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Helping Those Who've Lost Their Homes - Twice

posted Jun 29, 2016, 11:38 PM by Joshua Wallis   [ updated Jun 30, 2016, 12:02 AM ]
After years of extreme drought, Central Texas experienced two life-taking floods within the span of eight months.  Two years almost to the day after the Halloween flood of 2013 that hit Austin's Onion Creek neighborhood, the Thoroughbred Farms neighborhood was hit with the wall of water that left many homeless and two dead.  ATXEJ members joined cleanup efforts on two occasions shortly after.  As some helped clean up private and public spaces, putting pieces of people's homes into county dumpsters, others distributed assistance information to neighbors.  Heaters and some donated furniture and appliances were also delivered to help through the winter. While we did useful work for many neighbors, it seemed our presence was also largely morale boosting, as all of the neighbors we talk to were thankful and very happy to see us. 

The May floods hit some of the very same people, some of whom were in the middle of reconstruction from the first flood.  After the first flood (labeled a one-hundred-year flood), many of the neighbors we talked to considered it a freak occurrence and were not interested in a buyout program.  FEMA offered significant assistance to many but for most it did not cover rebuilding costs, which in some cases involves raising a home's foundation.  After the second flood, most of the people we talked to at a neighborhood health fair were ready to leave.  

A local group called TARG (Travis Austin Recovery Group) was instrumental in making Austin's buyout program of Onion Creek homes a reality.  Unfortunately for the Thoroughbred Farm residents, they fall outside the city's purview and must rely on the county.  TARG is now working with Travis County to find a way to help the neighbors in the long term, in the form of determining the causes, planning for inevitable future floods, and hopefully buyouts for some.  Travis County's budget is much smaller than the city of Austin's, and the county currently has no process in place to handle buyouts.  The average cost to the city to buy out an Austin home has been around $250k.  Much of that does not go to the owner of course, but instead are administrative or bureaucratic costs.  The homes are demolished and removed, and of course that costs money too.  The good news is that the average in the county is closer to $170k, making it a more affordable option to the county.

The other good news is that the County Commissioner's Court appears to be ready to talk seriously about helping our flooded neighbors.  It's typical for a disaster to only stay on the radar a few months or until the next disaster, whichever is sooner.  With these floods so close together, there is simply no denying that the neighborhood needs real help and the county needs a long-term plan.  Judge Eckhardt, who leads the court, sounds truly sympathetic, and the court has had the floods on the agenda every week since May.  The neighbors have been allowed to speak as long as they care to instead of being limited to 3 minutes, and the fee for getting building permits has been waved if they got a permit after the last flood. You can watch a taping of the neighbors' testimonies by clicking agenda item 4 here.

We hope to continue working with TARG, ADRN (Austin Disaster Relief Network) and other local groups to support our neighbors.  There will be neighborhood building, meetings with county officials, and possibly cleanup efforts as well.  We believe that FEMA will be allowing those who had substantial damage during the May flood to receive assistance even if they received it last year, which is good news.  Other ways of helping will include educating neighbors about how to come up to building code, how to get permits, etc.  Just because you are told you may be fined for not coming up to code does not mean that you automatically know HOW to come to code.

If you are interested in putting in a little sweat equity at a cleanup, donating food or goods, or have special skills that you think can be applied to the effort, please contact Drew or Jimmy.
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