Hurricane Harvey: Disaster Response & Preparedness

In 2017, Hurricane Harvey caused catastrophic damage in parts of Texas, inflicting damage of over $125 billion. The Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas studied the state’s response to Harvey and examined ways to improve the state’s preparedness for hurricanes and other disasters. Several bills passed this session implement the report’s suggestions andother ideas in aiming to improve the state’s response to future disasters.

House Bill 5 provides for a much-needed study into how the state can do a better job removing debris left behind after a disaster. The bill requires the Texas Division on Emergency Management (TDEM), in consultation with state agencies, to develop a catastrophic debris management plan and model guide for use by political subdivisions in the event of a disaster. 

House Bill 6 requires the TDEM to develop a disaster recovery task force to operate throughout the long-term recovery period following disasters by providing specialized assistance to address financial issues, available federal assistance programs, and recovery and resiliency planning to speed recovery efforts. The task force will be allowed to include the resources of any appropriate state agencies, including institutions of higher education, and organized volunteer groups. In addition, HB 6 requires the task force to develop procedures for preparing and issuing a report listing each project related to a disaster that qualifies for federal assistance. Once a quarter, the task force will be required to brief members of the legislature, staff, and state agency personnel on the response and recovery efforts for previous disasters and any preparation or planning for potential disasters. 

House Bill 7 requires the governor’s office to compile and maintain a comprehensive list of regulatory statutes and rules that could require suspension during a disaster. TDEM is required to develop a plan to assist political subdivisions of the state with executing contracts for services that are likely to become necessary following a disaster. The plan would be required to include training on the benefits to a political subdivision from executing disaster preparation contracts in advance of a disaster, recommendations on the services likely needed following a disaster (including debris management and infrastructure repair), and assistance with finding persons capable of providing disaster services and executing contracts in advance of a disaster.  

House Bill 26 directs the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to make rules requiring dam operators to notify local emergency operation centers about any intentional release of water. The emergency operation centers in turn must notify the public. This addresses an issue that occurred during Hurricane Harvey.

House Bill 2325 requires TDEM, in consultation with any state or private entity as the division determines appropriate, to coordinate state and local government efforts to make 9-1-1 emergency service capable of receiving text messages. TDEM is also required to develop standards for the use of social media by governmental entities during and after a disaster. Additionally, TDEM would be required to develop a mobile application for wireless communication devices to communicate critical information during a disaster to victims and first responders.  

House Bill 2320 would require TDEM, in collaboration with other entities, to include private wireless communication, Internet, and cable service providers in the disaster planning process to determine the availability of the providers’ portable satellite communications equipment and mobile telephone towers to assist in response and recovery immediately following a disaster. TDEM would be required to identify methods for hardening utility facilities and critical infrastructure (hospitals and fire stations) in order to maintain essential services during disasters. 

House Joint Resolution 34 & House Bill 492 allow the property tax market to more accurately reflect the damage caused by disasters. These measures permit the chief appraiser to reappraise property after a natural disaster.

Senate Bill 443 extends the period in which a structure is still eligible for the homestead exemption and the period in which construction must begin on the new structure to five years (from two) if the property was rendered uninhabitable or unusable and is located in an area declared to be a disaster area by the governor following a disaster.