WESLACO — With Texas slated to receive just over $4 billion to fund flood mitigation projects, representatives from the Texas General Land Office have been holding hearings across the state seeking public input on how best to use the money.
The $4.3 billion — which will come from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development via Community Development Block Grants — is Texas’ allotment of some $28 billion in nationwide disaster relief funds appropriated by Congress in 2018.
Typically set aside for housing and other disaster recovery efforts after a storm, this is the first time HUD monies have been set aside with the specific purpose of focusing on flood mitigation and prevention, explained Brittany Eck, the GLO’s communications director for community development and revitalization.
Though several disasters have plagued portions of the country over the last few years — including massive flood events in 2015 and 2016 in Texas — it was Hurricane Harvey’s $165 billion damage price tag in 2017 that ultimately spurred Congress to act in appropriating the funds, Eck explained.
Too, the unprecedented levels of damage wrought by Harvey led to the focus shift from using federal funds on disaster cleanup to disaster prevention.
Eck, along with other GLO officials, were in Weslaco Tuesday holding one of several public hearings to seek public comment on the new funding stream. The visit was part of a slow-moving process to get the money on the ground in the communities where the funding is most needed. “We’ve been waiting on the rules (from HUD) for about a year and a half — from when Congress appropriated the funds” Eck said.
“We have to have those rules in order to do what we call a state action plan. We are currently in that state action plan process,” which included Tuesday’s opportunity for public comment.
After the GLO reviews and responds to the public comments generated by the process, they must then submit the plan to HUD for approval before the funding will be opened up for competition across the state.
SLICING THE PIE
Though many residents of the Grande Valley are still reeling from the 2018 and 2019 June floods, the money the GLO will make available as part of the Texas CDBG Mitigation Action Plan are connected with older disasters — flood events that affected the Valley and other parts of the state in 2015 and 2016. Further up the coast, the Houston/Galveston area will also be eligible to receive $1 billion for Hurricane Harvey-related mitigation projects.
In all, 140 of Texas’ 254 counties will be eligible to apply for a slice of the $4.3 billion pie.
Funding availability will be subject to several other factors, as well, including whether a particular county was declared a HUD “most impacted and distressed” county, or a state MID county. Of the Valley’s four counties, only Hidalgo County was declared a HUD MID for both the 2015 and 2016 flood events. Cameron, Willacy and Starr Counties have been designated state MIDs, according to the 315-page action plan produced by the GLO.
The GLO proposes to allocate $46 million for areas impacted by the 2015 floods and $147.6 million for those impacted by the 2016 floods. However, even if they were not directly impacted by one of the flood events, regions may still be able to qualify for project funding if they fall into one of several other categories.
Some $30 million will be allocated to fund hazard mitigation plans, $100 million will go toward the Resilient and Communities Program, and approximately $214.9 million will go toward funding regional and state planning.
Priority will be given to projects that have the largest impact or widest reach, as well as those which will most benefit communities with moderate to low income levels. And with so many communities eligible to apply for funding, both the GLO and HUD are encouraging community leaders to think regionally in order to maximize impact. “Work with your neighbors. Actually think about what a project in your community might do to impact downstream,” Eck said.
“Typically, when these funds come out, everybody wants a direct cut. … But, only doing projects within your boundary may not be what’s in the best interest of your folks,” she said.
Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner David Fuentes doesn’t need to be told twice to think regionally. The commissioner, who was first elected to the county commissioners’ court in 2016, has seen his precinct walloped by back-to-back floods in 2018 and 2019.
As a result, he has become one of the staunchest proponents of flood control and drainage improvements. In addition to the county successfully passing a $190 million drainage bond election in November 2018, voters statewide overwhelmingly approved a drainage improvement constitutional amendment this November with the passage of Proposition 8.
Through it all, Fuentes has lobbied both local leaders and their constituents, as well as state and federal leaders, to prioritize the Valley’s flood relief and drainage infrastructure needs. “(We) have been working with the Cameron County and Willacy County commissioners and we’ve been regionalizing,” Fuentes said Saturday of Hidalgo County’s efforts to team up with its neighbors.
“We’ve been talking about the regional projects that will make an impact for all of us.”
Fuentes said he’s glad the state and federal government are finally starting to take a preventative approach to disaster recovery. “It’s basically the same type of approach — prevent future floods, prevent future damage. Let’s assign this money to projects that will help relieve a lot of that flooding,” Fuentes said.
Leaders in Cameron County, however, have to contend with more than just inland flooding and drainage problems. Along the coast, tropical weather can wreak havoc on fragile beaches that are increasingly becoming some of the most developed real estate in the state.
For coastal resiliency expert Peter A. Ravella, the flood mitigation plan represents an opportunity for the state to get coastal planning right. “The opportunity is tremendous. And the opportunity to do things right on the Texas coast has never been better,” Ravella said.
“What’s happening in America today is when it comes to coastal funding is that we are reactive. We are disaster-oriented. The money flows post-disaster, and these funds originate post-disaster (too),” he said. “Taking a hazard mitigation approach is, no question, the right way to do it.”
Ravella would know. In 2015, he was tasked by the Cameron County Commissioners’ Court with creating the county’s erosion response plan — a policy the GLO requires coastal counties to have in place in order to remain eligible for federal disaster relief funding, among other things. Ravella, who has spent two decades working in coastal policy, and previously served as the director for the GLO’s Texas Coastal Management Program, spent over a year creating Cameron County’s ERP. It finally gained GLO approval earlier this fall.
Though he would prefer federal and state leaders to be more prevention-minded in general, Ravella said he was glad to see such a large pot of money being dedicated to preventing a disaster rather than cleaning up after one.
“The political reality is Congress can’t get their act together to really appropriate the funds necessary to act in advance of hurricanes and disasters, so what they’re doing now is they’re using the disasters and hurricanes to come staple together huge pots of money and they directing it towards risk reduction,” Ravella said. “I’ll take that. It’s not the right philosophical approach, but I’ll take it.”