U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Sunday challenged Congress to raise the government’s debt limit in order to free up relief spending for Hurricane Harvey, a disaster that the governor of Texas said could require up to $180 billion.
Harvey, which came ashore on August 25 as the most powerful hurricane to hit Texas in more than 50 years, has killed an estimated 50 people, displaced more than 1 million and damaged some 200,000 homes in a path of destruction stretching for more than 300 miles (480 kms).
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As the city of Houston and the region’s critical energy infrastructure edged back to normal nine days after the storm first hit, the debate over how to pay for the disaster played out in Washington.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated damage from Hurricane Harvey at $150 billion to $180 billion, calling it more costly than epic Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, which devastated New Orleans in 2005 and New York City in 2012.
The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has asked Congress for an initial $7.85 billion for recovery efforts, a fraction of what will eventually be needed.
Even that amount could be delayed unless Congress quickly increases the government’s debt ceiling, Mnuchin said, as the United States is on track to hit its mandated borrowing limit by the end of the month unless Congress increases it.
“Without raising the debt limit, I am not comfortable that we will get money to Texas this month to rebuild,” Mnuchin told Fox News.
Republican lawmakers, who control both houses of Congress, have traditionally resisted raising the debt ceiling, but linking the issue to hurricane relief could force their hand with people suffering and much of the fourth-largest U.S. city under water.
Beyond the immediate funding, any massive aid package faces budget pressures at a time when Trump is advocating for tax reform or tax cuts, leading some on Capitol Hill to suggest aid may be released in a series of smaller appropriations.
Katrina set the record by costing U.S. taxpayers more than $110 billion. In advocating for funds to help rebuild his state, Abbott said damage from Harvey would exceed that.
But a federal official said state and local governments also needed to do their part instead of relying entirely on Washington.
“They can’t depend only on federal emergency management,” Brock Long, head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, told CBS News.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said on Sunday the city was making progress on several fronts, expecting most public services and businesses to be restored by Tuesday, the first business day after Monday’s Labor Day holiday.
“Over 95% of the city is now dry. And I’m encouraging people to get up and let’s get going,” Turner told NBC News.
“This is a can-do city. We’re not going to engage in a pity party,” he said on CBS.
Even so, the city mandated the evacuation of thousands of people on the western side of town on Sunday to accommodate the release of water from a pair of reservoirs that otherwise might sustain damage. The storm stalled over Houston, dumping more than 50 inches (1.3 m) on the region in a matter of days.
The city cut off power to homes on Sunday morning to encourage evacuations.
About 37,000 refugees stayed overnight in 270 shelters in Texas plus another 2,000 in seven Louisiana shelters, the highest number reported so far by the American Red Cross.
Some 84,700 homes and businesses were without power on Sunday, down from a peak of around 300,000, according to the region’s major electric companies.
Energy disruptions pushed up gasoline futures to a two-year high ahead of the holiday weekend, but major refineries started to come back online on Friday.
Colonial Pipeline, the biggest U.S. fuel system, expects to reopen a Texas segment of its network on Monday, when it will resume transporting distillates from Houston to Hebert, Texas, the company said on Sunday, adding that it would be ready to start moving gasoline on Tuesday.
Those repairs would restore to normal Colonial’s entire 5,500-mile (8,850-km) pipeline running from Houston to Linden, New Jersey, relieving shortages between Texas and the U.S. Northeast.