After Hurricane Harvey hammered Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott pledged that the country’s largest conservative state would lead its own recovery, streamlining federal aid to storm victims while avoiding the staggering inefficiencies of earlier Washington-controlled disaster responses.
“A Texas-sized storm requires a Texas-sized response, and that is exactly what the state will provide,” declared Abbott, who has made bashing the feds a centerpiece of his career. But rather than becoming a new model for disaster recovery, Texas’ efforts almost six months in often have been the opposite, slow to unfold and tangled with bureaucracy.
Harvey made landfall in late August, with 130-plus mph winds and torrential rainfall that forced nearly 780,000 Texans to evacuate. About 900,000 later applied for government recovery assistance.
Since then, efforts to provide short-term housing for victims and emergency repairs to get people back in their damaged houses have lagged well behind earlier post-disaster efforts, an analysis by The Associated Press shows.
Longer recovery period
Federal records reveal that it took nearly four times as long to house people in trailers after Harvey as it did following Hurricane Katrina, whose chaotic aftermath became a national scandal. Repairs to houses also are running months behind the pace following 2012’s Super Storm Sandy and lower-profile disasters like Baton Rouge flooding in 2016.
Only 3,500 homes have been repaired in one Texas quick-fix program. A Government Accountability Office report showed nearly 19,000 repaired in New York during a shorter period after Sandy.
“A lot of the small communities have been left to their own devices. They don’t even know who to call,” said Shannon Van Zandt, a Texas A&M University professor who specializes in hazard reduction and recovery. “I think we’ll see a pretty substantial backlash over time from these residents.”
Texas officials attribute the delays to complex procedures used by the federal government — which had provided around $13 billion for recovery efforts through mid-February — and the state’s attempts to avoid earlier problems, such as shoddy construction. “Bureaucratic red-tape at the federal level slows and hampers the recovery process,” said Ciara Matthews, Abbott’s spokesman.
Kevin Hannes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s coordinating officer for Harvey, has praised the state’s efforts. “All in all, the temporary housing program is moving along smartly,” Hannes said. “Is it moving as fast as any of us would like? No it’s not.” FEMA administers the national flood insurance program, paying the claims of Harvey victims who had policies. Residents without insurance can apply for temporary housing, including trailers or basic repairs to make damaged homes habitable.
Frustration is mounting
Abbott tapped Land Commissioner George P. Bush to lead the Texas effort, saying the agency’s contacts with local officials could help direct the federal aid efficiently across the Indiana-sized swath of territory ravaged by Harvey.
But Abbott’s order didn’t come until nearly three weeks after the storm, and an announced plan for distributing aid took until Sept. 23, nearly a month after Harvey’s first landfall, and weeks longer than similar programs elsewhere after past storms.
Since then, delays have grown and while Bush’s office says it is concentrating on using taxpayer dollars carefully rather than rushing to finish repairs, residents’ frustration is mounting.
“I don’t know if the (Land Office) drew the short straw, but you talk about setting someone up to fail. I think that’s what this has been,” said Brent Chesney, a Republican county commissioner in coastal Port Aransas, where a local nonprofit provided trailers faster than government.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in 2005, damaging 800,000 homes, FEMA placed the first victims in trailers within 12 days, according to government records. Nine hundred families were in trailers within three weeks. But the first trailers post-Harvey weren’t ready until 43 days after landfall and occupied trailers didn’t exceed 900 for four-plus months.
Part of the delay came because of FEMA’s growing reticence about trailers, which had assorted problems after Katrina. Part of the delay was local officials’ fault. Houston, swamped with 50-plus inches of rain, didn’t lift its ordinance against trailers in neighborhoods until months after Harvey.
The alternative was supposed to be super-fast fixes allowing people to move back into homes even if they weren’t fully repaired. But the programs the Land Office set up with FEMA haven’t gotten much traction.
In one, just seven households had received funds by late January, while about 450 are in various stages of the process. Texas officials said many residents objected to the program’s use of construction-grade materials and a lack of posh amenities, such as granite countertops.
The 3,500 homes repaired by another Texas quick-fix program about six months after Harvey compared to 10,000 repaired much faster in a similar initiative after the Baton Rouge flood. The Land Office said the repairs in Texas are of higher quality, avoiding earlier complaints about poor workmanship.
But holding out for hardwood floors isn’t the issue for Barbara Gillis in Beaumont, a Gulf Coast port where Harvey’s flooding knocked out the municipal water supply for days.
Gillis, 61 and on long-term disability, says it took months for a FEMA inspector to assess her damaged house, which was declared habitable even though the roof still leaks and the flood-soaked walls are warped. The state hasn’t offered to help with her appeal, she said.
“I ain’t heard from no one,” said Gillis, who lost a FEMA-sponsored hotel room after the inspection and has been paying to stay in a nearby home.
While repair requests are processed, about 9,000 families remain in FEMA-funded hotels or other housing. A survey by two nonprofit organizations in December found nearly half of affected residents in 24 counties don’t believe they’re getting the help they need.
“I’m frustrated. I’m tired. I’m depressed,” said Jimmy Kendrick, mayor of the seaside tourist town of Fulton, who said insurance company battles have kept him and his wife sleeping in their living room, with electricity only in half of their moldy house.
“It’s taking so long,” Kendrick said of the Land Office’s efforts.
Matthews, Abbott’s spokeswoman, said Texas’ recovery initiative didn’t start sooner because of “the immediate emergencies of protecting lives and public safety.”
Abbott also opted not to tap the state’s about $11 billion rainy day fund to get emergency cash outlays that could be reimbursed by FEMA later. Bush recently called for a special legislative session, then said he’d misspoken.
About the delays, “We have to balance these concerns with managing taxpayer dollars,” said Bush, whose father, Jeb, unsuccessfully ran for President in 2016. “Mitigating fraud, abuse and misappropriation of taxpayer dollars is of upmost concern.”
By WILL WEISSERT and EMILY SCHMALL