Four years later, blue roofs still wait on Ike funding

Warren Phillips talks about his damaged home on Forrest Street. Phillips was denied federal help to fix his home damaged by Hurricane Ike

Standing next to her budding winter garden of lettuce, collards, turnips and banana peppers, Ethel August pointed to the blue tarp on her roof and lamented.

“The roof is leaking real bad in the kitchen,” said August, whose home on Forrest Street still bears a sun-worn blue tarp more than four years after Hurricane Ike damaged her roof in September 2008.

Having lived in her home for some 27 years, August said she has mixed emotions about the federal government’s first round of $190 million in Ike funding, which is paying to demolish and rebuild her home.

“They’ll tear this one down and build me a new one,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re waiting for.”

Although most of Southeast Texas’ blue roofs in the wake of hurricanes Rita and Ike have been removed and the residents’ homes fixed, thousands of leaky, blue-tarped roofs still exist in the Golden Triangle.

According to the Southeast Texas Regional Planning Commission (SETRPC), the body responsible for disbursing recovery money, all of the federal dollars allocated for hurricanes Katrina and Rita have been distributed.

But take a drive through some of Beaumont and Port Arthur’s poorest areas and one sees there are still some holdouts from Hurricane Ike.

A second round of Ike funding, some $120 million, will be streamlined for people just like August, said Shaun Davis, executive director of SETRPC. He said with each round of federal money comes completely new guidelines to distribute that money, adding he will likely sign the contract for “round two” of the new funds and begin construction at the end of November 2012.

“That requires us to spend the dollars for round two on areas where there’s significant levels of minority populations, poverty concentrations and flood zones,” he said. “Where those three things come together, those are the folks that have to get served first.”

Davis said he spent at least $95 million of the original $190 million on housing in Jefferson, Orange and Hardin counties from the first round of federal recovery dollars after Hurricane Ike in 2009, but with new funding comes new federal guidelines and policies that add to the time it takes to right what Ike wrought.

“With each round of funding, it’s like its own funding source,” Davis said. “So you have to develop the guidelines again.”

Much of the disaster recovery system in Texas, Davis said, was born in a disastrous situation: that of Hurricane Katrina.

“It started with trying to make a horrible situation better. But we’ve never done it before,” he said. “Then you have to develop the program from scratch. The government’s not that great at that— starting with a new program in a disaster situation that requires ‘go fast.’”

Davis said 16 other councils of government (COGs) like his, who are responsible for distributing such funding in communities throughout Texas, haven’t been able to take a breath and debrief after allocating funding for one hurricane after the other.

“My point is it’s a new science,” Davis said. “So everything has had to be hacked out of rock.”

In the wake of Katrina, lawmakers in Congress left it up to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to disperse funds. From there it took months to trickle down to COGs like the planning commission in Beaumont and even longer to translate into new construction on the ground. For instance, Davis said, it takes three months to choose a contractor through the bidding process and at least another two months to schedule the required three public hearings for the public to voice their concerns.

Once the money is actually approved, Davis said the procurement and eligibility requirements coupled with state and federal bureaucratic bungling have added exponentially to the time it takes to get homeowners the relief they need.

Davis cautioned, however, against assigning blame to any one governing body.

“I don’t ever try to say, ‘This is who you need to blame,’ but until there is a program established that deals with this new science of disaster recovery, we’re actually building the airplane as we’re flying it,” he said. “It had never been done before. They (the federal government) said, ‘Here’s the money, now develop the program to distribute the funding.’”

Part of the problem, as Beaumont resident Kirk Huggins knows all too well, is not every homeowner knows they may still be eligible for Ike recovery dollars even at this late a date.

“No I haven’t (applied for money),” said Huggins. “That’s why I had to put that tarp up there.”

Huggins, whose home on Leight Street has been in their family for more than 40 years, said it was badly damaged after Ike.

“I had a couple of broke windows. I had a few trees down. I had got the trees cut off the roof,” he said. “I didn’t know there was a lot of damage to it until it started leaking.”

Huggins’ wife and two sons live in the home ,which still leaks to this day. Huggins said he doesn’t know of any program to help him fix the damage.

“I haven’t heard anything,” he said.

Still others are angry at being denied federal help.

“It’s leakin bad. It’s starts raining and I get the rain ... in the living room, the bathroom,” said Beaumont resident Warren Phillips. “That’s why this house is all like that,” he said, pointing to the crumbling tarp on his home on Forrest Street. “The storm tore up all that.”

Phillips said he’s disabled and doesn’t know why his application was denied.

“I haven’t heard from those people in a while,” he said. “They denied it and I just left it alone.”

Posed with the offer of a new home, some elderly residents like Barbara Jones said they didn’t want a new home and would make due with what they have.

“They wanted to tear the whole house down and build one smaller, and I didn’t want that,” she said. “I got two bathrooms and a den and a kitchen and a living room, and they weren’t going to do it like that.”

But after years of pounding an aged blue tarp on the roof of her North End home, the rain is just as stubborn.

“It just collapsed in the living room,” she said. “I’ll see if I can fix it myself, but it costs a lot of money. I’m on a fixed income and I can’t get money just like that.”

The city of Beaumont, for its part, has used recovery funds to demolish at least 200 homes with blue roofs from Hurricanes Rita and Ike, said Community Development Director Chris Boone.

With at least 4,000 applications for recovery money, Davis of SETRPC said he doesn’t have time to change the system. He said at least half of those applications will be sifted through and denied.

“There’s really only one fix in my opinion, and that is this program has to mature. If we’re gonna continue to respond or recover from disasters in this manner, the program has to mature to a point where it’s a true disaster recovery,” he said. “It’s not this hybrid HUD and CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) dollar rules and local restrictions. There’s gotta be this package that, believe it or not, is something like what FEMA does. They’ve got decades and decades and decades of experience of how they respond to a storm.”

Davis said this means streamlining and pre-clearing contractors and home designs along with a more realistic procurement policy that cuts down the time it takes to fix ailing homes.

“There’s just so many things inherent in government that are built in for accountability, and rightly so, that don’t match up with responding quickly to natural disasters,” said, Davis adding that all of the round-two funding should be dispersed by March 2015.

When asked what he would tell homeowners who’ve waited five years or more for federal help, Davis said homeowners shouldn’t give up and should be persistent.

“I don’t like it, either,” he said. “But it’s the horse we have to ride right now.”