Valley receiving $4.3B for disaster recovery

WESLACO — Valley stakeholders are seeking a portion of $4.3 billion in federal funds to be distributed in Texas for disaster events from 2015 to 2017.

The vast majority of the money, $4 billion, is going to areas hit hard by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. But $300 million is on the table for other Texas counties for disaster events that occurred between 2015 and 2017 as well.

“What happens now is Texas GLO (General Land Office) has been tasked with creating an action plan,” said Ron Garza, executive director of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council. “The final part of the action plan is the method of distribution. It actually frames how those monies get distributed to the region.

“A big part of that is the GLO has asked for public and stakeholder input,” he added. “So what we’re doing here as part of our Regional Water Resources Advisory Committee is a deliberate attempt to collect input.”

The money allocated by Congress is being distributed by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Texas GLO, which had representatives here at the meeting Thursday, is drafting the state’s action plan.

The idea is to grant priority to counties and regions which make effective presentations about how they would use these funds in developing disaster-resistant infrastructure, such as improving on flood-control structures, water, sewer and solid waste disposal, communications, energy, transportation, health and medical and other public infrastructure.

“We’re at the very start of this process for the additional funding,” said Jonah Chen, manager of intergovernmental relations for GLO.

“Folks have asked why these rules are written without our input,” he added. “The State of Texas doesn’t have the level of input that we want to have. So this was a very contentious issue that we had with the agency (HUD) and while we are still trying to work through it right now, what we’re going to focus on today is the GLO’s understanding of the Federal Register. Those rules, how it constrains us, what it allows us to do, and what it will look like in helping the LRGVDC.”

Asked what the priorities are if more funding becomes available, the water board members ranked the most important as: enhancing the function of natural flood-mitigation features (the Arroyo Colorado, for one); fortifying critical facilities; enhancing maintenance of vulnerable utilities; improving community awareness of hazard risks; preventing development in flood plains, and replacing inadequate or vulnerable bridges and causeways.

Least-important was strengthening emergency services, an area which several board members noted is one of the Valley’s strengths at present.

One of the funding areas in the HUD program is buyouts for homeowners in flood-prone areas. Cameron County Commissioner Gus Ruiz questioned Chen about whether buyouts would be available for the possible relocation of homeowners in the chronic flooding area of Tio Cano Lake north of La Feria.

“If they identify that they want to do buyouts, the jurisdiction has to apply to conduct buyouts and in their application describe to us the program that they would set up … how they would identify homes, what dollar values are offered and how the property is to be bought out and maintained in perpetuity after the buyout,” Chen said.

The action plan stage of the funding procurement will continue through about a half-dozen additional steps until the HUD deadline, which is set for February 2020.

Asked if Valley counties had missed out on federal disaster funding in the past because they were less organized and united when applying for such funding, the council’s Garza replied:

“It’s quite possible, quite possible. We just want to ensure if that happened, it never happens again.”