How the federal government's disaster relief plan for Hurricane Harvey became a disaster of its own

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A Texas Tribune investigation found that much of the $4 billion sent to Texas for Hurricane Harvey relief did not go to the areas most affected by the storm.

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — After Hurricane Harvey ravaged the state in 2017, Congress stepped up and allocated more than $4 billion toward disaster preparedness funding to Texas.  

Well over half of that funding was earmarked for projects in areas damaged by Harvey’s wrath.

But the federal government now says that’s not where the money went.

“We saw that a lot of places that were more inland got a lot of funds to do projects that really weren’t mitigation,” David Wheaton says on this week’s episode of Y’all-itics. “One of the projects that we saw got funded was in one town to build a roadway between a Home Depot and a Wal-Mart.” 

Wheaton is the Advocacy Director for Texas Housers, an organization that helps low-income Texans find affordable housing and recover from hurricane damage. It’s the group that sounded the alarm and filed the complaint that launched the federal investigation.

Congressman Al Green says the disaster relief plan that was funded in the wake of Harvey has become a disaster in and of itself. And the Democrat from Houston calls that fact “regrettable” because, as he puts it, people are still suffering the effects of that hurricane’s damage five years after the fact.

“Houston, Harris County, [endured] over a trillion gallons of water,” Green tells Y’all-itics. “It was the epicenter. Yet one of the plans actually zeroed out Houston, zeroed out Harris County.”

Governor Greg Abbott gave the job of coming up with a plan to distribute the $4 billion in federal aid to the General Land Office (GLO) and Land Commissioner George P. Bush. 

But, according to Congressman Green and an investigation by The Texas Tribune, the commissioner’s plan sent too much of the money to inland counties far away from the coast. The federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has also accused the GLO of discriminating against Black and Hispanic Texans in the allocation of those funs.

One example? The Texas Tribune reported that Coryell County would receive nearly $3.5 million under the plan. Thing is, not one home was damaged by Harvey in Coryell County. And the county itself is 220 miles from the Gulf Coast, which is similar to the distance between Dallas and Houston.

“A lot of Black and Brown people in the Gulf Coast region were really, really affected, terribly importantly, by Hurricane Harvey,” Wheaton says. “And, so, we want them to stop the discrimination first and then say, ‘Oh yeah, we want a new plan, a plan to actually address the need that is there, but in an equitable way.'”

The federal government gave the General Land Office time to correct the issue. But The Texas Tribune investigation found that the GLO’s plan to distribute the next installment of federal aid wasn’t any better than the original plan. According to the Tribune, the updated plan will yet again allocate a “disproportionately high share” to inland counties, which it said were “significantly whiter and more conservative.” 

Congressman Green says lawmakers are seeing the same unintended distribution.

“We intended for the people who were suffering to get the money,” Green says. “But if you decide that you’re going to take it from the poor and the people of color and send it to areas where you don’t have a lot of people of color, then I think there’s reason for HUD to continue with this — and I think HUD will. That money was not sent to Texas so that it could be distributed to people who were not impacted by the hurricane.”

Federal lawmakers and HUD are waiting to see specific guidelines for the next round of funding distribution. And HUD could ultimately step in and take action against the state if it feels compelled to do so.

In the meantime, Green and advocates like Wheaton are exploring ways to overhaul the system.  And lawmakers will consider adding a “claw-back provision” to any future legislation in order to guarantee more equitable distribution of these funds.

But Wheaton says part of the problem now is the simple fact lawmakers have no idea how much money has already been distributed. They think — and they stress think — that there’s just under $2 billion left to send to the communities that need it most.

“Communities were looking out for this money, saying this is going to be our historical investment to save our families, to save our homes, to save our businesses, to save our livelihoods, says Wheaton. “And it was like the GLO kind of ripped their heart out and ripped the plug from them because now they’re sitting there still with nothing, [and] we’re about to go into another hurricane season and there’s no mitigation funds.”