Well before Hurricane Harvey reached Houston in August 2017, it hurtled through Aransas County, Texas. The small coastal region endured 130 mile-per-hour winds, the strongest to hit the United States since 2005. The storm demolished 867 individual-family homes, and estimated damages neared $812 million for residences and $134 million for businesses. Tourism was devastated, and the county unemployment rate rocketed from 5.4 percent before the storm to 10.3 percent a month after.
The Sid W. Richardson Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas, stepped up to help. They hired two retired city managers and relocated them to Aransas so they could apply their experience to add a charitable lift to official recovery efforts. The managers arrived within 36 hours after being hired, and went to work navigating bureaucracies. “Federal disaster programs were not designed for small towns,” says Pete Geren, president of the foundation. “They’re complicated, they’re labor-intensive, and they’re bewildering.”
The seasoned managers began with debris removal, then assessed individual assistance needs, insurance claims, and FEMA payouts. They prioritized the tourism industry to restart the county’s economy. They tracked down affordable-housing options.
Twenty months after Harvey first made landfall, Aransas County has made tremendous strides. By April of 2019, the unemployment rate had dropped to 3.6 percent. While 88 percent of the county’s businesses were closed down by the storm, 93 percent are now open. An aquarium, the Key Allegro Bridge, and municipal buildings are being rebuilt.
The Sid Richardson Foundation’s quick earmarking of $250,000 to bring pros to the scene of a disaster and cut through red tape has had very large benefits. “It’s hard to imagine an investment with greater leverage than putting city managers on the ground helping these communities,” says Geren.