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Working with the Federal Government After Harvey: What Texas Learned

After Hurricane Harvey, many parts of Houston and surrounding areas displayed significant damage. The colossal storm brought record-setting rain to populated areas, and thousands of homes sustained damage from rain and wind. Now, as the 2019 hurricane system progresses in the Atlantic, coastal regions are at risk of flooding.

In a recent piece for Politico, Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush offered his experience during and after the storm, and what he thinks Washington can do to prepare for the next superstorm. Bush’s sharing of his experienced leading housing assistance plans after Hurricane Harvey offers a valuable insight into the future of natural disaster recovery for the state and the rest of the nation.

Why Texas Had A Unique Housing Assistance Situation After Harvey

Thirty percent of Texans were directly affected by Hurricane Harvey and that approximately 750,000 people had to evacuate from their homes. He also notes that recovery efforts were made difficult by two other United storms: Hurricane Irma in Florida and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. So, Texas needed federal assistance but also had to balance its needs with those of other American territories suffering from disasters. In the Western United States, California wildfires were scorching over 500,000 acres of land and further complicated the nation's use of emergency resources.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was spread thin, and it needed help. For the first time in the nation’s history, FEMA partnered with a state agency to handle the housing needs of citizens after a storm. The agency would work with the Texas General land Office to help over 60,000 Texans with their housing needs after the storm.

The First Issue: FEMA Temporary Housing Restrictions

The Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency act of 1988 restricts FEMA from providing temporary housing. So, FEMA uses manufactured houses and trailers to house displaced residents after a disaster. These housing units cost between $125,000 to $200,000 each. Critics of these temporary housing solutions argue that modernized and affordable options are available. However, because they do not fight the definition of “temporary” offered by the Stafford Act, these options are not utilized. Texas officials suggest removing the word “temporary” from housing requirements to allow cost-effective shelter during emergencies.

The Second Issue: Federal Law Doesn’t Account for Cross-Government Cooperation

When displaced residents turned to local government for help, the process slowed because FEMA coudln't go through them quickly. It was struggling to keep up with applications due to a lack of resources. When Texans were finally approved for housing assistance, FEMA would only reveal who was eligible. Texas officials found themselves unable to explain why particular residents didn't qualify for aid because they didn't have access to the information.

The Privacy Act of 1974 also prevented FEMA from providing personal information to eligible applicants to anyone who was not apart of the housing program. Additionally, local leaders, charities, and volunteer groups had to access to the information of those who needed help; privacy laws prevent them from doing so.  To solve both issues, Texas officials say that FEMA needs to amend its application process. Officials state they need FEMA to allow people to consent to have their data shared with state and local government voluntarily.

However, recent events reveal that the local government might not be prepared to process applications for aid, even if they have complete access to the information on them.

Struggles from Hurricane Harvey Have Still Not Ended

While the Politico article offers a unique perspective on the challenges faced by cooperating governments, it does not address current problems which are still plaguing residents of Houston.

Last month, Arnold & Itkin reported that only four households had received funds from a $1.2 billion federal grant. It was meant to assist the thousands of Houstonians still trying to rebuild after Harvey. Now, ABC 13 has found that only six more households have received repaired funded by this grant. This means that ten homes have been fixed since March, and thousands of families might not receive the help that they need until after the 2nd anniversary of Harvey.

"We're coming up on the two-year anniversary (and) you still have a lot of people who are living in homes that need repair and reconstruction," Mayor Sylvester Turner said. "I'm not going to be satisfied until we're addressing all of the needs that exist in our city."

Residents report frustration over the fact that they are not even receiving updates for their applications. Officials told them that the process would take four to six weeks. Many applicants have now waited twice that long and have heard no updates. Meanwhile, the city has paid $6 million to a team of consultants to manage the program. ICF Incorporated, the company hired to handle the program, has received $1.7 million this year. ABC 13’s request for updated invoices involving ICF has yet to be honored by the city. 

When Texas residents need to rebuild their homes, all types of government need to work out how to get relief funds to survivors instead of to consultants. There is no doubt that revisions to the law are needed to be updated to improve cross-government collaboration. However, all Texas officials also need to prove they can handle this information once they finally receive it.

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