To: The residents of Houston
From: Mayor Sylvester Turner
Subject: Update on the recovery and future resiliency of Houston one year after Hurricane Harvey
On the 1-year anniversary of the floods in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey, it’s tempting to merely look back. There was heroism and there was death, epic rainfall and immortal acts of charity, damage to tens of thousands of dwellings and the rapid sheltering of the people who lived in them.
Because of those dramatic ups and downs we are a changed city whose welcoming heart and can-do spirit shine through, even – or especially -- in the toughest of times.
But 12 months after the rains that could have filled the Astrodome 3,200 times or kept Niagra Falls running for 15 days, it’s more important in this forward-looking city to first take stock of where we are today and where we are going as a community with a common future.
HOUSTON IS HELPING ITSELF while waiting for slow-moving financial assistance from the federal government for housing and preventing future flooding
Voters in Houston and across Harris County will pitch in today by voting on a referendum for county government to issue $2.5 billion in bonds to pay for new water detention basins and flood mitigation projects, speed up construction of flood control projects that have already started in the city and the rest of the county, and provide matching funds for billions more in federal financial aid.
In the Nov. 6 election, voters within the city limits will cast ballots on a referendum to preserve the dedication of city funds for drainage projects in the ReBuild Houston program.
Immediately after the storm, I said that we were going to build forward, not just build back. That is a mantra our municipal departments have taken seriously, and is seen clearly in the work that has been done to update our building codes and floodplain management regulations.
The first changes take effect next week because in April, the City Council approved my plan to change the way new and reconstructed homes must be built in the floodplain. Moving away from the 100-year floodplain as a guide, future hoand other structures must be built at least two feet higher than the 500-year flood plain to make them better protected from rising waters.
The city has been removing silt from the west fork of the San Jacinto River and debris from Lake Houston with the goal of increasing the amount of rain water they can hold. Project Brays and other bayou widening projects continue, with the aim of protecting dwellings from the next heavy rains. We are turning the former Inwood Forest Golf Club into storm water basins in the White Oak Bayou watershed.
In addition to the changes to construction in the floodplain, we are moving forward with the recommendations made by a Redevelopment and Drainage Task Force, convened by my “flood czar” Stephen Costello well before Hurricane Harvey hit. The recommendations aim to ensure that development in the City of Houston, especially the kind that takes place on "empty" land, does not make flooding worse.
In concert with your public servants in city government, our nonprofit, civic, and religious partners continue to step up in tremendous ways to assist victims of the floods. The level of collaboration with these partners is unprecedented.
Through partnerships with Memorial Assistance Ministries, BakerRipley, LISC Houston and others, we established and are still operating 14 Neighborhood Restoration Centers, connecting residents to information and services to help them in their recovery. This collaboration will serve as a model for grappling with any future disasters.
A Long-Term Recovery Committee, co-chaired by the City and the County and sponsored by the United Way and many partner agencies and nonprofits, is providing an unprecedented level of coordination in our regional recovery efforts. Its working groups, focusing on issues like housing and mental health, make sure there’s less overlap and fewer gaps across in providing services to residents in need.
I will never forget how Houstonians, businesses and people around the world donated more than $114 million to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund I co-founded with County Judge Ed Emmett. All of it was spent – on services, direct cash assistance, furniture, clothing and much more, thanks to responsible oversight and the experience of dozens of long-standing non-profit organizations that received grants from the fund.
A few days after the storm, I called the former president of Shell Oil Company, Marvin Odum, and asked him to help me lead the recovery effort. Marvin agreed to volunteer his time, and has been working nearly around the clock – with a team of both city and external leaders – to drive my vision of a recovery that is not just about “building back" but about “building forward.”
For Houston to get more than $2.5 billion long-term recovery money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the City has to put up a 10 percent match. But thanks to my recovery team's efforts, FEMA has agreed to credit local the value of volunteer services toward our share of the bill.
For the first time in FEMA history, a local government worked with FEMA to develop and secure a Donated Resources Policy This is especially critical given that the City used all of its surplus resources -- $200 million -- in the immediate response to the storm. The spirit of Houstonians’ volunteerism was one of the highlights of our response to Hurricane Harvey. It is a tremendous gain for us to now be able to capitalize on that spirit, especially given the other difficult funding choices we will face us in the months and years to come. It is now up to Houstonians to leverage this opportunity.
HOUSTON IS FIGHTING FOR ITS FAIR SHARE, and local control, of federal funding for replacement housing
Straight talk: Although the federal government has a direct role in helping states and local communities to recover from disasters, it takes too long for the money to flow. Believe it or not, some of the federal funds we have used recently to help Houston residents elevate their homes above flood levels comes from assistance money that Congress made available to Houston following Hurricane Ike in 2008.
After it became clear that Texas would receive approximately $5 billion in Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery because of Harvey, we secured $1.15 billion for the City of Houston, and local control over how those dollars are spent.
The funds have not yet arrived. But we are putting together the framework for how the housing recovery programs will be structured and carried out in the months and years to come. We have made an enormous community engagement effort, listening to those most affected by Harvey. We co-hosted 18 public meetings in May and June. We also cohosted tele-town hall meetings with AARP with over 3,000 participants and a survey that garnered more than 700 responses.
The programs being designed will house displaced residents, while at the same time, invest in long-term housing to keep Houston affordable and resilient.
I never forget that many Houstonians still live in flood-damaged homes because they have lack the resources to make repairs. I’m particularly sensitive to the needs of seniors, children and people with disabilities. Federal funds will help us provide them with reliable, long-term living arrangements.
On June 27, City Council approved the City’s local action plan for the $1.15 billion. We understand that the City and the County’s local action plans are now in five-language translation in advance of being submitted to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department soon. We are working collaboratively with Texas General Land Office, the County, and HUD to ensure that we’re able to move as quickly as possible once HUD approves the plan.
HOUSTON'S INFRASTRUCTURE NEEDS REPAIRS, TOO
The task of repairing damaged city infrastructure – meaning streets, bridges, fire stations, other government buildings and related structures -- has several steps:
The city records the damage and repair costs at facilities such as the municipal courts complex and the downtown Theater District's grand performance spaces. Then FEMA independently assesses the costs and negotiates on how much money for repairs the city is eligible to receive. Then FEMA sends us the funding on a project by project basis rather than a lump sum.
The city finished its 347 damage assessments months ahead of schedule. We are now working with FEMA to make the rest of the process to move quickly.
Houston will be a partner in developing a regional blueprint for big-ticket flood protection projects such as a third U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir on the west side, and the proposed “Ike Dike” and "coastal spine" along Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Those projects would protect against the threat of a next hurricane’s winds pushing bay and gulf water on shore, flooding homes and buildings with a “storm surge” rather than the kind of rains Harvey brought. If properly funded with billions of dollars from the federal government, these projects will take several years to complete.
FEMA says it has provided $4.29 billion directly in Harvey aid to Houstonians. A total of 26,400 received money by making claims on their federal flood insurance policies. Another 136,122 people received FEMA aid through its Individual Assistance program, which included hotel vouchers for residents displaced by the floods. But we know the public’s needs greatly outmatch the funds.
The state of Texas has almost $12 billion in its Economic Stabilization Fund, otherwise known as the Rainy Day Fund. I continue to urge Gov. Greg Abbott to make some of the fund available as grants to local governments -- several other states have done so after disasters there – or as a revolving loan fund that can make flood mitigation money available to the City while we wait for finding to arrive from Washington. The state loans would be paid back when we receive the federal funds. The governor provided $50 million to the city from state emergency accounts, but it turned out the funds have many “strings attached” and can only be used for specific things such as debris removal.
AS I SAID AT THE BEGINNING, IT'S WORTH REFLECTING AGAIN on what Hurricane Harvey did to Houston and how Houston reacted -- by saving lives, sheltering the displaced and then tackling many long-term problems.
The rainfall set a record for the most ever from a tropical cyclone in the continental United States, and Harvey is estimated to be the second-costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, second only to Hurricane Katrina.
13 of the 22 watersheds in Harris County reached record levels.
Over 60,000 people in our region were rescued during the storm.
Beyond the physical damage, we must also think about the more hidden impacts of the storm – including emotional and mental health, job loss and financial instability.
At the city’s largest shelter, the George R. Brown Convention Center, over 10,000 individuals slept, ate, were cared for, and began to pick up the pieces and set a course for their recovery. City employees, the American Red Cross, volunteers and donations from the public helped accomplish this.
The temporary shelter closed its doors less than a month from the storm – a tremendous accomplishment. The 900 people who remained were transferred to longer-term housing. This pace should serve as a model for rehousing disaster victims. The City of Houston, FEMA, the Houston Apartment Association, the Houston Housing Authority, the Red Cross, and the Coalition for the Homeless partnered to identify available apartment units, work with the residents and apartment managers and obtain new leases for those displaced Houstonians.
The floods created millions of tons of debris, much of it being the ruined belongings of thousands of city dwellers. I am proud of how our City workers and the contractors and subcontractors who worked around the clock to get the Harvey debris off of our streets. It was removed by Thanksgiving, well ahead of the expectations of outside officials and organizations.
Houston was never defeated by Harvey. Our economy and our collective outlook are bright. People continue to flock to Houston as a place to work, live and play. We are well on our way to becoming a city that is stronger, better prepared for disaster and more flood-proof.
But lives, homes and buildings must still be restored and improved. Those tasks will continue to require hard work for the next days, weeks, months and years ahead.