The Long Road to Recovery

County judges look back at Hurricane Harvey, the lessons learned and the changes needed

By Jorjanna Price

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County judges look back at Hurricane Harvey, the lessons learned and the changes needed

First there was shock over the scope and intensity of Hurricane Harvey, a mega-storm unlike any seen in this state. Then came the valiant rescues and emergency operations.

Finally, with clear skies returning, it was time for the cleanup and recovery, which would prove to be the most tedious and frustrating aspect of dealing with a torrential weather system that impacted all or parts of 60 counties cited in the state disaster declaration. 

More than a year later, many areas in Southeast Texas are still dealing with the aftermath of Harvey, with recovery proceeding slowly. 

“People are still healing mentally and physically. We all know this recovery process is going to take years,” said Refugio County Judge Robert Blaschke.

In hindsight, county officials praise their first responders and the determined crews and volunteers who entered damaged areas to help stranded residents and restore vital services. They marvel at the resilience of residents who returned home and set out to revive their community and restore normalcy.

“When you get hit by Mother Nature like we did, it’s heartwarming to see everyone pull together,” said Aransas County Judge Burt Mills.

But county leaders know all too well that challenges remain — rebuilding houses and business, discarding remaining storm debris and improving flood abatement among them. They also face repairing infrastructure and coordinating with state and federal recovery agencies. And looming in the not-too-distant future is concern over how to prepare for the next natural disaster while hampered by legal limitations placed on county governments. 

Federal Bureaucracy Slows Recovery

When Harvey came ashore near Rockport on Aug. 25, 2017, it arrived as a Category 4 hurricane, packing sustained winds of 130 mph. The wind damage was torrential along the coast. Even though it was downgraded to a tropical storm as the system moved inland, the storm meandered for days, causing catastrophic flooding. The high winds and flooding unleashed unprecedented damage in a swath from Corpus Christ to Beaumont. Parts of the Houston area recorded more than 50 inches of rain in four days.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates about 30 percent of the state’s population lived in the land mass affected by Hurricane Harvey and, of the households affected, 80 percent did not have flood insurance. An estimated 890,000 households have applied for FEMA disaster aid. 

While actual damages have yet to be determined, Harvey’s ultimate cost has been estimated at $125 billion, the most expensive hurricane to hit Texas.

One state official said when he first viewed the storm damage in Aransas County that “it looked like Port Aransas had been swept away by a gigantic broom and a bomb blew up in Rockport.”

“I would say Aransas County was ground zero,” said Mills, whose county courthouse was so severely damaged it had to be demolished. His and other county offices are working out of a former hardware store while a new courthouse is being planned. 

Mills lists housing recovery among his chief concerns because without proper accommodations it is hard to rebuild a workforce and jump-start the local economy. The delay in home rebuilding is one he blames on bureaucracy, a frustration shared by many counties trying to recover from Harvey.

“What do FEMA and Washington know about what is going on here?” he asks. “If they’d just listen to people who experienced the disaster and know what they need, but instead we have to go through all this paperwork over and over again.”

His long-term recovery team compiled a white paper to share their views and frustrations over the complexity of the lengthy recovery process. While they acknowledge that federal and state agencies “worked really hard and have gone out of their way to assist with recovery, almost a year after the storm the county was still hearing that federal housing funds would be months away.

“The critical issue with the federal funding and speed of recovery efforts appears to be the extensive documentation and many complex federal requirements and laws that must be addressed,” the paper states.

Congress has approved $15 billion in Harvey disaster aid. According to procedures, federal rules must be drafted, then the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requests an action plan. The Texas General Land Office (GLO) gathered public comments, submitted the action plan and received approval in May. To distribute buyout, acquisition and infrastructure funds, the GLO has partnered with councils of governments to develop methods of distribution.

By late July, Mills summarized the status of public assistance: “It’s in the works but, let me put it this way, no hammers are hitting nails.”

Pre-disaster Planning Crucial

Clearing storm debris is high on the list of county priorities and one that needs immediate attention after a disaster. Removing debris is critical because of the hazards it poses to emergency responders who are the first on the scene, and it impedes their ability to perform rescues.

Debris removal was a massive undertaking in Harris County, which experienced historic flooding for days. The county flood control district estimated the debris removed from area creeks and bayous totals some 140,000 cubic yards. That didn’t even include the curbside pickups of ruined contents from homes. More than 150,000 homes were flooded. 

Paying for extensive cleanup can be difficult if cities or counties are not prepared financially. They have to draw what they can from operating budgets and wait for federal reimbursement, which can take years. 

Furthermore, many contractors arrive from out of state, move into high-density areas, and work for the highest bidders, bypassing smaller areas with limited budgets. 

Storm debris needs to be cleared as soon as possible because “by getting all that out of the way only then can you see what the real damage is and what can wait,” explained San Patricio County Judge Terry Simpson in Sinton. Plus it is a boost to morale. “People just feel better when everything they see isn’t torn up houses and downed trees.”

Although Texas coastal communities hadn’t seen a hurricane in decades, Simpson’s county had been planning for the worst-case scenario. Over the course of 10 years, county commissioners accumulated a contingency storm fund from money left from each annual budget. When the Harvey cleanup bill came to $4.5 million, San Patricio County paid its bills — no waiting for outside assistance. 

Eleven months after the storm, the county received federal funds close to 80 percent of what was spent on cleanup, said Simpson, adding that those funds will be used to start a new contingency fund.

San Patricio County also got a step ahead by contracting annually with a cleanup company, one experienced with federal regulations. “After the storm, everyone was scrambling to find someone to do this work,” said Simpson. “But we had our company and they knew what do to. It took about two months for them to collect it, grind it up and haul it off.” 

Jefferson County also does disaster planning by lining up generators, cleanup companies, canteens, showers and other services in advance. “Having pre-disaster planning in place will speed up housing recovery and infrastructure repairs,” said County Judge Jeff Branick in Beaumont. 

After one-quarter of Jefferson County homes flooded during Hurricane Harvey, Branick has been preaching the need for homeowner flood insurance. “That applies no matter where you live in Texas, be it Austin or Lubbock. The insurance is inexpensive compared to what it cost to redo a home.”

Branick also has encouraged residents to build “more resiliently” so that structures can better withstand hurricanes and floods. With Texas having a high rate of natural disasters of all kinds, he said, that cautionary tale should become customary practice.

Looking Ahead

Hurricane Harvey was the third major flood event in five years for the Houston area.

There are hundreds of tributaries and drainage ditches all over the county and “we need for all of those to work at their absolute capacity,” said Harris County Judge Emmett. But widespread drainage problems after the hurricane meant major roads were swamped and state emergency crews had difficulty even getting into Harris County. “If they can’t get here, it doesn’t do us any good,” he said.

To better prepare for the next hurricane, Harris County’s answer was a $2.5 billion bond referendum
to finance more than 100 proposed flood control projects across the region. Voters approved the package on August 25, the first anniversary of the storm. Over the next 15 years, the county will undertake large-scale flood mitigation projects including drainage improvements, upgraded warning systems, infrastructure repairs, home buyouts and construction of additional detention basins.

Even with those measures, Emmett maintains he and county officials will be working at a disadvantage. That is because counties, unlike cities, lack general ordinance-making authority and therefore have no power to adopt and enforce a comprehensive drainage plan for unincorporated areas. 

In his most recent “State of the County” address, Emmett explained: “With 4.7 million residents, Harris County is the third most populous county in the nation. Almost 2 million of those residents live in unincorporated Harris County, where there is virtually no ordinance-making authority and where services are funded almost exclusively by the property tax.”

Jim Allison, general counsel of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas, agrees Hurricane Harvey revealed a glaring omission in county authority. Allison testified before the House Committee on County Affairs, one of several state panels examining how Texas fared after the hurricane, that counties do not have the ordinance-making and enforcement authority to fully address flood risks in unincorporated areas.

Only through plat regulations can counties require subdivision developers to manage drainage within the subdivision, he said, but the actions by developers “may actually exacerbate the flooding risk and damage” elsewhere due to the lack
of coordination.

Similarly, counties have limited authority to require street construction in platted subdivisions and are unable to require adequate street maintenance. He said dilapidated streets pose a danger to residents and first responders in the middle of a storm.

For state agencies and local governments to be fully prepared for the next hurricane, Allison proposed, “a single state agency be responsible for training local officials and providing immediate response specialists in coordinating with the state and FEMA following a disaster. He also has urged the creation of a state fund to support local disaster recovery. 

Time for Action

Only too glad to see “Harvey” retired from the rotating names assigned to hurricanes, county officials who survived its wrath are making their voices heard before the Legislature convenes in 2019. They are motivated to offer ideas on how to better respond and recover from natural disasters, and they want to put their experience to work with specific action points.

To ensure their messages reach state leaders, the Texas Association of Counties has spent much of 2018 reaching out to county officials, analyzing their needs and frustrations, and compiling their recommendations. 

The result is the “Emergency Preparedness Checklist,” which spells out specific proposals for the state before another major storm event (see related article, “Getting Ahead of the Next Natural Disaster.”) These recommendations will be presented to lawmakers in January. 

To see the complete checklist, click here