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After the Flood, the Political Storm?

Democrats in Greater Houston are hoping to tap into the frustrations of residents who are still recovering from Hurricane Harvey.


A version of this story ran in the October 2018 issue.

It’s been more than a year since Hurricane Harvey descended upon southeast Texas, damaging more than 200,000 homes and killing at least 88 people. Now, Democratic challengers in Greater Houston are hoping Republican politicians’ failure to prepare for a mega-flood, and to quickly deliver relief in the aftermath, will spark a political backlash in November.

They’re framing their races as a referendum on their GOP opponents’ record of not acting to protect one of the most vulnerable regions in the country from increasingly severe flooding and storms.

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Congressman John Culberson, R-Houston.  Courtesy John Culberson

Nowhere has Harvey been more prominent than in the race for the 7th Congressional District, a suburban West Houston seat that is widely seen as one of the most likely Democratic pickups in the state. Lizzie Fletcher has whacked Republican incumbent John Culberson for what she says is a repeated failure to improve flood control in Houston during his almost 20 years in office.

Culberson, in turn, has emphasized that as the only House appropriator from southeast Texas, he has helped secure hundreds of millions of dollars for the Harris County Flood Control District over the years, including disaster relief and infrastructure funds in the wake of Harvey. “I’m in the right place at the right time to make sure that the people of southeast Texas are taken care of in response to this storm,” Culberson told the Observer, “and I’ve made certain that we’ve got the funding to build out the flood control network for the next one — because we are going to get another one like this.”

It’s too little, too late, Fletcher says, accusing Culberson of trying to play the hero in the most contested re-election race of his career. “It shouldn’t have taken a natural disaster to get our member of Congress to act on a problem that he’s known has existed since taking office,” Fletcher told the Observer.

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Lizzie Pannill Fletcher  Courtesy/Facebook

Democrats are launching similar broadsides against other incumbent Republicans, including Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, U.S. Representatives Brian Babin and Pete Olson, and Senator Ted Cruz. Candidates are calling for a larger government role in implementing aggressive flood mitigation and climate resilience programs.

But it’s unclear whether convoluted debates about flooding and the realities of climate change are going to drive people to the polls. As president of the Westbury Civic Club, Becky Edmondson represents one of the worst-hit neighborhoods in Houston — and she isn’t optimistic. Dumpsters, storage pods, RVs and for-sale signs are still a frequent sight in this middle-class area — signs that life remains in flux for many storm victims.

She points to the Harris County bond election in late August. Voters overwhelmingly approved $2.5 billion in funding for flood mitigation projects, but only 6 percent of residents went to the polls.

“For the people that flooded, it’s been a hard year and a lot of people still aren’t in their homes … and I think they’re just frustrated with government in general,” Edmondson said. “When you’re trying to still get your life back together, political races are far down on the list of things you’re paying attention to.”