Texas needs a recovery task force for future disasters like Harvey

Jeremy Boutor removes personal items from his home on an air mattress from his home in a neighborhood along Eldridge Parkway, flooded by waters released from Addicks Reservoir on Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017, adding to flooding from Hurricane Harvey. Photo by Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

While we still have much to do and learn as we recover from Hurricane Harvey, I can already say with confidence what one of the major recommendations of the Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas will be: We need the equivalent of a Texas Task Force 1 for disaster recovery.

On September 7, almost two weeks after the hurricane made landfall on its way to becoming the costliest storm in state history, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the creation of the commission , which is primarily focused on restoring and strengthening public infrastructure — roads, bridges, schools and government buildings — in the areas impacted by Harvey. At a press conference in Austin, he also named me as the head of commission. As soon as it was over, we boarded a plane for the first of many visits to the hardest hit communities along the Gulf Coast. We have not stopped working since. 

Ultimately, we will report our findings in advance of the 2019 legislative session. Along with other recommendations, we will make the case for training Texans in the long-term disaster recovery process just like we currently prepare first responders. 

In the initial aftermath of both man-made and natural disasters, people all over the state and the nation know to turn to TX-TF 1, an urban search and rescue team sponsored by the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX). Made up of more than 600 firefighters, doctors, nurses, structural engineers, canine handlers, professors, police officers and other professionals throughout Texas, they have been deployed to numerous floods and fires in Texas, as well as crises elsewhere, including the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City.

In collaboration with other responders, TX-TF1 conducted checks, rescues and evacuations of more than 52,000 Texans and more than 2,000 pets along the Gulf Coast in the days immediately following Harvey. And then, after a job well done, they went home.

But the work of assessing the damage and rebuilding our cities and towns was just the beginning. Even as we work to cut red tape and eliminate bureaucratic roadblocks, the recovery process is long and can be intimidating for local officials who have not been through it before.

The reason TX-TF1 members are able to mobilize so quickly and perform so well under pressure is because they practice. All told, they participate in more than 25,000 hours of training per year. Before the next disaster even occurs, they are already prepared.

By comparison, when it comes to the long-term recovery phase after Harvey, our local leaders — through no fault of their own — often find themselves having to learn on the job. Given that small errors on just one of the multiple public assistance forms can result in significant delays or denials, the stakes are unimaginably high.

To address this knowledge gap, 40 of our TEEX and AgriLife Extension agents were trained by the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a wide range of technical matters, and we quickly deployed them to assist local officials with paperwork. We have also assembled a team of financial experts to help local governments develop strategies to address the problems many will face as they exhaust their reserves and face short-term losses of tax revenue.

It is clear to me that, in order to save time and avoid unnecessary confusion, we must take a more proactive approach to such technical training and planning before the next storm hits. We have the opportunity to rewrite the rules of the disaster recovery process in a way that will benefit Texans for generations to come. In addition to making sure that critical physical structures in our cities and towns can withstand extreme weather, we must be certain that we have leaders on the ground in all of our communities who are prepared to navigate all aspects of disaster response and recovery.

The TX-TF1 model is a strong one in part because the bulk of their training occurs in College Station, where the members have access to the experts and facilities of The Texas A&M University System. I believe a recovery-focused task force would benefit from a similar setup — and if this recommendation is accepted, I bet I know some people who could make it happen.

Disclosure: Texas A&M has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

John Sharp

Chancellor of the Texas A&M University System