Fort Bend County Judge: Hurricane Harvey aftermath will persist for weeks

Fort Bend County residents are advised not to place debris in plastic bags.

Fort Bend County residents are advised not to place debris in plastic bags.

Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert advised residents and community members during a commissioner court meeting Tuesday that even though Hurricane Harvey has left the region and the floodwaters are starting to recede, the county is still in a state of emergency.

“Our emergency declaration was two weeks…We will have to extend it,” he said.

Hebert said the county is now entering a recovery mode that will consist of debris management, damage assessment and addressing disaster recovery issues.

Recovery mode

Representatives from the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management provided commissioners with updates on the aftermath of the hurricane and flooding that the county must address.

“…Nearly 22 percent of our county was flooded at its peak,” said Jeff Braun, emergency management coordinator for the OEM. “At one point, we had 29 different shelters open in the county. We are now down to three shelters.”

The county’s recovery consists of three elements—damage assessment, debris management and addressing disaster recovery issues.

“A longer-term more detailed damage assessment will be done over the next week and a half,” Braun said.

Debris pickup trucks were deployed earlier this week, and more will be fully operational and deployed by Saturday, according to Hebert. Hebert said residents should sort their debris accordingly and not to place any debris in plastic bags, or it will be left on the street.

Hebert said the trucks will make multiple trips to houses with debris and that if any debris are left residents should be aware the trucks will eventually come back again.

“…We will be in front of every house that has debris at least three times during the process,” he said. “…But it will be a matter of weeks before this is finished. Not days—weeks.”

The third component to the aftermath of Harvey, addressing disaster recovery issues, consists of FEMA setting up disaster survival assistance teams and disaster recovery centers.

DSA teams go out into the community to help people register for FEMA assistance. Teams are presently stationed at the shelters at the Kendleton Church of God and Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Rosenberg. The DRC’s are for people who have already registered for FEMA assistance that have questions about a claim or need to submit additional paperwork.

“We are working to set that up, we have several locations in the county in mind [that] all in impacted areas,” said Caroline Egan, disaster recovery manager for the OEM.

Egan warned that for those residents who applied for FEMA assistance and were denied that they should carefully read the denial letter.

“…A lot of times, the reason why they may be denied is just because they needed to submit an additional piece of paperwork that they did not do originally,” Egan said.

Egan said individuals that do not qualify for FEMA assistance can register with a small business administration that will provide them with low interest loans.

FEMA concerns

Some commissioners expressed concern that some of the residents in their precincts will be unable to receive benefits from FEMA because they already applied for benefits during previous flooding events, such as the May 2015 floods.

“Anybody who was flooded in the floodplain and received benefits, those benefits are a one-time benefit now by federal law,” Hebert said. “So, if you received benefits in a previous flood in Fort Bend County, you’re no longer eligible and they have to deny you.”

Hebert said there are some gray areas to this issue and that he and U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, are working to help individuals who are in the same situation.

“He has set up a disaster recovery desk in his office and he will take each one of those [cases] and pursue them with FEMA and get you an answer,” Hebert said.

Hebert dispelled rumors that he was lobbying to have the government buy out the 4,000 homes behind Barker Reservoir to help residents that were flooded there, and clarified that he is working with Governor Abbott’s emergency management office to work with FEMA to help those residents.

“I think there will be additional benefits coming to the area through Congress as they gather to consider what they will do,” Hebert said. “…FEMA can only deal with the rules and regulations under the laws that exist right now. They can only spend the money they are authorized to spend, so there is a disconnect.”

Affecting the tax rate

Another implication the hurricane has on the county is on the proposed tax rate. The court recently proposed a half-cent reduction to the tax rate but commissioners expressed uncertainty about whether that reduction is the right move now that circumstances have changed due to the hurricane.

The half-cent tax rate reduction translates to $3.1 million of debt service, according to Hebert.

Commissioners were advised that if they were to adjust the tax rate to account for the Harvey damage it would require them to completely start over the process, which includes proposing a new rate, holding two public hearings and then eventually adopting the new rate.

“We really just need a sampling and a roof count to give us an idea of the scope of the adjustment,” Hebert said. “…we could probably make a decision on whether we could weather the storm with a half cent reduction.”

“Obviously, we want to do the thing to give some actual relief to the taxpayers that were damaged [but] at the same time we need to make provisions for funding the deficit we can project.”

Commissioners will hold a special workshop 4 p.m. Friday to further discuss the recovery process and financial implication on the county tax rate. The first public hearing on the county tax rate is set for Wednesday, Sept. 13 but is subject to change.