President Donald Trump visits Texas today to survey the hurricane damage and catastrophic flooding in Houston and southeast Texas. In the lead up to the visit, some have questioned whether or not the president has expressed sufficient empathy throughout the storm. Today’s visit has been framed as an attempt to project leadership and reassurance in the face of disaster.
But the real test for the president and his administration will arrive in the coming months, as the fourth largest city in the United States struggles to rebound and rebuild from total devastation. And at the center of that rebuilding effort will be former Irving Mayor Beth van Duyne, who was tapped by the president last May to be the regional administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), overseeing the federal government’s efforts in Texas and the four contiguous states.
Needless to say, the federal government will play a significant role in the Harvey rebuild. After Hurricane Sandy, President Obama created a rebuilding task force that drew key officials from multiple government departments to dispense the $50 billion appropriated by Congress for rebuilding parts of New York and New Jersey. The Department of Housing and Urban Development coordinated the efforts of that task force, which are ongoing. Similarly, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, initial efforts by FEMA to provide housing for the thousands of displaced citizens of the Gulf Coast were transferred to HUD, which led efforts to transition more than 46,000 families from temporary to permanent housing.
Hurricane Harvey has presented a similar housing crisis. Current estimates already put the number of people displaced by the hurricane at 30,000 (some of whom have landed in Dallas), though the number is likely to rise, especially as heavy rains continue to pummel Houston, Harris County, and elsewhere. But the HUD that will be tasked with coordinating the response is very different than the department that ran the Katrina and Sandy disaster response.
Just last week, New York Magazine ran an extensive report on HUD as it has reshaped under former presidential candidate Ben Carson. The article paints a picture of the department as a poster child of what happens when the head of government wants to dismantle the governmental apparatus. Delays in filling top positions within the agency created a power vacuum, and career officials jockeyed for influence. Less ambitious officials have sunk into moribund complacency, behavior implicitly encouraged by the department’s new leadership, which has reportedly provided little or no sense of direction and seems content to not approve or advance any new programs or initiatives.
When Trump’s budget was released, it called for cutting $7 billion from HUD, or 15 percent of its total budget. Perhaps most disconcertingly in light of the requirement to respond to the situation in Houston, HUD is run by a doctor (Carson) whose friends admit openly that he almost didn’t take the job because he was concerned about his own lack of experience in running a federal agency.
The lack of experience among top administrative officials is an ongoing theme in the Trump administration, though occasionally the implications of that inexperience can be lost in the sideshow bluster that accompanies appointments. That was certainly the case earlier this year when van Duyne announced at the AT&T Byron Nelson golf tournament kick-off luncheon that she was taking a job in the Trump administration.
At the time, no one knew which job, not that it mattered. The choice of van Duyne, who gained a national profile when she drummed up fears over the threat of Sharia law taking over Irving, TX, played directly to the political base of a president so locked into appeasing his base he found time to pardon controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio while Harvey rained down on Houston.
But now Houston faces one of the greatest housing crises in the history of America, and the regional administrator of HUD in Texas and the four surrounding states is a two-term former mayor who ran her first campaign on the promise of building a park in Hackberry Creek, and whose list of accomplishments as a public official includes building a few libraries, losing the Byron Nelson and the Dallas Cowboys, and failing to complete a convention center.
Sideshow politics suddenly have monumental implications.
It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around what lies ahead for Houston and the rest of southeast Texas — as well as Louisiana and yet-affected regions where Harvey will continue to dump water. What we do know is that there will be an unfathomable loss of property, the destruction of entire neighborhoods, and a extreme housing shortage crisis. Recovery will require a tremendous outlay of resources and a monumental feat of inter-departmental organization. It will require the absolute best leadership from the doctor who expressed trepidation in the face of taking a job he admitted he didn’t know how to do, and the former-Irving mayor who is now the senior regional federal official overseeing housing for the entire area affected by the storm.
When van Duyne took the job in May, she was asked by the Texas Tribune how she was adjusting to the new role.
“It’s a much larger scope than just one city,” she said.
Well, now her job is even more daunting than that.