Despite pandemic, South Texans must document storm damage precisely before FEMA steps in

Texas

Texas Emergency Management Chief tells Border Report damage threshold must be met before region qualifies for more federal help

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — When Gov. Greg Abbott toured the South Texas border region Tuesday, he brought along the regional administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency “to see firsthand about the challenges that exist” after Hurricane Hanna pummeled the region.

But on Wednesday, Hidalgo County officials put out a statement saying FEMA “has NOT arrived,” and that caused some confusion about whether the federal agency will help the thousands who remain without electricity and whose homes in the Rio Grande Valley remain flooded.

Texas Department of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd speaks to media on Tuesday, July 28, 2020, in Weslaco, Texas, after touring the Rio Grande Valley with Gov. Greg Abbott to assess damage from Hurricane Hanna. (Border Report /Sandra Sanchez)

The short answer is yes. But getting help from FEMA can be complicated and involves federal statutes and protocol, state guidance and a lot of local self-reporting of damage in affected areas, which is tricky, especially in this low-income border region that is one of the nation’s worst hot spots for COVID-19 right now.

Texas Department of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd, in a 25-minute phone interview with Border Report on Wednesday, explained that FEMA “is absolutely currently helping,” and has been helping, with some emergency costs relating to Hurricane Hanna in Hidalgo County, as well as the 31 other Texas counties that received an emergency declaration by President Donald Trump due to the hurricane. This includes costs associated with operating emergency shelters and rescue efforts paid out at 75 percent by the federal government, under FEMA Category B Emergency Protective Measures that were announced on July 26.

But Kidd, who is the state’s top emergency official, said in order to qualify for additional federal help, a “major disaster declaration” must be granted by the president. In order to get that, affected areas must meet certain damage threshold amounts, and that requires local municipalities to report to state leaders all damage-related costs from the hurricane.

That means local residents and business owners must get involved on a granular level and self-report their damage to local leaders. But local leaders tell Border Report that is a tall order in a region where many residents live in poverty and don’t have Internet access.

Once local municipalities send the information to the state and the threshold has been reached, then Abbott can ask FEMA for “major” federal assistance funds. This additional help could assist homeowners and businesses flooded from the storm, infrastructure damage and more.

“The locals identify, the state certifies and FEMA verifies. But the locals have to go in and verify,” Kidd said via phone. “As soon as the locals prove to us that we are over the threshold then we will make the ask.”

The locals identify, the state certifies and FEMA verifies. But the locals have to go in and verify,”

Texas Department of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd

The Category 1 hurricane made landfall on the Texas Gulf Coast on Saturday night and then slowly dragged through the Rio Grande Valley, dumping up to 15 inches of rain. The counties of Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr were hardest hit, with 3 to 5 inches of additional rain falling on Monday as the downgraded tropical storm stalled in the nearby mountains of northern Mexico.

On Tuesday, Abbott toured the region by helicopter with FEMA Regional Director George “Tony” Robinson, and then met with mayors, state representatives and senators from South Texas as well as the three county judges.

Afterward, Abbott held a news conference in the town of Weslaco, where he introduced Robinson — the FEMA Region 6 administrator in charge of Texas, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

FEMA Region 6 Administrator George “Tony” Robinson, second from left, accompanied Gov. Greg Abbott on a July 28, 2020, helicopter tour of the Rio Grande Valley to view damage from Hurricane Hanna in South Texas. Seated right of Abbott is Texas Department of Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“FEMA plays a prolific role in responding to hurricanes,” Abbot said. “Actually, FEMA is playing a big role in helping us respond to COVID-19 also. So having Tony Robinson in the Rio Grande Valley is very important for him to get to see firsthand about the challenges that exist, the needs that exist, and the funding that is needed to help people in the Rio Grande Valley respond to both of these challenges.”

That is why the Wednesday notice sent by Hidalgo County officials was so confusing and seemed to imply that the federal agency was not actively helping. “The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has NOT arrived in Hidalgo County. As soon as FEMA arrives the public WILL BE notified on how and where to apply for assistance,” the notice said.

On Wednesday afternoon, county officials walked back their message, a bit, saying in a tweet that FEMA officials were on the ground offering assistance.

Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator Ricardo Saldaña told Border Report on Wednesday that his office is aware of the protocols they must follow to access more federal assistance, but he said that was difficult to document during this ongoing crisis. Currently, he said, FEMA is helping to defray costs associated with shelters and rescues in the county.

A flooded street is seen in McAllen, Texas, on July 26, 2020. Hurricane Hanna dumped up to 15 inches of rain on South Texas after making landfall on Saturday, July 25, 2020, in Padre Island, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

On Wednesday, there were two shelters still open; a total of five had been operating when the hurricane made landfall on Saturday night about 100 miles away on Padre Island. And about 80,000 county residents remained without power, Saldaña said. The entire region remained in a flash flood warning and more heavy rains were expected.

“We’re too early into the response phase and recovery phase to get those numbers. Everybody is aware of it. We’re working on it to get those numbers,” Saldaña said. “This is an ongoing event to meet those numbers to submit to the state.”

Under the Stafford Act Declaration Process, the governor of an affected state has “within 30 days of the occurrence of the incident,” to submit a major disaster declaration request to the president through the FEMA regional administrator, which in this case is Robinson.

A FEMA official told Border Report the agency is working with the state of Texas and stands ready to offer additional help once qualifying events are met.

“Currently, the State of Texas and FEMA are conducting joint damage assessments in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties. FEMA stands ready to provide support should the need for additional federal assistance arise,” Jeff Hawk, external affairs officer for FEMA Region 6 wrote in an email.

Local emergency leaders, like Saldaña, are responsible for advising residents on what does and doesn’t qualify for FEMA assistance under a major disaster declaration, Kidd said. For instance, a home or apartment must have 18 inches of standing water — not 12 inches, for example — in order to be counted, Kidd said. And there must be at least 800 homes affected. However, if the home or apartment has flood insurance then it is not counted at all.

Kidd said in prior disasters, dozens of FEMA investigators would already be on the scene helping to assist damage estimates, and clarify and explain regulations. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exploded in South Texas, FEMA investigators are not going door-to-door in the Rio Grande Valley.

Local entities were encouraging residents to “self report”:

But this many low-income border families do not have Internet service, and unaware that they are supposed to document their own damage, Saldaña said, adding his office was prepared for the challenge.

“There’s not a worry. We know we have to follow the protocol to be able to get what we need for FEMA to be activated,” Saldaña said. “We’re going to have to do physical evaluations ourselves because a lot of these families may not have Internet.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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