Vice President Visits Coastal Bend Amid Resident’s Concerns

Vice President Mike Pence stepping off the plane greeted by
Governor Greg Abbott, Congressman Michael Cloud, and
Corpus Christi Mayor McComb on Wednesday. Matt Briscoe)
Matt Briscoe

Corpus Christi, Texas—Nearly one year after Hurricane Harvey, many coastal residents are still feeling financial burden of the natural disaster and trying to simply survive and hoping to simply get back to where they were just one year ago.

Vice President Mike Pence visited the disaster area then promising aide to those afflicted and on Wednesday, Pence came again, this time to mark the one year anniversary of the storm and receive a briefing from area disaster managers, FEMA officials and a few pre-selected members of the community.

Pence came to Rockport representing a government that pledged help and assistance to those whose lives were forever changed by the wrath of Harvey and to hear how things have progressed since the administration’s initial visits in the days following the storm. But more than likely, Pence didn’t talk to people like Randy and Nina Smith.

The Smith family had a pretty good life going ahead of Hurricane Harvey. They were renting a condo in Port Aransas, they both had dreams of a retirement that was soon to come, together they had a small financial nest egg that was going to get them into a new home and start the golden years of life off just like anybody else. But that didn’t happen.

“Between us we had a couple of small retirement packages and we had been renting a condo to save money for the down payment on our retirement home”, Randy says. But between evacuations expenses, deposits and rental fees, daily living expenses and trying to get back on our feet the Smith’s quickly discovered that the money they had saved was just not going to be enough.

“You’d be surprised how hard it was for a renter after Harvey”, Randy Smith says looking down at the ground in front of his camper.

It wasn’t just the Smith’s who found themselves upset over federal emergency aid response. Many others from Padre Island to Bay City are finding themselves upset, too. And as the numbers are crunched, they might just have a good reason to be upset.

Back in June, the federal government approved a $5 billion federal block grant plan for disaster relief that has been designated to go to the state.

$2.7 billion in funding for disaster areas other than Houston and Harris County that the land office is administering and the remaining $2.3 billion for direct allocation by the remaining two entities.

But now that the money is approved, the General Land Office said them that they would create funding application forms, which would be distributed by a state approved vendor in the coming weeks. Many officials here on the ground are still waiting and tempers are starting to rise as the one year anniversary looms ahead.

“I won’t believe that money until I see it” says North Island resident William Spears. “Likely it will go towards rebuilding businesses and economic development. Very few of us folks who live here will ever see a dime of that aid.”

In the days following the approval of federal funds, a low-income housing advocacy group Texas Housers filed a complaint with HUD against the land office’s $5 billion plan, claiming the plan doesn’t take into account the recovery needs of renters, who are generally in a lower income bracket than homeowners.The group, who was  successful in 2010 following Hurricane Ike, forced the state to revise its $1.7 billion disaster plan in order to better prioritize low-income hurricane victims. That would be some relief to storm victims such as the Smith’s.

Currently, the state’s plan for the relief aid allocates the $5 billion to eight different programs that the land office will administer and oversee. The largest allocation of $1.4 billion will go to the Single Family Homeowner Assistance program, which aims to help homeowners with rehabilitation and reconstruction after Harvey.

Other programs include $275 million dollars in which eligible homeowners could sell their home to a local government at a pre-storm or post-storm fair market value. Another $100 million has been earmarked for homeowners to be reimbursed for certain out-of-pocket expenses incurred for home repairs, including reconstruction, rehabilitation or mitigation, up to $50,000.
$50 million will go towards preventing homelessness in disaster areas and is supposed to provide assistance such as short-term mortgage, utility payment and tenant-based rental assistance.
$250 million dollars is set aside for rehabilitation, reconstruction and new construction of affordable multi-family housing projects which many believe will be years in the making.

The program also sets aside $413 million dollars to pay for infrastructure repairs and enhancements for local communities as part of a comprehensive long-term recovery program.
Also included in the state’s plan is $100 million dollars in small businesses loans in exchange for job creation or retention, and another $137 million for local, regional and state planning for longer term recovery.

Though the plan sounds good on the surface Vice President Mike Pence did not offer any assurances on Wednesday that area residents would actually see or benefit from this money, nor did state officials who were also in attendance.

In the meantime, both homeowners and renters will continue to foot the bill while relief waits in limbo at the state level. And that’s no real assurance for Randy Smith.

“I’m not asking for a handout, but after  40 years of paying taxes I do think the government ought to speedily offer help in times like these and not lose site that we down here vote, too”, Smith says in frustration. “All we can do is wait”, he says, and waiting is just what many folks have been doing since last August.