The Intergovernmental Relations (IGR) Committee has released its interim report on Hurricane Harvey. The IGR committee held four hearings around the state to study eight interim charges, four of which are specific to Hurricane Harvey, including two dedicated to examining the Hurricane Harvey response efforts. During these interim hearings, IGR members heard testimony from agencies and experts leading the recovery effort, including county officials. They conducted meetings with stakeholders and local officials, and comprehensively researched the Harvey-related issues confronting disaster victims, local governments, and state agencies.
The Committee heard valuable feedback concerning the need for improved resiliency in communities affected by the disaster, especially rural communities with limited resources and larger communities with higher density populations. Testimony reflected a strong need for a better framework that local communities can rely on for guidance as they return to a normal way of life following a disaster.
Input received included different ways to comprehensively improve the state response, which included opportunities to improve coordination amongst federal, state, and local governmental entities; increase capacity in accordance with local needs; and strengthen local decision making to ensure a more targeted response.
The across-the-board recommendations listed after the Harvey-related charges hopefully serve as a stronger blueprint for how the State of Texas can achieve quicker and better results when confronting the realities of disaster recovery.
County officials may also want to download the “Emergency Preparedness Checklist.” Developed by TAC and based on the input of county officials, the checklist spells out specific steps the state of Texas can take to ensure local governments are able to weather future disasters.
HURRICANE HARVEY RESPONSE CHARGES
- Charge 1: Examine and report on ways to improve the coordination of rebuilding housing and infrastructure following a natural disaster, including evaluating additional cost effective options for FEMA to utilize in providing direct housing assistance immediately following a disaster, creation of comprehensive lists of housing opportunities or web portals to disseminate information to survivors, ways to automatically waive local government regulations to facilitate rebuilding, and additional local resources available for rebuilding efforts.
- Charge 2: Monitor the distribution of federal disaster relief funds related to housing and infrastructure, including community development block grant (CDBG) funds, to ensure the timely dissemination of monies by state entities to local governments for reconstruction efforts. Develop recommendations for any statutory changes necessary to improve the efficiency of disaster recovery efforts, maximize housing and infrastructure funds, and ensure cooperation between private and government partners.
- Charge 3: Review and recommend options to expedite debris removal, including cutting unnecessary regulation and streamlining the process.
- Charge 4: Identify and report on existing disaster training opportunities available for local officials and make recommendations for training programs that equip them to efficiently interact with state and federal agencies during times of disaster.
In order to improve the coordination of rebuilding housing and infrastructure following a natural disaster, the committee recommends the following:
In evaluating cost effective options for FEMA to utilize in providing direct housing assistance immediately following a disaster, the committee recommends the following:
- The legislature should consider reforms that improve the state's response to disasters by building on a policy that better ensures the advanced positioning and access to recovery assets that would be essential in recovery, such as MHUs, direct repair teams, and contracts.
- The legislature should consider enhancing existing synchronization at the county and regional level by strengthening essential legal structures and arrangements (e.g., contracts, performance clauses, warranties on goods and services, remedies, recourse and alternative arrangement for non-compliance) and establish better market price-points for contractors to do business with the state for response and recovery efforts.
- The legislature should consider developing a Disaster Recovery Strike Team to better assist any community impacted by a disaster that lacks the capacity to accommodate and move quickly through the challenges confronted in recovery efforts.
- The legislature should consider building on the effectiveness of the GLO's qualified list of vendors and work with local communities that are in regions that are prone to being impacted by natural disaster (e.g., Gulf Coast region impacted by hurricanes and flooding) and consider directing the appropriate state agency to work with local communities, and interested parties, and develop a similar qualified list of vendors comprised by entities from each region that can afford units of government the procurement of local firms.
- The legislature should consider maximizing existing resources, such as Texas A&M University's AgriLife Extension Service and Hazardous Mitigation Centers, and work with state, region, and local leaders to better assist communities plan and establish protocols before disasters strike so that they will be better equipped to undertake recovery and rebuilding efforts.
- The legislature should consider building on Texas A&M University's College of architecture's outreach organization, Texas Target Communities and expand its efforts to better assist communities and regions of the state that are prone to be impacted by disasters in developing infrastructure resiliency, including drafting recovery and reconstruction protocols and plans that would be activated after a disaster strikes.
- The legislature should consider improving the state's effort to address the need for temporary housing after future disasters occur by supporting and instituting initiatives that increase the capacity, strengthen coordination, and streamline regulatory requirements in regions that are prone to be impacted by disaster.
- The legislature should consider directing the appropriate state agencies to review their environmental permitting efforts and proactively work with FEMA and HUD before a disaster occurs to determine to what extent a better synchronization of permits can be achieved prior to a disaster occurring that could better assist a victim of the disaster in streamlining or shortening the delay that is currently experienced through different layers of federal and state bureaucracy.
- The legislature should consider requiring every state agency and local unit of government involved in response and recovery efforts and existing ongoing disaster programs to undertake an After-Action-Review, or Incident Critique, to better understand what was effective and what needs improvement and report their findings to the state so that the appropriate state agencies can develop short- and long-term plans to improve the state's recovery efforts.
- The legislature should consider directing the appropriate state agencies, along with affiliated partners from the private and nonprofit sectors, to assess the short- and long-term needs stemming from the latest disasters along the Texas Gulf region and develop the appropriate recommendation and reforms so that the time frame in which victims of disasters return to normalcy is significantly improved.
- The legislature should consider developing an expedited manner by which victims of natural disasters can clear clouded title issues in order to speed up reconstruction effort and overcome existing impasses in drawing down and accessing federal CDBG disaster recovery monies.
In order to better disseminate information to survivors of disasters, the committee recommends the following:
- The legislature should consider offsetting future delays in disaster recovery by establishing the framework for an expedited hazard recovery process that builds on pre-disaster planning, increased coordination of local units of government and state partners, and temporary to permanent housing programs.
- The legislature should consider requesting its congressional delegation encourage reforms be instituted that ensure more cost-effective housing options are made available through federal funding streams in order to maximize resources, assistance, and effectiveness. This includes the reduction of waste and needless tax payer spending caused by federal regulations that fail to take into account the plight of disaster victims and concerned local officials trying to assist them acquire temporary housing that transitions into permanent housing more effectively, including allowing for more effective utilization of multifamily housing.
- The legislature should consider building on the existing 10-year affordability term on CDBG disaster related housing, both rental and single-family, and continue to assist victims of disasters ensure that their housing continues to be affordable.
- The legislature should consider building on the success of SB 521 of the 78th Legislative Regular Session and develop a mechanism to enable innovative disaster recovery housing solutions, like RAPIDO, that are first undertaken as temporary housing to be titled in the state as personal property (temporary and moveable, as required by the Stafford Act) and then be titled as real property, which is permanent housing in order to maximize the use of federal disaster monies that meets both temporary to long-term housing needs.
- The legislature should consider supporting legislative efforts that allow local units of government the necessary authority to begin pre-planning and work with the appropriate state agencies in vetting their post disaster recovery plans in order to better assist Texans who are victims of a natural disaster, such as SB 1376 and SB 1673 by Senator Lucio from the 84th and 85th Legislative Regular Sessions, respectively.
- The legislature should consider ensuring that all homes that participate through the GLO's PREPS program must go through a post-recovery evaluation with informed consent of final inspection criteria with the homeowner.
- The legislature should consider requiring state agencies in charge of disaster recovery to begin engaging in future disaster housing recovery options for temporary, short- and long term housing that will enable local and regional officials to become better engaged. Negotiation with federal counterparts is recommended to be implemented for disaster regions with the goal of providing transparency, flexibility, stability, resiliency, and greater choice to Texans and their families.
- The legislature should consider encouraging the state's lead disaster recovery agency to maximize engagement with FEMA and HUD so that the eligibility requirements set-forth after a disaster are well-aligned with the needs of Texans who are victims of disaster. This will enable Texas to realize the full potential of FEMA and HUD to more quickly deliver assets and resources (e.g., the State of Louisiana).
In order to better facilitate rebuilding, the committee recommends-the following:
- The legislature should consider requiring all state agencies involved in disaster recovery efforts to be part of an advisory entity that will meet to develop and design a one-stop web portal with all necessary assistance information for disaster victims and help maintain the portal. The web portal should be developed in a manner that protects confidential information (including protected information under HIPAA or other similar laws).
- The legislature should consider directing the appropriate state agencies to undertake a housing needs assessment so that policy is made to better understand the nature of housing needs (single- and multi-family) in order to be more effective immediately after a disaster.
- The legislature should consider directing the appropriate state agency to develop an information campaign in regions of the state that are prone to disasters occurring providing residents with a better understanding of FEMA and clarify any misconceptions that it may be an insurance company, and explain, with the assistance of the Texas Department of Insurance, the importance of flood insurance.
- The legislature should consider developing a permanent disaster hotline for local government officials so they may get immediate help and receive consistent information in order to prevent delays in the paperwork.
In order to strengthen rebuilding efforts, the committee recommends the following:
- The legislature should consider strengthening recovery and rebuilding efforts by automatically waiving local permitting fees in regions of the state covered by a state declaration of disaster.
- The legislature should consider that when the Governor issues a disaster declaration and it has been determined that the public's health is threatened by the need to clear debris which may spread diseases through different vectors, for the state to automatically waive any regulations that may impede a local unit of government from addressing the debris removal or control of vectors (i.e., mosquitoes and other organisms that carry disease), implemented in a way that would not negatively impact federal reimbursements.
- The legislature should consider updating the appropriate state code that requires the installation of arc fault interrupters in order to facilitate cost-effective rebuilding efforts once a disaster declaration has been issued.
- The legislature should consider requesting its congressional delegation to amend the appropriate federal statute to provide for an emergency procurement process that can waive existing procurement regulations that lead to delays in reconstruction efforts.
In order to ensure the timely dissemination of disaster relief funds by state entities to local governments for reconstruction efforts and eliminate delays in the use of those funds, the committee recommends the following:
- The legislature should consider codifying the use of COGs in regions of the state that are prone to natural disasters and institute initiatives that encourage greater collaboration, regionalism, and cooperation in order to improve the state response to future disasters and build regional capacity.
- The legislature should consider strengthening the local capacity of COGs in disaster-prone regions by assisting them in the initial hiring of public assistance firms that can assist local units of government work with FEMA, including handling paperwork and associated accounting.
- The legislature should consider instituting a statutory framework that fosters greater regional cooperation and partnership development that maximize existing resource and assets so that regions can become more resilient and be better assisted in their disaster recovery efforts. The state should also consider building partnerships with nonprofits and private foundations in these efforts.
In order to expedite debris removal, the committee recommends the following:
- Prior to future disasters, the legislature should consider assisting local units of government in disaster-prone areas build their capacity so that they are better equipped in accessing recovery monies, including consulting local governments prior to designing any program and before entering negotiations with the federal government on finalizing program restrictions. In this regard, initiatives that Texas takes to the federal government for approval are more responsive to the operational needs of local government by being custom built around the capacity and capability of local governments (e.g., taking into account their resources such as upfront cash flow, or the lack thereof, which is needed in a program reimbursement design) so that program delivery and assistance to victims of disaster are provided without delay which could have been easily avoided.
- The legislature should consider establishing the necessary statutory and programmatic framework for future disaster recovery that is built on the state having a pre-established, state-administered environmental review process and a pre-arranged "block grant" approach with executed memorandums of understandings with local units of government, as well as nonprofit partners, to serve as methods of delivery which can be activated immediately after a disaster declaration has been issued.
- The legislature should consider encouraging local governments in disaster-prone regions to engage in pre-disaster planning, and determine what type of post-disaster housing recovery system would best meet the needs of their local communities, including prioritization of temporary and multifamily housing options, so that they are better equipped to begin delivery of housing recovery after a disaster occurs.
- The legislature should consider assisting local units of government in disaster-prone areas in addressing their lack of recovery staffing for future disasters by providing resources that would facilitate the initial hiring and training of local permanent disaster coordinators that would be trained and be familiar with recovery efforts before the next disaster occurs.
- The legislature should consider establishing a permanent, statewide official whose sole statutory purpose is to be responsible full-time for the coordination of all disaster recovery efforts to better coordinate every facet of the recovery process providing greater assistance to regions of the state coping with disaster and who every state agency and local officials can be accountable to.
- For disaster-prone regions, the legislature should consider establishing a minimum statewide standard in disaster recovery efforts by:
- Establishing minimum levels of resources and capacity that should be maintained in advance of disasters and that engenders faster, more efficient deployment of resources in disaster response and recovery efforts;
- Establishing and maintaining minimum levels of expertise and knowledge in disaster planning, response, and recovery management, as well as grant application process expertise;
- Hiring and maintaining emergency management local directors within local jurisdictions;
- Facilitating in establishing increased regional cooperation and collaboration that maximizes the use of existing local assets and expertise; and
- Providing ongoing disaster training in response and recovery efforts.
- The legislature should consider building on the ongoing efforts of regional COGs and assist those in disaster-prone areas by providing greater training in grant application management and process, including assisting in identification of grant opportunities and coordinating data acquisition necessary for grant applications, to better build the capacity of these regions so they may become more self-sufficient.
- The legislature should consider establishing a state coordinator who can better assist smaller and rural units of government manage contractors and execute contracts on their behalf to expedite the recovery process before disaster occurs and can be better situated to ensuring that the necessary accounting and supporting documents are in order to increase the reimbursement levels and decrease denial claims by the federal government.
- The legislature should consider creating a revolving loan fund similar to those administered by the TDWB where rural and smaller units of government in disaster-prone regions may borrow necessary funds to address initial cash flow needs for initial expenses and, once reimbursement is received, pay back the outstanding loan.
In order to address existing disaster training opportunities for local officials in disaster-prone regions, the committee recommends the following:
- The legislature should consider establishing pre-disaster removal contracts with reputable bidders who the state can have prequalified and bonded in order to ensure that price gauging or overpromising do not occur after a disaster.
- The legislature should consider building on the experience of past disaster recoveries along the Gulf region and develop a debris removal plan of specific types of debris only found along the Gulf Coast (e.g., boats) so that the removal of that debris is undertaken in a more expedited manner. State agencies may be encouraged to work with the Texas Department of Insurance and private insurance providers to address the myriad of paperwork that is engendered when trying to address debris that may or may not be insured (e.g., boats with insurance).
- The legislature should consider providing TCEQ the necessary statutory framework and authority after a disaster declaration has been issued to allow Type IV construction and demolition landfills to be authorized through a registration or permit-by-rule process, rather than through the traditional permit process.
- The legislature should consider addressing the need that exists in less populous counties for regular technical training, information, mentoring, and assistance by establishing initiatives that will help local leaders establish a standard knowledge on how to prepare for, and respond to, a disaster and better assist local governments to successfully qualify for federal and state aid.
- The legislature should consider establishing an initiative that builds on the regional networks of regional COGs and undertake regular, weekly webinars to provide video-based and online training for disaster response and recovery efforts.
- The legislature should consider working with the regional COGs in an outreach campaign to encourage local and regional officials to undertake FEMA certification.
- The legislature should consider establishing a minimum criteria of training that local emergency management coordinators should undergo, and encourage basic standardization of education, training, and experience, including a state set curriculum, so that local emergency coordinators are better prepared for future disasters.