WASHINGTON – An emergency Trump administration plan to tap storm protection funds to pay for a border wall was slammed Friday by Houston lawmakers who said it could endanger the city’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey and jeopardize the region’s preparedness for future storms.
While details of the proposal remained unclear, lawmakers in both parties scrambled to win assurances from the White House and allay concerns about projects in the Gulf Region, including a proposed coastal barrier to protect Galveston Bay and the Houston Ship Channel.
Reports that President Donald Trump has been briefed on a plan to use unspent money from Army Corps of Engineers projects heightened tensions in Congress about his threat to use emergency powers to build hundreds of miles of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, much of it in the Rio Grande Valley.
The controversy also highlighted long-standing concerns about the slow pace at which Washington has released emergency disaster funds to Texas since Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Houston-area projects funded by federal disaster recovery funds
$295 million for Clear Creek – includes 20.4 miles of channel improvements along Clear Creek, Mud Gully, Turkey Creek and Mary’s Creek as well as new stormwater detention along Clear Creek and a detention basin along Mary’s Creek.
$75 million for Brays Bayou – includes ongoing channel modifications upstream of South Rice Avenue, three ongoing bridge replacements or repairs and eight future bridge replacements or modifications.
$65 million for Hunting Bayou – includes 2.4 miles of channel modifications upstream of Hempstead Road detention basin, modifications to three bridges at the Englewood Railroad Yard and 0.5 miles of channel modifications downstream of Liberty Road.
$45 million for White Oak Bayou – includes 15.4 miles of channel modifications from Cole Creek to FM 1960 and expanding the volume of the detention basin at Fairbanks North Houston Road
$3.9 billion for a Sabine Pass-to-Galveston Bay Storm Risk Management and Ecosystem Restoration, several upgrades and improvements to 40 miles of existing coastal levees in Port Arthur and Freeport, plus the construction of more than 26 miles of coastal levees in Orange County.
A White House spokesman declined to confirm details of the plan Friday as the nation lurched into the third week of a partial government shutdown in a budget fight over Trump’s long-promised border wall.
Trump, speaking at a White House roundtable on border security Friday, maintained he has the right to declare a national emergency to build the wall, but did not say when he might.
“I’m not going to do it so fast,” Trump said, adding that Democrats in Congress “should come back and vote” for the $5.7 billion in wall funds he has requested for 2019. “We want Congress to do its job. What we’re not looking to do right now is a national emergency.”
Some Republicans voice opposition
While Texas Republicans have largely backed the president in his standoff with Democratic leaders in Congress, some have balked at the prospect of siphoning money from military construction or emergency disaster projects.
“I will oppose any reprogramming of Harvey disaster funds,” Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a top Senate Republican, said Friday in Austin. “We worked very hard to make sure that the victims of Hurricane Harvey, their concerns are addressed and Texas is able to rebuild. And I think we are all together on that.”
Cornyn, who opposes declaring a national emergency, said he talked to the White House, along with Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and members of the Texas congressional delegation. “We are all unified in that position,” he said.
Confusion still reigned in Congress Friday about the president’s intentions. While Democrats raised alarms about losing flood control and other disaster recovery funds in Texas, Puerto Rico and other storm-hit zones, Republicans sought to minimize those concerns – at least in Texas.
“I don’t think we’re going to see that money jeopardized in any way,” Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said of Hurricane Harvey relief funding.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, a top House Republican from The Woodlands, took to Twitter to push back against media reports that the administration might be eyeing money earmarked for Army Corps projects in the Houston area.
“I’ve spoken directly with the White House. Absolutely not true,” Brady tweeted. “@realDonaldTrump committed to border security/ will not back down until adequate $$ are secured. Fully supports Corps funding to help Harvey communities rebuild/prevent future flooding.”
Other Texas Republicans were less definitive about the administration’s plans.
Freshman Houston Republican Dan Crenshaw said he met with Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney Friday and voiced his concern about how this move would affect his district. He said only that the White House shared his concerns.
“I’ve made it clear to the Administration that not one penny can be spared when it comes to Harvey relief funding, a point to which they were very sympathetic,” Crenshaw said.
Democrats raise alarm
Democrat Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who won a historically Republican House seat in Houston in November, said it should not even be an option for the White House to build a disputed border wall with needed storm protection dollars.
“Congress appropriated these funds specifically to help this community rebuild after Hurricane Harvey,” said Fletcher, who made flood control projects a mainstay of her campaign against Republican incumbent John Culberson. “Even the suggestion that these Harvey recovery funds be diverted for any other purpose is unacceptable.”
Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee called the proposal “outrageous and immoral, and an affront to the millions of Americans affected by real disasters that have struck the homeland.”
Also among those expressing concern was Sugar Land Republican Pete Olson, a Trump ally.
“I reiterate my support for protecting America along our southern border,” Olson said. “However, recent reports have indicated flood control disaster relief funds – including those for Harvey recovery – could be tapped to fund construction of a wall. I strongly object to this proposal.”
Olson noted that Harvey was the third consecutive year of historic flooding for Houston and the second hurricane to make landfall in the region in the last ten years.
“Our region simply cannot delay construction of desperately needed flood control projects any longer. America is a strong nation that must properly secure our border without sacrificing the safety and security of the millions of Americans living along the Gulf Coast,” Olson said.
Some media reports have suggested that Trump was briefed about the plan during his flight Thursday to the southern border city of McAllen. One option reportedly contemplates taking some of the unspent $13.9 billion that Congress approved last year for civil works projects around the U.S. and Puerto Rico.
Administration sources have been quoted anonymously saying that using Army Corps money is “definitely an option,” though nothing has been finalized.
Among the ongoing Army Corps projects in Houston are improvements to the aging Addicks and Barker Reservoirs, which were designed to prevent downstream flooding. In danger of spilling over during Hurricane Harvey, they were opened to release water, flooding Buffalo Bayou.
Some regional officials also have expressed concern about future of Army Corps funds for the long-sought “Ike Dike” – a 70-mile-long coastal barrier to protect the coastline around Galveston Bay against storm surges. The most recent version of the plan – now under study – carries a price tag of as much as $31 billion.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, a Republican whose district extends to Galveston, said the impact of the president’s plan remains uncertain. “With the fluid nature of things, we can’t speak to the hypothetical situation in which Army Corps funds would be used,” said the spokeswoman, Emma Polefko.
Is Trump targeting backlogged funding?
Ike Dike proponent Michel Bechtel, the mayor of the Morgan’s Point, a Harris County city on Galveston Bay, said that he had only seen media reports of Trump’s plan. “I don’t know what’s real and what’s not real,” he said.
Bechtel discounted fears of losing coastal barrier funding which Congress has yet to approve. “There’s nothing there for them to take away from,” he said. “There’s no money there.”
But Bechtel, a leader in the Ike Dike project as president of the Harris County Mayors and Councils Association, noted that during negotiations over a 2017 federal water resources bill the administration sought to take back an estimated $4 billion for backlogged civic works projects that Congress had authorized more than ten years ago but which were never started.
On top of the $1.3 billion Democrats have agreed to allocate for border security, that would almost satisfy Trump’s total border wall request.
“That may indeed be what they’re talking about,” Bechtel said. “We haven’t seen anything as far as any current projects that have been approved where they’re calling back the money. So there may be a lot of confusion about that.”
Whether or not Trump goes through with some type of emergency plan to fund the wall – a move that Democrats have vowed to fight in court – the prospect of taking storm protection monies has renewed criticism of the administration’s response to Hurricane Harvey.
Texas officials, who were allocated nearly $5 billion last year by Congress for disaster mitigation, complained earlier this month about bureaucratic logjams.
“We cannot afford to wait any longer,” Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush wrote in a letter to Mulvaney. “Please approve these rules for publication as soon as possible so we can get started on construction of vital infrastructure projects to protect Texans from the type of damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.”
Staff writer Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.