Officials: Texas Should Have Storm Recovery Plans

December 5, 2008

The future of the state’s oldest medical school – hard hit by Hurricane Ike – and whether Texas should fund recovery programs to complement federal assistance were two of the highlights of a legislative hearing Dec. 3 looking at the state’s response to the storm.

Ike caused $710 million in losses to the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston when it came ashore near the island city on Sept. 13. Only about $100 million of the damage was covered by insurance.

The massive damage at UTMB prompted the UT System Board of Regents to lay off 3,000 employees and reduce the number of beds at the medical facility’s public hospital from 550 to 200.

In an emotional plea, Galveston Mayor Lyda Ann Thomas asked members of the House Select Committee on Hurricane Ike for their help in restoring UTMB, the top employer in Galveston County and a major provider of indigent care in Southeast Texas.

“We can come back. Our people are hard at work repairing their houses and bringing back their businesses,” she said. “But we cannot bring back the hospital without your help.”

She said Galveston County leaders are willing to ask residents to vote on whether to create a hospital district, which would tax people to support UTMB’s public medical services.

State Sen. Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, said UTMB’s situation calls for an emergency appropriation by the Legislature. He said such an appropriation could come from Texas’ projected $11 billion budget surplus.

“We must just to keep this campus from going bankrupt,” Kenneth Shine, acting chancellor of the UT System, said about the need for an emergency appropriation.

Lawmakers grilled UTMB President Dr. David Callender about whether the hospital could still support the medical school.

Callender said the 200 bed plan is only an initial configuration and he believes that number can go up to 350 beds within 18 to 24 months. He also said UTMB is working to create affiliations with surrounding regional hospitals so its medical students can continue receiving training.

Callender said UTMB needs immediate funding of between $400 million and $500 million for working capital and reconstruction.

“We need some help right now to get back on our feet,” he said.

Another issue the meeting focused on was whether Texas should prepare for major storms with recovery programs and funding ahead of time instead of depending on the federal government for help afterward.

State Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, chairman of the House committee, said state officials can’t simply wait for help from the federal government.

“Instead of telling people we are waiting for (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), what is step two? How do we get debris removed, how do we get people in housing?” said Turner, whose committee held the hearing in conjunction with the Texas Senate Subcommittee on Flooding and Evacuations.

Many local, county and state officials, including Gov. Rick Perry, have been highly critical of FEMA’s response in Texas in the wake of Ike. The agency has been accused of being slow in providing mobile homes and other housing to thousands of displaced Southeast Texas residents.

“If the state needs to put in place an extended disaster recovery fund while we are waiting for FEMA, that is a recommendation we need to take a look at,” Turner said.

Jack Colley, the state’s director of emergency management, said 2007 legislation allows his agency to administer the Disaster Contingency Fund to provide money and other help for local governments after a natural disaster. But no funding was provided, he said.

“You have legislation in place. The amount of money to put in there is up to you,” Colley said.

Colley recommended that $50 million be allocated to the fund.

Michael Gerber, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs executive director, asked the lawmakers to consider creating a state contingency fund dedicated to providing temporary housing after a hurricane or other natural disaster. FEMA currently provides this temporary housing.

Many of the lawmakers at the meeting expressed concerns that some people left homeless by Ike are still living in tents or cars.

Officials with Texas Department of Transportation also told the committees that it would be important for future hurricanes to have pre-established contracts in place so that debris removal can be done much more quickly.

Many Southeast Texas counties complained that they couldn’t finish removing debris because they were waiting for FEMA to say if it would continue to fully reimburse them for these cleanup efforts. The federal government has since extended that benefit.

Five other committee meetings are scheduled through January. The committee expects to submit its report by mid-January.

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