Hurricane Harvey is about to get worse in Texas.
Yes, Washington will send the first several billion dollars in aid. But if the history of hurricanes is prologue, the rest of the massive aid package is worrisome.
In Washington, Congress and the administration seem likely to lose sight of Harvey quickly, stumbling as they do from one quagmire to the next. In Austin, Gov. Greg Abbott has made himself the face of recovery, yet committed nothing financially. And on the Texas Gulf, the initial euphoria of survival will turn into the fuming frustration of recovery.
There is practically nothing that can prepare you for a hurricane, no matter how many you have been through. Like a beast in the dark, it brings a psychological rush that you never wish you had. On the night that Harvey hit, thousands of people streamed north, and the acting mayor of Rockport issued the chilling instruction to those who remained to write their names and Social Security numbers on their forearms. And then 200,000 people were plunged into darkness, and millions into uncertainty.
When the lights came up there was a collective euphoria among the survivors. And just like any near-death experience, that feeling was powerful testimony to the human spirit. The rescuers in the boats and the rescued exhibited a noble communitarianism.
But the third act of a hurricane, upon which Texas is now entering, is a beast of a different kind. It uncoils slowly, inevitably and with seething frustration. People and institutions run low on energy and the work ahead becomes more, not less.
It’s a low feeling, being trapped, powerless, in your own house in a losing battle against mold and mildew in dirty clothes in the heat of summer with nothing regular in your life: not your work, your car, your money and certainly not your future. One day you had a normal life. The next, all of your worldly possessions are rotting in the street to the backdrop of Salvation Army food trucks and the buzz of National Guard helicopters overhead.
In the Harvey saga, we are there. In his visit to Houston, President Donald Trump congratulated Abbott as “fantastic” along with painting survivors as “happy” and saying Texas can recover in “six months.” Many good people are giving what they have, money, time, prayer. Heck, along with J.J. Watts, Beyonce, Oprah and Barbra Streisand are spearheading a star-studded benefit for recovery.
I am reminded of a line from Erik Larson’s book, “Isaac’s Storm,” about the 1900 hurricane that demolished Galveston: “The city fathers vowed to rebuild.” Ah yes, they always do. Bigger and better. But as Houston County Judge Ed Emmett pointed out, this is where the kumbaya stops and jolting reality sets in.
Recovering from a storm this size is work measured in at least a decade if not longer. All of the after-action reports of the Federal Emergency Management Agency for hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Ike and Sandy clearly say so.
Here are the main points:
1. Even when there is a will to spend a lot of money, it comes in dribs and drabs and can only be spent so fast anyway. The last $20 billion was just spent on Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf coast 12 years ago. Recovery from Hurricane Hugo took 17 years.
2. It appears that Katrina was similar in scale to Harvey, threatening about 2 million properties, a similarly large petro-chemical refining sector, though not as diversified and big or populous an economy as Houston, which includes trade, finance, services and more.
3. Recovery is not really ever complete, certainly not to pre-storm conditions. When Hurricane Ike roared ashore in 2008, it dealt a direct punch to Galveston. As of the last count, about two years ago, only 60 percent of that island city’s structures had been rebuilt.
4. In the cases of both Katrina and Ike, huge numbers of people were permanently displaced, never returning home.
Congress and the Trump administration will take swift credit for passing about $8 billion in initial federal aid. Yet the city of Houston estimates that it will need $200 million just to pick up garbage being tossed out as buildings are gutted.
I wonder if the real cost of Harvey will approach $200 billion in direct and indirect damages, rivaling Katrina easily. That is the equivalent of nearly six months of the gross output of Houston.
There are a range of initial estimates, though, of course:
Economist Harvey Weinstein at Southern Methodist University estimates $60 billion; and he’s an expert on the economics of Katrina. It’s true that if federal aid and insurance money arrives on time, as he points out, it will be a quick economic boost.
Accuweather, the Pennsylvania-based weather media company, has estimated $190 billion in damages; the company’s officials have pointedly said government underplayed the storm. The company’s methodology has been used successfully before.
Texas economist Ray Perryman says the Accuweather forecast is “not crazy.” Further he said he anticipates a long-term decline in the gross domestic output of the impacted areas of $160 billion - even if all the federal aid arrived on time, which he doubts, too.
Nearly all estimates are being revised upward. Accuweather’s has climbed from $160 billion to $190 billion. FEMA’s reporting is only going up from initially 17,000 people in shelters to now approaching 100,000 in shelters and hotels.
Claims for assistance from FEMA are projected to exceed 400,000. But remember: FEMA caps assistance generally at $34,000. So, there will be a gap between the damages incurred and the federal aid, potentially ruinous to those without private insurance.
So here comes the fourth act: Cue the politicians. I wish I could offer a more optimistic portrait but it simply doesn’t seem realistic.
Shelling out the kind of money southeast Texas needs is a show-stopper, particularly for a Republican administration and Congress with a $1 trillion agenda of tax cuts, and a similar one for infrastructure, and a $21 billion border wall.
And not to mention other problems Washington is facing: another hurricane, crisis on the Korean peninsula, looming trade fights and tension over immigration. All in advance of an election year.
Whether you like Trump or despise him is irrelevant; Congress cannot handle all this at one time. It will be too tempting for Congress to check the box and approve $8 billion or $15 billion for Harvey relief and say it took care of Texas.
And reality is that this kind of money cannot be spent all at one time anyway. Case in point: Hurricane Sandy. Aid to New York and New Jersey got held up in Congress and then, after the first payment arrived, a larger political debacle ensued led by none other than Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and starring the Texas congressional delegation.
Abbott has now made delaying aid to Texas even easier by refusing to call a special session to tap the state’s $10 billion rainy day fund. It may be shrewd negotiation, but this will not persuade Washington lawmakers to step in.
After the 1900 storm, Galveston faded from commercial prominence, yielding to Houston. Could that happen again? That seems far-fetched but not impossible. It may be safer to move some business, like corporate headquarters, inland in a time of global climate change.
The weather forecast for Houston in the coming week remains mercifully mild. But make no mistake. Patience will grow short. Tempers will soar. And there will be blame.
Richard Parker is a writer in Austin and the author of “Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America.” He wrote this for The Dallas Morning News.