Steering Through a Storm
Reviving Rural Communities in the Wake of Natural Disaster
By Bethany Fefelov
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 hurricane landfall winds to hit the United States since 2005. The storm demolished 867 individual-family homes (compared to 845 in Houston), and estimated damages neared $812 million for residences and $134 million for businesses.
Debris lay rampant on Aransas streets. Citizens, their homes destroyed or rendered unlivable, were displaced in droves. What's more, Aransas is a tourist community, popular with "Winter Texans" and spring-breakers, and the destruction of major attractions structured its influx of cash. The unemployment rate rocketed from 5.4% before the storm to 10.3% in September 2017.
In a study of 22 Texas counties affected by Harvey, the South Texas Economic Development Center concluded that "Aransas County experienced the most economic impact" from the storm. Furthermore, as the smallest of the counties studied, rural Aransas possessed the least financial capacity to rebuild without external assistance.
That assistance came in the form of the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, long a custodian of the well-being of Texas and its citizens. The foundation also has a personal connection to Aransas County. In 1930 its founder, Sid Richardson, purchased a small island off the coast of Rockport. That island is now owned by Richardson's heirs, the Bass family, who also serve as members of the foundation's board.
Said Bass to the Rockport Pilot in 2018, "When Harvey devastated this community we love, we wanted to help."
And help they did. Early in the county's long journey to recovery, Sid Richardson Foundation president Pete Geren and Aransas County Judge Burt Mills scheduled a meeting. The strategy that emerged from that meeting reveals three key lessons that philanthropists can apply to other areas in need—most notably Mexico Beach, Florida, much of which remains in ruins as hurricane season looms.
Lesson 1: Call on Experienced City Managers
John Strothman, project manager for Aransas County, remembers feeling helpless the day Harvey hit. Acquiring funds for disaster recovery is not a cut-and-dry process, he said, and "none of us understood the ins and outs of these programs."
That sentiment was echoed by Judge Mills when he and Geren met. When Geren asked him, "What do you need from us?" Mills answered, "Everything? I don't know what we need."
Fortunately, Geren knew who to call. The city manager in his foundation's hometown of Fort Worth gave him advice that would set everything in motion: find former city managers—with storm experience—who could move to Rockport and use their expertise to guide the recovery process.
Geren didn't have to look far. He was swiftly connected with Ron Holifield, a retired city manager and the owner of Strategic Government Resources (SGR), an interim management placement company.
SGR has a database of about 350 retired public officials, each of whom is willing and able to relocate to take on interim assignments. If a match for a particular municipal need cannot be met with one of the 350, the organization also has access to a database of nearly 5,000 active government officials who can tap their own networks. "To get advice from 200 miles away wouldn't be helpful," said Geren. "These small communities need expertise on the ground."
With a grant of around $250,000 paid directly to Aransas County, Geren located two retired city managers—William Whitson and Kim Foutz—and covered their salaries, room, and board for 18 months so that they could lend their prowess to Aransas. The pair relocated within 36 hours. Foutz, a former city manager from Temple, Texas, is well versed in the culture of the Lone Star State. Whitson, who last served in Georgia, is what Strothman deems a "storm expert."
Whitson's resume lists multifarious experiences. He held a presidential management internship; worked for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C.; assisted with the launch of the EPA's Gulf of Mexico program; spent time in grants and contract management in a Congressional office; and held city manager, assistant city manager, and department-head positions in local governments. In no fewer than seven of those municipal positions, he served either as the incident commander or on the incident command team for storms, including wildfires, floods, and hurricanes.
The cumulation of these experiences, Whitson said, allowed him and Foutz to hit the ground running. He remembers that the first thing he and his new partner did upon arriving in Aransas was drive to a local Walmart and buy a flip-chart with sticky backing. "If you know anything about city managers, it's that we're notorious for organization and setting up plans, priorities, and a pathway forward," he said. Foutz and Whitson covered the walls of their borrowed office in the Judge's quarters with giant post-it notes, drawing from what they knew from other storms.
But the two provided something in addition to their expertise: they provided bodies. "Local governments don't have enough staff to do what they do on a normal basis," said Whitson. "Then you add on top of that the complexity of a hurricane or tornado recovery, that doubles and triples their workload." This needs gap is only exacerbated in underserved, rural communities.
Through its grant, the Sid Richardson Foundation allowed Whitson and Foutz to be present during the crucial period following the storm. Then, through their presence and ability to dedicate their time exclusively to recovery, Whitson and Foutz made the process seem surmountable. According to Strothman, "that was the absolute key to our going forward."
"I spent 20 years as a city manager and I never dealt with a natural disaster," said Holifield. "The typical city doesn't do that. Having the ability to get experts who have been there, done that very quickly is profoundly significant." What is more, the ready access to experienced public officials provided through companies like SGR makes Geren's model highly replicable.
Lesson 2: Keep the Momentum Going
The first few months of storm recovery are focused on the immediate: search-and-rescue missions, security measures, and damage assessments. Once the initial shock of the disaster has passed, it can be daunting to turn attention to the long-term needs. This is particularly true when it comes to securing long-term funding, as local problems don't always fit neatly into national and state grant programs.
"Federal disaster programs were not designed for small towns," said Geren. "They're complicated, they're labor-intensive, and they're bewildering."
The key to getting organizations like FEMA to follow through, said Whitson, is "to keep the pressure on and know exactly the right way to do it." Strothman agreed: "The key is you have to be prepared. You have to say: 'We have a plan, we have a budget, and we know what we need.' "
Foutz and Whitson thus set out to convert their sticky-note brainstorms into a comprehensive Long-Term Recovery Plan (LTRP). "We broke it into pieces," said Whitson. "We focused on priorities much like you do in an emergency room triage: tackle the most urgent matters first, then work down the list."
The two created a chain of priorities, beginning with debris removal and encompassing individual assistance needs, insurance claims, and FEMA payouts for destroyed vehicles, equipment and buildings, and a communications plan. They prioritized rebuilding the floundering tourism industry to restart the county's economy and creating affordable-housing options.
"My partner, Kim, is a whiz at Excel, so she started putting together a spreadsheet to track projects," said Whitson. That funding matrix has been critical to helping the Long-Term Recovery Team (LTRT) organize their vast array of priorities—and funding sources. As acquiring government support is often contingent upon community match dollars (90-10, for example), the LTRT had to keep careful track of how funds were distributed.
External communications were also imperative to securing both public and private dollars. About six months after the storm, Congress was preparing for its upcoming session. "They were interested in what was going on and how they could help," said Whitson. "I wrote a lot of testimony for Aransas."
While federal dollars were somewhat slow to materialize, the LTRT has to date secured $10.5 million in grants from EDA, FEMA, GLO, TDA, and Rebuild Texas. Foutz's Excel matrix is currently tracking over 100 projects worth $250 million.
Lesson 3: Humanize the Storm
Amid the facts, figures, debris, and dollars that comprise the minutiae of storm recovery, it's easy to forget that the essence of any community is its people.
"Having gone through these experiences, I get it," Whitson said. "You're supposed to help. You're an invited guest in their house. It's not your home. You may not always agree with the decisions they make or the things they see as priority, but it's your duty to support it and move forward."
This "them-first" mentality carried Foutz and Whitson through their tenure in Aransas. Debris removal was the first action item in the LTRP because "the more it sits there, the more it reminds people of what happened to them." The same was true of the LTRP's comprehensive communications strategy, which included a post-storm assistance hotline to help impacted citizens feel heard, a dedicated website to provide information, and a full-time social-media effort to share good news and tell inspiring recovery stories to foster a sense of hope.
20 months after Harvey first made landfall, Aransas has made tremendous strides. By April of this year, the unemployment rate in the county had dropped to 4.9%. Immediately after the storm, 88% of the county's businesses were closed. Today, 93% are open. Municipal buildings, the aquarium, and the Key Allegro Bridge are all in the process of being rebuilt. The Sid Richardson Foundation's initial investment of $250,000 has yielded millions of dollars in grants. "It's hard to imagine an investment with greater leverage than putting city managers on the ground helping these communities," said Geren.
When asked what other philanthropists can glean from the Aransas story, Whitson's response was immediate. "Get yourself a team or a group that can augment or supplement local officials so they can begin putting all the pieces together."