Houston seethes over being frozen out of federal flood funds

Harris County, Houston left out of $1 billion in flood mitigation aid
Harris County, Houston left out of $1 billion in flood mitigation aid

HOUSTON – Residents of the East Aldine neighborhood of Houston are tired of their homes flooding during hurricanes and of worrying every time it rains because their streets and waterways don't drain well.

Like the rest of the Houston area, East Aldine was hammered in 2017 by Hurricane Harvey, which caused an estimated $125 billion in damage throughout the state but nowhere more than in the nation's fourth-largest city and surrounding Harris County. East Aldine residents had to flee their homes through chest-high water, many carrying their children on their shoulders as they sought higher ground. The working class, predominantly Latino neighborhood that straddles Houston and unincorporated parts of the county was flooded again two years later during Tropical Storm Imelda.

“Whether you flooded or not, whether you had to evacuate or not, you are traumatized by the fact that rain is coming and you don’t know what’s going to happen and you don’t know how it’s going to impact your family,” Shirley Ronquillo, a community activist who grew up in East Aldine, said Thursday.

That's why she and many other Houston residents were outraged when a state agency recently announced that Houston wouldn't get a cent of the initial $1 billion in federal funding that was promised to Texas following Harvey to help pay for flood mitigation projects, including drainage improvements and the widening of bayous. The Harris County government was also iced out, though four smaller cities in the county were awarded a total of $90 million.

The awarding of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funding led to a rare show of solidarity by local Democratic and Republican officials, who condemned how the Texas General Land Office, or GLO, picked its winners and losers. Ronquillo called it a “slap in the face” to communities of color who have historically been denied assistance.

Some officials and residents accused the GLO of playing politics, given that Houston and Harris County are Democratic strongholds in a state controlled by the GOP and have been at odds with the state's Republican leaders since Harvey over issues related to recovery funding.

The land office said the competition for the initial distribution of funding was fair and not political, and that it used scoring criteria based on HUD guidance. But a HUD spokesman, Michael Burns, said the federal agency didn’t require the criteria used by Texas and that it believes “all areas of the state, including Houston and Harris County, should receive the resources they need to recover from Hurricane Harvey.”

Faced with the criticism, Land Commissioner George P. Bush — a Republican grandson of former President George H.W. Bush — said he would ask HUD to approve $750 million for Harris County, though none of it would be given directly to Houston and it's unknown if HUD would approve that outlay.