Gulf of Mexico
Debris covered a street corner in Rockport in December, more than three months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in the tiny town that sustained extensive damage. BRANDON FORMBY / THE TEXAS TRIBUNE

Is Texas Leading On Disaster Preparedness? Yes And No, Experts Say

More than a year and a half after Hurricane Harvey slammed into Texas, killing dozens, the state is still waiting on billions in federal recovery dollars. In the meantime, Texas lawmakers are looking to prepare the state — the most disaster-prone in the nation — for future storms.

During their first session since Harvey — a close second to Hurricane Katrina on the list of costliest tropical cyclones in U.S. history — legislators have filed dozens of bills this year aimed at storm recovery, response and preparedness. And they appear poised to withdraw billions from Texas’ historically flush emergency savings account to bankroll a variety of disaster-related items — measures that disaster response and flood control experts say are rare for any state, but especially historically frugal Texas.

Much of the money would go to school districts that saw sharp declines in property values and student enrollment after Harvey and to state agencies that diverted resources to respond to the storm. But most of it would go to help communities finance overdue flood control projects — and to help them secure billions more federal recovery and flood mitigation dollars.

Specifically, the legislation calls for the money to be funneled into a special account from which grants and low-interest loans would be doled out to communities for projects that may not be eligible for federal funding. It also would be used to help storm-battered communities pay for the so-called “local match” they must send to the federal government before it will release billions more dollars to repair storm-battered government facilities, and harden public and private structures so they can better withstand future storms.

The Texas Senate wants to put $1.8 billion toward those efforts, while the Texas House wants to invest more than $4 billion — though it wants to ask voters for permission to spend most of that. Lawmakers will have to settle those differences before the session ends in late May. Whatever they settle on, the sum is sure to be a small sliver of the tens of billions of Harvey-related dollars Texas will receive from the federal government when it’s all said and done. But state lawmakers argue it’s still a major step.

Last month, state Sen. Brandon Creighton — a Republican whose Houston-area district suffered during Harvey — described the upper chamber’s proposal as “probably the most comprehensive, forward-reaching approach that any state has offered following a disaster.”

According to several disaster recovery and flood management experts who reviewed the legislation, Texas is indeed ahead of the curve in some aspects of disaster preparedness, but they say it’s behind other states in other areas.

University of Maryland research engineering professor Gerald Galloway, a former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district commander who contributed to a retrospective Harvey report ordered by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, said it’s a big deal for any state to invest its own money in such initiatives rather than looking solely to the federal government for help, which most states do.

“What I have watched is that over the last year or two years, Texas has looked the demon in the eyes and said: We recognize that these (storms) are big deals,” he said. “Texas is following the first of the principles: Learn what your problem is and start developing plans to deal with it. It’s much better than saying: Let’s talk some more about it. There’s an awful lot of that going on around the country.”

A strategic wish list

Indeed, lawmakers spent months studying ways to improve disaster response and storm preparedness ahead of the current legislative session, holding numerous public hearings at the state Capitol and in coastal communities last year. Many of the dozens of bills now under consideration mirror the recommendations that resulted.

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