HOUSTON - The state's land commissioner said Thursday his officials are working as fast as they can to put thousands of Harvey victims in temporary housing, while also dealing with red tape, and protecting against potential fraud.
Commissioner George P. Bush told reporters the General Land Office didn't have many mobile homes or RVs in its inventory when Harvey hit because FEMA had auctioned off most of them before the storm.
Bush also said FEMA didn't approach the GLO until three weeks after Harvey hit, and it took another three weeks to launch a plan that includes six temporary housing initiatives.
“We were tapped a month after the fact to create a brand-new program out of thin air,” said Bush. “In retrospect, if we could wave the magic wand, we go back in time, we have the state sponsor appointed before the storm, you have your pre-positioned contracts in place, and you have a willing federal government to say that a direct repair program is the best policy to keep mortgage borrowers in their homes,” said Bush.
The commissioner held a press conference in the driveway of Scott Short's League City home, which also houses Short's new FEMA trailer.
“It's great, comfortable,” said Short of the trailer, who received the RV in December, three months after applying for help. “It had its issues in the beginning, but as it went along, everybody took care of business.”
Toby Nguyen, a FEMA spokesperson, told KHOU 11 that as of Thursday, a total of 40,771 people had applied for temporary housing, with 6,970 of those applicants determined eligible. Nguyen says 1,119 people have been housed so far, with 5,951 others “in process.”
“We are faster than prior responses, but the scale of this thing is so large that really, whether it's a federal authority or a state sponsor, it's a Herculean task,” said Bush. He also said wind or flooding damaged an estimated 1.2 million homes, leading to more than 900,000 applications for all types of FEMA assistance.
He said his office is drafting a plan on what to do with $5 billion in grants recently approved by Congress for permanent housing for Harvey victims, while hoping more dollars flow toward Texas when Congress reconvenes the following week.
Still, many Harvey victims are still waiting for even the assurance that they'll receive temporary help. That includes Hope Thommen, who KHOU 11 crews met outside the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in Dickinson.
“We live in America for crying out loud,” said Thommen, who said she's been denied by FEMA twice after her rental home in Dickinson was flooded and destroyed by a lightning fire during Harvey. “We do not live in a third-world country. Why is this happening?”
Thommen, a single mother of six, arrived at the FEMA center with her 8-year-old son, Derrick, in their SUV packed full of belongings, many donated.
Thommen says she simply wants a roof over her family's head.
“I feel absolutely hopeless,” she said. “And my name is Hope.”