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Questions pile up as Travis County tackles flood relief

Wednesday, November 18, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County has more questions than answers more than two weeks after heavy floods caused widespread damage in Central Texas.

At its regular Tuesday voting session, the Commissioners Court charged staff with investigating several issues raised by affected residents who attended the meeting.

“We are very simple people,” William Torres, a resident of Thoroughbred Farms in unincorporated southeastern Travis County, told the commissioners. “A lot of people, we don’t know anything about what’s going on. We’d like to believe that the government and the information you’ve given us for the floodplain, everything, is proper and right. And we’re just lost.”

Torres explained that most homeowners in his community had flood insurance built into their mortgages up until five months ago, when they were told their properties were no longer considered to be in the floodplain. When that happened, Torres said, residents had to fend for themselves and buy third-party insurance, a daunting prospect for elderly and low-income residents.

“Ten years of carrying flood insurance and all of a sudden five months ago, no flood insurance needed?” Torres asked rhetorically. “It’s just confusing. Why? We need answers, and we need housing.”

Edward Hernandez followed Torres’ appeal with an even heavier dose of emotion. He told the commissioners that unprecedented floodwaters swept his son to his death last month. According to news reports, Edward Hernandez Jr. died after his vehicle was washed away on Oct. 30 near the Circuit of the Americas racetrack.

As County Judge Sarah Eckhardt descended from the dais to deliver tissues to the grieving father, Hernandez questioned whether nearby road construction on Farm to Market Road 973 was to blame.

“I just need to know,” said Hernandez, “whether the 973 drainage caused all this. … Because I never seen it rise that quick, and I’ve been there 22 years. That’s all I need to find out: if it was because of those drains – if that destroyed our neighborhood and destroyed my son’s life.”

Eckhardt pledged to use county resources to investigate how the water rose so quickly and also why the area was removed from the floodplain. She also answered another resident’s concerns about looting by promising to look into emergency lighting that could be installed in affected neighborhoods.

As for the scale of the disaster, staff members told the commissioners that the flood damaged 343 homes, 161 of which suffered what is considered major damage. Another 20 homes were affected by the water, bringing the total to 363. Around 100 of those were not in the mapped floodplain, according to county staff.

Emergency management coordinator Stacy Moore-Guajardo told the commissioners that state and federal teams were out in several neighborhoods late last week surveying the damage. She explained that based on their findings, Gov. Greg Abbott could issue a disaster declaration, which could trigger the federal government to do the same, which would then funnel a deluge of dollars toward the recovery effort.

After hearing updates from other county departments, Commissioner Brigid Shea insisted on asking staff members about the FM 973 expansion and the changing floodplain maps. Eckhardt warned Shea that any discussion at that point would be speculation and therefore “unfair to residents.” When Shea persisted, Eckhardt firmly exercised her authority.

“Commissioner Shea, I’m going to cut off your line of inquiry,” Eckhardt said. “You’re asking them to speculate. These people before us know how the process works. They do not know what occurred in the field.” Turning to the residents seated in the gallery, Eckhardt added, “We will look into that, and I really appreciate you all for bringing the issue to us, but I do not want to speculate in open court at this point.”

After the briefing, the commissioners voted to provide a small measure of relief to some flood victims. With Commissioner Ron Davis temporarily off the dais, the remaining commissioners unanimously decided to waive permitting fees for certain owners of damaged homes. To qualify, the household income must be at or less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

Eckhardt closed the discussion by pledging once again to get to the bottom of the residents’ concerns and also to hold more flood relief briefings at future Commissioners Court meetings.

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