Educating and preparing communities for long-term disaster recovery

Photo by REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Disaster preparedness and recovery would probably not come to mind if you were asked what the Texas General Land Office (GLO), Texas Education Agency, Texas Department of Insurance and the Texas Department of State Health Services have in common. But these four agencies each play critical roles in educating and preparing communities for disasters — including hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires. However, while each agency works hard to communicate its objectives across Texas, we should combine forces to amplify our messaging efforts.

No other storm has ever affected Texas like Hurricane Harvey. The unprecedented impact helped us realize the importance of sharing best practices and ideas to serve our communities. In the GLO’s conversations with county judges, mayors, police and fire chiefs and other local officials, they often mentioned a serious gap between what their communities believe about federal disaster recovery assistance and the reality of what is allowed under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

Many county and city officials assumed FEMA or other federal agencies would cover the costs of all recovery and reconstruction efforts. They were surprised to learn the Stafford Act provides for the federal government to supplement state and local efforts, but does not cover it all. State and local governments often must provide matching funds in order to receive federal assistance. Moreover, many disasters do not actually meet the threshold to receive any federal recovery funds.

Additionally, many residents are seriously underinsured or mistakenly believe their home insurance policies also cover wind or flood damage. According to the Washington Post, “only 17 percent of homeowners in the eight counties most directly affected by Harvey have flood insurance policies, according to a Washington Post analysis of Federal Emergency Management Agency data.” The lapse created a significant disparity between the damage caused by the storm and the financial resources available for housing recovery.

As the next hurricane season quickly approaches, the GLO has ramped up ongoing efforts to encourage Texans to invest in adequate flood and wind coverage in addition to basic home insurance policies. We are also working to ensure community leaders are informed of disaster prevention and recovery resources in advance of the next storms. We’ve even teamed with Austin Pets Alive to help pet owners be prepared in case of disaster.

While we continue to echo these messages to reporters and in social media, we must continue to consider what we can do better. In the Texas Legislature, Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, and Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, have filed companion bills calling on the governor to issue a proclamation each year instructing local leaders and state agencies to conduct community outreach and education efforts in preparation for hurricane season.

This is common-sense legislation and I commend these leaders for their efforts in the Texas Legislature to improve our state’s disaster readiness.

I would also like to encourage all agencies involved in weather-related disaster preparedness and recovery to coordinate with one another to amplify each other’s messages and ensure our public information campaigns are as comprehensive as possible. Promoting hurricane preparedness and managing expectations about federal assistance will help ensure everyone at the local, state and federal levels is unified and able to relay accurate information to their constituents.

Working together, the GLO and other state agencies can inform our fellow Texans about preparing for hurricane season, and about what types of assistance may be available following a natural disaster. We are proud to be working every day to help our fellow Texans rebuild stronger and more resilient communities. And while the GLO will continue its public awareness efforts, we will also look for opportunities to exchange ideas and work together with community leaders and other state agencies to help Texans prepare and protect their futures.

Disclosure: The Texas General Land Office has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

George P. Bush

Texas Land Commissioner