Hurricane Harvey's overlooked victims
Small towns face unique challenges after disasters, lacking resources or expertise to access grants, funds.
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.