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.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that A&M Chancellor John Sharp will oversee the state’s recovery efforts in the wake of Harvey, a Category 4 hurricane that dumped record rainfall over the Houston area. (Sept. 7)
Media: Associated Press
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.
Houston’s flood czar, Steve Costello, said city staff already have submitted an initial round of paperwork on 15 hazard mitigation projects to the state, have received positive responses back on 14 of them, and now are drafting formal applications. A Texas Department of Emergency Management spokesman said Wednesday the agency has received 26 applications from 13 mostly small jurisdictions; among the applicants in the Houston region are the Harris County Flood Control District and the cities of Dayton, Pasadena and Seabrook.
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.
Turner, for his part, stressed that his intent in sending the letter was not to be accusatory or confrontational, and repeatedly called the governor a good partner in the recovery. He also noted that the letter mentioned the rainy day fund as only one option by which the state could assist; the fund, which is expected to end the next budget cycle with a $11.9 billion balance, has been a political lightning rod in Austin for years.
Still, Turner added, “What are we protecting it for? What’s the point? We endured the worst rainfall in the history of this country.”
Abbott expanded his critique of Houston with a second letter Wednesday afternoon that lambasted the city’s lack of progress in housing repairs.
The city initially said it had too little funding to begin work, Abbott wrote, so his office helped get up-front funding from FEMA — which the city took a month to accept, the governor said.
Abbott said his data shows Houston has housed just 15 percent of the people eligible for its direct housing programs – or 51 people – whereas the state has completed 90 percent of its work under the same initiatives. “Direct housing” includes programs that place storm victims in new apartments or in mobile homes, and a program that covers up to $60,000 in home repairs.
“The city’s insistence on running its own direct housing program has significantly delayed the delivery of needed housing to Houstonians,” Abbott wrote. “It is essential that you complete your inventory more swiftly.”
None of these figures include the PREPS program, a short-term FEMA effort that is state administered and to which the state has contributed 10 percent matching funds that local governments otherwise would have to provide, Abbott noted. That initiative, which spends up to $20,000 to make temporary and limited repairs to make flood-damaged home livable, has served about 15,000 people statewide, a little more than a third of whom are in Houston.
Houston’s housing director Tom McCasland said FEMA had deemed fewer than 500 families in Houston eligible for those programs. About 300 are particiapting in the $60,000 repair program, which McCasland’s staff is running; a few dozen chose trailers and a dozen opted for the leasing program, which few landlords have agreed to sign up for.
A handful of homes in the $60,000 program are complete and awaiting final inspection, he said; about 80 homes are under construction or about to start construction. Construction will start on half of the eligible homes within a few weeks, he said.
FEMA typically helps families with limited options get into apartments, trailers or partially repaired homes after disasters. Harvey’s unprecedented scale, however, led FEMA to ask Texas for help, which led to months of negotiations.
It was not until late September that the state land office and FEMA agreed to the broad terms of their partnership, and the agencies then had to hash out how the handful of specific programs under their partnership would function. The state General Land Office negotiated separate deals with regional government councils and the city of Houston, which were signed between Nov. 16 and Dec. 14, with Houston being the last to sign.
The governor also called it “shocking” that only $5 million of a $50 million check he presented Turner last September has been spent. Turner said Wednesday those funds were subject to a detailed agreement and would need to be repaid to the governor’s office if they are not used in several narrow categories outlined in the deal.
Chronicle reporter Mike Ward contributed to this story.