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Harvey Recovery Czar Faces Limits to 'Future-proofing' Texas

  • Associated Press

Homes are surrounded by water from the flooded Brazos River in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, in Freeport, Texas, Sept. 1, 2017.

The man tasked with overseeing Texas' Hurricane Harvey rebuilding efforts sees his job as "future-proofing'' before the next disaster, but he isn't empowered on his own to reshape flood-prone Houston or the state's vulnerable coastline, which has been walloped by three major hurricanes since 2006.

Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp will face the same political and bureaucratic challenges that have long stalled meaningful improvements in storm protections, and some doubt that even Harvey's record flooding and huge price tag will bring about real change.

"It doesn't give me very much confidence at all,'' Houston resident Steve Sacks said of the prospects that the government will get the recovery right. Sacks's home has flooded four times since 2012, and even before Harvey's floodwaters near the rooftops in his Meyerland neighborhood, he was frustrated by delays and what he believes is the mismanagement of a government project to elevate homes in the city.

"It's all spur of the moment and not thought out. It's just, 'Let's go ahead and react now to make it look good,''' said the 46-year-old Sacks.

Sharp, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, follows a line of fix-it men charged with picking up the pieces following major storms in recent years, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Superstorm Sandy in 2012. He has won early bipartisan praise as a practical choice to preside over the efforts to recover from Harvey, which killed more than 70 people and damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 homes.

Commissioner John Sharp, left, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, speak to the media following a briefing on Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts at the new Federal Emergency Management Agency Joint Field Office, Sept. 14, 2017, in Austin, Texas.
Commissioner John Sharp, left, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, right, speak to the media following a briefing on Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts at the new Federal Emergency Management Agency Joint Field Office, Sept. 14, 2017, in Austin, Texas.

Sharp is the rare Democrat with sustained relevance in Republican-controlled Texas. He is former lawmaker and state comptroller who was U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry's college roommate at Texas A&M, which Sharp has led since 2011 and will continue to lead while overseeing the rebuilding effort. Abbott joked that he's now getting calls, texts and emails from Sharp "up to and sometimes well after midnight.''

Sharp hasn't laid out a long-term rebuilding plan yet and most of his public comments so far have been aimed at reassuring hard-hit communities that he won't be a bureaucratic cog. But he has indicated that he's thinking about the next disaster, saying "one of the guiding principles will be to future-proof what is being rebuilt so as to mitigate future risks as much as possible.''

Abbott spokesman John Wittman said Sharp will be involved in developing a rebuilding plan to "minimize the impact'' of future natural disasters and will advocate for funding.

But Sharp is constrained in how far he can go in reimagining a more resilient Texas coast. His mandate only pertains to public infrastructure, and not housing, which experts say is crucial to any comprehensive mitigation plan, including buying out particularly flood-prone neighborhoods.

Interstate highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey seen during widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, Aug. 27, 2017.
Interstate highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey seen during widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, Aug. 27, 2017.

Sharp's mandate also doesn't mention zoning changes — Houston is the largest U.S. city with no zoning laws — or how much money the state will put up to deliver on his eventual recommendations. Abbott, who has estimated that the recovery could cost more than $150 billion, has suggested the state will dip into its $10 billion rainy day fund, but not by how much.

"When you're dealing with a limited amount of funds, there are always trade-offs that have to be made,'' said Marc Williams, deputy executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. His agency will work closely with Sharp's commission, which could recommend elevating certain roads that flooded during Harvey.

All rebuilding czars are eventually tested by political and financial realities. Donald Powell, who left his role as chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to be the federal coordinator of Gulf Coast recovery efforts after Katrina, expressed frustration over not being able to speed up the rebuilding.

Marc Ferzan, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to oversee New Jersey's recovery after Sandy, said his biggest struggle was jumping from agency to agency to get funding.

"Whether it's Katrina or Sandy or any major event you're going to hear the same story. It's just the way disaster aid is administered. It's a slow, cumbersome process that is too bureaucratic to respond to the urgency of the situation,'' he said.

After Hurricane Andrew caused $26 billion in damage to the Miami area in 1992, Florida installed the most stringent building codes in the country. Since 2001, structures throughout the state must be built to withstand winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph), and new codes also require shatterproof windows, fortified roofs and reinforced concrete pillars, among other things.

Sam Brody, an environmental planning expert and director of the Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University, said drainage is among the "low-hanging fruit'' that could be addressed immediately to begin future-proofing the coast for the next major storm. But he said the funds and the political determination must be solved.

"In terms of will, there hasn't been the will in the past. Maybe this is a wake-up call, and maybe with his leadership and personality, he can change the way we can think and act,'' Brody said of Sharp.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, center, with Houston Texans Shane Lechler, left, and J.J. Watt, second right, distribute relief supplies to people impacted by Hurricane Harvey on Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, in Houston.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, center, with Houston Texans Shane Lechler, left, and J.J. Watt, second right, distribute relief supplies to people impacted by Hurricane Harvey on Sunday, Sept. 3, 2017, in Houston.

This week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner endorsed long-stalled plans for a sweeping reservoir project that might have spared parts of the city from Harvey's flooding. He also has joined some top Texas Republicans in urging Congress to approve billions to build a coastal seawall that could protect Houston and other areas from deadly storm surges that Harvey didn't unleash but that future storms could.

Turner said Houston "cannot talk about rebuilding'' if "we do not build the coastal spine.''

How active the federal government will be in making the Texas coast more resilient is unclear. Following Sandy, the Obama administration commissioned a design competition that ultimately resulted in nearly $1 billion in federal funding to kickstart projects that include turning the low-lying Meadowlands into a flood-protected public park and installing bulkheads and seawalls along the Hudson River.

The project, known as Rebuild by Design, was just a one-time initiative. And even when things go right, such enormous undertakings are slow to materialize: the first projects aren't scheduled to break ground until 2019, seven years after Sandy.

"You are receptive when you feel like something ripped the heart out of your city,'' said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild by Design. "Everyone is going to need to say, 'We've had enough.'''

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