AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The man tasked with overseeing Texas’
Hurricane Harvey rebuilding efforts sees his job as
“future-proofing” before the next disaster, but he isn’t
empowered on his own to reshape
flood-prone Houston or the state’s vulnerable coastline,
which has been walloped by three major hurricanes since 2006.
Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp will face the same political
and bureaucratic challenges that have long stalled meaningful
improvements in storm protections, and some doubt that even
Harvey’s record flooding and huge price tag will bring about real
“It doesn’t give me very much confidence at all,” Houston
resident Steve Sacks said of the prospects that the government
will get the recovery right. Sacks’s home has flooded four times
since 2012, and even before Harvey’s floodwaters near the
rooftops in his Meyerland neighborhood, he was frustrated by
delays and what he believes is the mismanagement of a government
project to elevate homes in the city.
“It’s all spur of the moment and not thought out. It’s just,
‘Let’s go ahead and react now to make it look good,'” said the
Sharp, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, follows
a line of fix-it men charged with picking up the pieces following
major storms in recent years, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005
and Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
He has won early bipartisan praise as a practical choice to
preside over the efforts to recover from Harvey, which killed
more than 70 people and damaged or destroyed more than 200,000
‘A slow, cumbersome process’
Sharp is the rare Democrat with sustained relevance in
Republican-controlled Texas. He is former lawmaker and state
comptroller who was U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s college
roommate at Texas A&M, which Sharp has led since 2011 and
will continue to lead while overseeing the rebuilding effort.
Abbott joked that he’s now getting calls, texts and emails from
Sharp “up to and sometimes well after midnight.”
Sharp hasn’t laid out a long-term rebuilding plan yet and most of
his public comments so far have been aimed at reassuring hard-hit
communities that he won’t be a bureaucratic cog.
But he has indicated that he’s thinking about the next disaster,
saying “one of the guiding principles will be to future-proof
what is being rebuilt so as to mitigate future risks as much as
Abbott spokesman John Wittman said Sharp will be involved in
developing a rebuilding plan to “minimize the impact” of future
natural disasters and will advocate for funding.
But Sharp is constrained in how far he can go in reimagining a
more resilient Texas coast. His mandate only pertains to public
infrastructure, and not housing, which experts say is crucial to
any comprehensive mitigation plan, including buying out
particularly flood-prone neighborhoods.
Sharp’s mandate also doesn’t mention zoning changes —
Houston is the largest U.S. city with no zoning laws — or how
much money the state will put up to deliver on his eventual
recommendations. Abbott, who has estimated that the recovery
could cost more than $150 billion, has suggested the state will
dip into its $10 billion rainy day fund, but not by how much.
“When you’re dealing with a limited amount of funds, there are
always trade-offs that have to be made,” said Marc Williams,
deputy executive director of the Texas Department of
Transportation. His agency will work closely with Sharp’s
commission, which could recommend elevating certain roads that
flooded during Harvey.
All rebuilding czars are eventually tested by political and
financial realities. Donald Powell, who left his role as chairman
of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to be the federal
coordinator of Gulf Coast recovery efforts after Katrina,
expressed frustration over not being able to speed up the
Marc Ferzan, who was appointed by Gov. Chris Christie to oversee
New Jersey’s recovery after Sandy, said his biggest struggle was
jumping from agency to agency to get funding.
“Whether it’s Katrina or Sandy or any major event you’re going to
hear the same story. It’s just the way disaster aid is
administered. It’s a slow, cumbersome process that is too
bureaucratic to respond to the urgency of the situation,” he
‘Maybe this is a wake-up call’
After Hurricane Andrew caused $26 billion in damage to the Miami
area in 1992, Florida installed the most stringent building codes
in the country. Since 2001, structures throughout the state must
be built to withstand winds of at least 111 mph (178 kph), and
new codes also require shatterproof windows, fortified roofs and
reinforced concrete pillars, among other things.
Sam Brody, an environmental planning expert and director of the
Center for Texas Beaches and Shores at Texas A&M University,
said drainage is among the “low-hanging fruit” that could be
addressed immediately to begin future-proofing the coast for the
next major storm. But he said the funds and the political
determination must be solved.
“In terms of will, there hasn’t been the will in the past. Maybe
this is a wake-up call, and maybe with his leadership and
personality, he can change the way we can think and act,” Brody
said of Sharp.
This week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner endorsed long-stalled
plans for a sweeping reservoir project that might have spared
parts of the city from Harvey’s flooding. He also has joined some
top Texas Republicans in urging Congress to approve billions to
build a coastal seawall that could protect Houston and other
areas from deadly storm surges that Harvey didn’t unleash but
that future storms could.
Turner said Houston “cannot talk about rebuilding” if “we do not
build the coastal spine.”
How active the federal government will be in making the Texas
coast more resilient is unclear. Following Sandy, the Obama
administration commissioned a design competition that ultimately
resulted in nearly $1 billion in federal funding to kickstart
projects that include turning the low-lying Meadowlands into a
flood-protected public park and installing bulkheads and seawalls
along the Hudson River.
The project, known as Rebuild by Design, was just a one-time
initiative. And even when things go right, such enormous
undertakings are slow to materialize: the first projects aren’t
scheduled to break ground until 2019, seven years after Sandy.
“You are receptive when you feel like something ripped the heart
out of your city,” said Amy Chester, managing director of Rebuild
by Design. “Everyone is going to need to say, ‘We’ve had