Students Still in Portable Classrooms Two Years After Harvey

Patience is growing thin and Texas lawmakers are demanding that FEMA speed up disaster-assistance projects to replace badly damaged middle schools, saying the students shouldn’t suffer because of FEMA’s ‘incompetence.’

by Isaac Windes, Beaumont Enterprise, Texas / January 13, 2019

(TNS) — More than two years after Tropical Storm Harvey flooded their campuses, hundreds of students at two Southeast Texas school districts still attend class in portable buildings as plans to get them back into permanent structures languish under federal review.

Patience is growing thin and lawmakers are demanding the Federal Emergency Management Agency speed up disaster-assistance projects to replace badly damaged middle schools in the Hardin-Jefferson and Vidor school districts.

“They have done everything right, they have worked diligently with FEMA and they should not be punished for FEMA’s incompetence,” U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, R-Woodville, told The Enterprise.

The most recent delay was especially deflating at Vidor ISD, which also lost one of its three elementary campuses. Administrators had reached agreement with FEMA and were set to demolish the Vidor Middle School in October. Replacement of Oak Forest Elementary is underway.

Just before the middle-school work began, the federal agency asked for yet another eligibility review.

“I think there is a feeling of resignation right now,” Vidor Superintendent Jay Killgo said. “The community will be encouraged when Oak Forest Elementary begins to be built, but we have reached this point where they are not seeing any progress.”

Vidor Middle is the only place for the district’s 700 fifth- and sixth-graders.

“Back in late August, we accepted that (FEMA) grant,” Killgo said. “But they told us they have to review our costs one last time before they could 100% sign off on it, so we have not moved forward with the demolition yet.”

Babin is fed up with the delays.

“Vidor and Hardin-Jefferson school districts have worked now with four different program delivery managers,” the lawmaker said.

“They have a very obviously high turnover at FEMA. … There has been a tremendous delay in the districts to receive disaster relief funding that will allow them to rebuild two middle schools.”

Vidor thought it had a deal in place for a Section 428 grant, a so-called capped-cost agreement that requires proof that damage to the structure exceeded 50% of the cost to replace it.

Joseph Vermette, external affairs director for FEMA Region 6, confirmed an agreement was reached but put on hold.

“Because this project falls under the ‘50% repair-or-replace rule,’ there were additional layers of review, which caused further delays,” he said. “FEMA Region 6 takes full responsibility for these delays.”

Vermette said the hold was placed “on all projects which were deemed replacements for Harvey-damaged facilities ... to ensure these projects were properly evaluated for accuracy and compliance.”

The delays were not a result of turnover, he said, but to safeguard “the applicant from future audits while ensuring full compliance with FEMA’s standards.”

“FEMA doesn’t like delays in the processing of our public assistance projects either, and staff turnover is normal,” Vermette said. “However, turnover was not a factor in this case.”

Babin contends FEMA’s most recent delay is against the law.

The 2018 Disaster Recovery Reform Act prohibits FEMA from reducing the amount of funds agreed to under Section 428 of the Stafford Act, the legislation that gives FEMA the authority to give federal dollars for disaster recovery.

“FEMA is not allowed to reduce funding for a 428 agreement that has been accepted by the administrator,” Babin said, quoting from the 2018 law. “So I am asking and expecting that FEMA should do the right thing. They should offer the original amounts that were agreed to in the 428s, and then proceed on.”

Babin sent a letter to that effect last November. It was co-signed by seven congressional colleagues.

Vermette said the provision applies to money only after it has been formally obligated by the federal government.

“FEMA’s position is that anything short of obligation, including reviews and/or verbal or written statements by FEMA employees, does not bind the agency and does not trigger the presumption established in Section 428 of the Disaster Relief Reform Act,” Vermette said.

While Hardin-Jefferson and Vidor ISD are working through the process to replace schools, other school districts are being reimbursed for repair projects completed last year.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, announced in early January that the West Orange-Cove Consolidated Independent School District would receive a $1.8 million federal grant to rebuild West Orange-Stark Middle School after damage caused by the 2017 Tropical Storm Harvey.

Superintendent Rickie Harris said the funds would be used to reimburse West Orange-Cove for work completed directly after Harvey struck.

“The district went ahead and fixed everything and got our kids back in while FEMA was doing all their processes to render the funds to the district,” Harris said. “The middle school is completely fixed. We are going to use those funds to reimburse the district.”

But for districts like Vidor and Hardin-Jefferson that are vying for complete replacement, students are attending classes in outdoor portable buildings that were intended for temporary usage.

“We did not anticipate, when we acquired the portables, that we would still be in them this long. We are coming up on the three-year mark. In the blink of an eye, it will be summer and our kids have been in portable buildings that whole time,” Killgo said.

“It is not the quality facility that our students are accustomed to.”

Hardin-Jefferson Independent School District, located in Sour Lake, received federal dollars to replace the contents of Henderson Middle School last October.

Those funds, however, are a fraction of what will be required to make necessary repairs, according to district officials.

“It’s money we will hold on to until we are ready to allocate it for the new building, but it is just one of many,” a spokeswoman for the district said at the time. “It does make us more hopeful that there is progress.”

In addition to Hardin-Jefferson middle school students attending classes in portable buildings, the district is working around the loss of an athletic facility and concession stands.

Weather events are taking their toll on the temporary facilities.

“We had a windstorm last spring that took coverings and awnings off of some of them that we had to repair,” Killgo said. “And then we had flooding from Imelda that could have flooded them. … It got close. You can see a watermark on the skirting of the portables.”

Killgo stressed that conditions are safe.

“The water is not falling on kids’ heads, they are not in danger, it is just loud,” he said. “It is just loud, and they have to go outside when it is cold to change classes.”

Hardin-Jefferson’s portable facilities have not seen any significant wear, said Brad Boullion, the director of operations for the district.

“I’m not going to say there isn’t a leak in any of them,” Boullion said. “There will always be some leaks. It doesn’t matter if a campus is 1 year old or 50 years old, but currently those buildings are in good shape and the kids have a good place to be educated in.”

Hardin-Jefferson Superintendent Brad McEachern said the community expects progress.

“I think our community has been very supportive, but I think they also would like to see some movement in this,” McEachern said. “They have also dealt with FEMA, so they understand the FEMA process. But there gets to a point where you want to see some things happen.”

There is not yet a timeline for the review of Vidor Middle School, but Killgo said he plans on having all the documents turned over by the end of the week.

“They haven’t given us a deadline on anything. They said, ‘As soon as you can get it to us,’” Killgo said. “They were sending a site-inspection team to review the facility by the end of January, they said, so that is what is going on.”

“FEMA had a few additional questions to clarify the scope of work for the repair of this project, as well as requests for documentation that were required in order to complete the review process and move the project on to (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) expert panel review,” Vermette said. “That was the reason for this additional delay.”

That panel review is required for grants given under the 428 programs for projects estimated to cost more than $5 million.

In Hardin-Jefferson, officials hope for construction on a new campus to begin within the next couple of years.

“We’re starting design on the middle school now,” Boullion said. “Design for a school of that size takes about a year, and we are hopeful that we will be through this process prior to those designs being finished and that we will be able to move forward with construction after we have finished that design.”

If action isn’t taken, Babin said he will take his complaints a step further.

“I am going to write a letter to the Trump administration itself, I am going to complain, and I am going to ask for the resignation of some (FEMA) officers,” Babin said. “ … It is time for FEMA to honor and obey the law as it is expressly written.”

Vermette said the ordeal boils down to a breakdown in communication between the agency and the district about the 50% repair-or-replace rule. He reiterated that the reviews are meant to protect the applicants.

“It’s understandable that some applicants will be frustrated with the process,” Vermette said. “However, larger and more complex projects may take more time to adjudicate. Accuracy and attention to detail take time, and we want to ensure the best possible outcome for the applicant.”

isaac.windes@beaumontenterprise.com

twitter.com/isaacdwindes

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