New Texas plan for federal Hurricane Harvey aid yields same old result
Despite an admonition from federal authorities, Land Commissioner George P. Bush’s plan still steers aid disproportionately to whiter, inland counties at less risk of natural disasters.
Of the more than 300,000 homes in Texas damaged by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, none were in Coryell County.
Located 220 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this small agricultural county was not the place Congress had in mind when it sent Texas more than $4 billion in disaster preparedness money six months following the storm, said U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Houston.
“We wanted to help people who were hurt by Harvey and had the potential to be hurt again, as opposed to people who were inland and not likely to have suffered great damage,” Green said.
Nevertheless, Coryell is slated to receive $3.4 million under the plan by the Texas General Land Office and its commissioner, George P. Bush.
After the land office awarded $1 billion of the aid last year, giving the city of Houston nothing, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development accused Bush’s office of discriminating against Black and Latino Texans. The land office had an opportunity to correct these inequities as it developed a new spending plan.
But an analysis by The Texas Tribune found that the land office is on track to follow a similar pattern as it prepares to allocate the next $1.2 billion of the federal aid. The agency’s revised plan will once again send a disproportionately high share of money to inland counties with lower risk of natural disasters.
Residents in the counties that will benefit most are also significantly whiter and more conservative than those receiving the least aid, an outcome some Democrats view with suspicion as Bush competes for the Republican nomination for attorney general this month.
Neither the land office, nor Bush’s campaign for attorney general responded to interview requests. Bush also did not respond to specific questions emailed to his office for this story.
But his spokesperson said last year that inland areas are vulnerable to extreme weather, too, and also serve as safe havens for coastal evacuees.
John Henneberger, co-director of the low-income housing advocate Texas Housers, whose complaint set off the federal investigation, said the land office is failing to meet the most basic requirement for the money: to spend disaster aid in the areas at highest risk for disasters.
“Why does some community 200 miles from the coast get a new water system when you’ve got neighborhoods that have flooded four or five times in the last decade in a coastal community?” Henneberger said. “It’s a very cynical — and we think illegal — use of the funds.”
Numerous studies have shown poor people and people of color are most likely to be impacted by disasters, said Kevin Smiley, a professor of sociology at Louisiana State University. Planning for future calamities should address that disparity rather than make it worse, he added.
“It’s weird to think about disasters as one of the fundamental mechanisms widening social disparity in the United States, but they are,” said Smiley, whose research focuses on Harvey recovery efforts. “And it’s through nitty-gritty governmental processes that are disbursing mitigation funds that are partly doing it.”
An influx of aid
Harvey killed 103 Texans and dumped an estimated 19 trillion gallons of water between Rockport and the Louisiana coast.
The following year, Congress gave $4.3 billion in disaster mitigation aid in response to the storm, as well as floods in 2015 and 2016. Of that total, Texas reserved $2.6 billion for preparedness projects in Harvey-damaged areas. Gov. Greg Abbott tapped Bush and the land office for the job.
HUD designated 20 counties, mostly on the coast, to receive the aid — including major population centers that were ravaged by Harvey like Houston, Beaumont and Corpus Christi.
The task of dividing up that money would be difficult because demand for disaster mitigation money — for projects like drainage systems and stormwater detention basins — far exceeds the available dollars.
One of Bush’s first decisions was to designate an additional 29 counties, mostly inland, as eligible recipients. The new counties invited into the process had populations that were whiter, more rural and packed with a higher proportion of Donald Trump voters than the original group of counties picked by the federal government.
Though permitted by federal rules, the move decreased the likelihood that projects in coastal counties would be funded.
Texas counties picked by federal government have more disaster risk
In 2018, Texas received $4.3 billion from Congress aimed at preparing for future disasters after Hurricane Harvey. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the state made 49 counties eligible to receive roughly $2.6 billion of those funds reserved for mitigation projects in Harvey-damaged areas. The General Land Office also hired the UT Center for Space Research to develop disaster risk ratings for every county.
To divide up $1 billion of the pot, the land office held a scoring competition which asked local governments to submit project proposals. The results, announced in May 2021, left disaster recovery experts and urban politicians of both parties stunned.
Harris County, home to more residents than the other eligible counties combined, received 9% of the funds. That’s despite its ranking as the fourth most disaster-prone county by the state’s own metric — the Composite Disaster Index, which ranks all 254 Texas counties based on their history of seven types of disasters over the past two decades.
HUD-picked Nueces and Aransas counties, where Harvey made landfall, received nothing despite ranking as the state’s 10th and 39th most disaster-prone counties, respectively. Jefferson County, which ranks seventh and recorded the highest rain totals during Harvey, also received zero money. Sabine County, ranked 141st, was designated by the state as a recipient and received $14 million.
A Houston Chronicle investigation last year revealed the land office developed distribution criteria that discriminated against populous areas. As a result, aid flowed disproportionately to the group of inland counties selected by the state.
Eager to claim credit for how his office distributed the federal aid, Bush’s office published 39 news releases the day the competition results went public, each tailored to a different county that had projects funded. Eleven days later, Bush announced he was seeking the Republican nomination for attorney general. The timing struck some on the coast as more than a coincidence.
“If I’m his campaign team, I say ‘hey, let’s roll this out around this time,’” said Joseph Ramirez, an adviser to the Nueces County Democratic Party.
Green, the Democratic Congressman from Houston, said he does not wish to believe Bush funneled disaster aid for his political benefit, but he strains to think of a better explanation.
“It’s so illogical to do what is being done that I can see where some people might conclude it’s all a part of an effort to curry favor with a certain group of voters,” Green said.
Whatever goodwill Bush may have built inland came at a cost. Republicans in Houston were irate at how little money Harris County received. Republican Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey, a retired civil engineer, said that before the land office announcement, he had “never seen a more dysfunctional attempt to evaluate projects than this.” He accused Bush’s team of inventing criteria to justify diverting aid from Houston.
The Republican county commissioners were particularly irked because they had convinced their constituents to pass a $2.5 billion flood protection bond based on the pledge that it would be used to secure billions in matching federal dollars, including from the pool Bush controlled. Bush’s suggestion to a reporter that Harris County had submitted sloppy applications didn’t help matters.
Sparring with Houston’s Democratic mayor was nothing new, but now Bush was facing angry members of his own party. Ken Paxton, the Republican incumbent attorney general, would later cite Bush’s handling of the Harvey aid as evidence that he lacks the competence to hold statewide office. Bush and Paxton will face each other in a May 24 runoff.
Bush sought safer political ground. After claiming, falsely, that the Biden administration was to blame for the outcome, he decided to give $750 million of the remaining funds directly to Harris County.
The move did not mollify Houston Democrats, who felt Bush had pulled that number from thin air without evaluating the area’s actual needs, but it did provide cover to Republicans taking heat from their voters.
Bush’s impromptu plan for Harris County meant scrapping a second $1 billion scoring competition. And HUD would need to OK any changes to the original plan it had approved, a monthslong process that delayed the distribution of further aid.
Still, coastal county officials hoped the land office would recognize the mistakes in its original plan and correct them before distributing the rest of the federal disaster dollars.
A second chance
The land office’s new proposal for determining which counties would get funding, submitted in August, eliminated its old scoring metrics and instead opted to give $1.2 billion to nine regional councils of government, which would decide how to spend it within the HUD and state counties. These groups are political subdivisions of the state that help plan regional projects like infrastructure.
The land office argued the revisions would allow aid distribution to be tailored more closely to regions’ different mitigation needs. But although the strategy is different, a Tribune analysis of the plan found a fundamentally similar result: far lower spending per capita in the counties with the highest disaster risk.
The funding has not yet been allocated, but the state’s methodology all but guarantees the less disaster-prone counties selected by Bush would still end up with two to four times more funding per resident than the more coastal counties chosen by HUD.
This is because a sizable chunk of the councils of government’s $1.2 billion will flow inland. Even if the land office spent all of it in HUD counties — the plan only requires the councils to spend half their allotment there — it would still not close the per-person spending gap created by the initial funding competition.
Including the awards from the first funding competition, two councils composed of state-picked inland counties that rank no higher than 66th on the disaster index will end up with $752 per resident under the new plan.
The council which includes Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties — HUD-selected counties on or near the coast that rank in the top 8 for disaster risk — will receive $441 per resident.
When federal investigators reviewed the original plan, these kinds of outcomes were a problem. HUD’s fair housing office on March 4 concluded that the initial scoring competition discriminated against Texans on the basis of race and national origin, since the coastal areas it steered aid away from have high concentrations of nonwhite residents.
Of the nine states that received disaster mitigation funding from the same federal appropriation, only Texas has received such a sanction. HUD gave the state two options: Enter into a voluntary agreement to correct the disparity or face a civil rights lawsuit from the Department of Justice.
And then, two weeks later, HUD approved the Bush team’s new spending plan.
In a letter to the land office on March 18, HUD Office of Block Grant Assistance Director Jessie Handforth Kome said the agency was required to approve the new plan because it was “substantially complete.” She warned, however, that HUD would closely monitor how Texas spends the rest of the aid and could address new violations by requiring the state to give money back.
The advocacy groups who pushed HUD to investigate possible discrimination were shocked. They felt the best strategy would have been to withhold approval of the plan until Texas had demonstrated future aid distribution would be fair to Black and Latino residents in communities most at risk for disasters.
“HUD is making this harder on themselves,” said Maddie Sloan, an attorney who works on disaster recovery issues for public interest nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “It would make much more sense to ensure the money gets where it’s needed in the first place instead of doing a retroactive look at where it went and whether that violates the law.”
How the Texas counties with more residents lose out on Harvey aid
Roughly $1.7 billion of federal funds reserved for mitigation projects in Harvey-damaged areas have been awarded to 49 Texas counties. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development picked 20 of those counties while the state designated an additional 29 counties.
The mixed messaging from HUD, however, creates the impression that Texas can simply ignore the agency’s discrimination claims and spend the aid as it sees fit.
The land office has since shown few signs it is open to compromise. In a blistering 12-page letter in April responding to the discrimination findings, attorneys for the agency called HUD’s objections “politically motivated” and “factually and legally baseless” and noted that HUD had approved the state’s plan for distributing the money.
How thoroughly HUD may vet the new land office plan is unclear. If investigators apply the same rigor they did to the original, said Texas Housers Research Director Ben Martin, they will likely conclude it also violates federal civil rights laws.
“The jurisdictions that were hardest hit by Hurricane Harvey remain the jurisdictions at the highest risk of future disaster,” Martin said. “They’re being severely underfunded by GLO.”
Waiting for the next storm
Residents in Nueces County are hopeful they’re not going to get snubbed a second time as disaster money is doled out.
The county sustained damage from hurricanes Harvey and then Hanna in 2020. It ranks 10th in the disaster index of Texas counties but received zero dollars from the land office scoring competition.
County Judge Barbara Canales had submitted a $98 million breakwater project to protect Corpus Christi from storm surges that was specifically modeled after a similar New Jersey proposal that won federal dollars after Hurricane Sandy.
Canales is still holding out hope she can fund the idea with a chunk of the $180 million the new land office plan awards the Coastal Bend Council of Government, which includes Nueces and six other eligible counties.
Canales said the land office was wise to designate inland areas as eligible for disaster aid because she said they have been historically ignored. She said aid distribution, however, should flow proportionally to areas that are most vulnerable.
“My only concern is that by not recognizing who’s really getting hit [by storms] first and where the damages are, you’re really not fully addressing the fiscal responsibility of it all,” Canales said. “If you look at our damage assessments, they’re not inland.”
Longtime Nueces County residents view the new subdivisions that are being built with dread. The county is growing rapidly, developing westward away from Corpus Christi and the coast, replacing farm fields by the acre — which used to hold stormwater — with paved streets and slab foundations. Owners of older homes believe this has made flooding in the area worse.
Dan Zamora’s home had never flooded in his 29 years on County Route 52B until 3 inches of water poured in during a storm this past May. Cleaning up was a fool’s errand; 5 inches filled the single-story home during a storm six weeks later.
“We were seriously considering selling, but after we got the whole house remodeled my wife and I decided to hold off,” Zamora said. “If it happens again, we’re out of here.”
Peggy Bull’s home has flooded three times and now worries about her son, who recently bought a house that promptly had stormwater spill into the garage. Bobby Chesnutt, who also lives in the floodplain, worries if he’ll be next. Eddie Aguilera, who in 2019 caught a 3-foot gar in floodwater in his front yard — and has a photograph to prove it — mostly frets about his parents. They’re 84 and shouldn’t have to wade through floods to get to doctors appointments, he said.
Aguilera is also dismayed by the county’s focus on the breakwater proposal because it also benefits expensive commercial property on the shoreline.
“I get it — they’re looking at tourist dollars down there,” Aguilera said. “But you have people out here who have been living for years and years in flood zones.”
Unmet rural needs
Coryell County ranks 78th by the state’s disaster index score. It was eligible for federal aid the land office distributed for flood events in 2015 and 2016, though it received none. The $3.4 million it is slated to receive will come from the Harvey allotment to its council of government.
County Judge Roger Miller said the Commissioners Court has yet to decide how to use the money but that it would likely be for flood mitigation. He said the highway department has identified 76 low-water crossings that should be raised for school buses and emergency vehicles and noted that residents have drowned on county roads during flood events.
Asked about frustration among coastal residents that disaster aid is directed inland, Miller acknowledged the population disparity. But he said counties like his experience disasters, too, and also deserve better protection.
“We don’t have the density of a Harris County, so we’re not going to have hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people affected,” Miller said. “But a life in Harris County is no more or less valuable than a life in Coryell County.”