Victims of natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey soon tire of drive-by politicians seeking photo ops and press coverage while those Harvey victims live in hotel rooms and tents, or camp out in the remains of their home. I know, I’ve been there and done that.
Growing up on the Texas coast, hurricanes were part of life and a source of great adventure. My Uncle Earl survived the 1900 storm.
When Hurricane Carla hit Texas in 1961, I was 14 and I remember nailing sheets of scrap plywood over smashed windows during the storm. In 1983, I was standing in the kitchen when the ceiling fell in, compliments of Hurricane Alicia. We spent weeks without power.
Today, looking back at those events as “great adventure,” seems pretty damned silly.
In 2008, Hurricane Ike slammed the Texas coast. Galveston and other Texas communities were hit hard.
A few days later, as Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, an agency with coastal responsibilities, I piloted my small aircraft over Galveston Island for an aerial inspection of the damage and landed at Galveston’s Scholes Field on a runway that still had some standing water.
Governor Perry assigned elements of the Ike recovery effort to the Texas General Land Office. The GLO began beach and bay debris cleanup and later became responsible for housing and infrastructure recovery as well. Over the next many months, we learned a lot and made more than a few mistakes while learning.
Dealing with FEMA and HUD was exasperating at times. Rules that weren’t clear to begin with, changed and changed again. The level of federal oversight was often oppressive. Auditors auditing auditors and inspectors inspecting inspectors was the norm. A system evolved that would spend $5 to prevent $1 of waste, and I often wondered if waste, fraud and abuse might be more efficient and less costly.
Nonetheless, in that process we put together an experienced and accomplished team of GLO Disaster Recovery team employees who knew what they were doing - and did it well.
Unfortunately for victims of Hurricane Harvey, the most experienced of that Disaster Recovery team didn’t even make it through newly elected Land Commissioner George P. Bush’s first six months in office.
A dozen key Disaster Recovery employees were fired or left knowing they would soon be fired, leaving the GLO without “corporate knowledge” that would’ve been invaluable responding to Hurricane Harvey.
Harvey victims still living in tents along the coast are, at least in part, victims of a politician’s desire to look good for the next election by being a “small government Republican.”
This backfired a bit and instead of the anticipated “Politician Saves Tax Dollars” story, the actual headlines were “Land Office Spends $1 Million to Pay Ex-Workers For Not Suing Over Their Terminations” (Houston Chronicle),“George P. Bush ‘reboot’ of Land Office has Campaign, Family Ties,” (Fort Worth Star Telegram) and “Bush Runs Land Office with Campaigners, Family Friends” (San Antonio Express News).
The experienced help was replaced with inexperienced new hires. Conversations with local officials reveal virtually none are pleased with the GLO’s Harvey housing response to date.
Last week a FEMA trailer, the first one provided by the GLO in Port Aransas, was delivered to a family. A press conference was held, photographs were taken, and press releases were fired off. Multiple GLO staffers were there – staffers who could’ve instead been taking calls from, or processing applications for, Harvey victims.
Still waiting in line are many thousands more Texans eligible for temporary housing, and I bet they’re not at all concerned about the politics, the press releases, or the photo ops. Instead, they just want to resume their lives as hard working, tax paying, Texans.
When it comes to helping them do that, looking good for the next election should be the very last thing on a politicians to-do list.
– Jerry Patterson is a former Texas state senator, Texas Land Commissioner and a retired Marine Vietnam veteran. While a member of the Texas Senate, he authored the Texas concealed handgun law and co-authored the Texas Coastal Management Plan. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org