STATE, LOCAL OFFICIALS GIVE RECOMMENDATIONS FOR DISASTER RECOVERY
(AUSTIN) — The Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, the panel charged with overseeing the relationship between state and local governments, heard testimony from officials on Tuesday about the state of Harvey recovery and ways to improve disaster response in the future. It's been more than six months since the storm devastated the Texas Gulf Coast and while progress is being made, officials identified a number of areas where government can do better going forward.
Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush opened the hearing with a state-level overview of recovery efforts. His General Land Office was given wide latitude by the federal government to oversee the recovery process, and he said for the first time, local officials were able to take the lead on management on response efforts. He called the state response "the fastest recovery in history" but said federal red tape still slowed down the process. One major issue Bush identified involved the requirement for a federal background check for officials who might have to work with what is called "personally identifiable information", documents and data that might be targeted by identity thieves. It takes 4 to 6 weeks for these checks to process, and that's a huge delay in getting qualified people on the job of recovery, he said.
Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr. of Brownsville chairs the committee which heard about the successes and challenges of the Hurricane Harvey response.
Another obstacle to fast recovery, according to Bush, is a lack of waiver authority at the local level. While federal procurement rules permit the state to easily waive certain regulations to expedite recovery, local entities lack that authority. For example, local communities have to post any requested procurement for public review for 30 days before funds can be disbursed, significantly slowing local relief efforts. Bush also called for better pre-preparation for hurricane events, including setting aside a dedicated fund for disaster recovery and having a roster of vetted and bonded contractors to call on to aid in debris removal, home repair and rebuilding.
Local officials also testified to give a picture of what's happening on the ground as communities look to bounce back from an unprecedented amount of damage. Rockport Mayor CJ Wax reported that 35 percent of homes and businesses in Aransas County were wiped out overnight, displacing a quarter of the county's 27,000 residents. He said the biggest challenge for his area is temporary multi-family housing. Every apartment complex and condominium was destroyed by the storm, he said, and since these were rental properties, residents lack the same access to federal disaster recovery funds that a property owner has. Wax recommended following the Eagle Ford Shale model, where the oil boom necessitated adequate, fast and inexpensive housing facilities in the form of pre-manufactured multi-family residential complexes.
Debris removal has proven to be a significant challenge, especially for smaller counties with limited resources. Jim Allison of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas said that debris removal costs can reach into millions of dollars, beyond what many counties have in reserve. He cited the case of San Patricio County, which had to spend $4 million to collect and properly dispose of the tons of debris left behind by Harvey. Though counties are eligible for federal reimbursement of up to 90 percent of debris removal costs, San Patricio County has only been paid back $65,000 to date. Allison recommended that the state maintain a dedicated fund to offset the cost of debris removal, as well as a pool of pre-qualified and bonded contractors to carry out the work.
All witnesses before the committee highlighted the need for fast and adequate housing as the state continues its recovery efforts. The state is due to receive $5 billion in federal Community Development Block Grants through the end of August to help restore and rebuild homes, and the General Land Office will oversee how this money is allotted. Commissioner Bush told committee members that his agency is preparing a plan on how to allot this money and will have a report ready to go before the 90-day deadline arrives.