Less than a month after Hurricane Harvey struck, Gov. Greg Abbott tapped Land Commissioner George P. Bush to help put storm victims back in their homes.
“I am confident Land Commissioner Bush is up to the challenge,” Abbott said in September. “His charge is clear — to be a champion for Texans whose residences have been damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Harvey and help them to feel once again at home.”
The task appeared a big challenge — and an excellent opportunity — for an ambitious politician. Bush, the scion of Texas’ most famous political family, is widely thought to aspire to higher office.
“We’re up to the task,” Bush said at the time. “This effort will show once again that when Texans come together, nothing, not even the worst natural disaster in our state’s history, can stop us.”
But six months later, with thousands still out of their homes, the governor installed a Mr. Fixit — Phil Wilson, general manager of the Austin-based Lower Colorado River Authority — to work with Bush’s General Land Office to resolve a housing crisis.
As the anniversary of Harvey approaches, Wilson’s hurricane relief work is done and the crisis has subsided. But the episode shines a light on how Bush’s drive to downsize his office — as part of an effort to prove his conservative bona fides — left the agency scrambling to meet the vast demands of hurricane recovery.
And the fact that Abbott turned to Wilson suggests how politically tricky Harvey relief had become — for both Abbott and Bush.
With billions of dollars set to flow from Washington into the small, devastated communities that dot the Texas coast, the process of recovery is ripe with political upside and fraught with pitfalls for two Republican state leaders running for re-election.
“It’s a very politically sensitive area,” said one disaster recovery consultant who has worked in state government and wished to remain anonymous because the person’s work involves state government contracts. “It’s kind of hard to make anyone happy. It’s never fast enough, and there’s never enough money. People have been through a trauma, and there’s a lot of emotion to deal with.”
“No disaster program is going to run smoothly,” said a second former state government official who is now a consultant and who wished to remain anonymous for similar reasons. “You can only not-screw-it-up-severely.”
Housing claim backlog
The move was Texan in its boldness, when, in the aftermath of Harvey, state leaders struck a novel agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency: The state would take the lead on managing a handful of temporary housing programs, and the General Land Office would run the program.
“With the magnitude of the damage from Hurricane Harvey, there is no doubt this will require a long recovery,” Bush said at the time. “This agreement marks the beginning of a new model for simplifying and expediting the transition out of sheltering to short-term and long-term housing recovery efforts.”
In addition to helping Texans recover from natural disasters, the land office oversees state lands, operates the Alamo, funds Texas public education through its management of mineral rights on state property, provides benefits to Texas Veterans, and manages the vast Texas coast.
Bush’s office launched a website to keep Texans informed about rebuilding efforts, and Bush himself visited devastated areas, putting on work gloves to lend a hand.
But more than six months after Hurricane Harvey destroyed swaths of the Gulf Coast, the recovery was still moving slowly.
The programs faced “persistent issues,” General Land Office spokeswoman Brittany Eck said, among them verifying claims and reaching far-flung people who were found to qualify for help.
A mid-November effort to get people home for the holidays had come and gone, with thousands of people still out of their homes. At a December hearing, exasperated mayors and county officials told state lawmakers their constituents were suffering. In February, the American-Statesman revealed that donors to Bush’s re-election campaign had won more than $164 million in agency contracts, including ones for disaster recovery services.
And former Republican Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, running to regain his seat, had put Harvey recovery efforts in an unflattering light.
Now it was mid-March and the General Land Office still had a backlog of 1,100 housing claims. A patchwork of county and municipal regulations regarding electrical and utility work and the placement of mobile homes and travel trailers left state officials with bureaucratic headaches.
Disaster recovery has long been politically combustible.
The most famous case might be the performance of George P. Bush’s uncle, President George W. Bush: His administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was widely seen as detached at best and incompetent and racist at worst.
But there have been political casualties in Texas, too. Former Gov. Rick Perry shifted administration of recovery from Hurricane Ike to the land office in 2012 after the now-dissolved Department of Rural Affairs was blamed for ineffectiveness. Only about 230 homes had been rebuilt in four years with federal money at the time of the transfer. Over the next eight months, the land office rebuilt nearly 1,500 homes under Patterson’s direction.
But in the first 8½ months of Bush’s tenure at the agency, at least 111 state workers were fired, retired or quit the agency — about 17 percent of the office’s workforce, including key members of the disaster recovery team.
“I campaigned as a fiscal conservative with proven experience in the private sector seeking to make government more efficient and responsive,” Bush told the American-Statesman in September 2015, adding that he was taking a “surgical approach to reforming the agency.”
Neither Bush nor Abbott agreed to an interview for this story.
The epic hurricane dumped more than 24.5 trillion gallons of water across Southeast Texas, an area home to about 6 million people, flooding or damaging homes across the region and making the recovery task Herculean in its scope.
The personnel cuts may have made the state’s challenge even harder.
The General Land Office’s staffing was “inadequate to administer $5 billion in Hurricane Harvey funding,” a U.S. Housing and Urban Development inspector general report found in May as part of a wider effort to review disaster spending. The land office should “fill vacancies to ensure that staffing levels remain adequate and its staff is properly trained to administer disaster funds,” the report said.
According to its February organization chart, nearly five months after the hurricane hit, the agency had 34 vacancies out of 92 full-time positions, according to the federal report. And many of the new employees had few, if any, ties to the governor’s office — leaving the goings-on at the land office opaque to Abbott, according to one of the consultants who formerly worked in state government.
In its official response to the inspector general findings, Martin Rivera Jr., General Land Office deputy director for monitoring and quality assurance, wrote that the agency “has been actively determining optimal staffing levels.”
“In the absence of a reserve budget, to fund administrative (staff) costs prior to the $5 billion grant allocation, the GLO has been posting employment positions as close as possible to the approval” of the state action plan for addressing Harvey housing issues, Rivera wrote.
Eck, the land office spokeswoman, said any suggestion that the agency was unprepared because of staffing cuts made by Bush is “categorically false.”
She pointed to the retention and promotion of other members of the disaster recovery operations and the hiring of other personnel who had come from emergency management and military backgrounds.
But a lobbyist who served under Bush at the land office and who also did not want to be identified because his clients seek state government contracts said that because of the staffing cuts “we might have got caught a little short.”
“The new folks they brought in had a learning curve,” he said. “Key leadership was gone. And the start-over-ness came at a time when Harvey hit.”
‘Worked his butt off’
In Fulton, a coastal town in Aransas County, Mayor Jimmy Kendrick said the General Land Office “has done everything I’ve asked them to do.”
“George P. Bush has worked his butt off trying to help us,” Kendrick said. “His staff is here any time we need them. He’s been very straightforward with us. He’s given me his cellphone number and listened to me when I vented.”
But there were missteps. This spring, Refugio County Judge Robert Blaschke told the Statesman the land office had excluded a large part of his battered coastal county from its state action plan, which would freeze it out of access to federal dollars. To him, the move was inexplicable.
The land office and the federal authorities are “learning these things as they go. They’re designing the plane as they fly it,” Blaschke said.
By May, the land office, with assistance from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had redrawn the state action plan to include all of his county, he said.
Compounding matters, even as land office officials were helping sort through thousands of legitimate claims, including hiring scores of field agents to work with displaced people across Texas, they had to deal with rare cases that involved bad actors.
One occupant was using a FEMA-funded double-wide as a meth lab, Eck said. Another tried to rent a unit out through an advertisement on Facebook. A third moved a unit to a property far from where it had been placed and where it was occupied by people who were not the ones to whom it was licensed. Yet another occupant listed his unit on Facebook Marketplace for sale.
In another case, an occupant had his girlfriend forge his mother’s name on the permission form to install the manufactured home on her land. When his mother told him he had to leave, he busted holes in the unit’s walls.
The land office “removed the unit based on the damage versus a longer legal process to revoke based on the forged form,” Eck said.
‘The right person for this job’
A couple of weeks after Abbott tapped Wilson to lead the Harvey recovery, his task was underscored by a story in the Victoria Advocate newspaper reporting that almost 2,600 FEMA travel trailers and mobile homes sat empty in Beeville, while only about 2,400 Texans had actually received travel trailers or mobile homes at that point.
Roughly 12,500 hurricane survivors had been housed in mobile homes or repair programs, but thousands more were still seeking that sort of help.
A well-traveled public servant who had served as a high-ranking aide in Gov. Rick Perry’s administration, Wilson had carved out a career setting a smoother course at key agencies — and serving as the governor’s eyes and ears within them.
Before joining the LCRA in 2014, he served as executive director of the Texas Department of Transportation. He was the first nonengineer to lead the agency and had no experience managing an organization of TxDOT’s size. Yet he generally received high marks — under his watch, TxDOT improved relations with the Legislature and the general public, and it moved forward on major road projects.
“Phil’s successful track record of serving in critical roles at all levels of government gives me complete confidence that he is the right person for this job,” Abbott said in March.
If there was an implied dig at Bush, the land commissioner didn’t flinch.
“I am proud to welcome Phil Wilson to the GLO’s team and thankful of Governor Abbott’s support of our final push of our housing recovery effort,” Bush said in a news release at the time.
In an interview with the Statesman while he was assisting the General Land Office, Wilson, who earns $577,500 per year — and who received a $137,500 bonus last year, according to information obtained by the Statesman through a public information request — said he had been spending roughly 30 hours a week on Harvey matters and 20 hours a week at the LCRA, the Austin-based utility that operates dams along the Colorado River and provides water and electricity to more than a million Central Texans. He observed that he had ties to the areas hit (his mother’s family is from Orange; his father’s is from Brazoria County).
Working out of Austin, he said he was aiming to make progress “and facilitate success quicker,” especially working to place people in FEMA trailers while their houses were being repaired.
He said he was not being compensated for his Harvey work.
“The governor’s office, in coordination with Commissioner Bush, asked me to come in and put a fresh set of eyes” on the recovery, he said.
“I think the governor was concerned with getting people into places as quickly as possible, and I’m to assist with that, with logjams either internally and externally,” he said.
When Wilson was hired, roughly 12,500 hurricane survivors had been housed in mobile homes or were enrolled in repair programs. By late May, two months after Wilson began his relief work, the figure had risen by about 6,000 people.
There were 1,168 cases remaining in the General Land Office purview on March 15. As of early June, when Wilson’s stint assisting the land office ended, that number had dropped to 86. Of the 31 counties that were part of the state’s direct assistance mission after Hurricane Harvey, 20 were completely cleared and eight had fewer than 10 cases remaining.
Asked whether his appointment had suggested Bush wasn’t getting the job done, Wilson said: “Commissioner Bush is doing a great job. This disaster was unparalleled.”
Bush, also dogged by criticism from fellow Republicans for his management of a $450 million renovation of the Alamo, won the GOP primary in March with 58.2 percent of the vote. He will face Democrat Miguel Suazo in November.
If Hurricane Harvey comes up in the campaign, Bush won’t run from his record. The General Land Office has cheered a recent FEMA audit that examined the agency’s administration of the temporary housing program and found it was in full compliance with federal financial guidelines.
His disaster recovery team worked “tirelessly each day since Harvey made landfall to help their fellow Texans” and “showed meticulousness and expertise with prudent management of taxpayer dollars,” Bush said in a news release in late July. “I am tremendously proud of this accomplishment.”
In a speech delivered to the Lakewood Yacht Club in Harris County last month, Bush said his disaster recovery team had begun shifting its focus from immediate needs to long-term recovery.
“While this allocation of disaster recovery funds is moving more quickly than previous major disaster packages, it can never be fast enough,” he told his audience. “The recovery from a storm the size of Harvey has required a Texas-sized coordinated response. For those who are still struggling, we will continue to work with our federal partners to streamline regulations and deploy recovery dollars to our affected Texas communities.”
For his part, Abbott credits Bush and Wilson for getting Texans back on their feet.
“Throughout the entire recovery process we have maintained our commitment to using every resource at our disposal to help Texans impacted by Harvey,” Abbott said in an email response to a question from the Statesman. “Texas’ response to this unprecedented disaster has included enlisting the experience and expertise of tested leaders like Phil Wilson to assist state personnel with the recovery effort.”
“Phil’s work has helped thousands of Texas families return home after Harvey, and I thank him for helping our communities recover. I also commend the GLO and Commissioner Bush for their tireless efforts in the ongoing housing recovery effort, and I will continue to offer any additional support they need until the recovery process is complete.”