Bevil Oaks city council, mayor under fire

The meeting was held at the Jefferson County Courthouse.
Story Attachment: 

Tensions flared in the county courthouse during the Bevil Oaks City Council’s public meeting Sept. 19.

Residents interrupted the session with yelling and threats to sue the city if later they were unable to qualify for a FEMA buyout program not yet in place, despite repeated efforts by the city attorney Dru Montgomery to save public comments until the end of the session.

Others overran the three-minute limit during the time allotted for citizen comments, ignoring Montgomery’s warnings. One citizen said she felt everyone present had the same questions, refusing to sit down at three minutes. The crowd cheered her on.

More questions circulated than officials could answer.

City officials and FEMA representatives explained multiple times that since Congress has not yet appropriated funds for buyout programs, they cannot explain programs that do not currently exist.

“It’s all fluid right now,” Mayor pro tem Danny Fruge later said.

City Council approved several motions, temporarily lifting some restrictions on mobile homes, RVs, portable storage containers and dumpsters to aid recovery efforts.

Kimberely Vandver, certified floodplain manager for the city, addressed residents’ concerns about needing to elevate their homes to meet National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) standards.

FEMA originally mapped the area for a 100-year flood (which means a 1 percent chance) in 1978, Vandver explained. In 1987, City Council approved a floodplain ordinance with new maps, and more changes were made in 1997, instituting the 31-foot rule after the 1994 flood.

The 1 percent chance of flooding calculated for rising rivers, she said, not an unusual event like Harvey.

The 31-foot rule stipulated that any new construction after 1997 or homes that suffered “substantial damage” or had “substantial improvements” — 50 percent or more of the home’s value — within a 10-year period are required to comply with city, state and federal standards, Vandver said, and be elevated to 31 feet.

“Every home in Bevil Oaks is allowed to obtain flood insurance because of this ordinance,” she said. “Without being a part of this program [the NFIP] no one would be allowed to get flood insurance unless they went through a private company, which would be outrageous.

“You would not be eligible for national flood insurance, period. Not a single home. No matter what.”

Mayor pro tem Fruge said that building permits for rebuilding would likely be free, but plumbing, electrical and moisture inspections will have fees associated with them through independent contractors.

Flooded homes will have to pass a moisture inspection showing that the wood frame only has 19 percent moisture before rebuilding can occur.

Bevil Oaks’ water and sewer may not be restored for two to three weeks, according to Fruge.

“The complete water and sewer system was decimated by this flood,” he said. “Every electrical component in both of those systems was flooded.”

Fruge also asked citizens to be patient while officials respond to the disaster.

“It’s been said that this is an unprecedented event,” Fruge said. “I don’t think anybody would disagree with that. For our volunteer city council, this is unprecedented in spades. Everybody on the council is in the same boat as everybody else out there. We all suffered the same devastating loss.”

“It’s so overwhelming that we don’t have time to deal with our own loss because we spend so much time dealing with the city’s loss.”

While the councilmembers are volunteers, Fruge explained that only he and the mayor are paid.

“To suggest as some of you have that the mayor and others are not engaged in the business of the city is absolutely ludicrous.”

City Councilwoman Martha Vautrot encouraged residents to not spread “hearsay” on Facebook and social media and instead to talk to their officials. Vandver also said that she is willing to meet with anyone with questions.

FEMA external affairs officer Ken Higginbotham said that Vautrot was right.

“We have to stop these rumors,” he said. “We’re not here to tell you what we think you may want to hear.

“We’re here to support you, but we’re here to tell the truth.”

Higginbotham told residents that “we’re not going anywhere,” addressing concerns about other storms like Irma and Maria and Jose.

“This is one heck of a hurricane season,” he said, but “those that are assigned ... to the state of Texas are here focusing on the Texans.”

Only 2,500 inspectors are contracted with FEMA to date, Higginbotham later told The Examiner in an interview.

“Over three quarters of a million, over 750,000 people in the state of Texas, have registered with FEMA. That’s to give you an idea of the magnitude of this event,” he said, noting that more are registering every day. He asked for residents to be patient with waiting for home inspections.

Bud Merendino was the first citizen to comment after the meeting, calling for Mayor Becky Ford’s resignation. Merendino live streamed the entire meeting on Facebook and put his phone in Ford’s face during his comments.

“I see a lot of judges, I see a sheriff here, a lot of representatives from our council and other places,” he said. “I guess the 10 million dollar question is why we never heard anything from our mayor.

“Where were you and why weren’t you out in front in our city if you didn’t know anything? Why didn’t you just tell people that you didn’t know anything?”

The audience cheered on Merendino during the session, but other Bevil Oaks residents later expressed concerns about Merendino’s credibility while also expressing support for their city officials.