Disaster Pilot Project Seeks Better Alternative to FEMA Trailers

The focus of the Lower Rio Grande Rapid Re-housing Program is on getting victims of federally declared natural disasters into housing immediately.

by Steve Clark, McClatchy News / June 18, 2014
Federally funded reconstruction efforts are under way in South Texas after Hurricane Dolly caused $1.35 billion in damage in 2008. Barry Bahler/FEMA

Six years after Hurricane Dolly struck a $1.35 billion blow to the South Texas coast, federally funded reconstruction efforts are just now getting under way for hundreds of Lower Rio Grande Valley residents whose homes were destroyed or badly damaged by the storm.

Nick Mitchell-Bennett, executive director of the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, blames the situation on a “long and outrageously convoluted” federal, state and local process for getting help to storm-ravaged poor families.

CDCB is testing a potential solution to the problem, one that may serve as a model for other communities hit by natural disaster. The demonstration project, funded by $2 million of $130 million in post-Dolly federal funds, is called the Lower Rio Grande Rapid Re-housing Program, more commonly referred to as RAPIDO.

The initial result of this demo project is a simple, unfinished shotgun house with a corrugated tin roof newly erected on a CDCB-owned lot at 2828 Carolina St. in Brownsville.

The inaugural RAPIDO house was unveiled Friday at an event sponsored by CDCB and its community-design partner, BC Workshop. Twenty more of the houses will soon be going up throughout the Lower Valley as part of the pilot project. Eight of them will be in Cameron County, 10 in Hidalgo County and two in Willacy County, said Leo Barrera, CDCB’s self-help housing coordinator.

While the Carolina Street house will serve as a model home of sorts for the project and may also temporarily house displaced families, the other 20 houses are for residents whose homes were rendered unlivable by Dolly, he said.

The focus of RAPIDO is on getting victims of federally declared natural disasters into housing immediately as opposed to allowing them to languish in FEMA trailers while neighborhoods are abandoned and inevitably deteriorate.

One advantage of the concept is that RAPIDO houses can be expanded with three or four additional bedrooms after the initial 400-square-foot “core” is erected. Families will also have input into the expansion design, customizing it to their preferences so it doesn’t look like every other RAPIDO house, Barrera said.

“The concept is what’s the fastest way to get families back on their property after a hurricane, without a FEMA trailer,” he said. “Instead of having a FEMA trailer sitting on your land or sitting out in a field somewhere, you get the core. So this would serve as your temporary to permanent shelter.”

The federal government spends $60,000 to $70,000 per FEMA trailer, which in his opinion is a “complete waste of money” considering they’re only used as temporary housing, Barrera said. In contrast, RAPIDO houses, being permanent, constitute a much wiser use of federal tax dollars, he said.

Mitchell-Bennett said the RAPIDO pilot project is showing that a permanent house can be built for around $90,000, including administrative costs as well as construction and materials.

For state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., it all goes back to Dolly: Prompted by the inadequate emergency response following the storm, he sponsored House Bill 2450, which created the Natural Disaster Housing Reconstruction Advisory Committee to write a plan for housing reconstruction for victims of federally declared natural disasters.

The Legislature passed HB 2450 in 2009. RAPIDO came out of one of the 24 recommendations of the ensuing Natural Disaster Housing Reconstruction Plan. The recommendation called for a demonstration pilot project to test the feasibility of large-scale production of replacement housing for victims of federally declared natural disasters.

Mitchell-Bennett said Lucio was acting on the recognition that “hurricanes keep hitting our state and we don’t have a plan.”

“Nobody has a clue, and everybody’s running around like crazy people in Houston and in Galveston and in the Valley, because nobody knows how to reconstruct houses for people,” Mitchell-Bennett said.

Over the next 16 months, CDCB and BC Workshop will work together to figure out what works and what doesn’t, he said. Ultimately, the RAPIDO pilot will yield a CDCB-authored, comprehensive how-to manual, which Lucio will present to his fellow lawmakers in Austin, Mitchell-Bennett said.

“We’re talking outreach, were talking eligibility, we’re talking social work, were talking design of the house and construction — it’s all there,” he said. “We hand this to the next county that gets hit by a hurricane and they will know exactly what to do.”

The goal isn’t just to build houses but bring about a policy shift in state government as it relates to post-disaster housing reconstruction, said BC Workshop community designer Elaine Morales.

“We’re working with experts and academics ... on how to change policy statewide to implement the plan in the long term,” she said.

Lucio said he thinks RAPIDO is on the right path to go statewide, and mentioned plans to invite members of the Legislature to the Valley for a summit on housing.

“Obviously it’s a challenge, because many of them take the position right away of not wanting to set up any kind of programs that they feel like might be an entitlement of any kind, giveaway type of programs,” Lucio said. “But this is getting people back on their feet, people who through no fault of their own ... lost their dwelling.”

He described it as an opportunity for residents to get back into decent housing after a storm so they can raise their families in a good environment.

“I’m very proud to be able to go to my colleagues and say, ‘Look, we put this program together,’” Lucio said. “It’s late in coming for many, because a lot of them have moved out of the area. That’s not what we want to see with our families. We want to stay together.”

©2014 The Brownsville Herald (Brownsville, Texas)