AUSTIN, Texas – A program to rebuild homes following the devastation caused by Hurricane Dolly is only now winding down, seven years after the Category 1 storm made landfall on South Padre Island.

Residents who get displaced in the future because of a natural disaster may not have to wait anywhere as long to be rehoused, if a bill authored this legislative session by state Senator Eddie Lucio makes it into statute. In fact, they could be in new, custom-built, homes inside three to six months.

“This is a really important bill for the Rio Grande Valley and other coastal communities,” said John Henneberger, executive director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, referring to Lucio’s Senate Bill 1376. Henneberger worked on crafting the bill and testified in its support at a hearing of the Senate Committee on International Relations this week.

John Henneberger
John Henneberger

The bill is garnering bipartisan support, Henneberger said, pointing out that three Republican senators have signed on as co-authors. “Senate Bill 1376 is designed to permit local governments to work with the General Land Office to develop in advance plans for the rebuilding of homes following natural disasters,” Henneberger said. In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Henneberger explained how SB 1376 would work.

“This is an alternative to what FEMA does, which is give people a trailer and then ask them to wait around for years to get a house. The bill would direct the state to work with local governments who want to come up with a plan in advance with a plan to rebuild homes. Texas A&M Hazard Reduction and Recovery Center are engineers and the experts in this field.  They would work with local governments to put together in advance of a disaster a plan for rebuilding and that would be submitted to the General Land Office and ultimately to the Governor for approval,” Henneberger said.

“The state would take that local plan and take it to Washington, to FEMA and HUD, who provide the money for rebuilding after disasters and ask that it be preapproved for the next disaster. The method of rebuilding homes following the next disaster would already be pre-cleared at the federal level and would be able to use some of these innovative faster, cheaper, solutions like has been pioneered in Cameron County.”

Nick Mitchell-Bennett
Nick Mitchell-Bennett

Introducing his bill, Lucio pointed out that during the 81st the Legislature passed and Governor Perry signed into law House Bill 2450, which he sponsored in the Senate. It established a commission to make recommendations to improve disaster recovery and direct the development of and new approaches to rebuilding homes faster. “The General Land Office and the Council of Governments, working with architects, cities, builders and non-profits have carried out these demonstration projects and the results are amazing,” Lucio said.

Henneberger agreed. He said the previous legislation made available some money to do a demonstration program. He said the demonstration program developed by the Brownsville Community Development Corporation has been written up nationally. “Brownsville Community Development Corporation has got a really innovative program. The Wall Street Journal, the BBC, NPR, Houston Chronicle have all covered it,” Henneberger said. Nick Mitchell-Bennett, executive director of Community Development Corporation of Brownsville was at the Senate committee hearing and received a glowing tribute by Lucio.

“I want everyone here to know that this man is my hero. Nick Mitchell came to us – it was California’s loss and Texas’ gain, especially in the southern tip of Texas. He came to us years ago. He hasn’t changed a bit. I think his energy is at a higher scale and I can’t thank him enough publicly here today for the impact that hundreds and hundreds of families have had because of his work. Nick thank you so much. We are extremely fortunate to have you in that part of the state. I wish everybody had a Nick Mitchell in their part of the state. Thank you.”

Henneberger added these comments in support of SB 1376. “Senator Lucio authored legislation to establish a commission to look into how to get the state’s disaster rebuilding program to put houses on the ground at less cost and much faster than has been the case in the past. It has been almost seven years since Hurricane Dolly and they are just now rebuilding the final houses under the Disaster Recovery Program. It has been a success in the Rio Grande Valley. The Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council and its executive director, Ken Jones, have really done a very good job of getting that program working. But, it has taken a very long time.”

In his remarks before the Senate panel, Lucio said SB 1376 allows local communities to design their own recovery programs before disaster strikes to achieve better results.

“Senate Bill 1376 gives authority to the Governor and the (Land) Commissioner (George P.) Bush to take Texas’ homegrown solutions to HUD and FEMA and secure approval of locally developed disaster recovery programs. We want to communicate to HUD and FEMA that our state wants the authority and flexibility to undertake future disaster recovery faster and cheaper and done the Texas way, which means we want our local communities empowered to develop, design and implement disaster rebuilding solutions that work for them,” Lucio said.

Lucio said SB 1376 allows for the implementation of lessons learned from the demonstration projects called for in HB 2450. “No. 1 – Don’t wait until you have a fire to designate a firefighter and don’t wait until disasters to designate someone in charge of long-term rebuilding. No. 2 – Don’t wait until after disaster to make a plan to rebuild. No. 3 – Don’t reinvent the wheel, learn so you don’t repeat mistakes. No. 4 – Negotiate with the feds before the crisis.”

Lucio said his bill makes it possible for local governments who choose to work with the experts Texas A&M Center for Disaster Recovery and Hazard Management to create a local plan for disaster reconstruction for their communities. “It provides that a plan developed by local governments with experts from Texas A&M can be submitted for consideration to the state agency for long-term disaster recovery. It empowers the agency to seek pre-approval of these local plans from the federal agencies providing the funds. We want to make sure that innovative solutions like the one in my district that you will hear about from the witnesses can be implemented immediately before a disaster.”

State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr.
State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr.

The Senate panel then heard from Mitchell-Bennett about Brownsville Community Development Corporation’s demonstration project. He said, frankly, that he is tired of building homes related to a hurricane that swept through the Valley seven years ago.

“We decided to put a group of people together, a group of organizations together and figured out how we can do this the way we saw fit to be done. We took a grant from the General Land Office, which has been great to work with through this process and really rewrite the rules and the process to rebuilding after a storm. We are not talking about immediate recovery we are talking about re-construction,” Mitchell-Bennett testified.

“How do we go in and fight through all the federal and sometimes state rules that are caused by federal rules to rebuild? We are talking about environmental clearances, we are talking about lifting houses out of the flood zone, and the unreasonable process of that and then how do we do that fast. How do we do it and get families back into their house literally within three months of a storm. And then how do we do it so they have a house that they want? Not one that looks just like everybody else’s. “

Mitchell-Bennett said if one goes into many new colonias every house looks exactly the same.

“We are talking about giving choice to people. This is time when we can actually improve on life in the colonias and that is what we are trying to do in the Rio Grande Valley. We think we have developed a system that can actually be laid across any community in Texas. That gives local control.”