Columnist Robert E. Hegner: Harvey’s lessons can lessen damage in the future

  • Juan Banda removes flooded carpeting from a home in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on Saturday in Houston.  AP PHOTO

  • Dwight Chandler walks through his devastated home in Highlands, Texas, on Aug. 31. Chandler, 62, said he worried whether Harvey's floodwaters had also washed in pollution from the old acid pits that were designated as a U.S. EPA Superfund site just a couple of blocks from his home.   AP PHOTO

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

The Aug. 30 article, “Most flood victims on hook to pay for home repairs,” accurately reports that homeowners insurance does not cover flood damage and the majority of storm survivors in Texas do not have flood insurance.

It also accurately states that some homeowners will take out low-interest loans to pay for home repair or replacement.

However, many other forms of federal assistance are likely available. Right now, authorities and charities are focused on search, rescue, getting people to safety and caring for their immediate needs. At the same time, they are preparing for the short- and long-term recovery.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is taking applications for individual assistance for items not covered by insurance. These may include temporary measures to stabilize their home, temporary housing assistance, and assistance for immediate needs as well as to replace contents such as clothing, household goods, and furniture.

FEMA, the Small Business Administration (SBA), state and local teams will survey affected areas to document the extent of damage to individual homes and businesses. This information will be used by FEMA to determine what programs and assistance is needed, and SBA to issue low-interest loans; but not all households or businesses will qualify for these loans.

Authorities will assess the extent of damage and how much of that will be covered by insurance, FEMA, SBA loans and other sources. The difference will be identified as an “unmet need” and will be the basis for Texas to request a disaster recovery appropriation from Congress.

Assuming this appropriation occurs, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will issue a Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) to Texas and likely Houston and other communities. CDBG-DR funds can be used for a variety of recovery programs, including grants to individual homeowners to repair/replace their home, grants to landlords to repair/replace rental properties, mortgage assistance, and home buyouts.

While funding can be in the form of low-interest or forgivable loans, in most cases the recipients receive a grant that does not have to be repaid. CDBG-DR assistance comes with many requirements, which may include the need to carry flood insurance in perpetuity and elevate the home above the new floodplain. These are expensive and may be beyond the means of many households.

Many other federal agencies will participate in the recovery effort. Examples include FEMA Public Assistance funding for debris removal, repair of roads, highways, schools, hospitals, and critical infrastructure; Federal Highway Administration funding to repair federal roads; and Environmental Protection Agency funding to harden and expand water and wastewater treatment facilities. These funds require a state or local match of up to 25 percent, although CDGB-DR funds can be used to pay for the match.

Tens of billions of federal dollars will help, but the road to recovery will be long and hard. Flooded communities will lose their property tax base for years, making it difficult for them to provide essential services. Jobs will be lost, making it difficult for homeowners to survive let alone continue to make mortgage payments on their uninhabitable home.

Unethical contractors will take down payments and disappear. Many homeowners will run out of money before their home can be finished. Recovery will be particularly difficult for undocumented immigrants, who are not eligible for SBA or CDBG-DR funding.

Recovery is slow. Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and the recovery is still ongoing. Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012 and the recovery will continue until 2022 or longer.

Disasters and subsequent recovery efforts provide opportunities to do things smarter and better. Houston, for example, has no local zoning. Enacting reasonable restrictions on rebuilding in certain areas could mitigate future flood damage.

Critical infrastructure can be rebuilt stronger and more resilient. Lessons learned from Katrina, Sandy, and Harvey can be applied today to mitigate future damage to vulnerable areas. The worst thing we can do is wait and hope it doesn’t happen to us.

Robert E. Hegner, of Amherst, is a hurricane recovery expert who worked on Hurricane Katrina recovery in Louisiana and is working on Hurricane Sandy recovery in New Jersey and New York.