(TNS) - Last summer, tasked with helping displaced Texans find safe places to live after one of the nation’s worst floods, the Federal Emergency Management Agency decided to experiment.
Rather than muscling up its program for short-term housing, FEMA called on the state of Texas to help find trailers, lease apartments and repair flood victims’ homes.
But the effort, led by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, has been hogtied in a web of paperwork, legal wrangling and efforts to increase staffing, a Houston Chronicle examination of local, state and federal records and interviews show. It took nearly a month for FEMA to ask for help and to work out an agreement with Bush’s office. Another five months later, the state General Land Office has added 33 disaster recovery workers, after initially saying it needed 90.
Thousands of Texans, meanwhile, are still waiting for help with temporary housing. Some have given up on the government.
Texas now expects to spend just $1.1 billion of the more than $2.6 billion land office officials say FEMA budgeted for short-term housing programs. State officials say that the larger number was an early estimate based on maximum potential sign-ups.
“We can’t force people to use these programs,” Bush said in an interview Friday. “… Constituents had ample opportunity to use these programs, and many chose to go a different path. And, look, I get it. Your house is the most important investment that you make. … And so to have a contractor come to your home in the midst of so many scams and rip off artists, leaves a lot of people without comfort. ”
Hurricane Harvey’s six-month anniversary passed with fewer than 8,000 Texas families having made it into trailers, apartments or homes leased or repaired by FEMA-funded programs. That equates to roughly 2 percent of the 371,000 applicants who have qualified for federal assistance.
By comparison, roughly six months after a rainstorm inundated southern Louisiana in 2016, about 18 percent of approved FEMA applicants had moved into similar federally-funded temporary housing.
FEMA officials have cautioned against comparing disasters and emphasized that the agency’s short-term housing programs are designed to serve only people without other options.
Interviews with state and local officials, however, indicate that negotiating FEMA’s intricate partnership with Texas’ General Land Office and local governments delayed the rollout of Harvey housing programs by weeks, and in some cases months. The arrangement continues to be plagued by communication breakdowns, they said.
“We’ve been asking, ‘Where are those dollars and who’s getting those dollars and how many homes are being repaired?’ We’re still having problems on that end,” Mayor Sylvester Turner, an increasingly vocal critic, said Wednesday. “There’s a lack of cooperation and inclusiveness, and we just need to get that worked out. Quite frankly, we just need to get that worked out yesterday.”
By the time Tracy Wilson got a call in mid-February to gauge her interest in a bare-bones FEMA repair program, she had already given up on getting substantial help from the agency. The 57-year-old accountant and her daughter had been living with family since Harvey flooded their southwest Houston home.
“After a couple of months, I kind of blew it off, because it’s just another government thing,” Wilson recalled thinking. “It’s not going to happen.”
Government-paid contractors eventually performed short-term repairs in her home, but she still doesn’t plan on moving back. Nails still stick up out of her floor, and she worries about the mold.
Months of paperwork
FEMA’s role in housing recovery after disasters such as Harvey is two-fold. In the storm’s immediate aftermath, the agency provides financial assistance to help families find safe, dry places to sleep. This can include $500 in emergency funds, a hotel room or money for a few months’ rent.
FEMA then works with state officials to develop programs to get families with limited options into apartments, trailers or partially repaired homes on a short-term basis. This is where FEMA changed the process after Harvey.
Rather than implementing most of these temporary housing programs on its own, FEMA took a hybrid approach. It maintained control over determining program eligibility, but put state and local officials in charge of tasks such as following up with families, procuring contractors and purchasing manufactured housing units.
An aide to Gov. Greg Abbott said FEMA asked the governor to have the state run the short-term housing programs because the federal agency didn’t have sufficient resources to do so, based on the severity of damage from Harvey.
FEMA Federal Coordinating Officer Kevin Hannes cited Harvey’s widespread impact and Texas’ leadership capacity.
“As we came into Harvey and we were looking at how extensive the damage could be — knowing that Texas is a leader in many facets in the country — we had started those discussions,” he said. “How do we improve the process to make housing more tailored? Instead of top-down driven, one solution set, is there a vehicle to really improve the process, to give multiple options, to empower the states to lead their recovery effort?”
The new approach led to months of legal wrangling and paperwork.
It wasn’t until Sept. 22 that the state land office and FEMA agreed to the broad terms of their partnership. Next, the agencies had to hammer out plans for each of their temporary housing programs, which include two rental options, manufactured housing units, recreational vehicles, quick-fix home repairs and more extensive home reconstruction.
State and local officials were most enthusiastic about the more comprehensive repair program, which offers homeowners up to $60,000 in repair work. They worked to get it off the ground first, leaving for last the basic, $20,000 repair program designed to convert homes into temporary shelters. This plan was finished on Nov. 30, more than three months after Harvey made landfall.
The $20,000 program requires the state to provide 10 percent of the money. FEMA fully funds the other programs.
Pete Phillips, the land office’s senior director of community development and revitalization, said the state thought it was providing a better service to Texans by delaying the quick-hit program and urging FEMA to qualify more people for the comprehensive repair option. He added that FEMA didn’t wait until negotiations were finished to begin placing mobile homes.
By early March, contractors had completed repairs on just 55 homes through the $60,000 program, compared with 6,159 homes through the $20,000 program. Meanwhile, 2,160 Texas families had moved into mobile homes, and just 49 had been served by either of the rental programs the land office is partnering with FEMA to implement.
Phillips said that some Texans had resources available and could take responsibility for their own recovery instead of waiting on the government for help.
“Texans, I think, are not like our neighbors in Louisiana,” he said. “We don’t count on the government for our recovery.”
By December, renters made up more than 77,000 of the Texas families with FEMA-verified losses due to Harvey. Steven Booth, his wife Catherine, and their six children are among them.
The Booths were evacuated from the house they rented for two years in Aransas Pass to an extended-stay motel in Austin.
FEMA twice has denied the family’s request for rental assistance and money to replace essential belongings, such as beds that were ruined when Harvey damaged the roof of their former home. Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, a nonprofit group that provides free legal services to low-income residents, is filing appeals on the family’s behalf with FEMA, which Booth contends did not adequately inspect damage.
FEMA paid the bills when the Booths moved into the extended-stay motel in Austin, but that help ended in December, and the couple now is struggling to pay the $1,300 a month it costs to stay there. Booth is working as an apprentice electrician as his wife cares for their children, who range in age from 1 to 14.
“We are pretty much broke every month,” said Booth, 41.
Slow to hire
As the programs started functioning on all three levels of government, one of them faced a personnel shortage. It’s normal, experts say, for the land office to have reduced its disaster-recovery staff after winding down the work on the last few disasters, including hurricanes Ike and Dolly.
And that was the case in Austin. At a legislative committee meeting in April 2017, Phillips said that under Bush, the land office had reduced its number of disaster-recovery staff from 92 to 52.
“Those individuals who remain at the staff are the most highly-educated and dedicated professionals,” he said.
But the office has struggled to staff up since Harvey. In documents provided to FEMA in October, Phillips’ team said it could need up to 90 more workers. It has hired 17, he says, and has transferred 16 others from other duties. He says 83 people are now working on disaster recovery, and he could add 20 more.
“Sadly, the job market is great, so it’s tough getting people to take some of these jobs, and I’m not going to hire just to fill a position,” he said. “I want quality staff, people who are going to be passionate.”
Out of options
By February, Wilson, whose home flooded three times in as many years, felt like she was running out of options.
First, flood insurance paid less than half of her policy limit. Then the city of Houston said she couldn’t rebuild without elevating her home. Nonprofits and contractors turned her away, if they responded at all.
FEMA’s bare-bones repair program, designed to provide a quick fix, became a last resort.
Yet after the government-paid contractors finished tearing out her kitchen cabinets, replacing panels of missing drywall and installing a new toilet, she felt no closer to moving home. Wilson’s shoes still stuck to the tar-covered floor when she walked. The unhooked gas line marked where her stove used to be. And then there was the mold.
“They put together a cookie-cutter plan,” she said. “And that cookie cutter doesn’t fit everybody.”
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