Pence Tells Texans Housing Biggest Challenge After Harvey

  • Vice president arrives in Texas to view storm damage
  • White House hasn’t yet settled on aid request for Congress

Pence Expects Bipartisan Support for Harvey Bill

Vice President Mike Pence warned that housing for storm victims is emerging as the top long-term challenge in the recovery from Hurricane Harvey as he arrived in Texas on Thursday to view the damage and meet with survivors.

President Donald Trump meanwhile plans to personally contribute $1 million to the relief effort, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters at a briefing on Thursday.

Pence said federal emergency management officials already have brought 2,000 manufactured homes to the region, with another 4,000 on order. While authorities currently focus on search and rescue efforts, attention is being turned to how to help the thousands of people who can no longer live in buildings damaged by flooding, Pence told reporters accompanying him during the flight to Texas.

The White House will ask Congress soon to quickly replenish the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s disaster relief fund, an administration official said.

“No Texan should doubt as they apply for available federal assistance, no business or small business should doubt, that this administration and this Congress will come together and make sure those resources are there,” Pence said at a news conference at the Corpus Christi airport.

More than 311,000 Texans had already applied for federal disaster relief funds as of Thursday morning and more than $530 million already has been granted, Pence said.

President Donald Trump visited the same city on Tuesday, and Pence said he was there to assure the region’s residents the full support of the federal government as they rebuild.

“We are with you today, we will be with you tomorrow and we will be with you
every day until this great state and these great communities recover and
rebuild to be even better and stronger than before,” Pence said at the news conference.

Pence Hands-On

Earlier in the day, the vice president, accompanied by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, walked along the streets of a neighborhood of modest ranch homes with tangles of debris and furniture piled in the front lawns. While some homes were intact except for missing shingles, one was so badly damaged that only a fireplace was left standing.

Abbott, who uses a wheelchair, tugged tree branches from a pile in front of a boarded-up mobile home and handed them to Pence so they could be dragged into the street. “We’ll have this pile gone. This is the way we roll in Texas,” Abbott said to a volunteer.

Sweat dripped from Pence’s nose and chin as he repeatedly lugged debris from the front yard of the home to the street, wearing blue work gloves.

White House Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said at a briefing in Washington that about 100,000 homes were damaged by the storm and related flooding. “That’s a big number,” he said.

The White House will ask for at least two aid packages from Congress, he said: one relatively soon, and a subsequent request after the extent of the damage is better understood. He said he’s “not worried at all” about the government’s disaster relief fund running out of money for at least the next month.

Two Million Evacuated

Dozens have died in the aftermath of the hurricane, and flooding caused by torrential rain continues to plague the state.

Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke told reporters traveling with the vice president that about two million Texans have been evacuated and that crews are working to restore power to about 200,000 residents and businesses that are without power along with 11,000 more in Louisiana. There are about 32,000 people in shelters.

She said that rivers in south Texas aren’t expected to crest before Saturday.

Some cruise ships will be allowed to return to Texas ports, she said, but Colonial Pipeline Co. will shut down a gas pipeline in addition to a diesel and aviation fuel line that had already been deactivated.

Along with Duke, Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin joined Pence aboard Air Force Two.

Trump Visit

Many of the same cabinet secretaries joined Trump during his visit, when he met with federal and state officials organizing the recovery effort. The president didn’t survey storm damage up close or meet with survivors or evacuees, activities the White House said would have diverted government resources from rescue and recovery efforts. Trump will return to Texas on Saturday to meet victims of the storm, White House officials say.

Trump claimed on Twitter Thursday that he witnessed "first hand the horror and devastation” inflicted by the storm even though he didn’t go into any of the neighborhoods and stuck to a briefing at a firehouse in a city that suffered limited damaged and another in Austin. Sanders said Wednesday that Trump was referring to his briefings by state and local officials “who are eating, sleeping breathing the Harvey disaster.”

Harvey Aid

The Harvey recovery is expected to be among the most expensive natural disaster rebuilding efforts in American history, and rainfall from the storm has set a record for the continental U.S., according to the National Weather Service. On Monday, Trump pledged that the federal government would secure funding for relief efforts “very, very quickly” and predicted “very rapid action from Congress.”

“We’re going to get you your funding,” he said.

But White House aides say they’re still considering how they want to approach an aid package and how much money to request. Sanders has refused to say if the administration would ask for storm spending to be offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. As a congressman, Pence joined a group of Republicans in demanding offsets for aid following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Pence said that “decisions with regard to overall budgeting” would be made by Congress and the president. As a member of Congress, he said, “I was very pleased to support federal disaster funding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.’

The House may vote on an initial Harvey relief bill in the first two weeks of September, according to a Republican aide who asked not to be named. The initial downpayment, as the aide described it, would replenish FEMA funds used in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. 

“We’re looking at the best way to help the people of Texas, and we’re going to continue pushing forward to make sure they get funding, and we’ll see what that looks like as we move forward in the process and determine the next best steps,” Sanders told reporters Wednesday.

A more complete package focused on rebuilding the affected parts of Texas and Louisiana could come later in the month once there’s a more complete assessment of the damage, the aide said.

Storm’s Magnitude

Authorities in Texas are still grappling with the magnitude of the storm. Earlier Thursday, an Arkema SA chemical plant in Crosby, Texas -- about 25 miles from downtown Houston -- was hit by explosions after floods caused by the hurricane knocked out power supplies needed to refrigerate volatile chemicals.

Arkema said it stores organic peroxides at the facility and that there is a threat of additional explosions.

The storm has also roiled global energy markets, reducing U.S. fuel-making capacity by about 4.25 million barrels a day. That represents about a quarter of the U.S. total refining capacity. Wholesale gasoline prices rose above $2 a gallon for the first time since July 2015.

— With assistance by Javier Blas, Jack Kaskey, Toluse Olorunnipa, and Jennifer Epstein

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.