Trump administration wants to tie Harvey recovery aid to debt ceiling legislation

Washington Post

The Trump administration said Sunday that it wants Congress to attach aid for victims of Hurricane Harvey to a bill that would increase the federal debt limit, a move that clashes with an influential group of House conservatives who have warned GOP leaders not to connect the two funding initiatives.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin revealed the administration's approach Sunday morning, when he was asked if the White House could guarantee that funding for the disaster would not be attached to the fight in Washington over the debt ceiling.

"No, I can't. Quite the contrary," Mnuchin said on Fox News Sunday. "The president and I believe that it should be tied to the Harvey funding."

Mnuchin argued that if the debt ceiling is not raised, funding to help Texas recover from the hurricane could be delayed.

"Our first priority is to make sure that the state gets money, it is critical, and to do that we need to make sure we raise the debt limit," he said. "Without raising the debt limit, I'm not comfortable that we will get the money that we need this month to Texas to rebuild."

If the debt ceiling isn't raised soon, the U.S. government will only have enough funds to continue operations through Sept. 29, Mnuchin has told lawmakers. Appropriating emergency money to help with the Harvey response will accelerate that deadline by several days, Mnuchin has said.

After a week as a city under siege, Houston continued to operate as a city in recovery on Sunday, as more and more residents began salvaging what little they could of their flooded homes and lives.

Some returned to their houses for the first time, pulling out rotting furniture and waterlogged clothes and piling them in ever-expanding mounds by the curbs. Others tried to return to old routines and habits, flocking to newly reopened gyms, playgrounds and restaurants. Baseball came back Saturday, with the Houston Astros playing their first home games since Hurricane Harvey struck. They beat the New York Mets twice on Saturday to sweep a doubleheader.

But it was clear to most in this struggling and still-soggy region that things would not be anywhere close to normal anytime soon.

Floodwaters are expected to linger in Southeast Texas for days, state officials warned. East of Houston, small towns remained inundated, and the nearly 120,000 residents of Beaumont remained without drinking water or even water for flushing toilets.

Firefighters in Crosby, 25 miles northeast of Houston, kept a worried watch over an unstable chemical plant that in recent days has been the scene of explosions and fires that sent a towering pillar of acrid black smoke high into the sky. Federal and local officials expressed concern that the storm's aftermath could bring other industrial accidents, environmental contamination and the potential for sickness and disease.

As the flooding in some parts receded, authorities turned to the grim task of recovering bodies. Forty-five deaths have been confirmed, but that number is expected to rise in coming days.

At least 200,000 homes have been damaged, the Texas Department of Public Safety reported Sunday, with more than 12,750 destroyed. But those numbers also are certain to increase because the estimate excluded areas that officials have not been able to reach. More than 457,000 people have registered so far for disaster assistance, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Houston school officials, surveying some buildings for the first time since the hurricane hit last weekend, were stunned by what they encountered.

The storm damaged nearly half of all public schools here, part of the nation's seventh-largest education system, and more than 75 campuses will require major cleanups or repairs that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, officials said. As of Saturday, the damage to 40 district schools had not even been assessed because they still had several feet of water in their classrooms, cafeterias and auditoriums.

"It's not just an assessment of whether they are dry or they're wet," said Schools Superintendent Richard Carranza. Workers are trying to check for structural damage, air quality, mold, the integrity of pipes and whether computers and other equipment still work.

That process will take months, but Carranza said he wants to get teachers into as many schools as possible by Friday, with the system's 218,000 students to follow on Sept. 11. The school year had been scheduled to officially start last Monday, when Harvey was pummeling the city with what ultimately was measured as 50 inches of rain.

Officials are considering several scenarios, including consolidating multiple schools onto one campus, mapping creative busing routes and possibly dividing the school day and assigning different groups of students to morning and afternoon sessions.

President Donald Trump and the first lady visited Houston on Saturday, stopping at one of its biggest emergency shelters to talk with storm victims. In public comments, he highlighted the toll on families while also recognizing the relief efforts and praising the way his administration was handling the disaster.

"We saw a lot of happiness," Trump said after meeting evacuees in the NRG Center. "It's been really nice. It's been a wonderful thing. As tough as this was, it's been a wonderful thing, I think even for the country to watch it, for the world to watch."

Throughout the state's Gulf Coast, residents and officials spent Saturday in an awkward kind of limbo, drumming up optimism for the difficult recovery ahead even as they acknowledged other potential dangers.

Many of the Houston area's Superfund sites - locations designated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency as the country's most intensely polluted places - were flooded. Of those, 11 remain so overrun that authorities have not been able to assess the damage and potential toxic hazards, EPA officials said Saturday.

The Associated Press reported that water from an overflowing river had poured so hard through one site - where the soil contains dioxins and other contaminants linked to birth defects and cancer - that it badly damaged a nearby interstate highway bridge.

Fetid waters greeted many people as they returned to their homes. According to authorities in Humble, north of Houston, one resident found that a new occupant had moved in: a large alligator, lurking under the dining room table.

Another survivor, Tom Cullen, finally got a first look at his parents' house in West Houston.

It was almost a week ago that he had rushed to rescue them as their back yard filled. He borrowed a kayak from a neighbor and piled his mother, 81, and father, 88, in and paddled them to safety.

On Saturday morning, friends passing by the house sent him photos. The pictures showed it was still under almost seven feet of muddy water. Every family photograph, the sofas they sat on for family movie nights, the kitchen where they used to eat together - all still submerged.

"That house is a landmark of memories for all our family," he said. "It is a total devastation that will be with me until the end of days."

In East Houston, where floodwaters remained as high as four feet in many areas, school officials allowed reporters to tour one building.

Even before the storm, A.G. Hilliard Elementary was facing challenges. The school is in one of the most impoverished communities in the city.

It now confronts a gargantuan challenge, with water pooled around chairs and computers and black-and-white composition books soaked through and strewn all over classroom floors. The entire school smelled rancid and damp on Saturday. A thin layer of dirt covered the floors like brown powdered sugar. Even the blue painted paw prints of the school's mascot at the front entrance were smeared.

The devastation inflicted by Harvey will require workers to tear up the entire vinyl flooring, cut away up to four feet off the walls and apply an antimicrobial treatment to everything, officials explained. Lockers will have to be pulled out, as well as the gym's padded floors.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones, a board of education trustee, broke down in tears as she walked the hallways.

In 2013, the Houston district absorbed the schools in the community into its system after the state shut them down for poor academic performance, financial troubles and mismanagement.

"The kids were pretty far behind on the learning curve. We made a lot of progress with them over time, catching them up and getting them on grade level," said Skillern-Jones, who is a mother of five. "I'm just afraid that this is such a setback for them educationally."

On her way to the school Saturday morning, she had driven past neighborhood homes where families were pulling out flooring, sheet rock and furniture. She is already worrying that students will have a hard time focusing on learning with their home lives in shambles. The district will have to deal with that trauma before turning its attention back to academics, she said.

For many of the children here, Skillern-Jones explained, Hilliard is one of the few pillars of stability in their lives. "It's going to take a lot of people pulling together to support these babies."

Hernández reported from Houston. Wan, Zezima and Shaban reported from Washington. The Washington Post's Todd Frankel in Lake Charles, Louisiana; Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, Philip Rucker and Abigail Hauslohner in Houston; and Amy B Wang and Susan Svrluga in Washington contributed to this report.

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