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Houston mayor: ‘Almost every home’ impacted by Harvey

September 5, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Businesses and universities in Houston are beginning to reopen as the clean up after Harvey continues. Special correspondent Marcia Biggs joins Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner to get a closer look at how the city is working to get on its feet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Houston today, the cleanup from Harvey continued.

A number of large employers and universities began reopening, but many residents are just beginning to deal with damaged homes, the debris from flooding, and they are applying for assistance.

Special correspondent Marcia Biggs up with the city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, as he was touring through one of those neighborhoods earlier today.

MARCIA BIGGS, Special Correspondent: Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

MAYOR SYLVESTER TURNER, Houston: Yes, certainly.

MARCIA BIGGS: My first question is, we’re 11 days out now.

We drive down these streets, and it’s lawn after lawn after lawn of debris. What’s the scope of Harvey’s damage today?

SYLVESTER TURNER: Almost every home in every community was impacted.

And, literally, this wasn’t just a small rainfall. This was an historic, unprecedented rainfall, where homes didn’t just get one were to inches. They got feet of water in their homes. So, literally, people are emptying out their home, OK?

For every big truck that we’re sending out, we can only probably get the debris from one particular house, one truck, one house. Probably in terms of units that were impacted, it could have been well over 100,000 units.

In some cases, we’re going to be dealing with homes that simply cannot be rehabbed, so to speak. They may have to be rebuilt.

MARCIA BIGGS: And what about the longer road to recovery? We still see areas that are completely underwater. Are we talking months? Are we talking years?

SYLVESTER TURNER: Well, in the city of Houston, there are two areas that are still dealing with flooding waters.

One is Northeast Houston, the Kingwood area, and the waters there are receding. The other area is in West Houston, and that’s because of the release of water from the reservoir by the Corps of Engineers. And they’re starting to lower those releases, the level of releases there.

But those are two areas. With respect to the other parts of the city of Houston, about 95 percent of the city of Houston is dry. Now, separate that from the region, OK, because there are still major, major problems in the region, but in terms of the city of Houston, 95 percent dry. Electricity grid, there are probably about 12,000 homes without power. The wastewater system — I mean, the water system is fine.

MARCIA BIGGS: How long do you plan to continue the controlled releases? And what do you say to the families who feel that their neighborhoods were sacrificed in the greater good of the city?

SYLVESTER TURNER: Well, the reality is, is those reservoirs were put in place decades ago in order to protect everything on the lower end, so to speak.

This was an unprecedented amount of water fall. So, what the Corps of Engineers, what they are saying to us is that they have to build capacity on the west side of the dam. And in order to build that capacity, they’re having these gradual releases over a period of time.

And what their concern is, if there is another storm or hurricane coming, and they don’t build that capacity on the west side of the dam, then it could be catastrophic. So that’s — it’s a balancing, but those decisions are made not by the mayor, not by city council. Those decisions are made by the Corps of Engineers.

MARCIA BIGGS: So, something on the minds of a lot of the people that we have spoken to that were flooded is the level of toxicity and bacteria that was in those floodwaters.

What can you tell us about that?

SYLVESTER TURNER: Well, I think any time you have flooding of this magnitude, and the water is running all over the place, you are going to get contaminants that are coming from all over.

I think that’s just a part of when you have flooding and a lot of that water is stagnant. It’s not constantly running off, but stagnant, staying still. That’s why, you know, I certainly discourage anybody from walking in or playing in this water. It is not safe. It is full of contaminants.

You don’t know what you’re walking in. And then on top of that, you don’t know where you’re walking. There could be manhole covers that are no longer there. So, you have to be very, very careful. There are critters in this water. It’s kind of swampy.

So, it’s just not safe at all for anybody to be walking in the water. It’s not even safe for our first-responders.

MARCIA BIGGS: What is your message to Congress about funding?

SYLVESTER TURNER: Well, you know, to Congress, I would say, this is not a time for party politics. This is a time to vote and vote yes.

The initial request that has been asked by the president, approximately $8 billion, that’s just the first tranche. A lot more is needed. But the people in the affected region need a quick vote. And hopefully that vote will take place this week.

MARCIA BIGGS: How long do you plan on keeping the Convention Center open, and what’s going to happen to those people, some of whom were homeless before this disaster?

SYLVESTER TURNER: And we’re working on a housing plan for them. The Convention Center will probably stay open, let’s say, maybe towards the end of this coming week, no later than the 14th.

We’re putting together a housing plan. The number was at its max 10,000. It’s now right around — the last number I saw this morning was about 1,600.

It’s the hardest population to place. But we’re working on a housing plan for them. For those who were homeless prior, you know, we will look for shelters and other areas. But the goal is not to increase the population of people who are homeless on our streets than existed prior to the storm.

So we’re not going to be pushing people out of the Convention Center and putting them back on the street. Our goal is to place people in housing with a roof over their head, instead of being on the streets lying in the dirt. We don’t want that, and so we’re putting together a plan.

I simply hope that everybody will work with us, so that we can transition them to a better place and in many cases a better place than what they had prior to the storm.

MARCIA BIGGS: And there’s been a lot of discussion of development occurring without any nod to flood concerns. What is your feeling going forward? Are you going to tear down some of those neighborhoods, and how are Houstonians holding up?

SYLVESTER TURNER: Well, number one, let me answer that.

Houstonians have a strong spirit. This is a can-do city. This is a growing city. It’s very dynamic. But, at the same time, let’s take advantage of technology, innovations, be very creative, minimize flooding.

We can’t stop Mother Nature, but we certainly can take definitive steps to mitigate against the risk of flooding. And we’re going to be cognizant of what has happened from this storm and previous storms to try to mitigate future costs down the road.

MARCIA BIGGS: Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

SYLVESTER TURNER: No, thank you for having me. Appreciate it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And thank you, Marcia Biggs.