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Locals Probably Won’t Be Reimbursed for Hurricane Imelda Costs

The biggest issue keeping counties from getting a federal public assistance declaration is a FEMA rule that won’t pay for damages to buildings that were covered in previous storms. That brings seven counties below the threshold.

by Kaitlin Bain, Beaumont Enterprise, Texas / December 10, 2019
(TNS) — Nearly three months after Tropical Depression Imelda ravaged Southeast Texas, it’s looking increasingly likely that local governments won’t be reimbursed by the federal government for expenses spent after and as a result of the storm.

The seven counties affected by the storm are taking a third pass at reviewing numbers for damage and storm costs and have until about Jan. 15 to prove they hit the $37.7 million required level, Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick said Tuesday.

“I’m thinking if we don’t have a good response by (then), we’re probably not going to get it,” he said.

If not, the county will be out about $3 million in expenditures on debris; emergency measures, such as overtime and supplies; and damage to buildings and other property.

Auditor Patrick Swain isn’t concerned about any impact on the county’s overall bottom line.

The biggest issue keeping the counties from getting a federal public assistance declaration is a Federal Emergency Management Agency rule that will not pay for damages to buildings that were covered in previous storms, Branick said. He said that brought the seven counties below the threshold.

“If you keep having the same loss and FEMA keeps giving you money for it, they’re going to say you need to go buy insurance for it,” Swain said. “We do buy insurance, but we usually have a deductible. We’ve tried to lower our deductible, but it’s not cost effective for us to buy insurance with a $0 deductible because the premium is too high.”

The county actually has lowered its deductible 3 percentage points since Hurricane Rita in 2005. He said this is an analysis he, as auditor, does regularly at budget time to determine the best cost-benefit ratio of higher premiums to deductibles.

Also after Rita, the county set up a disaster fund to cover disaster-related expenses until it’s reimbursed by the state or federal government.

Branick said because that fund is a separate pot of money, no capital items or other expenditures included in the budget are expected to be affected by the lack of Imelda reimbursement.

Before Tropical Storm Harvey, the disaster fund hit a high of $10 million. It’s down to about $5 million, although Swain said the county is still expecting additional Tropical Storm Harvey and Hurricane Ike reimbursements, which are expected to increase that fund by $4 million.

Swain said the Imelda expense “definitely” lowers the available cash, but he doesn’t anticipate having to transfer more money into that fund any time soon to make up for what the county likely won’t get back for Imelda-related expenses.

“I think we have enough to start an event if it comes up,” he said. “We might have to declare an emergency and transfer money out of the emergency fund if it gets to the point where we have to pay some bills.”

Swain said he’s also been tracking expenses, primarily overtime, related to the county’s most recent large, unexpected event — the explosion and fire at TPC Group’s Port Neches plant. He said at this time those expenses come in at about $50,000, although he expects to see a bit more in the next pay period.

The county is anticipating getting reimbursed by TPC for those expenses with no impact on the emergency or disaster fund.

kaitlin.bain@beaumontenterprise.com

twitter.com/KaitlinBain

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©2019 the Beaumont Enterprise (Beaumont, Texas)

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