Almost two months after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, the Texas General Land Office continues to work out details of short-term disaster housing programs.
Pete Phillips, senior deputy director of Community Development and Revitalization at the land office, is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get the best possible deal, he said. He was confident the programs would move forward in coming weeks, he said.
At least one county elected official argues the state was ill-prepared to deal with the disaster.
“GLO doesn’t have any of the staff they had there after Ike,” Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said. “The disaster staff is all new. This is a bad time to be learning your job. We have people who need help, not for you to be getting your feet wet.”
But the land office insists it has worked swiftly to put programs together in a short time.
“I hope to see nails and hammers in the next 30 days,” Phillips said.
The land office will oversee five federally funded but locally managed assistance programs for individuals. These range from leasing apartments to temporary manufactured housing to making some basic home repairs.
Phillips will have to hire another 40 employees at the land office to manage these programs, he said.
Other programs that use U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds will help with long-term housing solutions, and the land office also oversees those programs for the state.
But for many Galveston County residents, the state’s response is stretching the definition of both rapid and short-term.
Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport, about 200 miles south of Galveston County, but in the 72 or so hours that followed, it dumped more than 50 inches of rain in some parts of the area, swelling creeks and bayous and flooding about 20,000 homes in the county.
More than 45,000 Galveston County residents have registered for FEMA assistance.
Georgeanna Santarelli, who lives on Oleander Drive in Dickinson, is one of them. She is waiting for temporary housing as she makes hard decisions about the long-term, she said. She registered for FEMA assistance and applied for a Small Business Administration loan, but so far hasn’t heard back.
“I’m hoping I will get a little trailer so we have a place to live,” she said.
The Santarelli family is staying in their flood-damaged house. They’ve already taken out drywall and are making other repairs as they can, she said.
FEMA has handled most of the immediate disaster housing programs after other Texas hurricanes. But with Hurricane Harvey, Texas and FEMA officials agreed the state would oversee the programs.
The Texas General Land Office now has 1,262 trailers, manufactured housing units and recreational vehicles to use for housing in post-Harvey recovery. Of those 1,262 units, six are ready for occupancy, 42 have work orders for delivery and 13 have pending work orders, Phillips said.
Phillips would not say where the units are installed because it would violate privacy regulations, he said. At least two of the units are in Rockport, he said in an earlier interview.
The land office will continue to purchase units for disaster housing as needed, and FEMA will reimburse the state for the cost, he said.
Providing disaster housing is always a collaboration between FEMA and local governments, FEMA spokesman William Lindsey said.
The emphasis now in federal response to disaster recovery is to include state and regional agencies more, Lindsey said.
“There are so many partners and agencies that come together,” Lindsey said.
The agency has found that it makes more sense to let states and local governments handle more of the housing because they have better knowledge of the area, Lindsey said.
“Instead of us coming in and starting from scratch, we’ve worked with them to pull from their knowledge base,” Lindsey said.
As recently as Hurricane Harvey, FEMA and Texas officials decided that letting the state handle more of the disaster housing options was the best solution, Lindsey said.
“It was a build-out of normal procedure,” Lindsey said.
The goal was to be transparent and expedite services for displaced residents after Harvey, he said. But FEMA and state officials had been having regular talks to discuss potential responses. One of those talks was in July, Lindsey said.
State Sen. Larry Taylor is optimistic the land office’s new involvement in short-term housing will cause an overall reduction in the time it takes residents to receive services after a storm, he said.
“I believe that the state’s response time to Harvey has been quicker than in the past, but between the severity of the storm and the number of people affected, we have faced some unwelcome delays,” Taylor said. “I am frustrated that the process has not been smoother for my constituents and other affected Texans, but given the challenges I am glad that we have better and more localized coordination with FEMA.”
FEMA took the lead in providing trailers for Texas residents in need after hurricanes Rita and Ike. Two state agencies helped with longer-term recovery issues. The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs handled disaster housing programs, while the now defunct Office of Rural and Community Affairs handled infrastructure and other recovery efforts.
The Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs used Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds for its programs until 2011. That year, Gov. Rick Perry shifted disaster housing programs to the land office.
The housing and community affairs department faced criticism for moving too slowly with housing after Ike and Rita, department spokesman Michael Lyttle said.
Phillips puts it another way.
“They weren’t building houses,” he said.
Harvey is the first hurricane to strike the Texas coast since the land office took over the disaster housing. Even so, FEMA was still considered the lead agency in getting those immediate disaster programs in place.
That changed Sept. 14 when Gov. Greg Abbott designated the land office as the agency in charge of short-term disaster housing programs such as getting trailers, providing basic sheltering repairs or arranging leases.
The operation to help about 800,000 Texans who registered for FEMA assistance will cost more than $1 billion, Phillips said.
This package of disaster housing programs has not been offered before, and it’s miraculous that the land office staff was able to get so far since Sept. 14, Phillips said.
Another program the land office is negotiating with FEMA is the Partial Repair and Essential Power for Sheltering. It’s new and based on pilot programs FEMA implemented in New York during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and in Louisiana during massive flooding in 2016.
This new program, also called PREPS, hasn’t rolled out yet because the state is still negotiating terms with FEMA, Phillips said.
The earlier programs only paid $12,000 for basic repairs to each house, but Phillips wants to hold out for as much money per house as possible, maybe doubling or tripling that amount, he said.
The land office has sent a draft of the proposal to FEMA and the federal Office of Administration and Budget has to approve it, Phillips said.
“The last piece is implementation,” Phillips said. “The hold up is not the availability of contractors.”
Steve Mataro, a disaster recovery specialist with DSW Homes, worked on the earlier versions of the program in New York and in Louisiana. His company refers to it as rapid rehabilitation, and he is waiting for a green light to get started in Texas.
“It’s still in FEMA’s court,” Mataro said. “The GLO is taking lessons learned from the New York and Louisiana pilot programs. During recovery, there’s tens of thousands of moving parts.”
Phillips has not been a big fan of the PREPS option because it only pays for a bare minimum of basic repairs and because contractor vendors have pushed for it. Many residents might not realize just how basic the fixes are, he said.
“I wouldn’t want my kid living with exposed wires,” Phillips said.
A program he much prefers is the Direct Assistance for Limited Home Repair that would cover more repairs, Phillips said.
Mataro is supportive of the land office and its efforts to organize the programs, but also agrees that the time it takes to get things going with rapid rehabilitation is a problem.
“There should always be pressure on recovery,” Mataro said. “The key to recovery is to remember it’s urgent.”
Daily News reporter Marissa Barnett contributed to this report.