Houston grapples with costs of Hurricane Harvey rebuilding, a storm made more costly by climate changeAs Houston struggles to recover from Harvey, costs made steeper by climate change strain the federal and state governments' ability to pay. Photo credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

By Bobby Magill

After Hurricane Harvey dropped up to 60 inches of rainfall on the Houston area and the Texas Gulf Coast, submerging the the city and its suburbs, recovery was challenging from the get-go. With residents frustrated with an initially slow response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency—which would eventually pale in comparison to its even slower response after Hurricane Maria demolished Puerto Rico—it seemed that even in the nation’s fourth-largest city, disaster recovery is fraught with political tension.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called for more state and federal assistance and worried that a “bureaucratic maze” would prevent timely distribution of relief funding. The Texas Tribune reported that it could take years for local governments in the Harvey disaster zone to receive federal long-term recovery money, which first must be filtered through the state before cities and towns get their first relief dollar.

The post-disaster scramble in Houston pales in comparison to Puerto Rico, where nearly three-quarters of the U.S. territory remains without power more than a month after Maria hit, but it highlights a system ill-prepared to deal with storms that are predicted to get even stronger and more damaging with climate change. That Harvey hit the hub of the U.S. oil and gas industry, the major suppliers of the fossil fuels that drive global warming, was another plot twist. Not only did climate change’s role in the disaster get scant attention in Houston, Citgo even ran an ad in major newspapers saying every fill-up is helping Harvey’s victims.

Harvey was the first of four major hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. or its territories. They were followed by the remnants of the easternmost Atlantic hurricane on record, Hurricane Ophelia, that made landfall in Ireland with winds topping 100 miles per hour. Scientists say climate change wasn’t the cause of the season’s unusually ferocious hurricane season, but warmer temperatures and rising seas made the storms more damaging.

The damages from all the major Atlantic hurricanes combined are still being calculated, but are expected to be greater than $300 billion. Houston’s long-term Harvey cleanup and recovery is likely to cost the city  about $1 billion, said Alan Bernstein, communications director for the Houston mayor’s office, with debris cleanup alone expected to ring up to $280 million.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott estimated in September that the total statewide recovery cost from Harvey, including rebuilding all damaged structures, from Harvey statewide could ring up to more than $180 billion. Analysts’ estimates of Harvey’s damages and economic losses range from about $70 billion to $190 billion. Abbott compared his estimate to the $120 billion the federal government spent for Hurricane Katrina recovery following that storm’s 2005 landfall.

Storm damage figures include economic losses and the cost of recovery from losses of personal property, public infrastructure and business assets. Cleanup costs usually include the cost of debris removal and cleaning up environmental contamination caused by a storm, such as oil and chemical spills from damaged industrial sites.

Now, two months since Harvey made landfall in late August, FEMA’s initial response is nearly complete, said agency spokeswoman Deanna Frazier and Bernstein said the city has been pleased with FEMA’s response.

As of Thursday, FEMA had inspected about 91 percent of the 560,000 homes that applied for aid and about 339,000 homes have been approved for some kind  of assistance.

“There is very little or no disenchantment with the speed of FEMA’s response, but if you’re talking about long-term funding for government, that’s another matter,” Bernstein said.

After Harvey drowned Houston, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott declined to tap the state’s $10 billion emergency “rainy day” fund to provide aid to the city and Turner proposed a local property tax increase to cover the costs. Turner dropped that proposal after Abbott changed course in late September and wrote the city a $50 million check.

Instead of drawing from the state’s the Rainy Day Fund, Abbott used money from a $100 million disaster relief fund, which the Texas Legislature provided to Abbott’s office, according to the Texas Tribune.

Much of the federalthat money would come from the Department of Housing and Urban Development for rebuilding Harvey-damaged homes for low-income residents. The money, in the form of special federal disaster relief community development block grants, will be allocated to the Texas General Land Office, which will come up with a plan to distribute the money to local governments.

The grants are part of a program that the Trump administration is threatening to eliminate in its proposed 2018 federal budget.

Bernstein said Houston will take many years to recover, but residents working together to get through the crisis show that the city will return despite the severity of the damages.

“We have a very resilient city that has bounced back from other crises,” Bernstein said. “Mayor Turner often talks about the ability of the city to pull together for each other and with each other and come back, and that’s being demonstrated now.”