For almost two hours Friday morning, Democratic Houston Area members of Congress spoke about and listened to complaints about the City of Houston and Harris County being left entirely out of any of the FEMA flood mitigation funds allotted by Republican Commissioner George P. Bush and his General Land Office.
Several minutes after the inquiry convened by U.S. Representative Al Green started at the Wyndham Houston NRG/Medical Center, the congressional panel received a letter from the GLO that among other things, said that Harris County — which Bush is now proposing to offer $750 million in an amended allocation after the non-partisan outcry resulting from his first announcement — should decide how much of the money it would give to the city of Houston. Panel members and witnesses hurried to read over the letter and dissect its contents.
"They want us to get into a jurisdictional fight and that's something we certainly want to avoid, said U.S. Rep Sylvia Garcia. Green said invitations to attend today's inquiry were sent "to all levels of government including the GLO itself." No one from Bush's office addressed the panel.
To date, there is no proposal from the GLO to give any money directly to Houston. "It's as if Hurricane Harvey did not hit the city of Houston," Mayor Turner said. Both he and County Judge Lina Hidalgo have drafted a letter to HUD asking its officials to force Bush to submit his amended proposal so HUD can rule on the matter from there. In an apparent contradiction, the GLO letter to the committee said Bush had submitted the amendment request to HUD and was just waiting on a response from the federal government but in a attachment to that letter all Bush said was that he was going to submit a request for an amendment.
"Why the most populous city in the state, the state's economic engine, home to the largest port in the United States, home to the largest medical center in the world, has been left out of this program meant to protect, build forward, and help adapt to this intensifying climate risk, the reality is but for the storm hitting Houston and Harris County, the $4.3 billion [total flood mitigation funding] would not be coming to the state at all," Turner said.
Since both groups had insisted from the start that each was entitled to 1.1 billion from the continuing series of catastrophic flooding events the area has endured including from Hurricane Harvey, the idea that they would "share" the much smaller amount clearly was a non-starter and was met with no small amount of indignation. Both the mayor and the county commissioner said that the GLO had ignored previous funding disbursement formulas when it came to dispensing relief across the state this time.
"When you look at the scoring mechanism used by GLO it was designed from the very beginning that the city of Houston and Harris County would end up, in this case, with zero dollars of the $4.3 billion. How you justify it, I do not know," said Turner about the funding criterion developed under the Trump administration and adhered to by the GLO. Under that set of rules, areas with higher property values and lower populations received priority.
"We were pencil-whipped with all these formulas," Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said. "At the end of the day I think what you have is people coming up with a process to justify what they wanted to do. And it does appear there was a tremendous amount of politics going into these decisions and I think that's why our colleagues in a bipartisan way were outraged. We just think it's best we not pit city and county against one another."
As both Sylvester Turner and Lina Hidalgo have said several times before, the Houston area incurred almost half the total statewide property damage and Harris County recorded more than half of the 68 deaths attributed to the mammoth storm and its accompanying flood waters. This time they repeated those remarks before a panel that in addition to Green and Garcia, included U.S. representatives Sheila Jackson Lee and Lizzie Fletcher.
Ellis pointed out that the Southeast Texas city of Vidor, which is 90 percent white, received federal funds from the GLO, while nearly Beaumont, Port Arthur and Jefferson County which have far more minority residents and have been more significantly affected by flooding over the past few years, also got nothing from the GLO.
Fellow County Commissioner Adrian Garcia said even if the county were to keep the entire $750 million for itself, it would amount to far less than what is needed for infrastructure improvements. He said when he talks to people around the country and asks what they remember about Hurricane Harvey they say it hit the Houston area.
"Now all of a sudden Commissioner Bush wants to pay us off with $750 million and expect us to be content," Garcia said. "I'll not let him try to pit us against one another. Houston and Harris County need to be made whole."
"The suffering is not really limited to Harris County and Houston," Green said. Until the GLO submits its plan and it is approved by HUD, "nobody gets any money," he pointed out.
"It appears to me that the commissioner unfortunately is playing games and he is playing games with the lives of people who can ill afford to have this continue for a prolonged period of time. We have seen the suffering. We've heard the testimony of what the suffering actually is," Green said. "It's time for the commissioner to do his job. He has to submit his amended plan to HUD. And until he does that, he is the person responsible for a lot of the suffering that we are witnessing."