Recovery

Texas Land Commissioner Wants to Change Federal Law to Make FEMA More Flexible

Why spend a hefty chunk of money providing a family with a mobile home for just 18 months if there’s another permanent solution that’s cheaper?

by Marina Starleaf Riker, Victoria Advocate, Texas / August 24, 2018

(TNS) - Nearly one year after Hurricane Harvey struck, the Texas agency in charge of recovery efforts says it plans to recommend changing a federal law so the Federal Emergency Management Agency can be more flexible in the ways it helps people whose homes are damaged by natural disasters.

While meeting with local and federal officials Thursday at a Victoria apartment complex that was damaged by Hurricane Harvey, George P. Bush, commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, said his agency plans to recommend that Congress change part of the Stafford Act, a 30-year-old federal law that outlines how FEMA responds to disasters.

Right now, that law makes it so generally, FEMA can only provide “temporary” housing help, according to state officials. That means FEMA can help with limited repairs to make a home safe – such as fixing structural damage like roofs – but usually won’t return a home to the condition it was in before the disaster. FEMA can also provide people with temporary mobile homes and RVs — usually for up to 18 months — but not permanent replacement homes.

The Texas GLO, however, is recommending that federal lawmakers change the law’s definition of “temporary” so governments could potentially provide more long-term housing options – and save taxpayer funding, said Brittany Eck, a spokeswoman for the GLO.

For example, Eck said, why spend a hefty chunk of money providing a family with a mobile home for just 18 months if there’s another permanent solution that’s cheaper?

“If we can spend less money and get more bang for our buck, we should change the law to allow us to do that,” said Eck.

Bush, the land commissioner, said there could be a range of more effective solutions, including modular houses, which are homes built off-site that can be placed onto permanent foundations. But because those homes are considered a permanent fix, the current law doesn’t allow FEMA to provide them.

U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, R-Victoria, who attended Thursday’s meeting with Bush at Fox Run Apartments in Victoria, said he supports exploring ways to streamline the disaster recovery process, including by examining the Stafford Act.

Officials from FEMA could not be reached Thursday to comment about whether the federal agency would support changes in the law.

The suggestion to change the Stafford Act is among 18 recommendations the GLO is planning to release in a report Friday, said Eck. Other recommendations include setting new rules about which elevations homes can be built at and creating contracts with construction companies before disasters strike.

Marina reports on local government for the Victoria Advocate. She may be reached at mriker@vicad.com or 361-580-6511.

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©2018 Victoria Advocate (Victoria, Texas)

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