Lawmakers question FEMA’s flood damage assessment

Volunteers move stranded residents by raft from their home to the Templo Betania church before they were driven to a shelter at Sam Houston Elementary as heavy rains caused water to rise and flood whole neighborhoods on Wednesday, June 20, 2018, in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz joined local congressmen last week in again requesting additional information about the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to deny local and county governments grant money for flood recovery.

“We’re very thankful they sent another letter of support,” said Hidalgo County Precinct 1 Commissioner David Fuentes. “We’re not going to stop (requesting funding) until they tell us it’s no longer an option.”

In June, lingering storms dumped heavy rain throughout Hidalgo and Cameron counties, flooding homes, businesses, roadways and governmental property. President Donald Trump then signed a disaster deceleration, prompting federal resources to the area.

FEMA, however, determined governments within Hidalgo, Cameron and Jim Wells counties did not qualify for financial help through the public assistance program because damages fell short of the about $36.7 million threshold. The three-county area sustained about $20 million in damages to public property, the agency’s assessment found.

Reacting to FEMA’s calculation, area mayors and emergency managers met with congressmen and staff from Cornyn and Cruz’s office to call for a reassessment.

FEMA, though, has reiterated its determination that the region did not qualify for public assistance, and officials suspect damages to irrigation districts, which help supply municipal water, and drainage districts were omitted from agency’s formula.

In Cameron County, three out of the 10 irrigation districts alone calculated $11.6 million in damages.

In a letter dated Jan. 8, representatives requested documentation to show what “resulted in FEMA’s recent policy shift deeming irrigation and drainage districts ineligible.” The letter was signed by U.S. Reps. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville; Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen; and Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; as well as both Republican senators from Texas.

The delegation sent its first letter to FEMA in October and received a response from FEMA’s Associate Administrator Jeff Byard. His reply failed to address all inquiries.

“Concern remains over FEMA’s refusal to provide public assistance,” the new letter to FEMA reads in part. “ … We strongly believe that inaccurate damage assessments and surveys carried out by FEMA on the ground, coupled with a new interpretation of federal law that is inconsistent with precedent of past disasters, has led to the inability of Cameron and Hidalgo counties to be eligible (for public assistance).”

An automated email from FEMA said staff was not immediately available to answer questions from the media due to the partial federal government shutdown.

Without the public assistance funding, local and county governments remain footing the cost of repairs.

“We’re hopefully that the federal government will step in to assist us,” Fuentes said.