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LCRA board OKs $5 million match for Bastrop FEMA disaster funds

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

The Lower Colorado River Authority agreed yesterday to put up the $5 million local match necessary to secure Bastrop County’s FEMA funding for clean-up efforts from the Labor Day wildfires.


Bastrop County, which expects a slow painful recovery process, approached LCRA for support in late September, along with local leaders. Right now, removal of debris alone is expected to cost upwards of $25 million.


During a special-called meeting on Tuesday afternoon, LCRA General Manager Becky Motal and Executive Manager Henry Eby outlined the damage of the Labor Day fires to the county, described as “the most devastating fire in the history of Texas” and one that destroyed more than 1,500 area homes.


Chair Tim Timmerman, who toured the area with agency leaders as well as local elected officials, called the devastation amazing, adding that “the need is fairly clear.”


A 15-mile swath of 34,000 acres were destroyed through the core of the county, although LCRA facilities — including the Lost Pines Power Park, LCRA Transmission Services Center and Tahitian Village wastewater treatment plant – remained largely untouched during the wildfire.


According to a white paper passed onto the board members, LCRA already has participated in recovery efforts in a number of ways: activating an emergency operations center; documenting and assessing the fire’s impact; participating in baseline water quality monitoring; and participating in the completion of Bastrop County’s emergency assistance application.


Eby said almost 150,000 tons of green timber, valued at up to $14 million, still remained on the ground in Bastrop County. Unfortunately, East Texas timber mills are well over capacity right now with that area’s fires and have little use for the timber, even if it could be transported.


“There is some interest in the lumber, but it doesn’t appear to be a money maker for anybody,” Eby told the board, downplaying the profit that could be gained from the effort. “We may recover the cost of salvage and transport to mills.”


Eby painted a grim picture of the financial capacity for Bastrop County to address the clean-up efforts, including the local match for the FEMA disaster relief grant. The county tax rolls likely will be devastated for years to come, and the loss to the tax base is calculated at between 10 and 15 percent. Renewing the vegetation in the area could take decades to complete, Eby said.


Secretary Kathleen Hartnett White, who represents the Bastrop County area, urged the full board to consider support for a one-of-a-kind event.


“I fully admit, I’m totally biased. It’s my home.” White told her colleagues, later adding. “This is truly unprecedented.”


Motal said the one-time payment, out of agency public service funding, made sense for a host of reasons: It would begin the re-forestation process; it would minimize further impact to power lines; it would help restore service to many of LCRA’s existing customers; and LCRA remains a taxpayer itself and had a vested interest in the county’s ongoing recovery.


In a motion approved unanimously by the board, a $5 million wildfire relief fund was created. Additional support, of any kind, was limited to $250,000. That would likely be limited to manpower and not capital expenditures.

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