Six months into the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, it’s clear the state and federal governments were not prepared to respond to such a disaster and still haven’t gotten their arms around it very well.
We have been arguing for months that disaster housing efforts funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and managed by the Texas General Land Office seemed slow to start and disorganized when they finally did get going.
It took about four months for the state to create and announce several programs meant to provide immediate, temporary housing options for Harvey victims, stretching the definitions of both immediate and temporary beyond what the words can bear.
In late December, which was entering the fifth month after storm, the state had finally struck a deal with a contractor to manage its immediate, temporary disaster housing efforts, and was attempting to find 73,000 people state-wide who seemed to qualify for the services.
Common sense argues that many of those folks had by then given up on government aid.
In January, the state and Galveston County were at odds over how to deal with temporary trailers slated to be parked in flood zones. Five months into the disaster recovery was an odd time to be arguing about that, it seems to us.
That same theme had played out in Dickinson as well, where city, state and federal officials were at odds over procedures for getting water, sewer and electrical services connected to FEMA trailers. Local people who couldn’t occupy the trailers were finding grim humor in having been given large, unattractive lawn decorations.
It struck us that the root cause of the situation was that the government had decided to rethink and restructure disaster response in the months just after a disaster — rather than between disasters.
Our opinion was based on our own reporting and other observations, but it’s now supported by a detailed analysis conducted by The Associated Press.
“Federal records reveal that it took nearly four times as long to house people in trailers after Harvey as it did following Hurricane Katrina, whose chaotic aftermath became a national scandal,” The AP reported.
“Repairs to houses also are running months behind the pace following 2012’s Super Storm Sandy and lower-profile disasters like Baton Rouge flooding in 2016.”
“Only 3,500 homes have been repaired in one Texas quick-fix program. A Government Accountability Office report showed nearly 19,000 repaired in New York during a shorter period after Sandy.”
The AP report noted that Gov. Greg Abbott had pledged just after the storm that Texas would lead its own recovery, “streamlining federal aid to storm victims while avoiding the staggering inefficiencies of earlier Washington-controlled disaster responses.”
That’s a political way of vowing to reinvent the wheel at a time when taxpaying residents were desperately in need of some fast action. The result has been predictable.
State officials are blaming federal red tape and attempts to avoid earlier problems, such as shoddy construction, for the delays, according to The AP.
“Bureaucratic red-tape at the federal level slows and hampers the recovery process,” said Ciara Matthews, Abbott’s spokeswoman, told The AP.
That’s an odd argument, given the state, at Abbott’s direction, decided to run the show itself.
What Abbott seems to have achieved through his streamlining was to add a layer of state red tape to the federal red tape. The result also has been predictable.
Texans would be better off today had the state gone with programs, flawed as they were, that had already been tested.
Like any widespread governmental failure, there’s probably blame enough to go around here. What’s more important than assigning blame is for elected officials at every level of government to iron these problems out before the next storm occurs, which, of course, could be soon.
• Michael A. Smith