Rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey a task to require extraordinary effort

By Harold J. Raveché, Ph.D.
Opinion Contributor
TheHill.com

September 3, 2017

Owning a shore home in New Jersey situated four miles from where Hurricane Sandy made landfall in 2012 – and a second home in a Vermont town that was destroyed by Irene – I have profound personal empathy for the difficulties faced by Texas victims of Hurricane Harvey.

Before discussing the challenges of rebuilding, there is very good news for America from Harvey.

The outpouring of volunteer assistance (think Cajun Navy) is truly an outstanding example of a citizenry united in selfless acts of rescue – neighbors helping neighbors in crisis. This outreach by thousands of Americans to other Americans stands in stark contrast to the recent news of hateful acts perpetuated by an isolated (but highly publicized) few.

The rescue operations in Houston, and nearby areas, have crossed racial, ethnic, religious and gender boundaries, very clearly demonstrating that Americans have great concern for all of their fellow citizens. This outpouring of humanity is a clarion call for all Americans to reaffirm that America’s rich diversity is the strength of our nation.

The process of rebuilding will be complex and overwhelming, unless there is assistance, coordination, cooperation and oversight from many government agencies and private-sector businesses. Harvey was a storm of historic impact, demanding unprecedented levels of assistance in rebuilding.

In Sandy, I lost half of my home and all of its contents, ranging from HVAC and appliances to electronics and clothing. When I called a service company for clean up, I had to pay several thousand dollars up front before they would even schedule work. Will all victims of Harvey have the financial resources immediately available for cleanup and reconstruction? Tax returns for 2017 should have expedited tracks at federal and state levels for Harvey victims. Approved refunds should be recognized as collateral by financial institutions.

With all the political interest in our national infrastructure, the rebuilding of Southeast Texas can serve as a first, shining example of how that national project can be made to work – and made to work directly for those citizens sorely in need of restoration of their everyday lives. Will the White House and Congress agree now on an infrastructure project, and move fast enough to help victims of Harvey rebuild, or will we have more red-tape and political posturing?

High-end estimates of the cost to restore Southeast Texas range in the neighborhood of $190 billion (double the figure after Hurricane Katrina). But that is a number dwarfed by the estimated $1 trillion-plus needed to restore the national infrastructure as a whole.

Let us speculate that, in a rare show of consensus, even unity, the combined efforts of the president, Congress and the pertinent federal agencies can be marshaled to kick off one of the greatest public-service and civil-engineering feats ever attempted, in full cooperation with state and local authorities – with the showcase for the effort being the precincts surrounding Corpus Christi, Houston and countless other affected towns and cities near the Gulf Coast.

Flexibility in legislation at the state level will be needed to supplement federal assistance. Famously anti-tax Texans may need to explore a method to raise discreet taxes and fees that expire against hard deadlines, with no renewal mechanism, with the proceeds dedicated solely to the relief and rebuilding effort.

Of course, there is an upside to the rebuilding, especially in that it will invigorate the private sector and create jobs for those in desperate need. Many municipal and commercial buildings have been impacted and will need materials to rebuild. Damaged infrastructure will need repair and replacement, including roads, highways, railways, subways, ports, pipelines, generators, and sewer systems. This will create more demand for materials, supplies and skilled workers, ultimately benefiting the tax-base.

People will need to replace their lost motor vehicles to get back to work. Municipalities (aided by state and federal relief grants) should step up to provide added bus transport until personal transportation is back to normal. Importantly, employers need to provide salaries while their employees cannot not work due to a storm of epic scale. This aid should be a direct tax write off for employers.

Students need to return to school. What resources will schools have to cleanup and repair? Can existing maintenance staff handle the load to avoid delays in finding skilled workers? Individual schools need new budget and spending authority now to reopen as quickly as possible.

Harvey was a storm of historic scale. No less than extraordinary efforts from the public and private sectors are needed now to help families and individuals rebuild their lives.

Harold J. Raveché, Ph.D., is president of Innovation Strategies International and former president of the Stevens Institute of Technology.