Hurricane Harvey swept away transparency in spending federal aid money

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Home Flooded by Hurricane Harvey

HOUSTON — Billions of dollars of aid poured into Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, a massive storm where many neighborhoods in the Houston area were pounded by at least 40 inches of rain, triggering flooding that required almost 20,000 rescues, and which caused almost 100 deaths.

Officials’ handling of the first such storm to hit the Gulf Coast since 2008’s Hurricane Ike was lauded.

Not so lauded has been the tracking of federal aid coming to Texas to help in the Harvey recovery, according to a report from the Insurance Journal.

Texas has received more than $11 billion in federal disaster aid since Harvey hit in late August. And Gov. Greg Abbott has appealed for billions more in federal assistance, largely for public infrastructure projects, the Journal reports.

The bulk of federal aid has been dispersed through federal agencies, where money is easier to track through public databases.

The transparency problem comes in when trying to track the flow of federal cash through state agencies.

From the Journal:

So far, more than $500 million in federal dollars have gone directly to Texas to reimburse state agencies and local jurisdictions for debris removal, power restoration and emergency infrastructure repairs. But how the money has been spent is unclear.

Abbott, who divided funding coordination among several state agencies, appointed a commission to help hard-hit cities, towns and counties get reimbursed by FEMA for public projects. However, the commission isn’t tracking the funds. Instead, local authorities are responsible for transparency and for holding onto receipts in case of a federal audit, said commission spokesman Laylan Copelin.

“We’re on the service end of things, we’re not really in the money trail,” Copelin said.

Abbott spokesman Matt Hirsch said the state currently had no centralized, comprehensive funds tracker that would allow the public to monitor recovery and rebuilding spending. He said one is in the works, though he didn’t know what it would entail or when it would come online.

The Journal also notes that “another murky side of Texas’ storm spending involves state contracts awarded to private companies for services or products, such as food or portable shower rentals for first responders.”

A solution for Texas problems may come from New Jersey. While having little in common, the two states are brethren when it comes to recent, and massive, storms hitting their coasts.

Marc Ferzan, a government compliance consultant who served as New Jersey’s Superstorm Sandy “czar” — a Cabinet-level position responsible for coordinating rebuilding strategies and funding — had some advice.

“If everyone’s kind of doing their own thing, it’s very possible, from a hazard-mitigation standpoint, that things won’t be effectively coordinated,” Ferzan told the Journal. “Without a centralized approach, things can even function at cross purposes.”

From the Journal:

Ferzan suggested Texas set up a central database to track where money is coming from and where it’s being applied, similar to what New York and New Jersey created after Sandy caused $65 billion in damage in 2012. Those databases were searchable by funding source, contract award and contractor.

North Carolina also recently launched a website to track the $230 million that Congress allocated in community development block grants after Hurricane Matthew hit the state in 2016.

The U.S. government does not require states to provide a detailed accounting for disaster relief.

See the full Insurance Journal story here.

Trent Seibert can be reached at [email protected] or at 832-258-6119.

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately, an old story…plenty of tax money, just gets down to where it goes. Harvey money is going to be difficult to get to those who need it, much less figure out where it went.

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