Texas should have storm recovery plans

December 3, 2008 3:28:11 PM PST
Texas should prepare for major storms with recovery programs and funding ahead of time instead of depending on the federal government for help afterward, officials said Wednesday. [SIGN UP: Get headlines and breaking news sent to you]

The recommendation was discussed during a legislative hearing on the lessons learned from the state's response before and after Hurricane Ike blasted ashore near Galveston on Sept. 13, flattening buildings and killing at least 37 people in Texas.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, chairman of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Ike, said state officials can't simply wait for help from the federal government.

"Instead of telling people we are waiting for (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), what is step two? How do we get debris removed, how do we get people in housing?" said Turner, whose committee held the hearing in conjunction with the Texas Senate Subcommittee on Flooding and Evacuations.

Many local, county and state officials, including Gov. Rick Perry, have been highly critical of FEMA's response in Texas in the wake of Ike. The agency has been accused of being slow in providing mobile homes and other housing to thousands of displaced Southeast Texas residents.

"If the state needs to put in place an extended disaster recovery fund while we are waiting for FEMA, that is a recommendation we need to take a look at," Turner said.

Jack Colley, the state's director of emergency management, said 2007 legislation allows his agency to administer the Disaster Contingency Fund to provide money and other help for local governments after a natural disaster. But no funding was provided, he said.

"You have legislation in place. The amount of money to put in there is up to you," Colley said.

Colley recommended that $50 million be allocated to the fund.

Michael Gerber, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs executive director, asked the lawmakers to consider creating a state contingency fund dedicated to providing temporary housing after a hurricane or other natural disaster. FEMA currently provides this temporary housing.

Many of the lawmakers at Wednesday's meeting expressed concerns that some people left homeless by Ike are still living in tents or cars.

Officials with Texas Department of Transportation also told the committees that it would be important for future hurricanes to have pre-established contracts in place so that debris removal can be done much more quickly.

Many Southeast Texas counties complained that they couldn't finish removing debris because they were waiting for FEMA to say if it would continue to fully reimburse them for these cleanup efforts. The federal government has since extended that benefit.

Five other committee meetings are scheduled through January. The committee expects to submit its report by mid-January.

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