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Harvey's floodwaters flowed far easier than federal aid dollars

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 8/24/2018 Mike Morris, Houston Chronicle

It stands to reason that the biggest rainstorm in the history of the continental United States would be followed by enormous investments to help flood survivors recover their homes, vehicles, possessions and businesses.

Yet, to many Hurricane Harvey survivors — some still out of their damaged homes, or living there in unsafe conditions a year later — the federal government has become that grocery store customer rooting through a coin purse in the express lane, paying out a multibillion-dollar aid package a few dimes at a time.

About $13.8 billion has reached Texans affected by the storm, through Federal Emergency Management Agency cash payments, hotel vouchers and other short-term housing aid, through quick-fix housing repair programs and Small Business Administration loans.

That support was not always robust.

Among the tens of thousands of Harris County homeowners who were approved for FEMA cash payments soon after the storm, for instance, the average payout was about $6,600 per home. That dries up pretty quickly when it comes time to replace carpets and Sheetrock, buy new appliances or put a down payment on a new car to take the place of one lost to high water.

RELATED: Experiment with post-Harvey housing helps far fewer than expected

Participants in a repair program for homes with less than $17,000 in damage complained that the work was shoddy and failed to address mold infestations, and FEMA deemed comparatively few applicants eligible for another program that funded up to $60,000 in repairs. In total, Houston expects to spend less than 5 percent of the $424 million in FEMA funds that were allocated for "direct housing" programs.

For Texans whose homes flooded, the most consequential aid is still to come: $5 billion in disaster recovery block grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Another $4.7 billion Congress appropriated for flood mitigation and infrastructure projects is even further off.

"As we approach the one-year Harvey anniversary, the city of Houston is stronger and more resilient. However, we have received very little in actual dollars to this point from the federal or state government," Mayor Sylvester Turner said. "We are grateful to the local relief funds, volunteer organizations and businesses who have stepped up and helped many Houstonians who otherwise would still be waiting."

Michael Huffmaster, who leads the Super Neighborhood Alliance, a coalition of Houston civic clubs, said lower-income neighborhoods are bearing the brunt of the delay in aid. That said, he added, there is no shortage of hardship among his neighbors and fellow flood victims in Briar Forest on the west side, as well as other more affluent areas.

"Hearing our elected officials say, 'Hey it's only been a year and we've almost got the money to you; this is record timing,' is a sad commentary on a political process that can't respond to an obvious need for a compassionate response," Huffmaster said. "I'm speaking of the federal level; I'm speaking of the state level. I do think our local officials, county and city, have taken the call and are representing us, saying, 'We need to start doing things differently.'"

Of the long-term federal housing aid, about $1.18 billion will go to the city of Houston and $1.12 billion will go to Harris County. The Texas General Land Office will distribute the other $2.7 billion along the rest of the Texas coast.

Houston and Harris County have submitted plans to the GLO outlining how they will use the money and are awaiting the bureaucratic process: translating the plans into foreign languages, mandatory public comment periods, formal approval by HUD. The city and county expect to have contracts in place to begin drawing down the first aid dollars in November.

Harris County housing officials have had $36 million routed through their department for buyouts of repeatedly flooded homes and are awaiting another $8 million for that purpose. Even though those dollars were released in response to Harvey, the funds initially were allocated after disasters in 2016.

Houston's housing department has received just $6 million in Harvey aid, most of which went to help storm victims move out of emergency shelters and to oversee contractors carrying out a FEMA-funding housing repair program.

City Housing and Community Development Director Tom McCasland noted that HUD money is designed to cover storm victims' "unmet needs." That standard cannot accurately be calculated, he said, until after FEMA aid and insurance payouts are made.

He noted FEMA's own data shows the $1.1 billion Houston will receive will not cover survivors' full "unmet needs," particularly in areas that were struggling before the storm.

"Harvey just exacerbated the need that's out there," McCasland said. "All these issues are coming together as we wait for these dollars to get here."

The former golf course at Inwood in north Houston has long been the planned site of a detention project, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018 in Houston. Currently though the former golf course sits unchanged among the neighborhood. The White Oak Conference Center anchors the property. © Mark Mulligan, Staff Photographer The former golf course at Inwood in north Houston has long been the planned site of a detention project, Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018 in Houston. Currently though the former golf course sits unchanged among the neighborhood. The White Oak Conference Center anchors the property.

Dollars meant to lessen flood risk have not arrived much faster.

READ MORE: What's in Houston's worst flood zones? Development worth $13.5 billion

A statewide mitigation program FEMA sets up after each disaster will provide $1.1 billion for mitigation and infrastructure projects, and local governments are applying for those funds now.

The Harris County Flood Control District has been approved to receive $78 million of the $164 million it is seeking for home buyouts. The total request is enough to remove 1,000 at-risk homes, roughly a third as many as the district has bought out since it started its buyout program 33 years ago.

Meanwhile, Houston officials have learned their request for $36 million to build a dozen detention basins at the defunct Inwood Forest Golf Course — part of a $49 million project in partnership with the Flood Control District — has gotten an initial OK and is awaiting formal approval from FEMA, city recovery czar Marvin Odum said.

Odum said he expects the Houston region's share of the state's $4.7 billion in mitigation dollars to arrive sometime in early 2019. The city and county have urged HUD to take a similar approach in allocating those dollars as it did with the housing aid — namely, by giving roughly half the money to them and giving them a significant say in how they spend it.

The dollars that have been among the quickest to arrive are those that affect storm victims the least: Reimbursements to local governments for their emergency response and debris cleanup costs. FEMA estimates it has outlayed more than $800 million statewide in such "public assistance" payments.

Houston has received $105 million from FEMA to help cover the cost of cleaning up storm debris, a little less than half of what it expects to receive. The city also has received $58 million to cover employees' overtime, emergency repairs and other such costs, again about half of what it expects to receive. The city also got $50 million from Gov. Greg Abbott's office, half of which went to pay the city's flood insurance deductible and cover the premium on a new policy, said Gloria Moreno of the city finance department. The other half has not been fully spent and is going toward debris costs.

THEN AND NOW: Photos show how Harvey flooded Houston neighborhoods

Harris County has received $45 million for debris cleanup and $15 million for emergency response costs, about a third of what it expects to get in that category, said Shain Carrizal of the county budget management office.

Kyle Shelton of the Kinder Institute contributed to a recent report that discussed flaws in the disaster recovery process. Among the study's recommendations was that cities and counties reduce their reliance on the federal recovery process by setting aside more local and state tax dollars for disasters, allowing more funds to be spent quickly after a storm.

"It takes time because because it requires a lot of engagement between localities, the states and the federal government. That's the way the system was set up," Shelton said. "There is just a dilemma because you do want there to be input and you do want people to be able to respond to some of the plans, and that takes time. There is some bureacracy that is good because it orders things and makes sure there's not corruption and waste, but it also slows things down."

Mike Morris has covered City Hall for the Chronicle since early 2013, having covered Harris County government for two years prior to that. He covers all things policy and politics in the nation's fourth-largest city, explaining the roots of today's complex problems and exposing public corruption and failing programs. Contact him at mike.morris@chron.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mmorris011.

Photo by Mark Mulligan

Design by Jordan Rubio

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