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Never too soon to begin preparing for next natural disaster

January 12, 2019

Some of the recommendations to the Legislature from the governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas — to help the state prepare for catastrophic storms — come with hefty price tags. But they don’t all carry sticker shock.

Yes, there are justifiable reasons for building a 70-mile coastal spine system to protect Galveston Bay from severe storm surge — at an estimated cost of $31 billion. Then there is a recommendation for an interagency radio system that would allow communication among response teams from various entities at a cost of $813 million. But these will be difficult to finance given the demands on Texas’ budget — school finance and criminal justice reform key among them.

However, some 50 other recommendations won’t take a huge outlay of funding, and they merit serious attention from policymakers at the local, state and federal levels.

As Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp, the commission’s chairman, put it when the report was released a few weeks ago, “The next natural disaster is a question of when, not if.”

There have been 351 federally recognized disasters in Texas since 1954. Tackling inefficiencies in how response teams operate, how residents can file claims and even in how debris is removed makes sense. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Harvey left more than 13 million cubic yards of debris that took weeks, even months, to remove in some communities.

It is encouraging to see Gov. Greg Abbott has moved on one of the recommendations — the Texas Division of Emergency Management will operate within the A&M University System. The state agency director will continue to run the operation as a vice chancellor of the university system.

The commission also proposes streamlining the bureaucracy so it is easier for disaster victims to submit the paperwork to get help if their homes or businesses are damaged. Currently, those seeking assistance must file duplicate paperwork with multiple agencies, a waste of time and money for both the filers and the processors.

The recommendations also call for creating a single-point portal to minimize the number of inspections a homeowner’s property must have to qualify for aid. During Harvey, 611,000 homes were inspected to determine if they qualified for federal emergency disaster aid.

The 178-page reports also asks the Texas Legislature to identify entities or groups that can tap federal funding for river debris cleanups and provide more training for local officials so they are better equipped to deal with post-disaster situations. Another recommendation is for a recovery task force of county extension agents and staff from state agencies and nonprofit organizations so readily available teams of experts can provide more efficient recovery.

There also suggestions for improved communication with the public through the use of social media and mobile apps during emergencies, and the report recommends developing a state website to serve as a post-disaster information source.

At least 68 deaths were due to Hurricane Harvey, according to the National Hurricane Center. The storm caused an estimated $125 billion in damage in Texas in August and September of 2017. Some communities and property owners are trying to adjust to a new normal. The final economic impact of Harvey on the Texas economy may take years to determine.

A report from the Senate Finance Committee released in late November indicates the state has already spent $2.7 billion on Harvey recovery, with $2.2 billion of that coming from the federal government. The state is also considering earmarking some $865 million in its next budget for school districts impacted by the hurricane.

Averting the next natural disaster is impossible, but much can be done now to prepare.

The commission’s report offers a good starting place. We suggest lawmakers give it a good read.

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