Hous­ing chal­lenge looms as f lood­wa­ters re­cede

Winnipeg Free Press - - NEWS - JOEL ACHENBACH

ON the flooded Gulf Coast, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple are fac­ing a hous­ing chal­lenge that will drag on long after the flood­wa­ter re­cedes.

Many have little in­for­ma­tion about the homes they fled. Now they must nav­i­gate the com­plex process of fil­ing in­sur­ance claims, seek­ing gov­ern­ment as­sis­tance and de­cid­ing whether to re­build or pick up stakes.

“We ex­pect a many-year re­cov­ery in Texas, and the fed­eral gov­ern­ment is in this for the long haul,” Elaine Duke, act­ing sec­re­tary of the Depart­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity, said Wed­nes­day.

The fed­eral agen­cies in charge of re­cov­ery face a task that is com­plex and mas­sive in scale.

“The life-sus­tain­ment mis­sion is huge. It’s gonna grow,” said Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency (FEMA) ad­min­is­tra­tor Wil­liam “Brock” Long, who hours ear­lier had re­turned from a trip to Texas, where he had seen the storm dam­age and flood­ing first-hand.

He reis­sued a call for vol­un­teers and said their help is needed be­yond the im­me­di­ate res­cue ef­fort.

“The need to vol­un­teer is go­ing to take place over the next cou­ple of years, OK? And the need to vol­un­teer, let me re­mind you, is in 50 coun­ties now, not just in Hous­ton, but every­where,” he said.

Re­tired coast guard ad­mi­ral Thad Allen, who helped lead the United States gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina in 2005, said, “We don’t have com­plete knowl­edge of what ev­ery­body’s sit­u­a­tion is. We know some peo­ple went to shel­ters. Some peo­ple went to rel­a­tives. It was like a di­as­pora. What we don’t know is how many hous­ing units were lost.”

“It is in­sur­ance claim ad­just­ment on a scale we have never seen be­fore in the his­tory of this coun­try,” he added.

Linda Thomp­son, a res­i­dent of the Robindell neigh­bour­hood in south­west Hous­ton, said this week that she had en­dured smaller floods in 2015 and 2016. This time, the wa­ter would have reached over her head had she not left for safety. She man­aged to sal­vage one card­board box con­tain­ing soggy pho­to­graphs that she was try­ing to pat dry with a towel in a ho­tel lobby. She said Har­vey’s flood­wa­ter has de­stroyed at least US$50,000 in be­long­ings, in­clud­ing cus­tom-made fur­ni­ture and orig­i­nal art­work. She plans this time to move rather than re­build.

“I’m just brac­ing my­self to see if I can do this, be­cause I know: get the el­e­va­tion cer­tifi­cates, get your doc­u­ments for the in­sur­ance and start fight­ing with the in­sur­ance com­pany,” Thomp­son said. “You’ve got to write all, like, see­ing what re­ceipts you have and write ev­ery sin­gle item­ized list.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Texas Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety, nearly 35,000 peo­ple had taken refuge in 231 shel­ters as of Wed­nes­day morn­ing. Of­fi­cials said 294,000 peo­ple re­mained with­out power from Cor­pus Christi to Port Arthur.

More than 10,000 res­cues have been con­ducted by state and county agen­cies, the re­port said, though that to­tal did not take into ac­count res­cues con­ducted by civil­ians. FEMA, which has co-or­di­nated the fed­eral re­sponse, said 12,400 em­ploy­ees from 17 agen­cies are work­ing to help the dis­as­ter sur­vivors in Texas and Louisiana. The agency said its ur­ban search-and-res­cue teams had res­cued 2,500 peo­ple, with another 4,200 peo­ple and 1,000 pets res­cued by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Hous­ton of­fi­cials have opened three ma­jor shel­ters: the Ge­orge R. Brown Con­ven­tion Cen­ter, which quickly filled with 10,000 peo­ple; the Toy­ota Cen­ter, where the Hous­ton Rock­ets bas­ket­ball team plays; and the NRG Cen­ter, a con­ven­tion cen­tre close to the old Astrodome, which was a ma­jor refuge 12 years ago for sur­vivors of Ka­t­rina who were trans­ported to the city. Dal­las is ready to take on another 6,000 storm sur­vivors.

Texas Gov. Greg Ab­bott (R) said the fed­eral aid pack­age nec­es­sary to re­spond to Har­vey “should be far in ex­cess” of the roughly US$120 bil­lion spent on the Ka­t­rina re­cov­ery. U.S. Rep. Sheila Jack­son Lee (D-Texas), who rep­re­sents cen­tral Hous­ton, said the fed­eral re­sponse will likely reach about US$150 bil­lion.

By Wed­nes­day morn­ing, 195,000 peo­ple had al­ready filed for as­sis­tance from FEMA, said Alex Am­paro, who leads the agency’s re­cov­ery direc­torate. The agency has given out more than US$35 mil­lion in dis­as­ter as­sis­tance so far, he said.

He urged peo­ple to start the process of re­cov­ery by fil­ing an in­sur­ance claim if pos­si­ble. Then they should reg­is­ter for FEMA aid at dis­as­teras­sis­tance.gov.

“Our as­sis­tance is not de­signed to make you whole, which is why it is im­por­tant to reg­is­ter with your in­sur­ance com­pany,” Am­paro said.

In the coun­ties de­clared a fed­eral dis­as­ter area, only 16 per cent of homes — about 400,000 home­own­ers — have flood in­sur­ance through the fed­eral flood in­sur­ance pro­gram, said Laura Light­body, di­rec­tor of the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts’ Flood-Pre­pared Com­mu­ni­ties ini­tia­tive.

“This is an event un­like we’ve ever seen be­fore that no one could have pre­dicted. It forces a na­tional dis­cus­sion about flood pre­pared­ness, the way that we plan and de­velop and think about liv­ing in ar­eas that are prone to flood­ing,” Light­body said Wed­nes­day. “Does it make sense to re­build or build in an area that we know is prone to flood­ing?”

Long ac­knowl­edged that the shel­ters “are ob­vi­ously not ideal,” but that peo­ple will have to be there for a while. So far, he said, 1,800 peo­ple have been placed in ho­tels and mo­tels un­der FEMA’s Tran­si­tional Shel­ter As­sis­tance pro­gram, in which the gov­ern­ment seeks to al­le­vi­ate crowd­ing in emer­gency shel­ters by di­rectly pay­ing ho­tels and mo­tels to put up dis­as­ter sur­vivors.

“The next goal is to save houses,” Long said. “This is where the vol­un­teers have to be or­ga­nized — help­ing peo­ple muck out their houses.”

FEMA is hir­ing tem­po­rary work­ers to sup­ple­ment the dis­as­ter re­sponse. Vol­un­teers can also sign up with the Na­tional Vol­un­tary Or­ga­ni­za­tions Ac­tive in Dis­as­ters.

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