As Hurricanes Continue to Wreak Havoc, Disaster Recovery Is Still A Broken Landscape for Small Cities

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This is a guest post by C.H. “Burt” Mills, Jr., Aransas County Judge and William R. Whitson, Managing Director of Local Government Visions, LLC.

Hurricane Harvey came ashore in Aransas County near Rockport, Texas as a full class IV hurricane. Harvey raged for more than 12 hours, causing widespread devastation, including 25% loss to the local tax base. The courthouse, city hall, local aquarium, hospital and Center for the Arts were all destroyed and a main bridge accessing a local island was heavily damaged. Yet, nearly two years later, the area is just now seeing significant federal and state dollars for re-building heavily damaged housing and infrastructure.

Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey — and Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas earlier this week and is set to hit Georgia, Florida and South Carolina soon — are becoming ever more common, leaving many small communities to recover from major hurricanes, wildfires, devastating floods and tornados without adequate, timely federal support.

The federal government, along with its state and local partners, are the best in the world at disaster forecasting, event management, and immediate post-event response. Unfortunately, when the flood waters recede, life safety is stabilized, and major press conferences making promises of support are done, local officials are left alone facing the long and arduous process of long-term recovery. Overly complex and lengthy federal recovery processes and programs leave local leaders without long-term support, and they are left alone to pick up the pieces and rebuild the communities they know and love. It’s time to see what can be done to improve the recovery process and find better ways to ensure that federal and state dollars are appropriately spent, while also allowing for flexibility and quicker response times.

Under the Stafford Act, the presidential declaration of a state of emergency triggers response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which has the ability to deploy public safety personnel, distribute food and water, secure roads, account for damage and execute search and rescue operations in the wake of a major natural disaster. However, federal long-term recovery efforts operate in a top-down system controlled from Washington, in which federal dollars are tied to specific situations and subject to lengthy procurement processes and complex rules. One of the main goals of the Stafford Act is to promote hazard mitigation to reduce the risk of loss of life and property from future disasters, but FEMA’s red tape and extensive documentation procedures often prevent local communities from receiving critical aide and projects to prepare them for the next disaster in a timely manner.

There are a number of ways that planning for sustainability and resiliency have been made more difficult by current federal requirements. Over 3,000 low and moderate-income residents lost their homes to Hurricane Harvey in Aransas County, for example, and while Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds should be available to help provide relief for these residents, these funds also come with strict limitations. The majority of affordable housing lost in Aransas County originally relied on septic tanks, instead of sewer infrastructure.  Septic tank runoff can cause significant environmental harm to water quality, especially in such a sensitive coastal environment. Yet despite the clear benefit of extending sewer infrastructure alongside the development of replacement housing units, by rule the community was prohibited from doing so. As one staffer explained, “If the storm did not break it, then you cannot make it!” This left Aransas County with limited options for replacing outdated and environmentally hazardous systems instead of supporting forward-looking improvements with recovery resources simultaneously.

FEMA plays a key role is setting upfront goals for long-term disaster recovery. Once these goals are in place, it should be the responsibility of the state and local governments, supported by federal resources, to work towards meeting them. However, states need more leeway to direct and approve projects, rather than forcing the local governments to deal with the bureaucratic bottleneck of the current system. By working together, state and local governments could determine the most pressing needs in the aftermath of a disaster and meet them in a matter of months, not years. We need to build new recovery strategies with more locally based, bottom-up approaches based on the experience and expertise of those with boots on the ground. The block-grant funding model is one potential approach to fix the current system:

THE BASIC BLOCK GRANT FUNDING MODEL

  1. Following a federally declared disaster, local officials would identify needs and together with the state develop a locally based recovery and response plan. The plan would be tailored to local conditions following the disaster.
  2. The plan is approved by the governor.
  3. Federal, state and even private sector resources would be allocated in a block grant to fund and execute the locally adopted plan.

The current system tries hard, but, long-term recovery in our nation’s cities, towns and villages needs significant improvement. It’s time for federal, state and local partners to authorize new tools and a new form of the block-grant model approach to fix the system. We need to get on the same page and give the dedicated professionals at FEMA and in our states new flexibility to best serve impacted communities following a disaster. With the ever-increasing trend of severe natural disasters hitting the country, surely this is a matter upon which all Americans can agree. We can do better than this. We cannot let our future follow the same path as our past.

Screen Shot 2019-08-28 at 9.52.52 AM.pngAbout the Authors: C.H. “Burt” Mills Jr. is an Aransas County Judge. Judge Mills first entered politics in 1978, winning a seat on the Rockport City Council and serving one term. He then ran for the Office of Mayor and served in that capacity for four terms. He was successful in leading Rockport into many new endeavors, such as the commencement and completion of the new Rockport Beach Park. He successfully ran for Aransas County Judge in 2006 beginning his term on January 1, 2007, and was recently re-elected to his fourth four-year term that began on January 1, 2019.

 

Screen Shot 2019-08-28 at 9.59.27 AM.pngWilliam Whitson currently serves as Managing Director of his own private consulting firm, Local Government Visions, LLC, supporting local government operations since 2014. William has served as a City Manager, Assistant City Manager and Department Head. He most recently served as City Manager of Hapeville, Georgia. He has been active as a senior advisor & technical expert in the Long-Term Recovery efforts for Aransas County, Texas since October of 2017. Hurricane Harvey represents the seventh (7) Long-Term Recovery Operation in his career.