Is the State of Texas justly assessing infrastructure rebuilding needs after Hurricane Harvey?

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released on Jan. 18. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public 14 days to comment. Every day untilFeb. 1 Feb. 13, we’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 

The federal government requires states to conduct a needs assessment in the wake of disasters to direct federal funds to the most important projects. To assess infrastructure needs in the Texas action plan for disaster recovery, state officials are relying on a report titled “Rebuild Texas: Request for Federal Assistance Critical Infrastructure Projects” compiled by the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas. State officials have been demanding $61 billion in disaster recovery funds from the federal government based on this report. While Texas needs billions more to rebuild homes, restore critical infrastructure and mitigate danger from future hurricanes, Texas Housers’ detailed analysis has found the report to be incomplete, arbitrary in the projects it includes, and sometimes flawed.

In summary, the problems with “Rebuild Texas” are that the report was compiled and prioritized without following criteria for the projects to be included, the projects were evaluated (or perhaps not evaluated as discussed below) by a group of “experts” that the Rebuild Texas Commission has refused to name publicly and the report consists of a seemingly random list of projects that reflect no specific priorities. The report also fails to include projects from some cities, counties and regions with known disaster needs and includes many massively expensive projects that seem to have nothing to do with disaster recovery and mitigation. In short, it reads like an informally collected wish list of projects of all sorts, proposed by a limited number of government officials.

Although the federal allocation of $57.8 million, which we have been writing about for the last week will not include infrastructure rebuilding, the General Land Office lists Rebuild Texas as one of three data sources that will be used to make the determination of how to allocate funds for infrastructure from future federal disaster recovery appropriations.

Based on Texas Housers’ analysis and public information requests, there was no prioritization of needs in the commission’s report. Instead, it appears that the commission included nearly every request from jurisdictions –everything from a replacement for high water vehicles in one of the hardest-hit regions and updates to government buildings, port expansion projects, housing assistance and general repairs for roads and bridges.

What is also clear is the fact that many critical recovery needs are simply not included in the report. For example, while there is a request for billions to rebuild housing in Houston and Harris County, not a dollar is included in the report to rebuild homes in the devastated city of Port Arthur. While funds are requested for storm water improvements in one small town, hundreds of equally impacted cities have no flood protection projects included.

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State officials seem to have simply asked local government officials, “What do you need?” Some responded, some didn’t. Some included a comprehensive list of disaster related needs, some only reported needs in infrastructure but not housing. Some were careful to list only projects directly related to Hurricane Harvey damage, others took a more liberal view and added other projects with little direct relationship to the disaster.

This is a product of the state government’s disdain for research and planning. The state’s approach seems to be to just ask the local officials what they want. But that process breaks down in the wake of a disaster as one county judge testified before the Texas Senate Intergovernmental Relations Committee in November. He told the committee he had no way of knowing what the local post-disaster housing needs were in his county because the only people with that information were at FEMA and FEMA wasn’t giving the county access to the data.

The commission’s $61 billion request was released Oct. 31, about two months after Harvey hit. The action plan from the General Land Office states that now that officials have more data and information on damage, the $61 billion figure is likely to increase.

Texas Housers advocates prioritization of rebuilding housing after disasters, and we also believe that the state should prioritize investing in infrastructure that protects homes, especially housing in areas vulnerable to flooding and the low-income neighborhoods that have been historically denied adequate storm infrastructure.

Several of the funding requests contained in the governor’s commission report do not directly address flood mitigation, “future-proofing” or protecting communities from future disasters. While there are many proposed projects to repair or rebuild city halls and schools, as well as maintenance buildings and equipment, fire and police facilities, wastewater treatment plants, huge road and bridge projects and other public buildings, there are comparatively fewer projects for drainage improvements, buyouts, levees, and other projects that would be expected to best “mitigate the risk” of future flooding.

Of the mitigation projects included in Rebuild Texas, the great bulk of the billions requested would go not to projects that would provide storm water protection to homes and neighborhoods but to multi-billion dollar projects to protect petrochemical plants, dredge harbors and build the controversial $12 billion “Ike Dike.”

Then there are the apparent errors in the report. For example, the Galveston Daily News has reported on a multi-million dollar request included in the report to replace a bridge the report twice claims was destroyed. But the County Engineer told the newspaper the bridge was still standing, still being used, and still safe. Galveston County sent to the commission a list of local projects that might qualify for federal disaster assistance and included the San Luis Pass Bridge, but did not claim it was destroyed. The newspaper reports that it was on the county’s list because some in the county think a replacement bridge could be part of a surge barrier intended to mitigate future storms.

Though specific criteria are listed in the governor’s request, how each request was evaluated against the criteria is not detailed. Instead, the logic for decisions is elusive. For example, the City of Brownsville, which was not impacted at all by Hurricane Harvey, requested a $231 million project to improve the Brazos Island Ship Channel. Although a project from a non-impacted area should not meet the criteria, the commission determined it merited inclusion. There are a few other big-dollar port improvement projects included in the $61 billion request, many with no mention of how the project would mitigate future disasters.

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While the Rebuild Texas Plan anticipates a larger, future allocation of funding, the plan does make recommendations for the $57.8 million being discussed in this blog post series. For example, a major focus of the $57.8 million is home buyouts in Harris County, which entails using $35 million of the CDBG funds to help families whose homes are prone to flooding move to safe areas.

In the cover letter to the Rebuild Texas report, Commissioner John Sharp wrote, “The total amount of this request is $61 billion, which is based on projects identified at local and state levels and reviewed by experts in coastal flooding and disaster mitigation.

Yet who made the decisions about what projects were included in the report is shrouded in mystery. While the commission’s report describes the decision makers as a group of experts, there is no public mention of who these experts are. And there seems to be no way to find out. Texas Housers filed a request with Rebuild Texas under the Texas Public Information Act to learn upon which experts the commission relied. The answer we received was simply, “we have no responsive information.”

We also asked the commission to disclose the criteria it used to select projects and asked for a list of projects that were not accepted by the commission. The response was, “we have no responsive information. We have been advised all submitted projects were requested.”

The flaws in the Rebuild Texas Commission report undermine the credibility of the state’s request for additional desperately needed federal funds now pending before Congress. It also has serious implications for the current $57.8 million action plan. It places in doubt whether Texas has actually undertaken the type of accurate needs assessment required by the federal government as a condition to receive the funds. It’s also important to point out that the projects identified in the report do not always prioritize the survivors of Hurricane Harvey and their communities who need help most.

That should worry us all.