Federal response to Hurricane Harvey in focus at Rice’s Glasscock School

The federal response to Hurricane Harvey was the focus of an Aug. 30 Texas Tribune conversation hosted by Rice’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies. Panelists from federal, state and local government — including Rice alumnus George P. Bush ’98, the Texas land commissioner — discussed the status of recovery one year after the storm made landfall in Texas and the long-term plans for getting people back on their feet.

From left, moderator Brandon Formby of the Texas Tribune, City of Houston Chief Recovery Officer Marvin Odum, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, FEMA Region 6 Recovery Division Director Traci Brasher and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Regional Administrator Beth Van Duyne participate in a Texas Tribune panel at Rice’s Glasscock School. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

Rice President David Leebron and Glasscock School Dean Robert Bruce welcomed the attendees gathered in the Anderson-Clarke Center’s Hudspeth Auditorium for the noon event.

“A year ago, our city suffered what has been regarded as really one of the worst, if not the worst, natural disasters in our state’s history, and so many of our fellow citizens of Houston, Harris County, the metropolitan area, our neighboring counties suffered terrible losses and really continue to suffer in many ways,” Leebron said. “And yet, at the same time, I think we’ve been impressed by the spirit of our people, both the resilience of the people affected and the generous spirit of so many who have supported them.”

Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed by Harvey, and in the year since, displaced Texans have turned to local, state and federal agencies for help rebuilding their lives. Marvin Odum, chief recovery officer for the city of Houston; Traci Brasher, recovery division director for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region 6; and Beth Van Duyne, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, joined Bush to discuss their work with panel moderator Brandon Formby, the Tribune’s urban affairs reporter.

Texas’ recovery process was also affected by Hurricane Irma, which hit Florida, and Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico, Brasher said. FEMA and other federal agencies responding to Harvey had to stretch their resources to aid victims of all three storms, he said.

“You’ll see many people that have been supporting Harvey, unfortunately, having to go to another event, and people from that event having to come to Harvey,” Brasher said.

Rice President David Leebron welcomes attendees.

The panelists agreed that more federally funded, locally administered programs are needed. After the storm, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tasked Bush’s General Land Office with running short-term housing programs and supervising long-term recovery, which the panelists said has made the process faster and more efficient.

“If you just had the housing mission wrapped up in one state agency that could directly administer it — repeating a phrase often heard in disaster areas, ‘federally funded, state overseen but locally led’ — we could reduce a lot of red tape faster and deliver assets quicker,” Bush said.

Van Duyne said the large number of agencies involved in disaster recovery can lead to a “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem.

“All of them want to have a say in what happens, and they should,” she said. “From the federal perspective, it is to try to empower at the most local level possible. You don’t want — especially in Texas — you don’t want D.C. coming in and telling you what your recovery is going to look like.”

Odum told the audience the Houston area needs a “regional mitigation flood blueprint” — a set of plans for preventing flooding in the next 10, 20 and 30 years — but to get that, Texas would need funding from federal lawmakers. After that plan goes into place, “we can have a rational discussion about how important this area is to the country,” he said.

Glasscock School Dean Robert Bruce discusses his school’s programming.

The Glasscock School, the university’s gateway to the Houston community, was a fitting venue to host the forum. Making Houston a focus and partner for education and enabling the city’s success are goals of Rice’s Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2).

Bruce pointed out that the school is offering a new course this fall, After the Flood: Lessons From Hurricane Harvey, highlighting the Houston region’s vulnerability to extreme weather and the extraordinary efforts to rebuild lives and communities in the wake of Harvey. Scientists, engineers, architects, urban planners and others are sharing innovative design, engineering, social, environmental, economic and policy strategies that may help Houston and other cities around the globe become more resilient to future storms.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.