After search-and-rescue efforts wind down for survivors of Harvey, federal officials warned Texas that housing for thousands of displaced residents could be a long-term problem that in prior storms was fraught with unhealthy trailers and hundreds of millions of dollars wasted.
"The state of Texas is about to undergo one of the largest recovery-housing missions that the nation has ever seen," FEMA Administrator Brock Long said during a news conference Monday. “It’s a long process. Housing is going to be very frustrating in Texas. We have to set the expectations.”
For displaced survivors, FEMA's goal is to move them out of shelters and into temporary housing near where they work, and then a return to a permanent residence, Long said. Anyone in a shelter or without financial means to replace their housing in 18 counties qualifying for individual disaster assistance can receive aid for a motel or to rent an apartment.
“The goal of this is, if we can’t put you back in your home because it’s destroyed or because the floodwaters are there and are going to be there a while, we want to get you out of the long-term sheltering,” Long said.
The process could take a while. Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and wreaked havoc across the Gulf Coast in August 2005. FEMA did not end its temporary housing mission for Katrina until February 2012.
At its peak, FEMA provided more than 45,000 temporary housing units in Mississippi, which the agency at the time called the largest housing operation in the country’s history.
But FEMA announced before Harvey’s rain stopped falling that 30,000 people would need shelter from the storm that dropped a record 50 inches of rain by Tuesday morning. An estimated 9,000 displaced people are now at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, which has a capacity for 5,000.
Storm victims in counties that were already declared disaster areas must apply for services such as emergency housing at disasterassistance.gov. More than 22,000 families began the process by Monday, Vice President Pence told KKTX radio on Tuesday.
“There may be as many as half a million Texans who are eligible for financial support,” Pence said.
FEMA has a priority under federal law to buy trailers for emergency housing. The Department of Housing and Urban Development will also be offering options.
“The last resort is to bring in manufactured homes and travel trailers,” Long said. “But that is a long process,” Long said. “We don’t start dragging in manufactured homes and travel trailers right off the bat. They’re not going to be on your property tomorrow by any means.”
Emergency housing after Katrina was criticized on several fronts.
Survivors welcomed temporary trailers until they could find permanent housing, but some reported burning eyes and other problems from formaldehyde in the construction materials. Twenty-one trailer manufacturers settled a class-action lawsuit by paying $14.8 million to resolve the claims.
Government watchdogs also blasted FEMA’s assistance program for individuals.
FEMA wasted $30 million in improper or potentially fraudulent payments to housing contractors during a six-month period after Katrina, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Katrina destroyed or damaged 134,000 homes and 10,000 rental units in Mississippi alone.
But from June 2006 to January 2007, GAO found that FEMA spent $16 million on contractors without seeking the lowest bids and $15 million on maintenance inspections without any evidence they occurred. Another $600,000 was spent on emergency repairs for housing that wasn’t in FEMA’s inventory, according to GAO.
Part of the problem was that FEMA was projected to spend $239,000 for each 280-square-foot trailer at one site through March 2009 – as much as a buying a five-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home in Jackson, Miss., according to GAO.
Financial assistance for the survivors was also problematic.
FEMA provided between $600 million and $1.4 billion in improper and potentially fraudulent financial assistance during the first six months after Katrina, according to GAO.
Payments were made to post-office boxes and cemeteries listed as damaged property addresses, according to a GAO report in June 2006. One registrant got $6,000 for a vacant lot listed as a damaged address, the report said.