Small communities affected by Harvey need our attention

Cecilia Gutierrez looked for clothes she could salvage from her mobile home which was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Harvey. (RESHMA KIRPALANI / AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The nation – perhaps the world – is aware of the devastation Hurricane Harvey caused in Texas. Many know of Houston’s ongoing struggle to recover. Forgotten are the smaller towns along the coast and beyond that are also hurting from the destruction caused by Harvey.

The saga of how small towns have been overlooked has been the focus of an American-Statesman two-part series that concludes Sunday. Reporters Sean Collins Walsh and Jeremy Schwartz found that recovery efforts are nearly non-existent in areas receiving little to no attention from state and federal officials.

Experts in disaster recovery say it’s common for small communities to struggle to compete for state and federal relief funds.

For that reason, small communities should lobby their state representatives to urge Gov. Greg Abbott to tap into the state’s $10 billion savings account, the Economic Stabilization Fund (the official name of the Rainy Day Fund), for their recovery efforts.

Places like La Grange, with its population of 4,690, are in dire need of help. There, a wall of water made its way down the Colorado River, cresting at 54.2 feet and displacing more than 100 residents. In Columbus, population 3,625, an entire neighborhood experienced severe flooding, displacing most residents. In these and other smaller communities, natural disasters often affect a greater percentage of the population than they do in big cities, making it more difficult to get back to normal, Walsh reported.

Governments in small cities often lack the manpower or expertise to handle what promises to be years of seeking grants and recovery funds from the federal government. Unincorporated areas — where residents do not pay city taxes that provide services like street repairs, sewer maintenance and other social services — are at a higher risk of being overlooked when resources are distributed because they have no officials, like a mayor, advocating for them.

Shannon Van Zandt, a Texas A&M professor who has studied disaster responses, said such “nonentitlement jurisdictions,” must instead look to funds distributed by the county or local council of governments and “compete for what recovery money is left over from the entitlement jurisdictions and hope that it funnels some money their way.”

The choice to request relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a difficult decision for some small communities, like Seadrift City, which has a population of just over 1,500. FEMA requires a 10- to 25-percent match paid upfront from the requesting city, an amount not readily accessible to the town, Schwartz reports.

This brings us back to the Rainy Day Fund.

Experts, state officials and local leaders in affected areas have requested that Texas dip into the fund to help recovery efforts. Abbott rejected such a request made on Monday by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

Now was not the time, Abbott said of Turner’s request. The state, Abbott said, will eventually tap into the Rainy Day Fund to help cover hurricane-related costs. But that won’t happen anytime soon — not until the next legislative session, which starts in January 2019.

That may not seem very promising. But small communities shouldn’t be discouraged by Abbott’s response, said Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp.

“One of the things that Abbott really seriously wanted was for us to pay special attention to the smaller areas and least populated areas, and make sure none of those were overlooked,” said Sharp, who was tapped by Abbott to lead the hurricane recovery effort in Texas. “I’m from probably the second-smallest town in the whole impacted area, so I’m really sensitive to that kind of thing.”

If true, that could be mean good news for folks in La Grange, Columbus, Bayside and other hard-hit small communities. It will be up to the people in those small communities to keep up the pressure and ensure they aren’t overlooked. It’s up to Texans to ensure these small communities know they aren’t forgotten.