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

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The city of Houston and Harris County won't receive a single cent from $1 billion in federal funds that communities could apply for and use for flood mitigation projects related to Hurricane Harvey.

The Texas General Land Office will make the formal announcement on Friday, but on Thursday it told 13 Investigates it has already met with Houston and Harris County to let them know they were not awarded any funds.

The GLO said that neither Harris County nor Houston's applications scored high enough on a 2019 system used to score each application and determine how funds will be allocated.

GLO said the formula tried to emphasize aid to low- to moderate-income communities and areas where the funds would help the most people. Both the city and the county said they felt the rules penalized dense, urban areas.

13 Investigates confirmed with the GLO and Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia that their applications were not selected.

The county applied for $900 million and Houston asked for a similar amount. Now, neither will receive anything. The Harris County Flood Control District also applied, but was not selected.

Baytown, Pasadena, Jacinto City and Galena Park received a cumulative amount of $90 million in flood mitigation funds.

"(Thursday) we're told that the smallest cities, some of the smallest cities in Harris County will get a federal allocation, but not Harris County proper and not the city of Houston. Go figure," Garcia said. "This is political, folks."

When asked why Houston and Harris County didn't receive aid despite being hit hard by the storm, Texas GLO Commissioner George P. Bush said the program is "designed to look over the horizon, to look forward, not necessarily to analyze damage from the past."

He also said there were $6 billion in application requests, but only $1 billion in available funds. The City of Pasadena was the largest recipient and Bush said the project there will protect 60% of its population that's low and middle income.

"Cities like Pasadena can step forward, apply and compete based upon a transparent objective criteria where it's an equal playing field," Bush said on Friday. "So constituents have to start asking the City of Houston and Harris County who exactly are filling out these applications and are they being effective in representing their constituents."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner accused the GLO of turning its back on Harvey victims and said Houstonians should be outraged.

"The City of Houston and Harris county account for over 50% of the damages from Hurricane Harvey. It is because of the damages incurred by Houston and Harris County that HUD awarded $4.2 billion in mitigation infrastructure funding to Texas. For the State GLO not to give one dime in the initial distribution to the City and a very small portion to Harris County shows a callous disregard to the people of Houston and Harris County. And it is unfathomable that the State GLO would redirect most of these dollars to areas that did not suffer much from Hurricane Harvey. The residents and businesses in Kingwood, Clear Lake, West Houston ... Meyerland, Sunnyside, the East End, Kashmere Gardens, Spring Branch and Acres Home should be deeply concerned and outraged. HUD should immediately halt the distribution of the $4.2 billion in flood mitigation funding pending its review," Mayor Turner said in a statement to 13 Investigates.

The largest chunk of funds - $190 million - will go to communities in Galveston County. The county itself didn't receive anything.

The funds will not be used for individual home repairs, but instead be allocated for large-scale projects, such as upgrading bayou systems and building retention ponds.

Harris County said it was not contacted about the technical errors and thus were not able to correct their application.

13 Investigates: GLO to control Harvey recovery after Houston 'hindered' aid

The relationship between the GLO and the city became contentious when the state announced it would take over Houston's federally-funded Harvey housing program last year due to slow progress.

"The GLO can no longer allow the city to hinder the progress of recovery efforts for Houston residents," GLO Commissioner George P. Bush said in a letter to Turner in April 2020.

Mayor Turner responded by calling the takeover "hostile" and the city filed a lawsuit to prevent the GLO from "illegally taking control of $1.27 billion in disaster relief funds" for Harvey storm victims.

In August 2020, a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court allowed the GLO to move forward with the takeover.

The GLO says another $1.1 billion in projects for communities damaged by Harvey will be awarded at the end of the summer. No new applications will be accepted, but the GLO said it will consider changing its scoring formula. The formula has been in place since 2019 and HUD approval will be needed in order to change it.

The GLO was granted the funds by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development program to allocate to communities in need. Houston asked HUD for direct allocation, but the federal agency denied that request.

In 2019, Harris County voters approved $2.5 billion in bonds for flood recovery projects with the hope that at least $1 billion would come from HUD funding. Recently, they said they're short more than $1 billion.

Separately from the Harvey funds awarded this week, Houston, Jacinto City and the Harris County Flood District will share $135 million to mitigate the 2016 flood.

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