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Houston, Harris County could target buyouts, home elevations, drainage projects with new federal aid

The first half of an anticipated $1 billion in federal grants to harden the Texas coast for future storms through infrastructure projects, home buyouts or elevations and other efforts is up for grabs, state officials announced Tuesday.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced the availability of this newest bucket of money in the hard-hit coastal town of Rockport and at Houston City Hall, as Mayor Sylvester Turner and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett looked on.

 FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program is a standard aid process triggered after every federally declared disaster. The final amount available to Texas will be calculated on the one-year anniversary of the storm making landfall, and will be set at 15 percent of the combined totals of the assistance FEMA provides to individuals and the grants the agency sends to local governments to cover their costs during the storm and in repairing their infrastructure afterward.

In the case of Hurricane Harvey, FEMA estimates Texas will receive $1 billion in mitigation funds, $500 million of which is being made available to local governments now. These funds are available only for governments, not individual storm victims.

Houston, Harris County and others will need to compete for the funds and will need to provide a 25 percent match, with FEMA covering 75 percent of each project. Local governments can use federal block grants — such as the $5 billion Texas was allocated last fall, which Abbott said should arrive next month — to provide that match, but doing so also means there are fewer dollars available for home repairs and infrastructure projects.

The mitigation dollars can be used broadly for drainage projects, reservoirs, detention basins, seawalls and channel improvements, as well as more targeted programs such as home buyouts and elevations.

Turner added that, without sufficient mitigation dollars, “Merely funding a recovery would be funding for failure.”

Nim Kidd, who heads the Texas Division of Emergency Management and will oversee the grant process for the mitigation funds, said he has scheduled an 11:30 a.m. call Wednesday for local officials to learn how best to submit their applications.

He said there is no clear formula that states how much of the funding Houston or Harris County is likely to receive, though he said the first projects would be approved for funding within “a few months.”

“The idea with this finite pot of money is that we do get the biggest bang for the buck,” Kidd said.

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