Houston's Recovery Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with Marvin Odum, Houston's chief recovery officer, about the city's need for more federal aid since the region was hit by Hurricane Harvey.

Houston's Recovery

Houston's Recovery

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks with Marvin Odum, Houston's chief recovery officer, about the city's need for more federal aid since the region was hit by Hurricane Harvey.


And here in Houston with me now is one of the reasons we actually came here. John Burnett, NPR's Southwest correspondent. Hey, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Welcome to Houston, Lulu. I'm glad we got you down here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am glad to be here. And you've been urging us to cover Houston for a while. We'll get to Harvey in a moment. But why, in your view, is the city important right now?

BURNETT: Well, I'm a native Texan. And for decades, Houston had labored under a stereotype of being this behemoth city filled with oil men, refinery workers and astronauts. And in the last decade, I think Houston has become the most interesting city in Texas and really the most misunderstood major city in America. It's the fourth-largest.

Houston is now calling itself the most ethnically and racially diverse in America. As whites slip into a minority, Houston becomes a bellwether. This is what big American cities are going to look like going forward. But there's something else going on here. Houston is trying hard to make itself a more livable city. It's created these amazing urban parks like Hermann Park and Buffalo Bayou. And people are investing in the theater district and the museums.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And, of course, in the middle of that civic reinvention, Hurricane Harvey hit the area more than three months ago. And you can't overstate how devastated Houston was by that storm.

BURNETT: It's true. Harvey dumped 50 inches of rain - a year's worth of rain in four days, more than 100,000 homes damaged. Thousands are still staying in hotels all over the region. Houston is exceptionally flat. The city's nickname is the Bayou City. Its existence is premised on drainage. But three 500-year storms in three years have proved that something has gone wrong. These bayous that drain into Galveston Bay are just not getting the water out fast enough.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so Houston is really thinking about how it is going to plan for the future. I just sat down with Marvin Odum. He is Houston's chief recovery officer. And he made it clear after only two rounds of federal disaster relief funding, he's worried that Washington has moved on.

MARVIN ODUM: The further we get away from the storm, the less sense of urgency or at least recognition of the need here, the bigger risk we run that the money that we need won't be there. So I, you know - I was in D.C. earlier this week.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How receptive were they?

ODUM: You always get decent reception. But I'm only interested in the real action, right? So from a real action standpoint, I'm extremely concerned. If you took it at face value right now, and you look at the money that's been allocated post-Harvey but also post-Irma and post-wildfires and post all the other disasters that we've seen out there, the money that, then, could potentially - out of those appropriations, it could potentially be allocated to Texas and to the Houston area - would be woefully short of the examples that were set by Katrina, let's say, or by post-Sandy.

So if you're here, we're feeling forgotten, not defeated because we'll do everything we can to make sure that that's understood, and we get the money that should be flowing in this direction come in this direction. But it is set up to be a very challenging fight.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And fight is the word that you feel is the appropriate one? You think you're going to have to fight for this money?

ODUM: I think you absolutely have to fight for the money. This is not just purely a mathematical game, right? This is about appealing to appropriators about the desperate need of the people that are here that were affected by the storm.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were you surprised by that, though? I mean, this is a major American city in a state that is run by the party of - both the party in power in Congress and the president that is not getting the funds that it needs.

ODUM: So if it doesn't get them in the end, I'm extremely surprised and will be enormously disappointed. But I think we also have to understand this is unfolding as we speak, right? So the reason I was there earlier this week is, we're getting a message that says, know this may be the last appropriation. And if that's the case, then that's not nearly enough money to effect a decent recovery here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why are they telling you that this might be the last appropriations? They just don't want to spend the money?

ODUM: Well, I'm not sure we have a lot of good explanations for why yet. The - so it was the administration that recommended the 44 or 45 billion - depending on who you're talking to - for the last appropriation. Didn't come with a lot of explanation as to why that was the right number. And that's, of course, the - what we continue to push on and make sure that Congress - who actually makes the final appropriation, will make the final calls - understands what the need really is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You came back worried, though.

ODUM: You can't help but not be worried. But we're dealing with a situation here where we have a - now a multi-year history of repeated flooding when - in an environment where we expect those events to maintain themselves or get worse because of climate change and other factors.

And so to continue to do the same thing we've done before, which is - just repair structures, put people back in their homes and basically sit there and wait for the next flood when it starts all over again is absolutely untenable by - from any perspective.

And the math actually does work. So allocating the money now for the flood mitigation activities so that you can make these neighborhoods resilient, prevent the flood waters from coming into the houses and then not have to pay for this kind of repair three years down the road makes perfect sense.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Houston's chief recovery officer, Marvin Odum. I'm back now with John Burnett, NPR's Southwest correspondent. John, your reaction to that conversation?

BURNETT: Well, Odum is right. Houston is at a crossroads after Harvey. It's done so much to become a more livable city. But these monster floods threaten its economic future. Is this a city that immigrants from all over the world will want to keep moving to to take jobs, or will people just get fed up with all the flooding? So really, Houston has to figure out a way to stay above water with these recurring violent storms in the time of climate change.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's John Burnett. Thank you so much.

BURNETT: You bet, Lulu.

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