Hur­ri­cane Har­vey's over­looked vic­tims

Small towns face unique chal­lenges after dis­as­ters, lack­ing re­sources or ex­per­tise to ac­cess grants, funds.

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Sean Collins Walsh l scwalsh@states­

For many Amer­i­cans, the last­ing im­ages of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey will come from Hous­ton: tow­er­ing high­way in­ter­changes flooded to im­pos­si­ble heights and rows of roofs pok­ing out of the wa­ter in city neigh­bor­hoods turned into swamps — all with the Bayou City sky­line in the back­ground.

But as the na­tion turned its at­ten­tion to the dam­age Hur­ri­cane Har­vey wrought on Texas’ largest city, small-town of­fi­cials and res­i­dents from the Colorado River to the Texas coast were be­gin­ning to grap­ple with the unique chal­lenges they face as dis­as­ter vic­tims out­side the me­trop­o­lis.

In smaller com­mu­ni­ties, nat­u­ral dis­as­ters of­ten af­fect a greater per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion than they do in big cities, mak

ing it more dif­fi­cult to get back to nor­mal. Small cities’ gov­ern­ments of­ten lack the man­power or ex­per­tise to get the most they can out of the state and fed­eral grants for aid and re­con­struc­tion funds. Un­in­cor­po­rated ar­eas, with­out so much as a part-time mayor go­ing to bat for them, are at risk of be­ing over­looked when re­sources are dis­trib­uted.

“You’re al­ready see­ing an out­pour­ing of re­sources to the Hous­ton area and a bit of ne­glect, quite frankly, to towns along the coast

that were hit harder in terms of struc­tural dam­age,” said Shan­non Van Zandt, a Texas A&M Univer­sity ur­ban plan­ning pro­fes-

sor who stud­ies long-term dis­as­ter re­cov­er­ies in Texas.

Small towns might still face ad­di­tional hur­dles even after the ini­tial phase of the re­cov­ery ends and aid funds are dis­trib­uted. Moody’s, a credit rat­ings agency, last week is­sued a report say­ing that while larger cities likely have enough fi­nan­cial flex­i­bil­ity to re­cover from the storm with­out a credit down­grade, smaller lo­cal gov­ern­ments might be at risk due to de­pressed prop­erty val­ues and, for coastal towns, damp­ened tourism in­dus­tries.

“Dam­age and losses from Hur­ri­cane Har­vey are not likely to sig­nif­i­cantly im­pair credit qual­ity for ma­jor and ac­tively man­aged lo­cal govern­ment is­suers,” the report said. “Credit risks may be more se­vere for smaller and not ac­tively man­aged is­suers with thin liq­uid­ity, nar­row rev­enue pledges and/or few op­tions to re­cover any lost rev­enues.”

Most small towns al­ready op­er­ate on ra­zor-thin mar­gins, mak­ing it more dif­fi­cult to front the money for cleanup ef­forts and to cash in on projects that will lure sig­nif­i­cant match­ing funds from the Fed­eral Emer­gency Man­age­ment Agency.

The man whom Gov. Greg Ab­bott has tapped to lead the re­cov­ery ef­fort, Texas A&M Chan­cel­lor John Sharp, is from Placedo in Vic­to­ria County. Sharp said that he and other state lead­ers are mak­ing small towns a cen­tral fo­cus of the re­build­ing.

“One of the things that Ab­bott re­ally se­ri­ously wanted was for us to pay spe­cial at­ten­tion to the smaller ar­eas and least pop­u­lated ar­eas, and make sure none of those were over­looked,” Sharp said in an in­ter­view. “I’m from prob­a­bly the sec­ond-small­est town in the whole im­pacted area, so I’m re­ally sen­si­tive to that kind of thing.”

Sharp said he has ac­ti­vated A&M’s AgriLife Ex­ten­sion Ser­vice, which has an em­ployee al­ready liv­ing in every county in the dis­as­ter area, to co­or­di­nate re­cov­ery ef­forts out­side Har­ris County, where his gov­ern­men­tal re­la­tions team will take the lead.

The AgriLife em­ploy­ees, whose usual job is to in­form farm­ers about the lat­est agri­cul­tural tech­nol­ogy and re­search, will help lo­cal of­fi­cials ap­ply for aid and report back to state lead­ers on ar­eas that haven’t been served, Sharp said.

“Their job is to talk to the county judge, to the im­pacted peo­ple, school su­per­in­ten­dents, who­ever it is that needs help, and re­lay that to the of­fice that we have here,” Sharp said. “They shadow those lo­cal folks. They tell us what’s go­ing on on the ground.”

The American-States­man vis­ited three small towns stretch­ing from Cen­tral Texas to Matagorda Bay where res­i­dents are re­cov­er­ing from historic flood­ing.


Ce­cilia Gu­tier­rez, 73, looks through her be­long­ings, try­ing to find clothes to sal­vage after Hur­ri­cane Har­vey trig­gered historic flood­ing on the Colorado River and de­stroyed her mo­bile home in La Grange. She spent nine days in a Red Cross shel­ter at the Sec­ond Bap­tist Church be­fore FEMA placed her in a mo­tel. She is now pon­der­ing what her next move will be.


After Har­vey drenched the Austin area, a wall of wa­ter mak­ing its way down the Colorado River tore through La Grange, crest­ing at 54.2 feet and dis­plac­ing more than 100 res­i­dents.

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