Patience gone: Harris County Harvey program head demoted

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas (KTRK) -- Harris County commissioners decided to demote the head of its $800 million recovery program for Hurricane Harvey storm victims following an executive session on Tuesday afternoon.

The decision comes as thousands of homeowners are still waiting for help nearly two and a half years after Harvey made landfall in Aug. 2017.

"There have been unacceptable delays at every level of government to bring overdue recovery assistance to families trying to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Harvey," Commissioner Rodney Ellis said in a statement. "Our top priority is making sure that families receive their overdue recovery assistance as quickly and efficiently as possible."

Daphne Lemelle was demoted from community development director of the Harris County Community Services Department to serving as deputy director of the department. In a Nov. 2019 interview, Lemelle admitted the pricey Harvey recovery program hadn't helped anyone.

And, in December, Lemelle hired Guy Rankin on a temporary assignment. Rankin was the former head of the Harris County Housing Authority, but lost that job in 2012 amidst concerns with mismanagement and questionable spending. Two weeks ago, the county said it also "part(ed) ways" with Rankin.

In a statement to 13 Investigates, Lemelle said, "I support whatever actions are best for moving the disaster recovery programs forward and serving Harris County residents. If that means I should step back to get that done, I am happy to do so."

Commissioner R. Jack Cagle said the department shifted its primary focus to disaster recovery over the last 18 months and the change in leadership will help ensure "the department is able to fulfill its responsibility to help Harris County residents rebound from a series of recent catastrophes."

"Where (the department) once oversaw millions of dollars, it now oversees billions," Cagle said. "I believe that growth and changing focus have now outstripped the current director's ability to effectively manage the department."

Josh Stuckey, deputy executive director of the county's budget management office, will oversee the recovery program in the interim.

RELATED: 13 Investigates: How many people have received aid from Harris County's Harvey program? Zero.

The county judge's office told 13 Investigates that program manager Tetra Tech will also get elevated responsibilities.

During an interview in November, 13 Investigates asked Lemelle how many of the 5,700 homeowners who applied for the program or filled out a pre-application survey had received aid. The answer at the time was zero - no homes rebuilt and no reimbursement checks for storm victims.

"We aren't on target to meet the goals that we set for ourselves," Lemelle said.

RELATED: Harris Co. fires company paid $1.3M for Harvey recovery program

Two weeks after our investigation, the county terminated its contract with Virginia-based ICF International. The company had already been paid $1.3 million despite zero homeowners receiving aid.

"There are still outstanding issues to address in the Community Services Department, but today, our priority is keeping the disaster recovery program on track so families can get overdue assistance as quickly as possible," Ellis said in a statement.

As of Tuesday, the county said it has issued 12 checks as part of its Harvey reimbursement program. Two Homeowner Assistance Program applications have been approved, but construction hasn't started on any homes.

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