Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday tapped a veteran Democrat to lead the state's recovery effort after Harvey, which is shaping up to be among the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
John Sharp is chancellor of Texas A&M University and doesn't plan to leave that job while heading the new Governor's Commission to Rebuild Texas. Sharp is tasked with overseeing state and local spending — especially on efforts to restore damaged roads, bridges and government buildings — while helping oversee the flow of federal funds to Texas communities who most urgently need it.
The new position will focus on infrastructure rather than rebuilding private homes, which will fall to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to an operation plan provided by Abbott's office.
"I want you to advocate for our communities, and make sure things get done without delay," Abbott told Sharp.
Harvey slammed into the Gulf Coast as a Category 4 hurricane before dumping more than 50 inches (127 centimeters) of rain on parts of Texas, more than had ever been recorded previously in the continental United States. The storm triggered widespread flooding in Houston and elsewhere and has been blamed for at least 71 deaths, while damaging more than 200,000 homes.
During a news conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott said Sharp should "rebuild Texas ahead of schedule, under budget." Sharp responded, "Texans are a tough breed."
The U.S. House has approved nearly $8 billion in initial Harvey aid and the Senate passed a $15.3 billion package — even as another monster storm, Hurricane Irma, is menacing Florida. Abbott has suggested that Harvey's damages could cost up to $180 billion — outpacing even those from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Marc Ferzan, who led recovery and rebuilding in New Jersey following Superstorm Sandy in 2012, said reconciling the timing of available funding and the scope of what's needed to rebuild can cause uncertainty, leading to "a tremendous amount of frustration" for the storm czar.
"It's not like Congress approves that money and it comes right to the jurisdiction," Ferzan said. "It goes to the federal agencies and then there's typically an application process, which is different at every federal agency, to go after the funds and say, 'Hey, can we use it for this project?"'
Helping to perform that balancing act will be Sharp, a former state representative and senator who also served as Texas comptroller. He is a longtime friend and former roommate of Abbott's predecessor, Rick Perry, and Sharp was narrowly defeated when he ran against Perry for lieutenant governor in 1998. Perry then moved into the governor's mansion when George W. Bush left Texas for the White House in December 2000.
In 2006, Perry named Sharp to head a commission that revamped taxes in Texas and helped create a tax on businesses that many top Republicans in the Legislature now despise.
Abbott and Sharp plan to travel to areas impacted by the storm and receive briefings. They were visiting the Gulf Coast communities of Corpus Christi and Richmond on Thursday, and were headed to Houston and Victoria on Friday.
Sharp said the goal is to rebuild in a way that can withstand future natural disasters. Exactly how to do that remains to be seen.
Ferzan said it was difficult to explore a regional approach to rebuilding after Sandy because federal funding "tends to be very project-specific," discouraging wide-ranging planning in favor of "Well, this building's broken, so here's money to fix this building."
"You can't just build a berm and say, 'OK, well Houston's never going to flood again,"' Ferzan said. "You have to have a layered approach to these things."