More than 100 Texas counties lack plans for natural disasters

by Jess Huff The Texas Tribune

Lufkin—More than 100 Texas counties do not have a hazard mitigation plan, federal data shows, cutting off access to billions in non-emergency grants to help rebuild infrastructure after natural disasters.

Of 254 counties in the state, 103 counties lack plans approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Most of these are rural, with fewer than 50,000 residents, a Texas Tribune analysis of federal data found. A total of 3.5 million Texans, or about 12% of the state’s population, live in a county without a plan.

On average, counties with no hazard mitigation plan have a population of 34,315 people, roughly one fifth the population of counties with an approved plan. Most counties without a plan stretch from the Panhandle through West Texas and down to Rio Grande Valley.

Among the most populated counties with no plans are Midland and Ector counties, which anchor the state’s oil-rich Permian Basin. Officials in both counties told the Tribune they were working to submit plans for review.

This will be Midland County’s first hazard mitigation plan, county officials said. The county received an $88,000 grant to write its plan, work that is expected to take up to two years.

In neighboring Ector County, James Wes Carta, the Emergency Management coordinator, said the process to develop an updated plan demands cooperation from city officials, first responders and the public, a time consuming endeavor that could take more than a year.

“We want an accurate, realistic plan,” Carta said. “What do they see as being the issues that we can address through this hazard mitigation plan? Is it upgrading our building codes to help our buildings be more resilient for tornadoes or severe weather? Is it the flooding? Is it fire? It becomes very daunting.”

Without such plans, these communities are precluded from federal disaster preparation funding, further broadening the gap in infrastructure development between urban and rural communities. As these communities shrink, they face growing hurdles to rebuild and prepare for the future.

These plans typically provide an assessment of risks from hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and wildfires. A plan can include, for example, an estimate of how many buildings are prone to flooding and how much it would take to clean up a flood. The plan also lays out goals for local governments to save lives and property. One such objective could be to create cooling centers during times of extreme heat. Another might be updating zoning policies to ensure buildings can withstand a stronger earthquake.

Ultimately, the plan can help communities prepare for and recover faster from any type of disaster.

“When done correctly, a hazard mitigation plan can help the community get behind projects and prioritize them, as well as help the community reflect on the risks they have and try to do something about them,” said Kristin Smith, a lead researcher for Headwaters Economics, a Montana-based nonprofit that helps communities with land management.

But developing a comprehensive plan is time-consuming and expensive, said Polk County Judge Sydney Murphy.

Long-term disaster and relief planning can often fail to make a list of top priorities when a small community with few resources is also attempting to solve everyday problems.

Polk, population 53,255, is one of 14 East Texas counties without a hazard mitigation plan. Its five-year plan, which also covers Trinity County, expired in February, months before the county was drenched by rain storms that caused widespread flooding. It’s the first time Murphy is aware the county failed to meet its deadline.

In this case, Murphy said, a lack of funding prevented the work from being done. However, just this week, the county agreed to pay a consulting firm $100,000 to complete its plan.

This year’s flooding was the biggest emergency management situation the county has handled, Murphy said, but the 2018 plan “still held true.”

As natural disasters have become more common, many rural counties face a shrinking tax base and rising inflation, stretching small budgets and making outside help more vital.

Recognizing the shortfalls within her own budget, Murphy and her emergency coordinator, Courtney Comstock, applied for grants to cover the cost of updating the hazard mitigation plan two years ago. They were denied the money at every step.

It takes time and money to update a plan, which demands granular details, such as the cost of fuel to fight a wildfire.

“It's not just the research,” Murphy said. “It's the legwork. It’s compiling all the information and making sure the policies all line up so you don't have contradictory information in the different sections. It’s everything. It's a lot of work.”

Polk County’s now expired plan fills a 5-inch three-ring binder with no space to add anything else, Murphy said.

The amount of time and money is dependent on the number of communities and groups involved, as well as whether residents participate in the update. If the community is rewriting an entire plan, needs help with funding or faces natural disasters during the planning process, it could take even longer.

“$100,000 is a lot of money out of my budget for a rural area,” Murphy said. “I also cover Trinity County with my hazard mitigation plan. So who’s going to pay? I can’t split it 50/50 because my population is a whole lot bigger than theirs is.”

Trinity County’s population is 14,000.

The county tax base just doesn’t cover everything it needs to, Murphy said.

To make up the difference, counties often seek grants to pay for the staff and research to produce the plans. However, rural counties across the U.S. also face significant barriers to applying for the necessary state and federal aid to cover the costly process of updating a hazard mitigation plan, said Jennifer Horney, a University of Delaware professor and former associate professor at Texas A&M where she also engaged in hazard mitigation and community resilience work.

The largest barrier is the work to write, submit and follow-up on grant applications, she said. Many small, rural governments are short staffed with people doing multiple jobs, which sets them at a disadvantage to their urban counterparts who may have an entire team dedicated to grant management.

“Texas in particular has a very weak local planning structure,” Horney said. “So you end up having a few people in a rural community who wear a lot of hats — they're unlikely to have a full-time person dedicated to something like resilience or even recovery.”

When they do apply, there is no guarantee if or when the cash will arrive.

One county north of Polk, Angelina County had a plan that expired in April. The county is working with Lufkin city officials to submit an updated hazard mitigation plan.

Both entities paid $10,000 each at the start of the process to update the plan and are now seeking additional grant funding for the other Angelina County entities. Emergency management coordinator Ricky Connor said the grant process takes time and is awaiting both state and federal approval.

Connor expects the total cost to update the plan to be around $100,000 with approximately $80,000 coming from grants.

The county spent several months working with community leaders and small business owners, accepting community input and coordinating with an expert in the field of emergency management. But Angelina County hasn’t faced the same barriers as its southern neighbor. The flooding that overwhelmed Livingston for weeks, was felt only briefly in Lufkin.

Since Murphy was elected Polk County judge, the county’s top executive that also has broad emergency powers, there have been historic tornadoes, winter freezes, the COVID-19 pandemic and flooding.

“I'm just tired of it,” Murphy said.

And every time something hits her county, Murphy sees the rural communities within it sliding further back. Examples include the loss of paved roadways and the further degradation of homes in the area.

FEMA distributes funding based on a cost-benefit analysis which helps the agency to prioritize projects and ensure money is well spent, said Smith, the nonprofit executive who helps local governments plan for hazards. But the system is based widely on property values, which are going to be higher in big cities compared to rural areas, creating a system that tilts against less-populated counties.

It is easier for a wealthy neighborhood in Houston to prove the value of a hazard mitigation project than it is for small neighborhoods just south of the Lake Livingston Dam, where lives were upended when the floodgates were released.

“If you have a project that's going to protect a neighborhood that is very wealthy with a lot of very expensive homes, you're going to have a lot of benefits from that. You're going to save millions of dollars in avoided costs from a flood,” Smith said. “On the flip side, if you have a bunch of homes in a neighborhood that are maybe mobile homes, or are lower property value homes, the benefits of protecting them are just going to be lower.”

Murphy said she is glad the county took steps this week to move Polk’s plan forward, and said she plans to use data she and Comstock collected over the last two years in preparation for this point.

She hopes to submit the county’s plan later this year.

— Carlos Nogueras Ramos contributed.

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