(TNS) - Representatives with the Federal Emergency Management Agency were greeted Wednesday with tough questions steeped in frustration from Nueces County, Texas commissioners.
FEMA's response: Be patient. The recovery effort is going well.
Federal officials appeared before county leaders in response to increasing concerns about the pace of housing assistance provided to residents recovering from Hurricane Harvey. The Category 4 storm devastated Port Aransas and communities in Aransas, Refugio and San Patricio counties with winds of 130 mph after it made landfall Aug. 25.
Kevin Hannes, FEMA's federal coordinating officer for Hurricane Harvey in Texas, acknowledged some hiccups in the local recovery process, but said the overall response to Harvey has exceeded expectations.
"I am not sucking up — This is the best recovery I have been a part of in the last 10 years," he said.
Nueces County officials in recent weeks have expressed growing frustration at the speed with which residents in Port Aransas — which was hit with wind gusts of over 160 mph and a storm surge of 11 feet — have been provided with mobile housing units. More than four months after the storm, only three families in Port Aransas have been provided with a mobile housing unit, officials have said.
Hannes said there are a total of 43 Nueces County residents who have qualified for a FEMA trailer, out of 13,787 individuals who applied for assistance after Harvey struck. The registration period for assistance expired on Nov. 30.
He said that about $100 million in federal assistance — made up of FEMA individual assistance, National Flood Insurance Program claims and Small Business Administration loans — has been awarded locally. The average FEMA grant for assistance was about $4,000, Hannes said.
"It's not much, but it's not intended to be much," he said. "It's intended to be that starter money, that seed money to get their recovery started."
Much of the confusion has centered on the low number of people who have qualified for a mobile housing unit or other direct housing assistance, which Hannes said is offered to people who suffered $17,000 or more in FEMA-verified losses (i.e., damage to home).
"A majority of the damages inside Nueces County to make homes safe, habitable and secure was under $17,000," he said. "When it's under $17,000, we look at that from a perspective nationally that that is well within the grant funding that we can provide for repairs, that those individuals can make those repairs to their homes within a reasonable amount of time to do that."
County Commissioner Brent Chesney said most of the frustration from local residents toward FEMA stemmed from the complexity of its application process. For instance, to even be considered for direct housing assistance, an individual must first apply for an SBA loan, regardless of whether they want to or not.
"I want to say this to your face so you don't think I'm saying it behind your back — it's been a colossal failure in this area, pure and simple," he said.
County leaders also made mention of residents in Port Aransas who have been living in tents after being displaced from their homes, but Hannes dismissed those reports as incorrect. He said FEMA staff had offered help to those individuals, but they declined assistance.
"Everybody in Port Aransas who is living in a tent is living there by choice," Hannes said.
Julie White, a 40-year-old Port Aransas resident, said she got so tired of the lengthy wait times on the phone with FEMA — and frequent transfers or disconnects — that she finally opted to figure things out on her own. She is currently living in a travel trailer with her son, who is a senior in high school, and friends at work are helping her get by with donations to supplement her income.
"I can tell you that I did — I gave up (on the process), and I hope that FEMA and everybody else understands that there's a lot of people like me," White said.
She also rebutted Hannes' claim that the Port Aransas residents in tents were there of their own volition.
"The people that are living in the tents on the beach, they don't want to be there — they don't, especially at this time of year," she said.
Port Aransas resident Frankie Pemberton, 65, said she has been waiting several weeks for word on a mobile housing unit. She lost her home, boat and restaurant business to Harvey, though she did get $23,000 in financial assistance from FEMA to help with repairs to her home. The house in question is no longer standing, though — it was torn down shortly after the storm due to the damage.
The money from FEMA will not be enough, she said, to even fund foundation work on her home, as it will need to be elevated nine feet, she said. Now, Pemberton said she is just waiting on word about the trailer from FEMA. Representatives with the federal agency met with Pemberton after Wednesday's meeting to address her situation.
"Am I going back to Port (Aransas)?" she asked. "I've got a piece of property there that's bought and paid for, but we'll see. I want to come home — that's my home."
Hannes said that FEMA was willing to do what it took to address residents' concerns, even devoting additional resources to the area, but said the pace would ultimately be set by local officials. He also urged "patience" as federal officials worked to push its plan for recovery through the proper channels, adding that FEMA also has to take time to meet permitting rules in affected cities and counties.
In some instances, people who were previously in arrears on electric bills can also delay the process, because power cannot be turned on until that is resolved.
"We're not going to set the pace of the recovery — you are going to set the pace of the recovery," he said. "This is your recovery — this is not a federal recovery, this is not a state recovery."
"I want to move with urgency and diligence, but I do not want to move with haste," he added.
Chesney replied to Hannes' call for patience by pointing to the mounting frustration locally from residents who felt like FEMA was not helping fast enough. A volunteer group in Port Aransas — Homes for Displaced Marlins — has provided more than 30 trailers to displaced families.
"The reason they had to (step up) was because FEMA wasn't responding to them and FEMA wasn't doing anything," Chesney said. "So, thank God for these people in Port Aransas who formed this group that have now bought 35 trailers. They didn't have any problems with permits, they didn't have any problems getting them over there."
Despite issues with bureaucracy in Harvey recovery efforts, Hannes said it was the "best" he had seen during his time with FEMA, "bar none." The level of cooperation between federal, state and local entities has improved and some levels of bureaucracy have been eliminated, he said.
"Together, I think we're making great strides in really changing the dynamics of recovery for the future," Hannes said. "Looking at this as a whole, I can't say enough that this recovery — when I look at what's going on with Puerto Rico with their issues or Florida or the California wildfires — this recovery, bar none, is going to be the model moving forward."
County Judge Loyd Neal had a different take on that statement.
"As you just talked about how great this model is, I'm reminded of the family waiting in the waiting room for the surgeon to come out," Neal said. "And he comes out and he says, 'I just want to tell you this is the best operation I have ever done. Everybody in this operating room cooperated — we did everything correct. The patient died, but we had a great operation.' "
"We're in the process now of trying to evaluate what went wrong with the operation," he said.
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