Houston seethes over being frozen out of federal flood funds

Houston residents and officials are seething over a Texas agency's decision to not award the city a single cent of the initial $1 billion in federal flood mitigation funding the state was promised following Hurricane Harvey in 2017

“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.

Bush suggested that “red tape requirements and complex regulations” under President Joe Biden's administration were responsible for Houston and Harris County not being awarded any of the funds. During a news conference Thursday, some Democratic members of Houston's congressional delegation accused Bush of politicizing the awards process by criticizing the Biden administration even though delays in establishing rules to use the funding and the creation of criteria for awarding it happened during the Trump administration.

The lack of flood mitigation funding has left many Houstonians seething.

During a meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court last week, Pastor Rick Martinez, with Bethel Community Church in the East Aldine area, said residents were “being used as political pawns” and he asked GLO officials to visit his community after the next storm.

“Drive on past as our children are wading in disgusting flood waters, all because not a dime was spent to improve our drainage systems,” said Martinez, a lifelong Republican whose church has flooded during four hurricanes and tropical storms in the last 20 years.

The lack of flood mitigation funding is also aggravating a $1.4 billion shortfall Harris County faces in fully funding flood control projects that Houston-area voters approved in 2018 in response to Harvey.

During a tour of East Aldine and surrounding neighborhoods, Ronquillo, 42, highlighted the streets that flood when it simply rains and how the bottom of her SUV is rusting because she keeps having to drive through high water.

Standing along Halls Bayou, a few blocks from her home, she said the lack of funding would likely endanger the families who live along the waterway, which has experienced major flooding 14 times since 1989. Many of these families can’t afford flood insurance and have little savings because they’re focused on day-to-day survival, said Ronquillo, who co-founded the community group Houston Department of Transformation.

In the Allen Field subdivision north of East Aldine, houses and mobile homes are raised 6 to 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters) off the ground because of perpetual flooding. But many residents, including Dolores Mendoza, are being forced to move because of a mandatory flood buyout program.

Six generations of Mendoza’s family have lived in the subdivision and she would rather stay, but the flooding is “getting a lot worse.”

Her home is near Greens Bayou, and the open drainage ditches that line her street are often clogged by debris and do little to remove water when it floods. Heavy rainfall last week made the roads leading to her home impassable.

Mendoza, a 34-year-old accountant, said the GLO’s funding decision was frustrating but not surprising because “people don’t really understand what it really is like out here.”

“With the lack of support from the state, the fear is that once again, we’re not going to get the funding that we need and therefore we will continue to flood,” Ronquillo said.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70