WESLACO, RGV – Fittingly, on the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Dolly, invitations were sent out Tuesday to celebrate the first Rio Grande Valley home to be rebuilt as a result of Round 2 Disaster Recovery Funding.

The home belongs to Norma Lopez and the address is 410 W. Wood in Raymondville. The celebration takes place at 10 a.m. on Thursday, July 25.

Hurricane Dolly tore through the Valley on July 23, 2008, as a Category 1 storm with winds reaching 85 MPH. Thousands of homes were damaged as a result of Dolly and FEMA came down to inspect them. There was very little help initially but eventually the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) allocated $185.5 million. The first round of funding, $61.2 million went largely on county drainage projects. The second round, $124.2 million, is earmarked for housing, with much of the focus on colonia families because they suffered the most flooding and damage to property.

Hurricane Dolly tore through the Rio Grande Valley on July 23, 2008. Thousands of homes were flooded. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
Hurricane Dolly tore through the Rio Grande Valley on July 23, 2008. Thousands of homes were flooded. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

HUD’s Community Development Block Grant funding was allocated to the State of Texas.  Different state agencies were chosen to administer the disaster recovery program before Texas settled on the General Land Office. The GLO worked through the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council, the council of government for Willacy, Cameron and Hidalgo counties. URS was the private contractor selected to run the disaster recovery program with Horne selected as the subcontractor.  The plan was to build or rebuild 811 homes with the $124.2 million.

Quite why it has taken so long to get the 811 homes built or rebuilt is open to debate. According to the LRGVDC, the Valley’s efforts are going much faster than disaster recovery projects in other parts of the state.

Armando “Mando” Garza is a member of the LRGVDC’s housing advisory committee. He is keen to see the most deserving families rehoused. He is somewhat critical of how things have gone so far.

“If I had to give an overall assessment of the program I would say it has been steeped in bureaucracy and muddied by politics. It has come to be what I call the disaster of disaster funding,” Garza said. “I now see some progress being made and we have three good projects moving forward. That is positive. We have five homes that have got a notice to proceed. Five down, 806 to go.”

Garza said the bureaucracy has come largely at the state level.

“The program has been moved from ORCA (Office of Rural Community Affairs) to TDRA (Texas Department of Rural Affairs) to TDHCA (the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs) to the GLO. There is an alphabet soup right there,” Garza said.

“I would rather HUD did not go through the middle man. With entitlement communities, the federal government usually goes directly to those affected. Why can’t we do that with a disaster situation? Who knows, as well as eliminating the bureaucracy, we might even save some money. Having said that I think GLO is the lesser of all evils.  I see some progress with them.”

Garza said he was pleased with the outcome of a complaint made to HUD about the distribution of the disaster recovery funds. “With the first letting of this money, there were some issues with the distribution. HUD agreed with us that the money was not being distributed properly and a conciliation agreement was reached. We argued that the distribution was not fair and equitable and that the state had violated the rights of some protected classes,” Garza told the Guardian. He said one protected class was those who are U.S. citizens but were born in a foreign land.

“What we have in the Valley is a minority within the minority. Foreign born U.S. citizens are a protected class. Because they are a protected class, we were able to funnel this money, thankfully, to the colonias, which were the worst hit by Dolly.”

Garza said that in the first round, the Valley’s counties did not spend a lot on home repairs in colonias but in round two, the LRGVDC “opened the doors to colonia residents.”

The other big problem, Garza said, has been identifying the most deserving families and getting them approved. He said URS and Horne could have done a much better job on this front.

Garza said that because there was only a limited amount of money available, the LRGVDC targeted 58 areas that were hardest hit by Dolly. Those living in those targeted areas had to meet income level requirements and there had to be concentrations of protected classes, he said. “It was a painstaking process. We found 19,000 homes in the targeted areas. But, because we could not build or rebuild 19,000 homes we had set targets within the targeted areas,” Garza explained.

The problem has been that the contractors have not done a very good job of reaching those targeted in the target areas, Garza said. “Rather than do the outreach, they want to open it up so anyone can apply. They are moving away from the priorities, the elderly, the disabled, in target areas. I am afraid now they will say, for the sake of just getting this money spent, let us give the house to whoever qualifies. I think that defeats the purpose of the funding. It defeats the purpose of all the work we have been doing over the last two years,” Garza said. He acknowledged that if the money is not spent by October, 2014, it could be lost to the Valley.

“In my view, we have a flawed process. The contractors only have five individuals looking for 800 people. They are not doing any publicity and they are not doing any home visits, which they said they would do. They did hire another consultancy firm which is, thankfully, now doing home visits. In my view they need to quadruple this effort. In the last three weeks they have identified 40 individuals. I think the home visits will get this done,” Garza said.

The consultancy firm that has been going door-to-door is Hollis Rutledge & Associates of Mission. Garza praised this group for doing home visits.

“By their own admission, the contractors identified 900 families that were pre-qualified. They had the potential to apply. But, my understanding is they never went back to them. It is very, very, frustrating. The housing advisory committee has been continuously encouraging them to change the outreach approach but, until recently, it had not done very much,” Garza added.

<I>Editor’s Note: The Guardian called Horne for comment but did not get a call back at press time. We will bring the URS/Horne viewpoint as soon as we get it.</I>