Are the needs of impacted communities truly reflected in the state’s action plan?

The state’s draft action plan for spending $57.8 million in federal disaster recovery funds was released last Thursday. The Texas General Land Office, which oversees the administration of the federal funds, has given the public 14 days to comment. Every day until Feb. 1, we’ll be asking fundamental questions about the action plan as we draft our own comments to the GLO to advocate for equitable disaster recovery for all Hurricane Harvey survivors. 

The Texas General Land Office (GLO) has great power to determine which communities and which disaster survivors will receive federal funds to rebuild homes and improved stormwater infrastructure that will protect them from the next hurricane that hits.

The only check on this governmental power is transparency and citizen oversight.

A fair and accurate needs assessment in the Texas hurricane recovery plan is essential. Unfortunately, there is much lacking in the GLO’s assessment in the draft Action Plan that is now open for public comment.

The needs assessment will guide the State’s spending of federal funds to help people impacted by the hurricane recover. The State must get this needs assessment right. The needs assessment section in the State’s draft action plan discusses prior disasters, wind speeds, rainfall totals and the track of Hurricane Harvey. That is good but is not enough. After those six pages of weather data, much of the information presented on the communities impacted focuses on data that the State obtained from the U.S. Census and state data that were all collected before the hurricane hit.

For example, much of the data presented about demographics in impacted areas has been obtained through the American Community Survey, which may not reflect the populations impacted by Hurricane Harvey. It appears that the race, ethnicity, ability status, household income and tenure of the resident are all being determined by aggregating this American Community Survey data from all 49 counties declared disaster areas, rather than by gathering data based on who was actually impacted and how severely.

While this data provides useful context, it is insufficient to convey the true need of communities impacted. The State has not done enough to ensure that what happened on the ground during Hurricane Harvey, and what survivors are truly experiencing, is reflected in this needs assessment. In this 35-page section of the action plan, there is not a single voice or experience a Hurricane Harvey survivor. It contains only aggregated numbers of claims and FEMA applications, weather data and explanations of how the state’s economy has been impacted. While federal agencies do not require any individual stories be shared in a state action plan, the Department of Housing and Urban Development requires stakeholder engagement. In designing programs to assist disaster survivors and in understanding the type of assistance survivors need, it goes without saying that it is important to consult with them. It is also unclear if the GLO sought insight about what survivors and their neighborhoods have experienced from service providers and community-based groups.

Data that includes community voices is essential to a needs assessment and has been effectively collected by others. For example, the Episcopal Health Foundation and Kaiser Family Foundation produced a December report that showed, based on a telephone poll survey, that nearly half of all Texas residents affected by Harvey were not getting the help they needed. The researchers reached out to households, who reported their experience with job and property loss as well as their experience in seeking assistance. GLO and Texas officials would come a lot closer to understanding the needs of the people they’re serving if they just asked them.

Consulting survivors about their experience can uncover needs and problems that statistical data alone cannot, such as the problems exposed in the Episcopal Health Foundation and Kaiser Family Foundation poll results which found that Black and low-income residents experienced getting help (see chart below).

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A systemic flaw in the State’s needs assessment is that the State is estimating unmet housing need and community infrastructure needs based on data that is not available to the public. The draft action plan also discloses little about the methodology the GLO used to prioritize some communities over others.

FEMA assistance data on the granular, detailed level that describes the experiences of individual households has not been released to the public. Despite advocates’ (including Texas Housers) multiple formal, official requests to see this FEMA data, so we can analyze it and provide meaningful comments on the State’s plans, the only people who have been allowed to see the data have been FEMA and GLO officials. Genuine public participation in this action plan, the type that is required by law, is not possible without transparency, and the process has not been transparent thus far. Keep in mind that the public process ends in just eight days. We at Texas Housers, and our attorneys are working to get access to the FEMA data that can show us the same picture Texas officials say they are seeing, until then however we can only call on the state to provide more detail on their methodology.

Ultimately, the action plans for Hurricane Harvey will make decisions about where billions of taxpayer dollars are spent and who they will be spent on. It is not enough for the State to say to Texans that they cannot have access to the underlying basis for those decisions by the handful of state officials. While we trust, we demand the right to verify.

Finally, it is important to note that FEMA does not collect data on race and ethnicity. People are protected in civil rights law from discrimination based on race and ethnicity — meaning that our government must work to ensure that there is no discrimination, especially in the use of public funds. Too often in the past (think Katrina), people of color, persons with disabilities (and households with low incomes) are left behind in a disaster. Texas Housers and other community partners have witnessed this over the last 10 years through four major hurricanes. When considering how recovery plans are developed out of needs assessments such as this, it is not surprising that vulnerable populations are left out. Their experiences are often not counted.

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It is long past time for Texas officials to start taking steps to ensure that every Texan impacted by disasters can access the help they need to recover quickly. This starts with the use of publicly accessible data and transparency in the planning process that can tell the true and full story of disaster survivors by producing an accurate assessment of their need.

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