Today marks the 1349th day since Hurricane Harvey. That’s also how long it took the United States to win World War II. To date, we’ve studied problems, made bold plans and, in a few cases, actually started constructing flood mitigation projects. But none of the $2.1 billion allocated for Texas flood mitigation by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has yet to work its way down to the local level.
Imagine What That HUD Money Could Have Done By Now
If Harris County Flood Control (HCFCD) had just half of that $2.1 billion, no one would be worrying about a funding shortfall for flood bond projects.
If HCFCD had just a quarter of that, it could more than triple the volume of flood mitigation projects currently under construction.
The Texas General Land Office (GLO) administers HUD flood mitigation funds for Texas. However, it has yet to announce the results of a statewide grant application competition for the first half of that $2.1 billion. Hopefully, those announcements will come this month. The GLO intends to hold a second competition for the second half of the money at a later date.
In fairness, the GLO is simply following HUD’s lead. Yesterday, GLO Commissioner George P. Bush suggested many ways to speed up existing flood-mitigation processes.
Below are thoughts contributed by others. To encourage their candor, I promised them anonymity.
I. Consolidation Under One Agency
One federal official suggested that all flood mitigation funds should flow from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), not HUD.
Rationale: Disaster relief is FEMA’s core competency. FEMA’s good at it. FEMA responds quickly. They are on location after disasters. They collect immense amounts of data, manage the National Flood Insurance Program, and have resources to get the job done quickly.
Right now, HUD, the slowest agency with the most rules and regulations, is responsible for helping the poorest neighborhoods, i.e., those that often need it most. Many think that’s unfair.
Dividing responsibilities among agencies creates needless bureaucracy, complexity, overlap and “stove piping.”
Stove-piping is where people in one bureaucracy are blind to activities in another. Eliminating the stove-piping requires cross checking data between agencies and programs, for instance to eliminate duplication of benefits. But that can also slow projects down.
II. Bring Back Earmarks in Some Cases
Another flood-mitigation expert suggested bringing back “earmarks” at the federal level. Earmarks were eliminated years ago to avoid spending on meritless projects in influential congressional districts.
Rationale: Not all earmarks are meritless. In cases of exceptional need, they can send money directly to cities or counties trying to build important flood mitigation projects. With proper safeguards against bogus earmarks, this idea could shave years off construction projects designed to protect people.
III. Partner with Army Corps More
Another expert suggested directing more money to the Army Corps for “project partnership agreements.” The Corps work directly with a local entity such as a city or county to help construct projects faster.
Rationale: The Corps was originally set up more than 200 years ago as a quick-reaction force for wartime. It now has the responsibility for managing the nation’s water infrastructure. The Corps has the turnkey expertise to gauge the merit of projects and the muscle to make things happen quickly.
Previously, the Corps built the Antoine Stormwater Detention Basin in the Greens Bayou Watershed. HCFCD bought out the properties that comprised that basin and currently maintains the property.
IV. Establish a “Quick Reaction Fund”
A financial expert suggested establishing a “Quick Reaction Fund.” It would be activated by a Presidential Disaster Declaration and provide loans to get projects started quickly. The money could be used to jumpstart upfront activities, such as buyouts, environmental surveys and preliminary engineering reports. It could also be used to build entire projects that are needed quickly.
Rationale: Local entities often don’t have the money or staff to conduct these upfront activities. Buyouts can be especially problematic. They must often be completed before other flood mitigation activities, such as ditch improvements or detention ponds, can start.
“But we often have to wait 18 months or more for approval of buyouts,” said one engineer. “The vast majority of people can’t wait that long.”
So they fix up their homes and become more committed to them. Or they may just leave the area. Either way, this slows flood mitigation down even more.
Loans could be paid back later by grant awards from the Feds.
V. Pass a Hazard Tax
To bypass the delays and uncertainties of competitive grant funding through state and federal levels, one local entity suggested passing a “hazard tax.”
Rationale: This would put local entities in charge of their own destinies rather than making them dependent on Washington and Austin for handouts. It would let cities and counties build up a war chest from their own tax revenues. Think of it as a savings account with a dedicated purpose – disaster mitigation. The money could be used to fund projects directly and quickly, or as the basis for matching funds when projects are less time critical.
Need Public Dialog
The rationale FOR the current system of competitive grant funding is to ensure the fairest possible distribution of available funds. But that requires defining and agreeing to eligibility rules upfront. It also requires upfront research, engineering, cost estimating and evaluation to prevent waste and fraud. All of that can take years. Hell, we’re still debating solutions to another Hurricane Ike (2008).
In my opinion, we desperately need a way to resolve such issues faster. I hope this series of articles will start a public dialogue among political leaders at all levels.
Posted by Bob Rehak on 5/9/2021
1349 Days after Hurricane Harvey, the number of days in WWII