Fight over $4 billion in federal flood funds gets personal

BySarah Rafique KTRK logo
Wednesday, October 9, 2019
Slow pace costs Houston, Harris Co. control of flood money
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Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has apparently noticed Houston and Harris County's slow pace with Harvey recovery and is saying enough.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The fight over $4 billion in federal flood mitigation funds is getting personal between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

13 Investigates first broke the news Friday about Abbott's announcement to give the Texas General Land Office full control of how that money is used, despite Houston hoping to receive some of it directly.

Although the city will likely receive additional help with projects to mitigate against future hurricanes or natural disasters, how much is spent and what contractors are chosen will now be done in Austin - not here.

In a tweet Monday night, Turner called the decision a "money grab by the state to spend it in places outside Houston and Harris County."

From his personal account, Abbott fired back, calling the city out for its slow progress in a separate recovery housing program aimed at helping Harvey storm victims. Despite giving Houston the ability to run its own $1.3 billion Harvey housing program on its town, it's only helped a handful of residents.

Now, the governor's spokesperson is calling for an audit of the Houston's current $1.3 billion Harvey housing recovery program.

In a statement to Oberg on Tuesday, Abbott spokesman John Wittman said Turner has a "history of misrepresenting the facts about the Harvey response."

For example, Wittman said in September 2017, Turner "demanded immediate financial assistance for Houston, predicting that the City would face dire financial consequences if it did not receive an immediate advance of funds."

Wittman says Abbott delivered $105 million in checks to Turner in advanced federal funding.

"Despite the mayor's urgent pleas two years ago, to date the city has only provided documentation for approximately $68 million which will likely result in FEMA demanding a return of the unspent money," Wittman said.

He also said Turner's office asserted the need for $2 billion in funding to rebuild damaged roads after Harvey, but reduced its estimate to $1 million after being pressed to verify the details of that request.

The GLO also told 13 Investigates on Tuesday, "It's not a money grab," adding that there are many different entities eligible for funding specifically for large-scale, high impact projects that will benefit the most people, including projects that cross county lines, not just in Houston.

The GLO has final approval over all applications. Abbott's office says the city has only submitted 107 Harvey housing applications and to date, has only reported four rehabbed homes and one home construction. The GLO, which is operating a program in 48 counties across the state, has completed construction on 176 homes and has more than 1,355 homes that are underway, according to its latest report.

"Houston and Harris County's lack of movement on Harvey housing recovery is the reason the city and county will not get a direct allocation. Victims need this money. That's why this will go through GLO," Wittman told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg on Friday.

RELATED: Slow pace costs Houston, Harris County control of flood money

As thousands of storm victims wait for help, the city has already paid nearly $1.7 million to ICF Incorporated, the group hired to do outreach and case management. Houston's paid an additional $4.6 million to the project manager, APTIM. In August, it ended its contract with APTIM and vowed that progress was coming. But, families say they're still waiting for aid.

"An audit should be conducted to get to the bottom of this," Wittman said on Tuesday.

Mayoral candidate Tony Buzbee weighed in on Abbott's tweet, saying in a news release:

"From the private citizen to the Governor of Texas, we are fed up with Sylvester Turner's broken promises to the people of Houston. This is not just an issue of incompetence, it's also an issue of character. This mayor has failed us all, especially the victims of Hurricane Harvey. He has also failed to do anything to prepare our city for the next storm. I'm fed up. It's time to start delivering service to Houstonians. Look at what JJ Watt did-through his heroic efforts, 1,200 homes were built while this mayor offers nothing but excuses. I am again calling for an investigation by the Attorney General as to what this mayor has done with the Hurricane Harvey relief funds. Obviously, he hasn't helped anybody. It's time the authorities step in and get some answers."