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FEMA Reimbursement Unlikely as Beaumont Moves on Urgent Repairs

The expected vote on whether to move forward with repairs to two fire stations and a police facility prior to a final reimbursement determination from FEMA means the Texas city likely won’t get paid back for the expenses.

by Kaitlin Bain, Beaumont Enterprise, Texas / January 14, 2019

(TNS) — Beaumont seems poised to move forward with three of its most urgent post-Tropical Depression Imelda building repairs, despite not having assurances that the federal government will reimburse the city for the expenses.

Tuesday’s expected vote on whether to move forward with repairs to two fire stations and a police special services facility — three of seven city buildings that still are damaged — prior to a final reimbursement determination from the Federal Emergency Management Agency means the city likely won’t get paid back for the expenses.

But Chief Financial Officer Todd Simoneaux said the need to have these buildings repaired soon outweighs the relatively small price tag.

“Although it’s not budgeted, it’s not going to be a large hit for us if we don’t get reimbursed,” he said.

Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick previously said the seven counties affected by the storm have until about Wednesday to prove they’ve hit the $37.7 million in storm-related expenses and damage required by FEMA for expense reimbursement. However in the months since the storm, it’s looked increasingly likely that government bodies will be left to foot the bill largely because of a FEMA rule that the agency won’t pay for damages to buildings that were covered in previous storms.

Repairs to the three buildings are expected to cost the city $221,200, if the council accepts the lowest bids, and be completed within the next 90 days for the police facility and 75 days for fire stations 5 and 10.

City of Beaumont Director of Facilities Keith Folsom said all seven damaged buildings experienced flooding, with the highest flood waters reaching about 14 inches. Because of the flooding, about 25 inches of wall had to be removed and some floors had to be cleaned and sanitized.

“The dry out process has been complete; these contracts are for the repairs to the buildings,” he said.

City employees who were temporarily relocated as a result of the damage are expected to move back in soon after the work is complete.

Three buildings at the Beaumont Botanical Gardens and the landfill office will still need to be repaired, Folsom said.

Also on Tuesday’s City Council agenda for a vote is nearly $100,000 in software that is expected to protect the city against ransomware attacks, which are becoming increasingly common in government bodies nationwide.

Port Neches-Groves ISD in November was attacked by ransomware, causing the district to lose access to files on all computer systems until the system could be restored after paying a $2,000 insurance deductible. The insurance company paid between $30,000 and $35,000 — down from $55,000 originally demanded.

In 2018, monetary losses from cyberattacks totaled $2.7 billion, nearly double the prior year, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Internet Crime Complaint Center.

These attacks generally happen when a staff member clicks a link or attachment that grants the owner of the ransomware access to the system.

Beaumont Director of Public Works and Technology Services Bart Bartkowiak said Beaumont hasn’t had a major ransomware attack, but staff has looked for ways to prevent them largely because of the increasing occurrences nationwide.

Sandbox, the software city staff is recommending the council approve, would open a suspicious link or attachment in a test environment, he said. If it’s found to be ransomware, the software locks the computer down to keep the ransomware owner from accessing the city’s entire system.

“It will help us isolate the attack to one PC so we can clear the infection off it,” Bartkowiak said, adding that it will keep outside actors from accessing critical city information. The process of cleaning the one computer only takes about a day at most.

Bartkowiak said the city’s existing firewall already was expected to reach the end of its life by the next fiscal year. So a firewall upgrade was expected soon. Adding the Sandbox program is a relatively small upgrade to protect city data.

If approved, the software is expected to last seven to 10 years. It would be in addition to state-mandated education for city employees about suspicious emails and potential ransomware attacks.


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