After Hurricane Harvey hammered the Texas Gulf Coast, state and federal officials decided to change some of the ways they respond to a disaster.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was concerned it wouldn’t be able to handle the entire recovery effort, so Gov. Greg Abbott tasked the Texas General Land Office with short-term relief — finding temporary housing for displaced people and repairing minor damages.
The move has had unintended consequences for hundreds of thousands of Texans in need of help.
Brandon Formby, who’s spent months reporting on Harvey's aftermath for The Texas Tribune, says the recovery process was “delayed from the beginning.” The General Land Office wasn’t appointed to take over short-term recovery until nearly three weeks after the storm hit in the late August.
Also, because the General Land Office was used to handling long-term efforts — rebuilding communities with fewer regulations — officials had to go through a “crash course” on the programs that FEMA offered Texans and on the different laws and regulations surrounding those programs to determine what could and could not be done in the weeks and months after the storm.
On the delay on short-term housing help and its impact
Gov. Abbott’s office said that during those 19 days that the focus was on people’s immediate safety and recovery, and they hadn’t yet turned their attention or state resources toward short-term housing help. It left an unknown number of families living in limbo — people living in hotels, out of their cars, two or three families living together in one house.
Nearly 900,000 families asked for FEMA aid in just the three months after Harvey. And 40,000 of those qualified for short-term help, but more than 100 days after the storm, fewer than 900 families were getting it. And most of those families, around 33,000 families, by the time the General Land Office contacted them to say they qualified for housing help, they had already made other arrangements.
On the inevitable challenges of the recovery process
No two storms are the same and it’s hard to tell how much damage they’re going to do and where. The size of Harvey and the amount of rain it poured, especially over Houston and Beaumont, was epic. However, there have been postmortems after previous disasters like hurricanes Katrina and Ike, and one of the common refrains in those is that local, state and federal officials should have some sort of recovery plan in place to start using immediately after the storm. And then after Harvey, instead of using the framework of a previous plan, the state and FEMA decided to reinvent the wheel.
On the criticism of the response following Hurricane Harvey
Despite the delays caused by the General Land Office getting up and running for this new partnership with FEMA, along the Texas Coast a lot of the criticism is aimed at FEMA itself. Local officials and residents there say that the organization is just too big, that there’s too much bureaucracy, it’s too confusing. People don’t understand how it works and they don’t know how to get FEMA to help them.
On the lessons state officials have learned following Harvey
The General Land Office has said that it’s too soon to put together any sort of comprehensive lessons learned, but it is something that they’re working on. They’ve actually hired somebody whose sole job is to start identifying what delays were to basically put together at the end of this what they call “a new playbook for America’s response to disasters.”
FEMA told the Texas Tribune that the program it formed with the General Land Office probably did not get started as quickly as the agency would have liked, but noted it was a new effort.
Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.