Long-Term Disaster Recovery: Still a Broken Landscape for Smaller Local Governments

It's time for federal, state, and local partners to come together to develop a new approach. [PM Magazine, May 2020]

By Judge C.H. "Burt" Mills Jr. and William R. Whitson, ICMA-CM | May 1, 2020 | ARTICLE

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey came ashore in Aransas County near Rockport, Texas, as a Class 4 hurricane. The eye-wall crossed over this small jurisdiction, located on the Texas Gulf Coast, packing winds more than 135mph with torrential rains and an eight-foot storm surge. Harvey raged over 12 hours causing widespread devastation including a 25-percent loss to the local tax base. The courthouse, city hall, local aquarium, hospital, and center for the arts were all destroyed and a main bridge accessing a local island was heavily damaged. Yet in 2019, the area was just beginning to see significant federal and state dollars for rebuilding. Why?

Natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey are becoming ever more common, leaving many communities to recover from environmental catastrophes without adequate, timely support. The federal government, along with state and local partners, are the best in the world at disaster forecasting, event management, and immediate post-event response. When the flood waters recede and life safety is stabilized, and major press conferences with high-ranking officials making promises of support are done, local officials are left alone facing the long and arduous process of long-term recovery. It’s the local government leadership at ground zero that must pick-up the pieces and find a way to rebuild the community they know and love. As things currently stand, the overly complex and lengthy federal recovery processes and programs often leave smaller local communities in the lurch at exactly the moment when they most need support.

Knowing that we will have more highly dangerous natural disasters, why do we keep using the same old processes to respond?

To be effective, we must seek new ways to simplify and improve the disaster recovery process. After everything we do to respond and stabilize disaster situations, the question remains: why are local governments then left to struggle for years on the pathway to recovery?

Local officials involved in long-term recovery efforts believe that we must work together to find ways to ensure that federal and state dollars are appropriately spent, while also allowing for flexibility and quicker response times. Speed is critical for communities recovering from natural disasters. Instead of focusing on the missteps leading to federal funding “claw backs,” local governments should be focusing on how to rebuild more resilient and sustainable communities. The current process favors extensive documentation and time-consuming methods over agreed-on results. It’s time for local governments to work together and ask, “Why can’t there be a better way?” It’s time to see what can be done to improve the recovery process.

When disasters hit, local governments today turn to programs authorized by the Stafford Act to provide assistance. Under the Stafford Act, the presidential declaration of a state of emergency triggers response by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The National Incident Management System run by FEMA is unrivaled in its ability to handle disaster preparation, storm response, and immediate after-impact phases of an emergency response. The system can rapidly deploy public safety personnel, distribute food and water, clear roads, account for damage, and execute search and rescue operations like clockwork. Yet, when it comes to restoring communities through the long-term recovery process, FEMA, state partners, and local officials seem just as overwhelmed as local officials by the impact of the disaster. This often accompanies inadequate resources to support a sustained, and intense, long road to recovery. It’s time for new tools and techniques.

Why is our federal government falling short in supporting long-term recovery efforts?

In large part, it’s due to the limitations of a cumbersome, top-down system controlled from Washington in which federal dollars are tied to specific appropriations and subjected to lengthy federal procurement processes and rules. Though the Stafford Act was amended following Hurricane Katrina in an effort to make the programs more flexible and responsive, the system still functions in much the same way as before.

In Aransas County, we experienced great difficulty in getting water-based debris cleaned up from the community’s waterways after Hurricane Harvey. The county is coastal with miles of bays, estuaries, and shores. The economy is based on tourism and fishing. When Harvey came ashore, high winds and storm surge deposited tons of debris into the waters throughout the community. After the disaster, the county worked in concert with FEMA and the state to remove over 3.7 million cubic yards of debris from the land-based right of ways. However, the area’s waterways were subject to a never-ending bureaucratic disagreement over jurisdiction. Having debris clogging canals, bays, and waterways was a major barrier to the overall economic recovery of the area. The additional burden of having strings attached to federal funding left FEMA unable to address the conditions threatening the local economy and welfare of citizens. The extra time it took to return the local waters to usable conditions resulted in a direct economic hit to the area, which relies on tourism to sustain them.

Sustainability and resiliency are more than just buzzwords.

One of the goals of the Stafford Act is to promote hazard mitigation to reduce the risk of loss of life and property from future disasters. However, time and time again, FEMA’s red tape and extensive documentation procedures proved to be a major hindrance to preparing the community for the next disaster. Hazard mitigation dollars had to run through complex cost-benefit analysis formulas, requiring local communities to put time into compiling extensive technical records, historic narratives, and recreate maintenance records. That led to months of delay, especially since many records and documents were destroyed by the storm! Instead of focusing on projects key to the recovery effort that make the area stronger and more resilient to future storms, funds were only approved for projects that met complex and arbitrary cost-benefit ratio formulas. Meeting bureaucratic requirements should not take precedence over developing projects that local and state officials identify as essential to the recovery effort.

Planning for sustainability and resiliency is made more difficult by current federal requirements in other ways as well. Aransas County has many areas with high concentrations of poverty, and over 3,000 low/moderate-income residents lost their homes due to the storm. While Community Development Block Grant—Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) funds should be available to help provide relief for these residents, these funds also come with strict limitations. For example, the majority of affordable housing lost in Aransas County was not tied to sewer infrastructure before the storm, relying instead on septic tanks. This is a huge environmental problem for a coastal county with wet soil conditions. Septic tank runoff causes significant environmental harm to water quality in this sensitive coastal environment. Despite the clear benefit of extending sewer infrastructure simultaneous with the development of replacement housing units, CDBG rules prohibited us from doing so. As one state staffer informed us, “If the storm did not break it, then you cannot make it!“ This left the community with limited options in the replacement of outdated and environmentally hazardous systems instead of supporting forward-looking improvements simultaneous with recovery. Further, if the goal is to create more stable and storm resilient infrastructure, while saving future disaster dollars and improving the environment, such an investment makes sense. Instead, federal rules—or narrow interpretations of the rules—often prevent help from arriving for many months, and sometimes years after it was promised.

How can we better utilize these vitally important funds to rebuild our communities after major disasters?

FEMA and HUD have key roles to play in providing technical assistance in setting upfront goals for long-term disaster recovery. Once those goals are in place, state and local governments supported by federal resources should work toward meeting them. States also need more leeway to direct and approve recovery projects, rather than forcing local governments to deal with the bureaucratic bottleneck of our current system. It takes hundreds of staff hours to research, review, and apply for each separate federal funding stream that are critical to recovery operations. Hundreds more staff hours are essential to meet lengthy, complex administrative reporting processes required by federal procurement rules. Currently, local governments spend months waiting for FEMA or HUD approvals, sending in multiple documents. This leaves cash-strapped local governments to delay the purchases of needed equipment and repairs. For cyclical disasters like hurricanes, these lengthy delays leave communities exposed and even more vulnerable.

Imagine instead state and local partners working together to determine the most pressing needs created by the disaster, meeting them in a matter of weeks, not months. We need to build new recovery strategies with more locally-oriented, bottom-up approaches based on the experience and expertise of those with boots on the ground. FEMA and HUD could offer more administrative flexibility in emergency situations, while providing block grant funding support for innovative pilot programs that better support and prepare local officials for long-term recovery. This would allow more administrative discretion in the face of emergency conditions, especially with clean-up efforts for circumstances that threaten the local economy, hinder long-term recovery efforts, or pose a health and safety risk to the public.

Let’s give FEMA and HUD new tools and charge them with assisting locals.

By having FEMA work with local governments in the development of hazard mitigation and disaster recovery plans, efforts to aid the recovery and resiliency of an impacted community will be strengthened. Local governments under state supervision are best suited to develop plans tailored to fit the unique needs of communities. As such, waivers of some federal rules for grants, system administration, and procurement could be allowed when jurisdictions develop state-approved plans, thereby discontinuing difficult funding applications, stove pipe grant programs, and onerous reporting processes. Furthermore, waivers of rules could be limited to inside the impact zone, and for a specified period, to help expedite the recovery.

In addition, federal, state, and local governments—including the private sector—could apply for block grants, thus helping relieve the delays now happening at the local levels of long-term recovery. This is especially true for housing needs. FEMA could create a new pilot program for smaller jurisdictions, such as those with fewer than 50,000 residents, that would be based on this bottom-up approach. Under one potential model, following a federally-declared disaster, local officials would identify needs and together with the state develop a local recovery and response plan, for approval by the governor. At that point, federal, state, and even private sector resources could be allocated in a block grant to fund and execute the local adopted plan. Results would be measured based on outcomes, not compliance with mountains of rules and complex regulations.

FEMA should also encourage the use of technologies aimed at disaster and recovery management. In Aransas County, we asked to pilot “snap-together” modular housing technology to provide housing instead of the traditional manufactured housing units (FEMA trailers). This housing would have been delivered faster and more cost-effectively; giving victims stronger, more resilient permanent housing providing protection in future storm events. FEMA could have authorized pre-bid contracts so that in future natural disaster events, the necessary procurement processes would be fast tracked. Unfortunately, this request was never considered. Local officials identified workforce housing as a top priority for the local recovery effort; however, over 700 units of workforce housing are still in disrepair, have not been redeveloped, and are currently not back online to support the recovery effort.

In closing, long-term recovery needs significant improvement. It’s time for federal, state and local partners to come together and authorize new tools and a form of the block-grant model approach to fix the system. It’s time for Congress to give the dedicated professionals in FEMA, HUD, and the states new flexibility. With the ever-increasing trend of severe natural disasters hitting the country, surely this is a matter upon which all Americans can agree. We can do better than this. Will our future look like the past? We hope not!


JUDGE C.H. “BURT” MILLS JR. is county judge of Aransas County, Texas (judge@aransascounty.org).



WILLIAM R. WHITSON, ICMA-CM, is a retired city manager of Hapeville, Georgia; East Ridge, Tennessee; and Cairo, Georgia, among others, with over 25 years in the profession (wwwhitson454@gmail.com).



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