A Flood of Problems

Lawmakers: Better flood control worth a look post-Harvey


In the weeks after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of the Texas coast, state and federal lawmakers began to assess possible lessons and legislative steps. On Oct. 2, the Texas House Appropriations Committee held its first post-Harvey hearing to examine some of the issues surrounding the storm.

“We want to get a clear sense that our schools aren’t going to be left in a lurch, that our health programs aren’t going to be left in a lurch, when there are additional resources available to the state,” committee Chair John Zerwas, MD (R-Richmond), said before that hearing. In mid-September, Texas House Speaker Joe Straus (R-San Antonio) directed several House committees to look at issues related to Harvey. Those included asking the Ap- propriations Committee to look at state agencies’ use of federal funds, as well as the need for state resources, to respond to the storm; to identify how to make the most of federal funding to reduce the impact of future disasters; and to identify opportunities for infrastructure investment to curb the impact of future storms. At its Oct. 2 meeting, the Appropriations Committee studied that interim charge. During the hearing, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner ran through some of the es- timated costs of the storm to the city, including debris removal costs of $260 mil- lion and $175 million in damage to public buildings. Debris removal and housing were Mayor Turner’s top two immediate priorities. “This is where people literally are emptying out their homes on the curb. So you see the refrigerators, the stoves, the furniture, all of those items literally outside on people’s curbs,” he said. “And so it can’t stay there too long because it really becomes a public health hazard, and then it’s a reminder [for] people of the storm that came through. So the top priority is to get this stuff up and out.” The city’s own rainy day fund of about $20 million had already been used, Mayor

Turner said. He said the environmental impact and cost of Harvey would “be coming in waves and shifts” for quite some time. The state’s rainy day fund, Representative Zerwas noted before the hearing, “has

been protected by many, many people for an event exactly like we have right now.” He says he wants the Appropriations Committee to get a good sense of whether the state has the resources available to meet the needs of public safety, schools, and health and human services. “That’s where we really want to get to make sure that we are adequately resourcing

these areas,” he said. “And if it looks like we’re going to come up short before we can get back in the regular legislative session and perhaps pass a supplemental appropria- tions bill to make everything even, then we really need to think about, in my opinion, having a special session and consider appropriating some of the rainy day fund for the needs that exist in the region.” The Texas Legislature meets every two years, and the most recent biennial session ended in June. Only Gov. Greg Abbott can call a special session. State Rep. Jim Murphy (R-Houston) says he wants lawmakers to examine operational

policies associated with water reservoirs and water releases. Flood control districts stop at county lines — which he believes is a problem, because “water doesn’t.”

34 TEXAS MEDICINE November 2017 Representative Murphy says flooding

was an issue in parts of his district in west Houston.

“When the water was released from the dams, we had massive flooding � thousands and thousands of homes. And that water remained in them for several weeks. [It causes] very significant structural issues and of course very significant health issues.” But he praised the coordination of the

rescue and recovery resources and the “coordinated, real-time manner” in which they were deployed. While acknowledging the dif iculty in mitigating an epic flood, Representative Zerwas says developing another reservoir in the Houston area is among items “we need to think about,” although that would primarily be a federal project. “A lot of people think that flood waters

are just clear water, and it’s no big deal. But the truth of the matter is that it’s actually sewage,” Representative Zerwas said. “People are walking around in that, and certainly the most immediate potential issue is people having some kind of illness that develops as a consequence of wading around in sewage waters.” Congress already had stepped up to

deliver some Harvey aid at press time, with more presumed to be on the way. Lawmakers and President Donald Trump signed off on an initial relief payment of more than $15 billion in early September. The same day, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) introduced a supplemental appropriations bill to add another $174 billion in federal aid. In an interview on C-SPAN later in September, Representative Lee said she wanted funding “to go directly to local government — to the city of Houston, to the city of Port Arthur, and Galveston, and Beaumont, or Rockport, Port Aransas, and Corpus, and other places, so they can get to the local of icials quickly, so they can begin to work as quickly as possible on getting people back into habitable places to live.”

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