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Historic Flooding In Houston Leads To Surge In Federal Assistance Efforts

Texas National Guardsmen assist residents affected by flooding onto a military vehicle on Sunday in Houston.

Updated at 2:55 p.m. ET

A wide array of federal agencies and officials are working with state and local governments in Texas and Louisiana to deal with the massive flooding caused by Harvey, the hurricane-turned-tropical storm.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long says it's an ongoing situation, adding "we're not at recovery yet." He told reporters at a briefing Monday morning in Washington that "this is a life safety, life sustaining mission."

FEMA's boosted response comes a month ahead of Congress' deadline to sort out government spending for the next fiscal year. President Trump's May budget recommendation included cuts for some disaster mitigation programs.

FEMA says it had 900 Urban Search and Rescue personnel "working to save lives" in south Texas as of Sunday, part of an overall force of more than 1,800 employees. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security has sent more than 300 employees as part of its surge capacity force. That includes federal law enforcement personnel.

Other federal agencies involved in the Harvey response efforts include the National Guard; the Coast Guard, which has performed some 2,000 rescues; and the Department of Health and Human Services, which has 500 people on the ground in Texas and Louisiana with medical equipment and supplies.

Long said, "We need citizens to be involved" as well, calling the continuing rains a landmark event. "You could not dream this forecast up," he said.

FEMA says it has made available more than 1 million liters of water, along with 1 million meals, more than 20,000 tarps and 70 generators at staging areas in Texas and Louisiana.

But the real test for FEMA will be after Harvey's rains finally cease, and recovery efforts get underway. Long says the agency has already processed over 15,000 calls from people registering for disaster assistance, a fraction of the more than 450,000 it expects.

(People who wish to register for disaster assistance and have Internet access are advised to go to DisasterAssistance.gov, or to call 1-800-621-FEMA.)

In an interview with KTRH Radio in Houston Monday morning, Vice President Pence said officials are expecting the recovery to be a long-term project. "When you look at the magnitude of the flooding that's taken place in the fourth largest city in the United States, that we anticipate that it will be years coming back," Pence said.

President Trump, who is planing to visit Texas along with other Cabinet officials on Tuesday, has declared Texas and Louisiana disaster areas, making residents eligible for assistance that can include help paying rent for temporary housing as well as repairing or replacing existing homes.

However, as NPR's Greg Allen reported in June, President Trump's proposed budget would cut federal funds available for some disaster mitigation programs:

"Under that budget, a program that helps states and communities take long-term measures to reduce losses from disasters, the Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant Program, has been cut by more than 60 percent. The budget also eliminates funding for an ongoing effort to improve and redraw the nation's flood maps."

It's not clear whether Congress will go along with the president's proposed cuts to long-term FEMA programs. Lawmakers are likely to be asked to approve a short-term disaster assistance program in the billions of dollars when they return to Washington after August recess.

In addition to his proposed budget cuts, Trump also announced an executive order on Aug. 16 rolling back an Obama-era rule that new public infrastructure projects be designed with the consequences of climate change, specifically rising sea levels and flood risk, in mind. FEMA had still been gathering feedback on the rules, which had not gone into effect. Denounced by environmental groups as "climate science denial," Trump and other business advocates considered the rules unnecessarily burdensome and costly.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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