Pence tells Texans housing biggest challenge in Harvey recovery

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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.

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.

Pence arrived in Corpus Christi, the same city that President Trump visited on Tuesday, to offer residents of the region assurances full support from the federal government for recovery efforts.

"We promise you, we’re going to stay with you every step until we bring Southeast Texas back bigger and better than ever," Pence declared outside a church in nearby Rockport, which sustained heavy damage when Harvey came ashore as a Category 4 storm.

Afterward, the vice president, accompanied by Texas Gov. 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.

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 have witnessed "first hand the horror and devastation” inflicted 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. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said 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 demanded offsets for aid following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“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.

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 down payment, as the aide described it, would replenish FEMA funds used in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

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.

Bloomberg News