Mayors of small South Texas towns devastated by Hurricane Harvey demanded Wednesday that state lawmakers remember their plight four months after the storm hit, as they battle housing shortages and massive looming budget shortfalls.
“We’ll be forgotten because it didn’t hit Corpus Christi,” Fulton Mayor Jimmy Kendrick told members of the House Land and Resource Management Committee at a hearing in Corpus Christi. “It hit Podunk U.S.A.”
The mayors said federal relief has been slow in coming and, therefore, recovery has been slow: Residents still live in tents and motels, their homes still damaged. Many businesses have yet to reopen in an area heavily dependent on tourism.
Their case began with statistics.
In Port Aransas, a beachside town of 3,800, the damage estimate clocked in at more than $700 million, the town’s mayor, Charles Bujan said. Rockport Mayor Charles Wax told lawmakers fewer than 400 of his town’s 1,300 businesses had reopened and the affordable apartments that workers there relied on were nearly all destroyed.
“All of these things are bad enough in themselves, but the most significant damage occurred to our citizens. Many of them lost their homes, all their belongings, their jobs and their sources of income,” Bujan said. “I’ve learned there is absolutely no way for me to quantify the emotional and physical impact a disaster of this magnitude on the persona of an individual.”
The storm’s toll on residents, homes and businesses is beginning to show up on each of these small municipalities’ ledger sheets as the tax base they once depended on shrivels, the mayors told lawmakers.
“If I start building houses today, they’re not going to even appear on my rolls until 2019, if I’m lucky,” Wax reported, telling lawmakers Rockport faced a $2 million budget hole in 2018 and likely a $1.6 million shortfall the year after.
Kendrick put it even more bluntly.
“Folks, we’re in trouble,” he told the lawmakers sitting at the dais in front of him. “If I wait on FEMA, it’s going to be two years; I need help.”
He added, “Gentlemen … you’re our saviors.”
State agencies had spent $437 million on Harvey-related disaster recovery as of last month, according to the Texas Department of Emergency Management. Congress approved $51.8 billion in disaster relief for Texas and other areas hit by natural disasters this year. The U.S. House on Monday proposed spending an additional $81 billion for disaster aid.
Along with the tally of the damage done by the storm came the litany of complaints about the red tape that seems to have slowed efforts to get residents out of motel rooms and tents and into temporary housing. Much of the ire was directed at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“The one program I have dealt with over the last four months is FEMA, and they have made a fatal mistake by not being upfront and personal with the people they were supposed to service,” Bujan said.
“I cannot say that FEMA has not helped us, because they have,” he added. “But overall, in addressing the long-term housing needs of my community, they have been a colossal failure.”
Added Kendrick, “George Bush and his (General Land Office) group are set up to fail.”
Land Commissioner George P. Bush sat just behind the mayors as they testified for much of the morning. The General Land Office, which he leads, plays a key role in running several temporary housing programs in coordination with FEMA.
“It has been a frustratingly slow process. While we’re proud of the work we’ve done, we know there is much more to do,” Bush told the lawmakers before the mayors testified. According to Bush, there are now 861 families in temporary housing along the coast and nearly 1,900 more units are on the way.
However, the mayors said that actually getting housing was only part of the bureaucratic battle. Once it is on the way, they must contend with strict federal privacy laws, which they said make it nearly impossible for them to stay in the loop and help residents with their applications for aid.
“Our biggest problem remains a lack of communication,” said Aransas Pass Mayor Ram Gomez, who added that federal privacy laws slowed city efforts to make sure the housing was permitted.
Rockport’s Wax echoed the complaint.
“I’m the mayor of a city, I have a (manufactured housing unit) coming down the highway, the truck driver knows where it’s going, the electrician — who is going to hook it up — knows where it’s going,” he said. “I don’t know, my building and development office doesn’t know, my permitting office doesn’t know, but the truck driver knows. That needs to be fixed.”