Tens of millions of dollars in state aid could flow to Houston and other communities flooded by Hurricane Harvey within weeks after Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday signed a $1.7 billion bill marking Texas’ largest response yet to that catastrophic storm.
The bulk of that money, and billions more in federal funding remains months, in some cases years, from ever reaching local authorities, however.
Senate Bill 7, a flood-control package authored by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, was the marquee bill among a stack of disaster legislation Abbott signed Thursday at Gallery Furniture, the huge north Houston showroom where owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale housed flood victims during Harvey.
The bill pulls $1.7 billion from the state’s savings account to help local governments make repairs and tackle projects aimed at reducing damage in future floods. Half of the funds will go to the Water Development Board to provide flood project loans or grants, with $47 million of it set aside to create a state flood plan; the other half will provide the local match required as cities and counties tackle federally funded recovery work.
Mayor Sylvester Turner and other Texas Gulf Coast leaders had pushed hard for the latter pot of money, saying state support was crucial for the recovery. Many such projects require a local match of 10 percent to 25 percent, which for Houston alone totals more than $220 million.
“Today is another important step in Houston’s long-term recovery,” Turner said. “Making sure that every community affected by Harvey takes advantage of the federal matching funds is good policy for the state of Texas.”
For some FEMA-funded aspects of the recovery, such as removing storm debris or repairing public buildings, Texas local governments will get $9 in federal money for every $1 they spend. Under SB 7, the state will pay 75 cents of that dollar, with local governments making up the rest.
And, in FEMA’s program that funds mitigation projects, cities and counties will get $7.50 in federal aid for every $2.50 spent. The state will contribute three-quarters of that local match — about $1.88 of the $2.50.
The Texas Division of Emergency Management will oversee the process of providing state help with the local matching funds. TDEM Chief Nim Kidd said after Abbott’s signing ceremony that, in cases in which cities and counties already have paid their local matches, he expects the state aid to be dispersed in “days to weeks” after a “minimal” amount of paperwork.
“It’s certainly time, when we experienced the worst storm in American history here in Texas, to make sure that our local governing entities can handle the scale of the recovery that’s required,” Creighton said Thursday, “for the projects that we need going forward to be ready for the next storm — because we know there will be one.”
Though a portion of the funds may flow to local governments quickly, many recovery efforts cannot proceed without clearing federal hurdles that no added cash can remove.
Take FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which will fund $1.1 billion in projects in Texas and which requires a 25 percent local match.
The Harris County Flood Control District has spent $53 million under that program to draw down $159 million in federal funds as part of its effort to buy out 1,100 repeatedly flooded homes. With the approval of Senate Bill 7, the district’s share will drop to $13 million as the state chips in $40 million.
However, the county buyouts are one of only a handful of projects so far to receive FEMA approval under the program, Kidd said; many more projects that would use the remaining two-thirds of the funding are in limbo.
Local governments also have made only modest progress in wading through FEMA’s Public Assistance program, which covers the repair or replacement of damaged equipment, buildings and infrastructure, among other items, and which requires a 10 percent local match. Houston’s recovery czar, Steve Costello, has made a flow chart showing 42 steps that are required to secure funding on each job.
Federal mitigation aid that requires no local match remains months away. Congress approved $4.4 billion worth of block grants for flood control projects shortly after Harvey, but federal authorities have delayed publishing the rules governing those dollars. President Trump this month signed a bill that requires those guidelines to be released by early September, but actual dollars are not expected to be available until well into 2020.
The $793 million state-funded pot of mitigation money created by Senate Bill 7 will appear on the November ballot as a constitutional amendment, and so cannot be used until after Jan. 1. Water Development Board spokeswoman Merry Klonower said her agency will launch public meetings in the fall to take input on what rules should guide spending from the fund, which would cover projects identified in a statewide flood plan to be issued by September 2024; until then, lawmakers intend to fund projects that are not selected for the limited pot of FEMA mitigation funding.
“This was a challenge far beyond any challenge we’ve faced in the history of the state of Texas and I’m so proud of the way the people behind me stepped up to help their constituents deal with that challenge,” Abbott said Thursday, flanked by many of the region’s legislators. “Texas is going to be better because of the laws we enacted this session.”