Months after Harvey, frustration continues for cities, citizens applying for relief

Damage after Harvey flooding to a concrete barrier at a road at River Bend Park in Smithville. (Photo Courtesy Robert Tamble)
Damage after Harvey flooding to a concrete barrier at a road at River Bend Park in Smithville. (Photo Courtesy Robert Tamble)

SMITHVILLE, Texas (KXAN) — Public officials and private citizens are discovering that the path to recovery after Hurricane Harvey is long and expensive. For residents in places like Smithville, the recurrence of disaster is starting to feel like more of a pattern. As they wait for assistance, both city leaders and residents say the unaddressed problems are piling up.

Smithville has applied for around $300,000 in FEMA relief, explained city manager Robert Tamble. FEMA representatives have already begun visiting the city and evaluating damages.

Tamble explained that the city has already paid out of pocket to respond to the damage from Harvey. From sending out crews to work overtime, to getting the power back on, to conducting water rescues, he estimates the city has spent between $50,000 and $70,000 already.

Tamble showed KXAN a road at Vernon River Bend Park that will be one of the most costly spots for the city to fix. The entire road caved during Harvey. The spot was also damaged during flooding in 2015, which prompted the city to build a concrete barrier there. The area flooded again twice in 2016. Ironically, the week that Harvey hit, Smithville had just received the funds to make repairs. Rains from Harvey destroyed the concrete barrier, leaving the city with even more expenses at the road than the original FEMA funds they applied for could offer.

The city of Smithville paid for a temporary fix to the road. Tamble said he is frustrated because he would like to make long-term improvements to prevent future problems, but he can’t do so without help. River Bend Park, which hosts events, Frisbee golf and RV camping has been closed since Harvey, and the city has lost revenue as a result, Tamble said.

Tamble clarified that he’s felt like FEMA’s public assistance program has been effective so far, but what he wants is more federal help to get  funds to prevent these problems.

“I’m extremely disappointed in the time it takes for a municipality to get approved to undertake projects that will help mitigate the hazard in the first place,” Tamble said.

The city applies for relief through public assistance. It’s a separate process from how citizens apply for individual assistance. Smithville Mayor Scott Saunders said he has met with most of the more than 100 Smithville residents who’ve applied for FEMA relief, and out of all of them he can only think of two who were successfully approved for funding.

“We would go in, and to go and offer these people some help and say, ‘don’t worry, FEMA’s on the way,’ then find out that about 90 percent of them have been denied coverage, that’s another heartbreak,” Saunders said.

Saunder’s own grandparents live in a flood zone in Smithville and were denied FEMA relief because their income was too high to qualify, even though they live on a fixed income. He has been speaking with lawmakers about getting flood victims reimbursed more quickly and more consistently in the future.

“We understand that there are other cities affected a lot worse than Smithville was, but these individuals here in town deserve and opportunity to get back on their feet again,” Saunders said.

When it comes to disasters, Bastrop County residents have certainly seen their fair share. Judge Paul Pape of Bastrop County confirmed that as of Monday, there are six active disasters declared in the area. Five of those are floods, one is a fire, and all of them have occurred since 2011. Judge Pape said this makes Bastrop County the county with the most active federally-declared disasters in the nation right now.

According to a spokesperson for FEMA Monday, Bastrop County has seen 726 registrations for FEMA relief with $633,870 FEMA dollars allocated. Fayette County has seen 785 registrations with $3,941,589 allocated. After Harvey, FEMA  has paid $1.26 billion, the Small Business Administration has paid $1.44 billion and the National Flood Insurance Program has paid $2.37 billion in 41 counties.

For those who want to register for FEMA assistance after Harvey, the deadline has been extended to Nov. 24. The deadline to apply for Transitional Housing assistance is Nov.7 and the deadline to apply for disaster unemployment assistance is Oct. 31.

While the FEMA relief center in Smithville closed last week, those in Smithville seeking assistance can contact the Smithville Lion’s Club for help, regardless of their income.

FEMA announced that a disaster recovery center will open in Caldwell County in Lockhart on Oct. 24. It is located at 901 Bois D’ Arc St.

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