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Our year after Harvey shows need for change

August 26, 2018

One year after Harvey’s waters rushed over us, no one in Southeast Texas is celebrating victory. Too many of us still don’t have our homes back. Too many of us are still struggling to pay our bills. Too many of us have left.

We say that without discounting the tremendous progress that has been made. Much of the region has recovered, and the local economy is strong. Those are real pluses that no one should take for granted.

But the recovery isn’t complete, and the numbers are stark. About a fourth of the homes in the region were damaged by Harvey. Only 20 percent of them have been restored to pre-storm conditions. About 8 percent of those who had to flee in the rain never came back.

Many people remain hunkered down in ravaged homes — or in an RV in the yard — still grappling with their emotional and financial problems, waiting for FEMA or their insurance company to respond. Their houses look OK from the outside — like the region itself — but the story inside is not bright.

Our elected officials and layers of government need to absorb all this and shake up the disaster-recovery model that is working too slow for most and not at all for some. They need to stop taking no for an answer when someone up the line tells them that something can’t be done when it is very doable, or that they have to keep waiting patiently for aid that should have been delivered months ago.

After all, the people of Southeast Texas have made changes. They’re elevating some homes and evacuating others. They showed that volunteers and neighbors in bass boats can respond much faster and better than the government’s disaster specialists. With better coordination, training and communication, these self-appointed first-responders could have done even more.

At least FEMA belatedly acknowledged that volunteer hours can count toward local matches for repairing or replacing infrastructure damaged by disasters. How many hurricanes and floods have gone by without that?

The lesson of Harvey is that government must learn lessons from disasters. In too many ways, the recovery from Harvey is worse than the rebuilding after Rita and Ike. Aren’t they supposed to be getting better at this? Why can’t they do more to prevent so much scamming by unethical contractors?

The growing reality of climate change means that we will see more of this, not less. The calcified bureaucracy that was barely managing to function before is simply unacceptable from here on. Cities and counties have to stop funneling residents back into low-lying areas just because they lived there before. Some places by rivers or bayous need to be green spaces, not subdivisions.

Future disasters need benchmarks every 30, 60 or 90 days during recovery to break this model. By a certain date, certain things must be done in logical steps to maintain progress, from fixing roads to reopening public buildings to restoring homes. Maybe it can’t be done quickly, but a year later, the affected people should be able to have a sense that their lives are either back on track or getting there soon.

Too many Southeast Texans can’t say that now, and none of us can rest until they do.

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