Those critical choices will hinge on a key decision: Who will control how the money is spent, the federal government or Texas?
The state’s requests for flexibility — followed by Gov. Greg Abbott's Tuesday trip to Washington to deliver a $61 billion wish list predominantly made up of Harvey-related infrastructure projects — have sparked alarm from veterans of previous battles over long-term recovery funding.
They point to Hurricane Ike, which struck Galveston in 2008 and flooded an estimated 100,000 homes along the Texas coastline not long after Hurricane Dolly hit the Rio Grande Valley.
Yet almost 10 years later, more than $500 million — most of it earmarked for housing-related projects — for Ike and Dolly recovery still hasn’t been spent.
Some local officials have already begun to push for using long-term recovery money from the federal housing department for infrastructure projects.
“We can use HUD money for local shares of other stuff,” Stephen Costello said.
“It’s often the case that the needs of Texans to rebuild and recover don’t rise to the same level of some of those government projects that people have in mind,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service.
How the money will flow
Abbott split long-term disaster recovery efforts between the land office and a commission headed by Texas A&M University Chancellor John Sharp. The two entities have told federal officials they need a collective $121 billion to help cities, counties and families recover, though it's still unclear how much overlap there could be in the two requests. State leaders have also been clear that they aren’t expecting to get all they ask for.
The commission Sharp leads is focusing on flood control, roadways, water services projects and buying out or elevating flood-prone houses. While Sharp’s commission compiled a 301-page report detailing money needed for public works projects across the Texas coast, no state or federal agency has put together a comprehensive account of the damage Harvey did to Texans' homes.
Land office leaders readily admit that many Texans may not receive federal assistance to cover their losses from Harvey. They also say that for the cost of rebuilding a handful of damaged homes, they can pay for projects that can protect many more homes from future floods.
But giving local elected leaders that level of discretion is what has some housing advocates worried.
State priorities challenged after Ike, Dolly
The lump-sum relief funds HUD gives states and local governments comes with some restrictions on how the money can be used. Those stipulations usually include how long the public has to weigh in on state and local plans for the funds, thresholds for how much must go toward housing rather than infrastructure and a minimum amount that must be spent to help low- and moderate-income disaster victims.
After Ike and Dolly, the state put two separate agencies — one for housing and one for non-housing projects — in charge of overseeing local governments' use of the money.
At the time, monitoring reports from the federal housing department blamed that slow trickle of money for housing on bureaucratic chaos at the state level. Gov. Rick Perry blamed the delays on the federal government.
The advocacy groups said in a complaint to HUD that the state used flawed data in deciding how to split relief money between public works projects and Texans whose homes were damaged by the hurricanes. They also said the state effectively “steered resources away” from hurricane victims by awarding a $16.6 million contract to a consulting firm that helped local governments understand how disaster grants work and identify infrastructure projects that would qualify.
Today, $297 million of unspent Ike and Dolly money is earmarked for housing recovery. That includes money set aside for public housing in Galveston, where plans for affordable units have been mired in opposition from other residents, politics and federal complaints for years.
Sloan, with the Texas Appleseed Project, said the state’s performance has improved since the state land office began overseeing the second round of hurricane relief funding.
But Henneberger said the lack of a comprehensive plan to help Texans put their lives back together after Harvey — and the overwhelming focus on infrastructure in the state's wish list released this week — is frustrating and worrisome.
Worry in Meyerland
The federal housing department has yet to determine how to divide the money among the affected states and territories, but the agency said it will do so based on which areas have the greatest “unmet need,” said spokesman Brian Sullivan. They make that evaluation using data from insurance claims, FEMA, and the Small Business Administration, which provides disaster relief loans to homeowners.
While government officials continue taking stock of the overall impact, hundreds of thousands of Texans are still slogging through their individual recoveries. At last month's meeting in Meyerland about flood control projects, tensions boiled over inside a church packed with hundreds of residents listening to officials discuss infrastructure and federal funding.
Some Meyerland residents asked officials about particular flood-control projects during the meeting’s question-and-answer portion. Others had more immediate needs on their mind.
Disclosure: Texas Appleseed and Texas A&M University have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.
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