It’s going on 60 days since the rains of Hurricane Harvey flooded something like 20,000 houses in Galveston County, displacing an estimated 45,000 people.
State officials say it might be another 30 days before programs meant to provide short-term disaster housing aid actually begin providing any short-term disaster housing aid.
It’s already clear many homeowners who might have benefited will have done the basic work one of the programs is meant to pay for by the time the program is available.
How, and even whether, programs state officials are working to get underway will benefit those taxpayers is unclear. About the only thing that is clear about post-Harvey housing efforts right now is that there’s got to be a better way to do post-disaster housing.
That’s not necessarily a criticism of the Texas General Land Office, which is charged with managing various programs funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, although some criticism might be justified.
People at the land office, from the commissioner down to officials at the program level, have been assuring us they’re working diligently to deliver the best possible programs to Texans needing various kinds of housing assistance.
We have no reason to doubt that and accept as fact that they’re all working hard, day and night, and with nothing but the best possible intentions.
That’s not the point. The point is that two months of that hard, diligent work has gone into developing a new administrative framework for delivering programs that have been delivered many times before.
Land office officials have been talking for weeks, for example, about how they’re negotiating with the federal agency over bureaucratic program details.
It’s fair to ask — after Katrina, Rita, Ike and Sandy, to name just a few that come quickly to mind — what was left to negotiate?
Apparently, what’s happened is that our governments, state and federal, thought the days immediately after a major natural disaster would be a good time to re-imagine to whole concept of delivering post-disaster aid.
The practical effect of that apparently has been the state is now tasked with doing ground-level work that FEMA had done in the past, while FEMA has become a mere conduit for money.
Like all government ideas, this was a good idea, according to the government. But some of the statements meant to explain and justify it, taken together, are bizarre and don’t inspire much confidence that we’re getting good information or will get good programs.
Spokesman William Lindsey, for example, said FEMA decided it made more sense to let states and local governments handle more of the housing since they have better knowledge of the area.
“Instead of us coming in and starting from scratch, we’ve worked with them to pull from their knowledge base,” Lindsey said.
Meanwhile, the land office explains its slow response by saying it had never done this before, had no knowledge base and is, in fact, starting from scratch.
The land office doesn’t even have the staff on hand to manage the programs, and will have to hire another 40 employees to get work done, spokesman Peter Philips told The Daily News.
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry summed it up pretty well.
“GLO doesn’t have any of the staff they had there after Ike,” 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.”
The question here isn’t whether the federal government should spend billions of tax dollars attempting to mitigate the consequences individuals face after natural disasters. That’s a done deal.
The only question is whether those billions will be spent in the most efficient and effective ways.
Nothing about this process so far makes us confident that will be the case.
• Michael A. Smith