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The Troubled Relationship Between Texas and FEMA

Texans don’t trust the federal government. But the state relies on federal disaster funds more than any other.

A woman carries a daughter's friend through floodwaters in Houston on May 26. (David J. Phillip/AP)

Over the past two weeks, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has declared a state of disaster for 46 different counties. Two dozen counties made that list on Memorial Day, as extreme weather marked by tornadoes and flooding continued to sweep across the state.

I have, as governor, declared disaster declarations literally from the Red River to the Rio Grande, said Governor Abbott during a press conference late on Tuesday.

Earlier Tuesday, President Barack Obama told reporters that he expects that “there will be some significant requests made to Washington” for emergency aid. Yet as of Tuesday afternoon, with at least 4 people dead and 40 missing in Central Texas alone, Governor Abbott had not formally requested federal aid.

Emergency conditions in Texas underscore the state’s troubled relationship with federal assistance. Popular suspicion of the federal government in Texas (or at least media coverage thereof) may have reached its zenith this year. In truth, Texas relies on federal disaster funds more than any other state, according to one recent analysis.

Rescue personnel search the waters along Brays Bayou in Houston. (Daniel Kramer/Reuters)

At the same time, the state legislature appears poised to allow a bill to expire that would let Texas cities take the lead on rebuilding housing in the wake of natural disasters. That pre-disaster planning bill would designate a single state agency as the point for cities as they develop disaster housing plans, but it’s tied up in legislative maneuvers, according to the Texas Tribune.

With cities unable to adopt a more proactive posture toward disasters, the federal government will likely continue to serve as the state’s backstop—despite widespread animosity toward FEMA and other federal agencies.

Texas suffers more natural disasters than any state in the nation, thanks to its vast size and diverse geography. The Lone Star State’s 336 formal disaster declarations outnumber those of Oklahoma and Florida, two disaster-prone states, put together. Only California comes close, with 236 declared disasters since 1953. (FEMA officials did not immediately return a request for comment.)

According to the Center for American Progress, Texas absorbs more federal disaster assistance funds than any other state. The state took in more than $5 billion in federal disaster recovery funds in fiscal years 2011 and 2012. (The analysis compiles several sources of aid, including FEMA, the USDA federal crop insurance program, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)

Floodwaters run near an apartment complex in Houston. (Daniel Kramer/Reuters)

During Tuesday’s press conference, Governor Abbott said that he had received offers of aid from several officials—namely, the governors of New Mexico, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, as well as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. He did not mention his phone call with President Obama.

And for good reason. According to a poll conducted by the University of Texas and the Texas Tribune in February, only 23 percent of Texans view the federal government favorably, while 57 percent said they viewed the feds unfavorably. More than a third of Texans said they held a “very unfavorable” view of the federal government.

There’s no reason to think that view has changed recently. On Tuesday, The Boston Globe published a dispatch from Bastrop, Texas, where dozens of people assembled in a townhall meeting late in April to discuss the looming threat of the U.S. military’s Jade Helm 15 exercises. FEMA plays a prominent role in this fever dream: Conspiracists fear that the agency means to erect prison camps. In fact, FEMA stands to play a prominent role in places like Bastrop, where county emergency officials performed multiple water rescues after the Bastrop State Park dam failed.

The tragedy unfolding in Texas highlights why it was so dangerous for Governor Abbott to flirt with extreme paranoia in the first place. By endorsing extremist skepticism of the federal government, even tacitly, the governor exacerbates unfounded fears of FEMA and other federal assistance providers. And at a time when the state cannot provide for adequate flood-control infrastructure—and cannot pass legislation to let cities lead the emergency housing response—the state of Texas cannot afford to promulgate widespread fears about FEMA.  

To be sure, first responders and state agencies performed admirably in the wake of devastating floods. In no way does the governor’s bumbling of the Jade Helm 15 concerns reflect poorly on them. Rather, the disaster exposes the state’s failure to plan effectively in advance, so that first responders are even better prepared for tragedies when they strike.

The disaster was “a tale of two cities” in Houston, according to Mayor Annise Parker. “Much of Houston was unaffected by the weather,” she said during Tuesday’s press conference. “But the parts that were were very severely hit.”

The disaster also exposes a tale of two states. One Texas feels extreme distrust toward federal agencies. The same Texas depends on them.

About the Author

  • Kriston Capps
    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab. More

    Kriston Capps is a staff writer at CityLab, where he writes about housing, art and design. Previously, he was a senior editor at Architect magazine.