the other local officials who reached out to him for help. Which do you think makes for better politics, writing a bitchy, scolding letter that airs a bunch of grievances about how these local officials failed to follow bureaucratic processes correctly, or swooping in like a rich uncle and making a show of cutting red tape, providing cash, getting things done, and aiming your criticism at the feds for dragging their feet? I think you can guess which option I’d choose. Maybe that’s only something a guy like Abbott (or Perry) does when there’s a Democrat in the White House to serve as the bad guy, I don’t know.

3. Like Campos, I’d like to know more about what not only Judge Emmett thinks about all this, but also the Republican officeholders on the ballot here whose electoral fortunes will be at least somewhat connected to Abbott’s in Harris County. As you know, I already think Dems here are poised to do well this fall. If I’m right, then the main hope for survival may be to put a little distance between oneself and the less-helpful-than-he-could-be Republican Governor.

The timing of a Harvey bond referendum

How does August grab you?

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will consider calling a special election for August 25 — the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey — to ask voters to OK a massive bond referendum for flood control projects.

The amount of the referendum has yet to be determined as the county continues to assess its needs and as other funds, including as federal grants, become available. At least three members of Commissioners Court said Friday they envision a measure that could reach $2.5 billion.

[…]

The referendum could help finance property buyouts, as well as a range of infrastructure projects, such as the widening and deepening of bayous or the construction of a much-discussed third reservoir in northwest Harris County.

Tuesday’s vote follows months of wrangling over the logistics of holding the bond election, including the cost of holding a special election and the ideal date to ensure voters turn out to support the measure.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis on Friday said he supports presenting the bond referendum to voters during the November general election, when turnout is expected to be considerable as voters weigh in on mid-term congressional elections.

“Without evidence of a clear path to victory for a summer-time bond election, which is likely to have low turnout, I have serious reservations about the proposed August date,” Ellis said. “The future of Harris County hinges on the success of this flood bond.”

It also is not yet clear what the bond referendum will include. Harris County Flood Control District Director of Operations Matt Zeve said that would be determined after Tuesday’s discussion at Commissioners Court.

County officials have said the necessity for bond money grows as federal grants pour in to prepare the Houston area for future floods or to recover from Harvey, many of which require a sometimes hefty financial match from local governments.

“The risk is that they may allocate the funds elsewhere and, thus, become unavailable for our region,” Emmett states in the proposed letter to Abbott.

See here, here, and here for the background. I get the reason for wanting to do this as quickly as possible, as grant money may get grabbed up by other places before we could approve a November referendum. August is a weird time for an election – looking at the County Clerk election result archives, the only August date I see is in 2014, for a special election runoff in SD04, which is only part of the county.

The last election that wasn’t in March or May or November that included the entire county was the 2003 Constitutional Amendment special election, which included the infamous tort “reform” measure and which was done in September specifically to reduce turnout from the Houston area, since we had an open seat Mayoral race that November. Turnout for that, which was a state election and not a county election, was 238,334, or 13.38% of registered voters. We have more registered voters now, but that percentage would still put us south of 300K. Compare that to the November 2014 general election, which had 688,018 voters, which was still only 33.65% turnout. I’d bet on November this year being closer to 800K voters, and likely a lot more Democratic than either of those other two contexts.

So on the one hand, you’ve got a need to get this done, and the one year anniversary of Harvey as a rallying cry, but a smaller electorate that may be more likely to not support any kind of spending measure. You also need Greg Abbott’s approval to hold this election, which you’ll probably get but is still an unknown factor. On the other hand, you could have a November vote with a bigger and likely friendlier electorate, but you risk losing out on some grant money, and maybe that much farther away from Harvey people will feel less of a sense of urgency to do something, or at least something that may be historically big. All things considered, my preference is still November, but we’ll see what Commissioners Court decides.

Flood tunnels

It’s so crazy, it just might work.

Japanese flood tunnel

The Harris County Flood Control District is exploring the possibility of building several massive, deep tunnels aimed at keeping storm water out of flood-prone neighborhoods and carry it underground for miles to the Houston Ship Channel during major storms.

Never before tried around Houston, the project likely would cost several billion dollars and it is not clear where the money would come from, officials said. Specialized machines methodically digging 100 to 200 feet underground would take several years to complete the tunnels, which would seek to drain floodwaters from bayous across the county.

Officials with the flood control district said the idea could be a bold answer to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, and dramatically improve Houston’s defenses against deadly floods where other strategies have fallen short.

“What the flood control district has been doing for decades doesn’t occur fast enough or it doesn’t have the benefits that the public really wants,” said Matthew Zeve, director of operations at the flood control district. “We’ve been challenged to try to think of new ideas and new strategies and this is an answer to that challenge.”

[…]

A feasibility study is expected to cost around $400,000 and be completed by October.

News of the proposal fueled optimism and skepticism Friday — optimism that Harvey finally could force radical changes to Houston’s flood control strategy, and skepticism that such a monumental project could be accomplished when much less ambitious ideas have languished for decades.

Rep. John Culberson, R-Houston, said in a statement he is “encouraged” the flood control district “is thinking outside the box and plans to conduct a feasibility study on this proposal. It certainly seems like this type of project could be partially funded by FEMA hazard mitigation grants and, perhaps, through other federal sources, as well.”

Houston’s flood czar, drainage engineer and former city councilman Steve Costello, said the project could be a potential paradigm shift for the region’s flood risk.

“We’re trying to lower the risk; we’re never going to be able to totally eliminate the risk,” Costello said, referencing efforts to improve drainage through local projects. “Well, a tunnel system, quite possibly, could eliminate the risk.”

As expensive and complex as it would be – Costello said he was told it could cost perhaps $100 million per mile, in Houston’s soils – he said tunnels may be the most cost-effective way to achieve the gold standard of 100-year storm protection in every major channel.

Jim Thompson, regional CEO for engineering Giant AECOM, said the tunnels are “worthy projects” that warrant further study, but said officials ought to prioritize long-identified projects along bayous and city streets first.

“Would it provide the cure-all relief that everybody is seeking? No,” Thompson said. “Would it provide a noticeable decrease in flood levels and risk of flooding? The answer is possibly yes.”

There’s a connection to Elon Musk in all this, because of course there is. Other cities, like Tokyo, have similar tunnels, so the idea is neither crazy nor unprecedented. But like all things, until and unless there’s a budget and an appropriation, it’s just an idea. Commissioners Court has approved the feasibility study, so we’ll see what they come up with.

Houston’s flood mitigation priorities

The sooner the better with this.

Stephen Costello

Converting a defunct golf course and dormant landfills into detention basins, digging new channels and buying out or elevating scores of homes are among Houston leaders’ key priorities as Hurricane Harvey recovery funds begin flowing to the Texas Gulf coast.

Houston flood czar Steve Costello on Wednesday presented to city council a list of 13 projects Houston plans to submit to state officials in competition for the first $500 million of an expected $1 billion in FEMA mitigation aid released after Harvey.

The projects would cover a handful of watersheds and would cost a combined $723 million, according to preliminary estimates.

“There’s a lot of variables here. We, first of all, need to see if the state is willing to support them,” Costello said. “These projects all collectively are about $700 million and there’s only $1 billion for the entire state, so some of these projects won’t make the list.”

Costello said he expects to submit initial paperwork to the state on the first group of projects within days. As state officials agree the submitted items are worthwhile, he said, the city will return to drafting the more detailed grant applications — including cost-benefit analyses required by FEMA — that are due in June.

[…]

Costello said he selected projects based on their potential impact, the opportunity for the city to partner with other governments to complete them, and the extent to which the projects were ready to be built quickly. Many of the ideas, he added, existed before Harvey but have gotten renewed focus since the storm.

Click over to see the list. The priorities make sense, as does the idea of partnering with other entities where possible. Not everything will get funded, but you have to assume we’ll get a lot of what we’re asking for. And what we don’t get, the state will need to step up and fill in. We can’t afford not to take this very seriously.

So where are we on Harvey response?

Stuff is happening.

Local and state leaders are moving toward a major, lengthy and costly overhaul of the region’s flood defenses that includes regulating developmentmassive buyouts of flood-prone properties and flood-prevention projects that have been discussed for decades but never built.

Few of the initiatives will be complete before hurricane season starts in June, but nearly six months after Hurricane Harvey ripped through the Texas Gulf Coast and devastated the nation’s fourth-largest city, leaders are seeking to address long-ignored shortcomings laid bare by one of the most intense rainstorms in U.S. history.

Gov. Greg Abbott says he can write a check for a third reservoir to better protect areas west of Houston from inundation as well as attempt to avoid the types of releases from Addicks and Barker dams that swamped Houston downstream during Harvey.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wants to join Harris County in strengthening regulation on the region’s rapid development to protect the city’s population from floodwaters and alleviate the burden on taxpayers to repair and rebuild flood-prone properties.

Harris County leaders want a major bond issue – and a corresponding increase in property taxes – this year to pay for bayou drainage projects and, possibly, broad buyouts in flood-prone areas.

There’s also broad support for legislation that would require buyers of property in reservoir flood pools, which are dry much of the time, to be notified of flooding risks; 30,000 homes have been built in the flood pools of Addicks and Barker, and many owners say they had no idea they were living in an area designed to hold water during times of heavy rain. More than 9,000 of those homes flooded during Harvey.

Some of the local response has been slowed as officials waited to see what Congress will be willing to fund, a logjam that started to break late in the week with the approval of nearly $90 billion for victims of this year’s storms and natural disasters – much of it for recovery, not prevention. But state and local officials tell the Houston Chronicle they remain committed to broader improvements.

That was written before the Congressional budget deal was reached, so that obstacle should be removed, though it’s still not totally clear what that will mean. County Commissioners will need to figure that out for the bond referendum they’re planning. There are now more FEMA funds available for recovery, which is nice but makes you wonder why it took so long.

It’s a little hard for me as someone who wasn’t directly affected by Harvey to judge if “enough” progress has been made. My friends who were flooded out are still dealing with it; one family is about to move back into their repaired home, which was damaged by the dam releases, another has made the decision to sell and live elsewhere, others are in similar places. I can’t speak for them, but we will all have the opportunity to listen to them as the elections approach. I have to assume that every elected official is going to have to answer for his or her actions and decisions during and after Harvey. I feel like this could be a point of weakness for Greg Abbott, and I think that Andrew White’s campaign ad touting his actions during Harvey is a smart move. It’s too soon to say how much of an effect Harvey will have on November – I don’t get the sense that it’s a difference maker in the primaries, but at least on the Democratic side that may be because no one disagrees with the notion that more can and should have been done to aid the recovery and mitigate against future floods – but it will be there. The time to take action to shield oneself against charges that one’s response was inadequate is rapidly running out, if it hasn’t already.

Harvey’s lingering health effects

It’s going to be a long time before we can really say we have put Hurricane Harvey behind us.

Three months after Hurricane Harvey, local health officials now are beginning to see the storm after the storm.

In Harris County and the other hardest-hit regions of Texas, 17 percent of those who had houses damaged or suffered income loss report that someone in their household has a new or worsening health condition. A sweeping new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation shows a similar proportion feels their own mental health has worsened.

“We’re not anywhere near the end yet,” cautioned Dr. Cindy Rispin, a family physician with the Memorial Hermann Medical Group in League City.

Researchers surveyed more than 1,600 Texans in 24 affected counties to gauge their personal recovery. The report released Tuesday found a region still reeling in ways obvious and hidden.

[…]

More than four in 10 residents surveyed for the “Early Assessment of Hurricane Harvey’s Impact on Vulnerable Texans in the Gulf Coast Region” report said their homes had hurricane damage. Three percent reported their homes were destroyed.

Among those whose homes were damaged, nearly half said they had homeowners’ or renters’ insurance, but only 23 percent had flood insurance.

“We’re going to see foreclosures hit. It will probably be people that financially were in a tight spot already,” real estate agent Matthew Guzman said in a recent interview.

Perhaps most ominous is the quiet toll Harvey is still taking, months later, on people’s physical and mental health.

Worse, many storm victims were already uninsured in a state that leads the nation in those without coverage. Even those with coverage complained they cannot afford health care, especially as longtime doctors are no longer nearby when people become displaced. About six in 10 say they have skipped or postponed needed treatment, cut back on medication or struggled to get mental health care.

An executive summary of the poll, with links to all the poll data, is here. Some sobering facts from the summary:

About half of those who have applied for disaster assistance from FEMA or the SBA say their application is still pending or has been denied, and many of those who were denied say they were not told the reason for the denial and were not given information on how to resubmit their application. About a quarter of those whose homes were damaged say they had any flood insurance. Four in ten of those who were affected say they expect none of their financial losses to be covered by insurance or other assistance.

The financial situations of most people affected by Harvey are tenuous. About half of affected residents say they have no savings whatsoever, and another quarter say that if they lost their job or other source of income, their savings would be exhausted in less than 6 months.

Nearly half of affected residents say they are not getting the help they need to recover from the hurricane. Particular areas that stand out where residents say they need more help include applying for disaster assistance and repairing damage to their homes.

Local, county, and state governments receive high marks from residents for their response to Hurricane Harvey so far. Residents are more mixed in their views of how the U.S. Congress has responded, and responses tilt negative when it comes to President Trump’s response. Four in ten affected residents are not confident relief funds will benefit those most in need.

I wish I could say people are being needlessly pessimistic, but I can’t. ThinkProgress and the Trib have more.

Texas v the feds, disaster recovery funding edition

This would be quite entertaining to watch, if the stakes weren’t so high.

Texas Republicans on Friday panned the White House’s latest disaster aid request, with Gov. Greg Abbott calling it “completely inadequate” for the state’s needs in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

President Donald Trump’s administration was quick to respond, calling on the state to pony up its own dollars to help with the recovery.

Unveiled earlier Friday, the request seeks $44 billion from Congress to assist with the Harvey aftermath, as well as the recoveries from other recent hurricanes in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While not final, the number is far less than the $61 billion proposal that Abbott had submitted for Texas alone to Congress last month.

“What was offered up by Mick Mulvaney and [his Office of Management and Budget] is completely inadequate for the needs of the state of Texas and I believe does not live up to what the president wants to achieve,” Abbott said at a Texas Capitol news conference called to unveil a $5 billion grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

“The president has told me privately what he’s said publicly, and that is that he wants to be the builder president,” Abbott added. “The president has said that he wants this to be the best recovery from a disaster ever.”

In Washington, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the amount in the request — and put the onus on Texas to tap its funds for Harvey recovery.

“Up until this point, Texas has not put any state dollars into this process,” Sanders told reporters. “We feel strongly that they should step up and play a role and work with the federal government in this process. We did a thorough assessment and that was completed and this was the number that we put forward to Congress today.”

See here for the background. I would just note that the Republicans have been working hard at passing a huge tax cut for billionaires, so there hasn’t been much time for small stuff like this. Priorities, you know.

There’s one other thing to consider here, which I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere yet, and that’s that this could turn into a big political liability for the Republicans, from Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz to the various members of Congress. The campaign ads write themselves: “Your party controls the government, and you couldn’t get anything done to help with the recovery. What good are you?” Maybe Abbott can survive that, against a low-profile opponent, but I sure wouldn’t want to be John Culberson or Ted Cruz and have that hanging around my neck. Maybe Trump and Congress get their act together on this and turn this into a positive for their team. They certainly have the incentive for it. They just don’t have the track record, or the ideological impulses. Keep an eye on it, that’s all I’m saying. A statement from Mayor Turner is here, and the Chron has more.

Don’t hold your breath waiting for federal Harvey recovery money

Settle in for the long haul.

It could be months, if not years, before southeast Texans and scores of counties and cities receive federal funds to pay for the long-term rebuilding and recovery of homes and communities battered by Hurricane Harvey’s epic rains.

Federal Emergency Management Agency money for short-term relief like debris removal and some house repairs is already flowing to people and government agencies. But state lawmakers were told Monday that Housing and Urban Development disaster relief funds, which includes money for extensive home repairs or rebuilds, could take seven to 32 months to work their way through bureaucratic processes and several layers of government agencies.

“It could be some time,” Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush told the House Urban Affairs Committee.

[…]

People affected by disasters receive HUD disaster relief funds, which are distributed as grants from various government agencies and non-profits. Before the government agencies can disperse the money, they must develop an action plan that HUD approves. The public must also have a chance to comment on the plan, a process that can take 30 to 60 days. Texas officials have asked that time period be reduced to seven days.

State officials told lawmakers that immediate FEMA payments are for homes that are up to 50 percent damaged. Long-term HUD disaster relief funds cover homes damaged beyond that threshold, they said.

Beth Van Duyne, the regional HUD administrator for Texas and four other states, said the agency is working to fast-track all processes.

“What we’re trying to do is make those time periods in between as tight as possible, realizing people need help today,” she said in an interview with The Texas Tribune last month.

The funds also come with certain limitations on how they can be spent and who should receive them. Congress approved $7.4 billion in HUD disaster relief funds last month. But that may have to be shared with Florida and Puerto Rico, which have each been hit by hurricanes in the weeks after Harvey battered Texas, unless legislators approve another aid package.

State officials said it could be November before HUD releases allocations and the stipulations on how such funds can be spent. From there, the state’s General Land Office plans to work with metropolitan planning organizations to develop disbursement plans and determine how to divvy money up across such a wide swath of the state.

Part of the deliberateness is just that you need to know who needs how much for what. You want funds to go to those who need them, so you have to do some due diligence. That’s one reason why it’s necessary to have funding from multiple sources, including the state, since different agencies and commissions and whatnot can attack various aspects of the overall need. In the meantime, we’re asking for more from the feds, and we’re going to need that and still more beyond it. It’s not just the things that need to be rebuilt, it’s people’s lives. So much of that is harder to see up front, but we’ll see the effects of it for years, if not generations.

What the Harvey needs are from the state

It’s not just about recovery. The long term needs, including mitigation against future events like Harvey, is where the real money will need to be spent.

More than one month after Harvey’s deluge hit, local officials, including Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, testified at a state House of Representatives Appropriations Committee hearing that more than $370 million worth of debris removal and repair work on more than 50 government buildings has strained local coffers, necessitating quick aid and reimbursement from the federal or state government.

They also emphasized what likely will greatly exceed the costs of immediate recovery: how to prepare for the next storm. That could include billions of dollars for large-scale buyouts, a third reservoir on Houston’s west side, a reservoir on the Brazos River in Fort Bend County and hundreds of millions of dollars to jump start bayou improvement projects that have slowed in recent years without federal funding.

“There’s going to come a time where we have taken all the money from the feds, we have gotten all the money we’re going to get from the state, and we’re going to have to decide: What kind of community do we want to be?” Emmett said at the hearing.

Harvey’s record-smashing rainfall and floods damaged more than 136,000 homes and other buildings in Harris County and killed nearly 80 people across the state.

The Texas House Appropriations Committee and Urban Affairs Committee met at the University of Houston on Monday to understand public costs and where reimbursements from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other U.S. Congressional appropriations were being directed in the storm’s wake.

Emmett, Turner and Fort Bend County officials testified, as did Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp, who is coordinating the state’s recovery efforts. The heads of several other state agencies also testified.

The hearing came just three days after Gov. Greg Abbott visited Houston and presented Turner with a check for $50 million. The check almost immediately was spoken for, Turner said, mostly for debris removal and insurance costs.

Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Houston, said Harvey, in theory, qualified as the “perfect reason” to use the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund,” a savings account comprised of billions in excess oil and gas taxes.

Abbott had indicated as much last week but said he would tap existing state emergency funds and reimburse them from the Rainy Day Fund when the Legislature next meets in 2019.

“Before the Legislature acts, we need to ensure what the expenses are that the state is responsible for,” Zerwas said.

Yes, that would be nice to know. There were other hearings this week as well.

The first order of business, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told the House Natural Resources Committee, needs to be a flood control plan for the entire state — and the Gulf Coast in particular.

The Texas Water Development Board is already in the process of crafting a statewide flood plan, with the help of $600,000 state lawmakers gave them earlier this year. Lawmakers haven’t yet promised to back any of the projects that end up in the plan.

Emmett, a Republican and former state lawmaker, said Harris County intends to put together its own flood control plan in the meantime, add up the costs of its recommended projects, then see how much the federal and state government want to contribute. He said he’ll be the first to push for a local bond package to make up the difference.

Property taxes are “the most miserable tax created,” Emmett said. “But it’s what we’ve been given to work with so we don’t have a choice.”

Emmett said Harris County’s plan likely will include another major dam to catch runoff during storms and relieve pressure on two existing reservoirs, Addicks and Barker. Those reservoirs, which filled to historic levels during Harvey, flooded thousands of homes that may not have been inundated with additional protections.

Emmett and the city of Houston’s “flood czar,” Stephen Costello, suggested the state tap its savings account, known as the Rainy Day Fund, to pay for such a project, estimated to cost at least $300 million. (Gov. Greg Abbott has said lawmakers can tap that fund in 2019 or sooner if they need it for Harvey relief; so far, he has written Houston a $50 million out of a state disaster relief fund.)

Costello said Texas should also consider creating a multi-billion dollar fund to support flood control projects similar to one the state’s voters approved in 2013 for water supply projects.

So far all of the talk is constructive, and even Dan Patrick is doing his part. The real test will be whether we follow up on any of this when the Lege reconvenes. Also, while this doesn’t directly answer my question about the SWIFT fund, but it does clearly suggest that it’s not intended for this kind of infrastructure. Which makes sense, given when it was created, but I had wondered if there was some flexibility built in. I would hope there would be plenty of support for a similar fund for flood mitigation.

More on recapture and the Rainy Day Fund

There are some conditions that have to be met to get our recapture money back.

Houston Independent School District won’t have to hand millions of dollars to the state to spend at other schools if HISD needs that money to recover from Hurricane Harvey, but the district will have to apply for that money, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said Friday.

The same goes for any of the roughly 250 school districts in declared disaster areas that are required to pay so-called recapture payments to the state as part of the “Robin Hood” program that siphons money from property wealthy school districts to give to property poor ones.

Morath, who leads the Texas Education Agency, said school districts will need to apply for the funds with the state and pay any recapture money not need for Harvey recovery. First, districts will have to exhaust their insurance and federal aid before trying to tap that money, he said.

“They have to have exhausted all their other funding sources first,” said Morath.

See here for the background. I get it, we want to make sure that all sources of recovery revenue are fully tapped. Let’s just make sure this doesn’t turn into a reason to nickel-and-dime the school districts, or to bury them under paperwork. The priority is the kids and their schools and teachers. We should not lose sight of that.

In related news, the state may make a bigger commitment to helping school districts recover.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Education Commissioner Mike Morath signaled Wednesday that the state will use rainy day funds to help schools saddled with Hurricane Harvey-related expenses, but the chances are slim that the state will delay state standardized tests planned for next spring.

Patrick, a Houston Republican, made vows to close to 45 superintendents from storm damaged areas in southeast Texas that he would support holding funding at current levels for school districts losing students due to Harvey, and for increasing money for school systems gaining displaced students.

[…]

Morath’s statements came one day after Patrick met with superintendents vowing state aid for storm-related costs not covered by insurance or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The promise came during a meeting Tuesday between Patrick and administrators of school districts affected by flooding.

In a press release sent late Wednesday, Patrick doubled down on that support, but stopped short of promising the state would cover all costs not covered by insurance plans and federal agencies.

The state aid could help prevent deep financial cuts in the hardest-hit school districts, and it could keep districts’ “rainy day” funds intact. Several districts, including Houston and Aldine ISDs, dipped into their reserve funds this year to balance their budgets.

In a statement, Humble ISD Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen said Patrick “made it clear that it was his goal for districts to be made whole financially, both in terms of funding related to student attendance and facility repairs.” District officials don’t have an estimate of storm-related costs, but Kingwood High School, home to 2,800 students, will be closed for at least several months due to flood damage.

“The state’s intent to protect schools will help make a very difficult year more manageable, and we are encouraged,” Fagen said.

I’m glad, but I’m not inclined to take Dan Patrick’s word on anything, so I’ll want to see how this plays out. I can’t think of a good reason why the state shouldn’t completely fill any gaps that are left by insurance and the feds. There’s plenty of money in the Rainy Day Fund, and using it in this fashion would help districts avoid painful cuts or possibly tax increases. There needs to be a commitment to getting every district, school, and student back to where they were before the storm. If that’s asking for a lot, well, Harvey did a lot of damage. Are we going to shrug our shoulders, or are we going to be up to the challenge?

Emmett calls for changes to county’s flood strategy

Good to see.

Judge Ed Emmett

Calling Tropical Storm Harvey’s devastation a “game-changer,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Monday called for a sweeping reexamination of the region’s flood control strategy, a process that could include billions of dollars to upgrade aging dams, building a new storm water reservoir and ramping up regulations to tamp down booming development in flood-prone areas.

The set of options outlined by Emmett on Monday, if implemented, would be the biggest change in decades to how the Houston region protects against its perennial rains and floods. Emmett said everything would be on the table, including large-scale buyouts, banding with surrounding counties to create a regional flood control district and seeking authority from the state to levy a sales tax to pay for what likely would be a massive initiative.

Emmett, a Republican who has served as county judge since 2007 and largely is seen as a pragmatist, likened the changes to a post-flood push in the 1930s that led to the creation of the Harris County Flood Control District and the construction of the Addicks and Barker dams on the city’s west side, which today protect thousands of homes of homes, downtown Houston and the Texas Medical Center.

“We can’t continue to say these are anomalies,” Emmett said. “You’ve got to say, ‘We’re in a new normal, so how are we going to react to it?'”

Jim Blackburn, an environmental lawyer and frequent critic of Harris County’s flood control strategy, was encouraged after hearing Emmett’s comments Monday.

“This is the single best piece of news I have heard post-Harvey from any elected official,” said Blackburn, who has sued the county on several occasions and co-directs Rice University’s center on Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disasters. “I would like to hear every one of them say that.”

[…]

Included in the options Emmett outlined Monday were buyouts, not just of individual homes, but whole tracts of land. He said a wish-list of homes that are not already being targeted by projects, such as the upgrades on Brays Bayou, could cost $2.5 billion.

A regional flood control district could be modeled after the Harris-Galveston Subsidence District, created in 1975 to oversee the conversion from well water to surface water after sinking ground alarmed residents and public officials.

Emmett said given the repetitive flooding, the 100-year standard the county uses to design projects and regulate development, would need to be reexamined.

“We basically had three 500-year events in two years,’ he said.

An additional reservoir and a levee in the northwest part of the county to back floodwaters from Cypress Creek – both part of the options Emmett outlined – had been part of an original U.S. Army Corps plan when it built the Addicks and Barker reservoirs. Those projects failed to materialize, however, and land costs became prohibitive as people moved in.

As we now know, this includes a bond issue of up to $1 billion. On top of that, Commissioners Court has filed an application with FEMA to buy out some houses in high risk areas. Emmett has also mentioned federal funds for some projects, which state officials are also seeking, reallocating the county budget to put more of an emphasis on flood mitigation, and maybe asking the Lege to provide another revenue stream such as a sales tax. Some of this may now be mooted by the bond issue, and some of it may be discarded for lack of support. The important thing is to get the conversation started, so kudos to the county for that.

Council to hold hearings on proposed tax rate increase

Here’s your chance to be heard.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council set the ball rolling Wednesday on Mayor Sylvester Turner’s proposed 8.9 percent tax rate hike to help fund Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey, in what would be the first hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The council voted to schedule three public hearings on the issue, which is expected to reach a formal vote on Oct. 18.

Those hearings will be held at City Hall on:

Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 2 at 6 p.m.
Oct. 11 at 9 a.m.

[…]

The mayor said his staff will work over the next two to three weeks to better estimate what the insurance policies will cover, what the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse, and what the city will be left to pay itself.

After that review, Turner said, the proposed 8.9 percent increase could be reduced.

See here for the background. Campos says he wants specifics. Sounds like we ought to have them by the end of this process. I note in passing that the Harris County GOP has put out a statement opposing this proposal. I say no trash collection for them until all the Harvey debris has been carted off, too.

Mayor seeks one-year tax hike for Harvey cleanup

This stuff isn’t going to pay for itself, you know.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask City Council to approve an 8.9 percent hike in the city’s tax rate this fall to help Houston recover from Tropical Storm Harvey, in what would be the first tax rate hike from City Hall in more than two decades.

The average Houston homeowner would pay $118 more in property taxes next year under the proposal, which will begin a series of public hearings later this month and reach a formal vote in mid-October.

The tax rate would rise from 58.64 cents per $100 of appraised value – the lowest city tax rate since the late 1980s – to 63.87 cents. That was the rate from 2009 through 2013, when a 13-year-old voter-imposed limit on Houston’s property tax collections first began forcing City Council to cut the rate each year to avoid bringing in more revenue than was allowed.

Turner is able to propose an increase beyond the strictures of the revenue cap – allowing the city to collect an extra $113 million for one year – because Harvey placed Houston under a federal disaster declaration.

“If this is not an emergency, I don’t know what is. What we’re able to recoup from one year, the $113 million, will not even be enough to cover the expenses we will have incurred,” Turner said Monday. “What we don’t get from the feds we’ll have to come up with ourselves. I would be not doing my job if I did not advance it.”

Debris removal could cost more than $200 million and will require Houston to foot 10 percent of the bill without being reimbursed. The city also lost 334 vehicles to floodwaters and saw its municipal courts complex, city hall and its adjacent annex and two wastewater treatment plants knocked offline.

[…]

If adopted, the higher rate would take effect only for homeowners’ January 2018 tax bills. Come the following January, the emergency period would end and the city’s tax rate again would be dictated by the voter-imposed cap, which limits the annual growth of Houston’s property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston and key revenue cap proponent, said he wants to speak with the mayor to remind him that homeowners’ assessed values are rising, meaning a tax rate hike would amount to a double increase.

Bettencourt refrained from outright criticism of the proposal and praised much of the mayor’s response to the storm. He urged caution on the tax proposal, however.

“The rate is just one half of the equation. The other half is how much the value has gone up,” he said. “This is a delicate public policy issue because we’ve got Houstonians that are literally flooded out of their homes and many people have been affected so they’re not in a position to pay the bill easily, much less if it increases.”

The average Houstonian in a $225,000 home with a standard homestead exemption sends $1,321 to City Hall annually. Turner’s proposal would see that bill rise by $117.86 next year.

Let’s be clear about a couple of things. Thanks to the revenue cap charter amendment, this can only be a one-year increase. The rate will be what we had from 2008 to 2013, so it’s not like this is some unprecedented assessment. The city can’t run a deficit, and it can’t borrow money without getting authorization from the voters. The property tax rate is basically the only mechanism the city has to raise this kind of money. The city will get some federal funds, but it may not have control over their appropriation, and some of those funds as noted in the story are contingent on the city putting up money as well. Lord only knows what the state will pay for, and the county will do its own thing.

The point here is that the city has some big unexpected bills to pay. It has to pay for a lot of overtime for police officers and firefighters who were rescuing people during the floods and who are dealing with aftereffects like traffic control. It has to pay for a lot of overtime to Solid Waste employees who are working to pick up the enormous piles of trash around the city. Your taxes are going up by a couple hundred bucks to pay for this. If you have a problem with that, I don’t know what to tell you, other than I can’t abide that kind of thinking.

Some people will say that we should find costs to cut instead. I will remind you that the vast majority of the city’s expenses are for personnel, and in this particular case the extra unbudgeted expenses are largely for overtime pay. Unless you think all these people should have worked for free, this argument is nonsense. Every time a government entity faces a budget shortfall, I hear people justify cutting programs and services as “shared sacrifice”. In my experience, most of the people who say that aren’t themselves sacrificing much of anything. The difference between those cuts and this rate increase is that this time the bulk of the sacrifice is being felt by a different crowd. If you don’t like it, maybe keep that in mind for the next time.

To address Sen. Bettencourt’s concern, I’m fine with exempting the people who were flooded out from the rate increase. If you filed a FEMA claim, you get to be assessed at the current rate. As for the Council members quoted in the story who say they can’t go along with this, I say no trash gets collected in their neighborhoods until every last piece of Harvey debris has been carted off. There’s a little shared sacrifice for you. The Press has more.

Did Steve Radack really say that?

Apparently so.

Commissioner Steve Radack

Commissioner Steve Radack

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack recently said some people want to get flooded so they can cash in, and he’s not backing down from his comments.

Radack says this was one minute of a 90-minute community meeting in Cypress last Thursday night. However, to the audience of flood victims, it didn’t go over well.

[…]

“Frankly, over the years, and the many years I’ve been doing this… they frankly enjoy floods. They’d like to see a flood about every 7 years, because they want new cars, they want their homes redone,” Radack said at the meeting.

“I know flooding is tragic, I’ve dealt with it for more than two decades,” he told KHOU 11 News when he sat down for an interview.

Radack says he was talking about fraud and telling the truth.

“There are people who take advantage of FEMA money and then there are people who tragically need the FEMA money, but they don’t have the insurance,” Radack said.

“That’s not the way it is for most people,” said Cynthia Neely, who is a board member with Residents Against Flooding.

She recorded the video at the meeting.

“A leader should not talk like that to people who are hurting,” Neely said.

There’s video at the link above and at Click2Houston, where Radack made a similar defense of his remarks. I’ve not watched the video, so I can’t say if the full context changes the way that sounded. I’ve no doubt there are people who defraud their insurance and government agencies like FEMA, but to imply that a significant portion of the population looks forward to the opportunity to commit fraud seems more than a little excessive. Maybe cite a number or two to back up your assertion and not give them impression that you’re just pulling this out from your nether regions. If he doesn’t have some facts and figures at hand – again, I haven’t watched the video, so maybe he does have them – then he deserves the heat he’s getting. To answer the question that was posted along with this story on my Facebook page, yes he is up for election this November. Radack faces Jenifer Pool in what ought to be an easy win for him; he certainly has the overwhelming financial advantage. Perhaps this will make it a bit harder.