Texas quietly enabled a revolutionary pre-disaster preparedness plan. Cities and counties need to buy in for it to work.

In 2018, Texas Housers and partner organizations urged the Texas Legislature to pass S.B. 289, a bill that allows local jurisdictions to write and submit their own pre-disaster housing recovery plans. This legislation was designed to ensure that local jurisdictions had the autonomy to provide aid tailored to their unique populations, which they lacked during past disaster recovery periods. 

With the passage of S.B. 289, a city or county was given the power to write a pre-disaster housing recovery plan using extensive community engagement, submit it to the Texas A&M Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center (HRRC) who scores the plan with their tool measuring its efficacy, and further collaborate with HRRC to solve any issues in the plan. Following this, the HRRC submits the plan to the Texas General Land Office (GLO), and the GLO and HRRC come to a decision on approving and adopting the plan within the county. Once the GLO has adopted the plan, the jurisdiction can begin to coordinate and implement the preparedness and mitigation portions of the plan in order to minimize damages from future disasters and efficiently and effectively recover. 

If a community is able to recommend exactly how resources are utilized during a disaster response and in preparation for the next disaster, especially in low-income areas, much of the confusion in the response and recovery periods can be mitigated, and response teams can mobilize proactively and quickly.

However, without active participation from city and county governments utilizing this law, its effectiveness is rendered powerless. Local governments engaging with the program is fundamental. The most important aspect of having a pre-disaster housing recovery plan is adopting it before the next disaster strikes, so communities can be better prepared for the recovery period. So far, however, there have been no submissions from a Texas county or jurisdiction to take advantage of this law.

Following Hurricane Harvey, the GLO received billions of dollars in Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds (CDBG-DR) from the federal government to administer a statewide housing recovery program. Within the city of Houston and Harris County, local jurisdictions were allowed to administer their own programs, but the GLO stripped them of the funding in 2020 and opened its own housing recovery programs in Houston and Harris County. Through the years of its administration, this program has failed at meeting the housing and recovery needs of many Houstonians, leaving thousands of applicants without assistance and diverting funding away from the housing programs. Their failure continues to the present, as many Houston residents have yet to have their homes rebuilt and feel like the persistent delays, mismanagement of the program, and poor treatment by administrative staff has hindered their recovery process, further propelling their activism by demanding they have control over their recovery process. Many community-led groups have formed in the absence of a reliable, equitable recovery program from the State.

Harvey Forgotten Survivors Caucus, a community organization founded to collectively understand and assist each other in trudging through the bureaucratic process of government-funded and -administered recovery programs, has spent the last four years organizing around their lived experiences to advocate program changes and improve the conditions they’ve unfairly experienced at the hands of the State’s failures. While their efforts to be heard at the city level were successful, the attention of the state by GLO program administrators and elected officials rendered no results for program changes. The Caucus has continued to assist applicants of the housing recovery programs and assisting those who were not able to apply to seek other avenues of repairing their homes. Disaster preparedness and assuring neighbors are connected during response and recovery are key priorities for the Caucus.

Northeast Action Collective, a community organization founded after Hurricane Harvey of many low-income residents in Northeast Houston who were left abandoned and without resources, has spent the last five years organizing around unjust drainage and flooding infrastructure in their communities that create conditions to allow the neighborhoods to flood persistently. They have been asking for funding and solutions to mitigate the flood hazards in their communities, which is being increased by development. One of their most significant achievements is their report titled “Survivors as Experts”, that details exactly what went wrong in the disaster recovery systems they have been subject to and how they believe the issues could be fixed, guided both by research and community experiences. These communities, aided by Texas Housers, are working to draft a pre-disaster recovery plan centered around housing to learn from past shortcomings in disaster recovery regarding low-income households. 

Though the GLO has been in a political battle with the city of Houston and Harris County over the Harvey funding and also been found to have discriminated against low-income Texas communities, S.B. 289 explicitly states that the GLO must respond to the submission of a plan and must offer constructive feedback, if they choose not to adopt it immediately. 

Without mobility and plans in place, disaster recovery periods are unsuccessful and cause significant delays in response and recovery, due to uncoordinated efforts and delayed decision making processes. These oversights and mistakes cause preventable damage that have most acutely affected low-income Black and Brown communities, who often lack private savings and insurance and rely heavily on insufficient public assistance programs to make it through the recovery process. 

We urge all cities and counties in hurricane-vulnerable areas to review their experience with past recoveries and take advantage of the opportunity offered by S.B. 289 to work with those at Texas A&M and the Texas General Land Office to submit a plan, in advance of the next disaster, to improve the disaster recovery experience for Texas homeowners and renters.

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