By Mike Morris
In Texas’ first legislative session post Hurricane Harvey, lawmakers have filed bills aimed at better alerting homeowners to their flood risk, lessening the damage of future storms and lowering disaster victims’ tax bills.
Whether these or similar proposals pass, a key question confronting lawmakers is whether to allocate cash for disaster recovery and prevention from Texas’ so-called rainy day fund, which is projected to reach $15 billion at the end of the coming biennium if not touched.
A routine Senate bill providing supplemental funding for the 2018-2019 biennium proposes to draw $1.2 billion from the Economic Stabilization Fund to cover various state agencies’ Harvey expenses. The bill also includes seven placeholder allocations to several agencies, with appropriations for Harvey costs to be filled in later.
The bill makes no mention of state support for flood mitigation projects along the Gulf Coast, but lawmakers from both parties and chambers said there is broad agreement that such an allocation will be made. A spokesman for Gov. Greg Abbott said he has made clear that money from the fund will be spent to aid recovery.
“Now is the time. This would be an excellent opportunity to harden our infrastructure, pull hundreds of Texans out of the floodplains,” said Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont. “With the loss of life and the loss of business activity and loss of revenue from a flood, we could spend a few billion on the front end or $20 billion to $30 billion on the back end of the next flood.”
Many lawmakers have filed bills with the next disaster in mind.
Phelan and Rep. Sarah Davis, R-Houston, have filed separate bills to create funds to lend or grant to local governments for flood mitigation projects.
Rep. Armando Walle and Sen. Borris Miles, both Houston Democrats, want to form a task force to study flood control needs in Harris County and prepare a report by 2021. Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, wants to form a Lake Houston Watershed Commission to improve flood control communication and planning.
Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, hopes to let local governments, with state approval, adopt housing recovery plans that can be deployed immediately if a disaster occurs. Miles also has filed a bill that would have the state secure standing contracts for all the services necessary to build or repair housing and infrastructure after a disaster.
After the damage
Other bills target property taxes. Davis and Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, have filed companion bills that would force damaged properties to be reappraised after a disaster so homeowners aren’t taxed as if their gutted homes are in mint condition.
A similar proposal from Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, would prevent homes made uninhabitable from paying a higher tax bill for five years. Rep. Hugh Shine, R-Temple, has filed a bill to give storm victims tax exemptions that vary depending on the severity of damage.
Huberty has filed several bills related to sand mining. Experts agree that sedimentation of the San Jacinto River and Lake Houston reduced the capacity of those waterways to hold floodwaters during Harvey; sand mining industry leaders dispute that the prevalence of sand mining along the river was to blame.
Regardless, Huberty wants the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to post best practices for sand mining on its website, and he proposes hiking the fines on unregistered sand mining operations as well as on registered ones that violate state rules.
Other bills seek to improve residents’ awareness of their flood risk. Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, wants to create an alert system to notify residents if a release of water from a dam may put lives or property at risk. Rep. Mary Ann Perez, D-Houston, wants commercial and residential insurers to clearly state in their policies that flood damage is not covered.
With the devastation around west Houston’s Addicks and Barker reservoirs in mind, Huffman filed a bill to require that homebuyers be given a written notice stating whether the seller knows if the property is partly or wholly in a 100-year or 500-year floodplain, flood pool, reservoir or within 5 miles downstream of a reservoir and has flooded or may flood in a catastrophic storm.
Unlike most reservoirs, which form lakes, Addicks and Barker are dry until heavy rains, when water builds up behind earthen dams. Government and private engineers knew for decades that the acreage at risk of inundation in a severe storm was larger than what the government owned, but officials repeatedly judged that a storm that big was unlikely to occur and took no action.
Of the roughly 30,000 homes in the reservoirs’ “flood pools” when Harvey hit, at least 9,000 flooded; many are now suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Many homeowners had no idea they were at risk, as there is no federal law, state law, flood insurance rule or mortgage lender requirement to alert them.
John Breen didn’t know his home, which took on a few inches of water during Harvey, was in a flood pool when he purchased it nine years ago.
Fresh off having his roof punctured by a tree during Hurricane Ike, Breen said being notified that the Twin Lakes neighborhood was in the Addicks reservoir flood pool may have affected his decision.
“My assumption was that it was probably a safe zone because it had been approved for construction,” he said. “Knowing what we went through with Ike, even though it was different type of storm, with Harvey, it would have been nice to know. Knowledge is always useful. In that case, we felt like we didn’t have all the right information.”
Allocating the money
Many homeowners did know they were downstream of the dams, Huffman said, but could not imagine government officials knowingly flooding their homes, as occurred during Harvey when the Army Corps of Engineers — fearing uncontrolled flows around the dams’ back edges could erode them — opened the reservoirs’ floodgates.
Even before many of these bills get a hearing, lawmakers said, they may hash out an issue of more impact: using the rainy day fund for flood projects.
“I don’t have any doubt that we’re going to put some money into flood mitigation,” said Walle, the Houston Democrat. “At this point it’s, No. 1, the amount, and No. 2, where are we going to put those resources?”
One idea Gulf Coast officials have pushed is for the state to provide the local match required to draw down Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, both the 10 percent match required with the program that helps replace flooded police cruisers and repair damaged community centers and the 25 percent match required when tackling flood mitigation projects.
In Houston alone, recovery czar Steve Costello estimated that the city’s local match could total $300 million. Mayor Sylvester Turner said Gulf Coast leaders would be seeking “a couple of billion dollars or more,” not only for their matches but for projects federal assistance may not cover.
“If we didn’t have to supply that (match) locally,” said Harris County Flood Control District executive director Russ Poppe, “we have projects we could put that on right now and not miss a beat.”
Another proposal, Poppe said, is for the state to set aside funds to enable a faster response after the next storm, with state coffers being reimbursed once federal disaster funds arrive. Local governments could buy out repeatedly flooded homes within weeks, for instance, rather than approaching homeowners after federal funds arrive, when many have already finished repairs.
One hurdle in these talks is that it is still unclear — and may remain so throughout the 140-day legislative session — what role federal aid will play in recovery.
Most cities’ and counties’ applications for $1.1 billion in statewide FEMA mitigation funds are still pending; Houston has had no applications approved, and the only funds released to the Flood Control District have been for home buyouts. The Department of Housing and Urban Development also is months behind in publishing rules outlining how an additional $4.7 billion in mitigation money headed to Texas can be used, let alone releasing those funds.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” said Huffman, the Houston Republican. “As we await final numbers and final decisions at the federal level and a decision on which projects are going to be the top priorities, it will be difficult to make decisions in this short time frame that we have on allocations of large sums of money. That’s the challenge.”
Rep. John Zerwas, R-Katy, who chaired the House Appropriations Committee last session, echoed that.
“We don’t want to necessarily pay for things we know is ultimately a federal responsibility and then have them end up saying, ‘You obviously don’t need it, so we’ll put the money elsewhere,’” Zerwas said. “But at the same time, you’ve got to weigh the fact that there’s a several-month hurricane season, and it comes whether you like it or not.”