With Strong Words, Turner Calls on FEMA to Pay up Disaster Relief Funds Swiftly

A field in the Near Northside.
A field in the Near Northside. Photo by Doogie Roux
Following Houston City Council's meeting Wednesday at the George R. Brown Convention Center, Mayor Sylvester Turner issued a strong plea to the feds to assist Houston's flood victims as quickly as possible, concerned that bureaucratic delays in reimbursement funds will lead to even more chaos and outcry among all those displaced by the storm.

Instead of asking the city to put up more than $100 million of its own strapped funding, for example, just to get the cleanup moving, then telling Houston to "send [FEMA] the bill later," Turner is hoping FEMA will instead provide upfront financial assistance. Turner recalled past disasters in which securing funds from FEMA had been a lengthy process, somewhat hindering cleanup efforts. He said it had cost $70 million just to remove debris following Hurricane Ike in 2008.

This time it's going to cost far more, and take far longer.

"If we do not remove that debris [in a timely fashion], people are gonna be screaming, because they'll continue to be traumatized," Turner said. "If we have to wait on that reimbursement, that's gonna make it very difficult. Secondly, the thousands of people in shelters, they're gonna get restless, and they're gonna want to go. We need FEMA en masse, at all of the shelters, all throughout our regions. And thirdly, when people move back into their houses, they're gonna want to file claims, and they're gonna need those dollars as quickly as possible."

Meeting at the George R. Brown because of power issues at City Hall, Houston City Council approved three emergency-agenda items related to disaster recovery.

Following an extended round of thank-yous to the mayor, the around-the-clock first responders, the Good Samaritans who helped with rescues and all the volunteers, City Council first approved a proclamation extending the disaster declaration beyond the weeklong period that would have ended tomorrow. It also declared Houston to be in a state of emergency.

Council then modified the 2015 Flood Disaster and Recovery Fund to be named the "Disaster Recovery Fund," so it's clear the funds do not refer to past disasters but the current one, without touching money that had already been earmarked for other flood-infrastructure projects. Council also appropriated $20 million to come out of the Budget Stabilization Fund to put into the Disaster Recovery Fund — already-existing funds that were intended specifically for emergencies. This ordinance also makes official Houston's intent to seek reimbursement from FEMA for expenditures related to Harvey recovery.

"We need a whole bunch of FEMA representatives on the ground now, not only in the shelters but in the community," Turner said. "We need a process put in place for housing vouchers so people can start moving in. We just need the red tape to be cleared. People are looking for results."

At a press conference after the council meeting, Turner also briefly addressed some criticism of the city and its infrastructure — how the layout of Houston contributed majorly to the catastrophe. Turner said that, with rainfall of this magnitude, the city layout would have made minimal difference. "To try to place the blame on zoning, with this particular storm, that wouldn’t have changed anything," he said. "It would have been a city with zoning that flooded."

Mayor Turner: "It would have been a city with zoning that flooded."

tweet this

He seemed to begin hinting to Houstonians that they may expect to be paying more taxes to go toward flooding mitigation and drainage projects, saying repeatedly that "you cannot significantly reduce flooding on the cheap." In the past, Houston has faced controversy and even lawsuits over whether a "rain tax" was actually going toward these types of drainage projects. But Turner pressed the issue with a sense of urgency, seeming to indicate that, whether taxpayers like it or not, they'll have to pay up if they want Houston's flooding situation to get better.

"A lot of people don’t want to pay. But sooner or later, you’re gonna pay," he said. "You’re gonna pay the piper. You can’t hold tight to your purse strings, and then when these floods come and you’re impacted, then everybody is so concerned. Where will people be in a month, two months right now; will they have the same commitment and sensitivity to the people flooding? Only time will tell."

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn