As the remnants of Harvey battered east Texas and Louisiana on Wednesday, the Houston area saw blue skies for the first time in days. With nearly 35,000 people living in shelters across Texas, the focus is still on day-to-day survival. Many still don’t know what’s left of their homes and businesses, but it’s likely they’re facing massive bills and huge hurdles if they attempt to seek government assistance.
During a press conference on Monday, President Trump began by reading a prepared statement acknowledging this reality, and promising to stand with the storm’s survivors. “Recovery will be a long and difficult road, and the federal government stands ready, willing, and able to support that effort,” he said.
Yet when asked during the same press conference about what Texans can expect in terms of long-term recovery, Trump suggested the road actually wouldn’t be all that long. “I think that you’re going to see very rapid action from Congress, certainly from the president. And you’re going to get your funding,” he said, adding, “We think you’re going to have what you need and it’s going to go fast.” Trump then said he expects the area to be up and running again “very quickly,” repeating the phrase two more times.
Addressing his supporters in Corpus Christi on Tuesday, Trump’s timetable got even more ambitious: “We’re going to get you back and operating immediately,” he said.
But in prepared remarks he delivered on Wednesday, it slowed down again. He said, “Recovery will be tough,” but assured the people of Louisiana and Texas, “We are here with you today, we are with you tomorrow, and we will be with you every single day after to restore, recover and rebuild.”
While the discussion this week has centered on the optics of Trump’s disaster response, the real test of whether this is his “Katrina moment” will come as Texas and Louisiana seek federal money for recovery. The process probably won’t be anything like what off-the-cuff Trump described, since rebuilding after Katrina and Superstorm Sandy took years. But the Trump administration does have an opportunity to apply the lessons of those disasters to improve the federal response to Harvey.
The first order of business is for the Trump administration to submit a request for emergency funds to Congress. Trump could be partly right about “very rapid action from Congress.” A number of thorny fiscal issues must be addressed by the end of September, and reports suggest congressional leaders want to secure support for funding the government and raising the debt ceiling by attaching those measures to a disaster aid bill.
There are several potential complications. First, Trump has already threatened to veto any appropriations bill that doesn’t include funding for his border wall, so Congress would have to convince him to save that fight for another day — and they aren’t on great terms. Second, since floodwaters are still rising in some areas, it’s too early to say how much money is needed. Texas governor Greg Abbott said the federal aid package “should be far in excess” of the $120 billion spent on the Katrina recovery, and U.S. representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents Houston, suggested it should be as much as $150 billion.
The Wall Street Journal reports that there’s talk of approving a smaller aid request, then negotiating a larger relief package down the line. “There might be more than one Harvey relief package just because we don’t know the extent” of the damage, Representative Tom Rooney, a Florida Republican, said Wednesday. He added that it would have to be “carefully constructed so we don’t run into the same problems we did with the Sandy bill.”
That could prove tricky. Congress passed an initial Sandy aid package tied to a short-term spending bill in late 2012, then negotiated a $50 billion aid package several weeks later. By that point, images of the storm-ravaged Northeastern shore were no longer dominating the headlines, and 179 House Republicans wound up voting against the bill.
Getting federal funds to Harvey’s victims presents another array of problems. According to the Washington Post, only 16 percent of homes in the counties declared a federal disaster area have flood insurance through the federal flood-insurance program. That program, which is up for reauthorization next month, is deeply in debt and in need of serious reform, but Harvey makes that even less likely.
By Wednesday morning, 195,000 people affected by Harvey had filed for assistance from FEMA. As FEMA’s website explains, it provides grants to disaster victims to “help pay for temporary housing, emergency home repairs, uninsured and underinsured personal property losses and medical, dental and funeral expenses,” among other disaster-related expenses. However, the grants aren’t intended to fully cover these costs.
To help with additional expenses, the federal government offers low-interest disaster loans through the Small Business Administration. Renters and homeowners may be eligible for loans of up to $40,000 for property losses and homeowners can borrow up to $200,000. That program has been plagued by problems too. Politico reports:
After both Katrina and Sandy, the natural disaster was followed by a bureaucratic one, as an agency whose main job is small-business boosterism suddenly transforms into America’s last-ditch emergency lender. After Katrina, the SBA needed an average of more than 65 days to process disaster loan applications—a delay that led to a congressional backlash and major reforms. When Sandy struck, the agency was again unprepared; it took SBA an average of around 40 days to process loan applications.
Following Katrina, Congress created three new emergency loan programs, but they were never implemented. SBA says the programs are no longer needed because they’ve made other improvements that should enable them to process loan applications far more quickly. On average, it took the agency less than two weeks to process disaster loan applications after flooding in Baton Rouge last August. However, it was only dealing with 66,000 applications, while Katrina yielded 385,000.
Earlier this year, members of Congress pressed James Rivera, who runs SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance, on whether his office was ready for a major disaster. “The trend is in the right direction,” he said. “But, I hate to say this, until we are able to process a disaster like Sandy or Katrina, we are going to continue to have these same discussions.”
Hopefully, a number of federal agencies have stepped up their game since Sandy, and President Trump will ensure that his administration does everything it can to ease the process. If not, Harvey’s victims are facing a years-long bureaucratic process that’s unlikely to fully cover the cost of recovery. Per the New York Times:
Five years after Hurricane Sandy ravaged coastal areas in New York and New Jersey, many residents and business owners in affected neighborhoods are still trying to collect all of the assistance they had been promised.
“It’s become a monstrosity,” Michele Insinga, executive director of Adopt a House, a nonprofit recovery group in Lindenhurst, N.Y., said of the bureaucracy that developed around Sandy relief. “There are so many horror stories from people who are still putting their lives back together.”