The Direct Housing Mission Done the Texas Way

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Christa Lopez:    Who are the other state partners that can work well hand in hand with state agencies to administer this program, so doing a wide assessment of the state and then also network and know who your partners are.

Todd DeVoe:      HI and welcome to EM Weekly and This is your host Todd DeVoe. And this week we’re talking housing with Christa Lopez,

Todd DeVoe:      So all disasters are local and this is no difference in Texas. Christa Lopez is the director of Texas General Land Office. They took on the task of direct housing from FEMA after Hurricane Harvey. So Christa Lopez an amazing person. I got to meet her [at IAEM] and had a great conversation with her. She’s done a lot of work throughout her life in emergency management in response has been really awesome to get to meet her and to really hear the story about what they did in Texas with the housing.

Todd DeVoe:      Hey, have you, got your reservation yet at the Arizona Grand Hotel? Because I’m telling you that you’re not going to want to miss the EMLC this year in Arizona, especially, in May it is beautiful over there. It’s May 2t, ninth or 30th and in Phoenix and it’s going to be awesome. So I plan on being there where we’re going to be doing some work over there with doing some live interviews and whatnot. So I’m excited to have a have you guys there. Come with me. I’m going to be there and it’s going to be the best whether I’m telling you can check out the beautiful sunsets, check out the area, and also the world class presenters that are going to be at the EMLC this year at the emergency management leaders conference in Phoenix, Arizona. May 29th through the 30th. Oh, we’ll see you there. Let’s get into the interview.

New Speaker:     Christa Lopez Welcome to EM Weekly.

Christa Lopez:    Thank you Todd. I appreciate you having me on.

Todd DeVoe:      So just tell me a little bit about how you got involved in emergency management and kind of your journey to where you are today.

Christa Lopez:    Okay. So the sparks started for me early in my college years. Friends of mine were volunteer firefighters involved with search and rescue. And in 2002 when I moved to the city of Austin, I decided that I would make it my goal to become involved as a first responder. And from those days of being a first responder, I learned a lot of skills about the incident command system and how disasters were run and in my daytime job at the University of Texas, I was actually asked to sit on committees to help develop emergency response policies for the university that involved into a unique jobs, positioning for me at the university. And then later evolved into me becoming an employee, um, both at the Texas division of emergency management and now with the Texas General Land Office. So I’ve had a unique background in emergency management both from the first responder as well as into the administrative side.

Todd DeVoe:      That’s really cool. Everybody has a unique journey, unique journey and that one was a really kind of a neat way to get there. So, you and I met him at, IAME in in Grand Rapids, was a beautiful conference and we got talking and you’re telling me about how you were running a housing for FEMA through the state, which was the first time they’ve ever done that. How did that come about?

Christa Lopez:    Hurricane Harvey affected the state of Texas we were asked as a state by FEMA to run the direct housing mission. This is a missing that FEMA typically runs and facilitate for eligible disaster survivors. Uh, the state accepted that mission and the governor’s office, the best agency to fit that role was the Texas general land office. So, under the leadership of Commissioner George P. Bush, we accepted the mission and we have been operating a jointly with FEMA and operating a direct housing mission for the survivors of Hurricane Harvey. We are providing temporary housing units as well as some temporary and permanent construction programs. So it’s been a wonderful opportunity to serve our citizens and the people of Texas and also because we know our citizens so well. Um, and we know how the state has operated. We really are positioned well to best serve our citizens and make this an impact and a great opportunity to help our survivors move on and get into their permanent housing plans.

Todd DeVoe:      Now with the new strategies coming out of FEMA with Administrator Long, he wants the local government, state government really run their disasters. Is this part of that part of those strategies or is this something that’s completely separate?

Christa Lopez:    It certainly is part of that strategy where I believe that Administrator Long recognizes that the best way to serve our citizens is to serve them with the folks that know them best and know the ordinances and laws the best and can really position themselves well to be of greatest service and so with the size and magnitude of Harvey, that was an opportunity to use this as the example for the rest of the country of how a state could run a housing mission funded by FEMA. And so, it has been a great partnership and we appreciate working together and collaboratively with FEMA and our local partners because they’ve played a role in that. Um, and I do think it is better serving for our survivors. I had worked housing missions with FEMA in the past in state roles and have found that this program was able to get people into temporary housing. It’s faster, um, and really able navigate some of the challenges. I think f FEMA based on their own when they were operating it, but now as a partnership we’re able to make it more successful

Todd DeVoe:      because that was my next question. What were some of the challenges that you had implementing this program?

Christa Lopez:    Anytime you implement a program for the first time, I think the challenges are always looking at how things have been operated in the past under one system and how do you make multiple systems come together to be successful and effective. So we had to look at making sure that our procurement was in line with federal procurement laws, which we always do anyway, but really looking at what things we had to take into consideration for this mission because it hasn’t been done before. We certainly had to create a lot of standard operating guidelines and policies and procedures. Um, the nice thing is now we have that information to share with other states and other jurisdictions being asked in the future to do these missions. So we’re really trying to do it well and make it professional where we can share those resources out with our other partners across the country.

Todd DeVoe:      What kind of procedures did you have to create?

Christa Lopez:    We had to create procedures down to specific policies such as how high power poles had to be as we placed temporary units. So we have various energy providers throughout the state and we had to bring them to the table to say as we place these temporary housing units, can we come to an agreement on how high the power poles had to be. We had to be as specific as that to um, policies around hauling and installing temporary housing construction of a permanent housing solution. So we had a program that part of this program that was called we called dollar direct assistance from limited home repair and dollar is a way to provide health, holds some permanent construction work in their home. And this program is unique because it had only been administered by FEMA in Guam and Alaska and very remote villages had not been operated in the contiguous 48 states. So not only were we taking on the venture of this unique state run housing mission, we were also taking on programs within a direct housing mission that had not been facilitated in the 48 states. So we had to create policies around that and procedures around how to facilitate that and really how to implement that program and develop those best practices.

Todd DeVoe:      What kind of partners Did you bring to the table when you were putting this together?

Christa Lopez:    We certainly engaged various state agency partners, some of our other federal partners such as HUD. We also engage our local partners and they are key to all of this because we all know that disasters begin and end at the local level. So you want that local jurisdiction involvement and engagement. So we have councils of government to be a part of this and build a partnership with us and help us to facilitate the nuances of the program. So for example, once a household received a temporary housing unit. They each month with a team of folks we call recertification teams and these recertification teams are making sure they’re making progress on the permanent housing solution, rebuilding their damage tones that are also abiding by the tenants of their agreement. And with that, um, we certainly do not have the staffing to, you know, send people out to the regions.

Christa Lopez:    Plus we want to make sure that households are meeting with people that are familiar with. So we engaged our local jurisdictions to partner with us to apply to this recertification process. Some staffing. And this really having helpers in the field, having local individuals working with our local disaster survivors with a great partnership. So those are some of the partnerships we built, but other unique partnerships such as working with FEMA, they have a core group of individuals focused on a long-term recovery and building partnerships with private sector partners.

Christa Lopez:    They have partnerships with voluntary agencies. We’ve had great success with our voluntary agencies working with them within the tenants, have no of privacy laws that sharing information that the voluntary agencies can help households sometimes muck and gut. We moved the debris from their homes and then we can come in and compliment that with our construction programs or a household might be in a temporary housing unit and the only thing holding them back from moving back into their damaged dwelling might be a door or having some fixtures installed in their home. So we might be able to partner with the voluntary agents and liaisons to have voluntary groups come in and help those survivors, um, finish up their home so that they can get back into their home and on their way to recovery. So it is certainly a unique set of partnerships and we appreciate our leadership and commissioner Bush and saying that we really need to engage all of our partners and leaning to make this a joint effort

Todd DeVoe:      Is this something a state can do prior to having a disaster? Is this a Program and they can pick up and start running with or is this something that just came about because of the how massive Harvey was the impact.

Christa Lopez:    So you believe states can begin now preparing for such a mission. Certainly the mission and the funding for the mission comes once a disaster strikes, but I would encourage all local agencies and state partners and individuals across the United States to really look at how can you plan for this now? Because we have seen following hurricane Harvey, several other states experience disasters and we are aware that FEMA has approached other agencies and other states to say, would you like to take on this housing mission like Texas? And we’ve offered up ours. Our SOPs are learning lessons and our guidance to support those other states as they investigate whether or not this is something they would like to take on. So certainly there is preparation that can be done now and I think that we’re positioned well to help those other states that are interested in doing so,

Todd DeVoe:      If there were like one or two things that you would do differently now that you’ve gone through the process that you wish you knew before, what were, what are they in? What can other states do to avoid that pitfall?

Christa Lopez:    So one is preparing a head of time. We did not know that we were going to get this mission. So, I think that’s the big takeaway is we were not aware that this was coming our way and the Texas General Land Office signed an agreement with FEMA to enter into this contract to run this program on September 14th of 2017 if you were hurricane Harvey, hit Texas on August 25th. So almost a month later is when we found out we were running this mission. It would have been helpful to exercise and train and plan for it. So that’s what we’re doing now. In addition to running the program, we’re working on ways to conduct exercises and training and bring awareness to our state of how I housing mission might be run in the future. So we’re already planning for the next disaster.

Todd DeVoe:      That’s a good question, what is a exercise look like for a housing mission?

Christa Lopez:    You know, that’s a great question. I think an exercise looks like a tabletop exercise. Most definitely. So bringing partners to the table from voluntary agency, private sector, other state agencies. For us it would be department of Insurance and Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs and Texas division of emergency management and so many more agencies that will leave anyone out, but then also our voluntary agency partners and of course our local jurisdictions bringing them to the table to say, you know, here’s a scenario that might pose where we in the state are needing additional housing in temporary housing or some construction for our survivors after a disaster. What policies and jurisdictions at the local level this now that we might need to put a temporary stay on or make a modification in times of disaster. So in blue skies, let’s look at what our policies and regulations are so that we can in disaster time be better prepared to respond to those. For example, permitting, we can’t just provide a household, a temporary housing unit such as a travel trailer, a manufactured. We need to obtain even temporary permits for those two jurisdictions, make decisions now that they would allow. Those are not allow those, so we will be aware once a disaster strikes, if we can place units within those areas. So those are the types of things, a tabletop exercise, what brings a light and we could put some structure into place ahead of time.

Todd DeVoe:      That’s a really good point as far as permitting goes. When I teach, when I teach classes, I tell my students that we should take a look at those processes to see how we can cut the time on the red tape coming from the local jurisdiction and working with local jurisdictions understand the time crunch and being able to get people up and running again is really important. So I think the other recovery mission, a program like this is really, really, really important. So I’m glad to see that you guys are doing this. Leaning forward. On a process like this, what tips would you give, I mean outside of the ones that you’re talking about where you’re regarding challenges, but what tips would you give to a state or county government that’s looking to do something like that? What do you think they would take away from your experience?

Christa Lopez:    So first I would say if a state is considering doing this, I think they need to take a look at what state agency is best positioned to handle. The Texas General Land Office I do believe is the best state agency to handle this mission because we also the community development block grant, disaster recovery grant and that program has a lot of similarities and also some overlap with disaster survivors and who we’re serving. So, it positions us very well to basically see our disaster survivors from the beginning of the disaster all the way through their long-term recovery options through the community development block grant. So those are the types of things I would suggest that states look at is not just the fault to the State Emergency Management Agency, but who are the other state partners that can work well hand and hand with state agencies to administer this program, so doing a wide assessment of the state and then also network and know who your partners are and understand the tenants of the disaster direct housing mission from FEMA and what federal laws WhatsApp with the Stafford Act says is permissible, so we know that there was a recent disaster recovery of reform act passed in September here by and where the impacts of that new legislation on our decision making as we move forward as well.

Christa Lopez:    All So just what’s the difference between emergency response and long term recovery and really exploring, you know, who’s best positioned to work in those spheres.

Todd DeVoe:      That’s a really good point

Christa Lopez:    right there as far as transferring the responsibilities, I would say, for lack of a better term from say your first responders, fire police, ems back over to say public works or something along those lines. For the long-term recovery. I think that transfer of a positioning is really important as far as the local level goes. How did you choose what nonprofit organizations that you going to you would like before you had some of those at the table? How did you choose what NGOs that you invited to come participate in this in this process to make it fair and equitable and we want to be able to use a variety of partners and so we use the state voluntary agency liaison. As our partner. She works for the Texas Division of Emergency Management as the voluntary agency liaison and they know our NGO partners or nongovernmental organization partners so well that we can say here’s a specific task that we’re looking at who’s the best partner for this project so that we have the best resources at hand and

Christa Lopez:    NGOs are voluntary Agencies are really good at the beginning phases of disaster response and what we call mucking and gutting or removing debris from homes and some are really good at chainsaw work. And Some have heavy equipment opportunities and then some are fantastic when it comes to rebuilding homes and building a permanent structures and we even have some now that have the financial resources to purchase manufactured homes that are donating, giving to applicable households, so knowing who all the partners are, what their skills and traits are and what they specialize in is so important and that’s where again, building those relationships with voluntary agency liaison so that we know who the best partners are. We have a great Texas voluntary organizations active in disaster or Texas VOAD as there are very strong a partner here in the state and they vet organizations as well, so their membership are validated through them to know that these are organizations that are going to stay around. You know, we often hear in disasters about fraudulent activity and we want to avoid exposing disaster survivors say fraudulent activity and by having partners such as Texas VOAD, I’ll add, we know that they’re trusted, respected, and they can be relied upon and we know that they’re going to do right by our citizens.

Todd DeVoe:      A friend of mine who was here in California for the longest time and then she retired and moved to Houston about a year before the storms came in and she started working with her church group and really managing some of the donations that came in and she was talking about some of the challenges that occurred with those, let alone the processing and then shipping and then moving things around. So I understand like the volunteer organizations are really important because that was the church, I forget which group she was with him, sorry, Anna. Um, but the, um, they were able to take over that role for, uh, for the city of Houston as far as moving a donations are out. So it is really important to have those conversations prior to, uh, any disaster, like we all know it’s blue sky days are the best days to meet people. It’s nice to have a coffee with somebody in an air conditioned room than it is drink water in the back of a, uh, on a hot day, a outside by your car. So making those relationships are really important. Um, one last question before we kind of get into a couple other little things here. So in this process of you getting the job right, then all of a sudden the task comes to you, you guys kind of on the flight make policies and procedures to start working with your partners. And then where are you now from that time starting to where you are today?

Christa Lopez:    Today we are the recertification process and the move out inspection and deactivation of our temporary housing units. Um, the program is set to end February 25th 2019. So the policy related to missions is that they exist out to 18 months from date of disaster declaration. So Hurricane Harvey was August 25th of 2017. So 18 months out would be February 25th and 2019. We have commissioner Bush has sent a request to FEMA to ask for an extension because we do know that recovery takes a long time and we want to make sure that our citizens are served well and taking care of as they transitioned into their repairs, that they’re damaged dwelling. We know that it takes a lot longer sometimes, especially with storm and a magnitude. Harvey resources are limited. It’s sometimes hard to find a contractor. It might be difficult to obtain material and then unfortunately do know that sometimes folks experienced some fraud and they may need to save up some additional funds to make those repairs, so we want to give our citizens ample time and opportunity to rebuild their homes and in doing so we’ve asked for an extension from the and we’re awaiting their response, so that’s where we stand right now,

Todd DeVoe:      How many individual households have you helped out with this process.

Christa Lopez:    So throughout the course of the program, through various opportunities that we’ve had through directly or directly manufactured home travel trailers, the dollar program, which is the assistance for limited home repair. And then we did a, what we call step or preps. Most people are familiar with it being called step, but this is a temporary repair program to get people sheltered back into their homes. That program alone, we served over 15,666 houses in preps and then adding in the rest of the dark housing programs, another over 3,000 programs, so we’ve served over 18,000 households and when you average two point two people per household, we’ve served a lot of Texas through our programs and we continue to serve them because we’re now administering the community development block grant disaster recovery program and will continue to serve them over the next several years in their recovery process.

Todd DeVoe:      Wow, that’s amazing. Congratulations on that. So hard. If somebody wanted to get more information from you to learn more about what you’re doing or maybe even if you share this information with them, how could they find you?

Christa Lopez: Gov and Texas is spelled out. That website is your one stop shop. It talks about our, what we call short term, short term housing programs as well as our long-term or community development block grant disaster recovery program. Under our short-term housing programs, we have information about our IGSA or a service agreement with FEMA, which is the contract we signed. We also have information on social media, you can find us on twitter at Glo, you can find our LinkedIn page, our Facebook page, but we are available to folks our information, like I said, on also had, um, the opportunity where state agencies wanting to gather more information. We can be able to share some of our standard operating guidelines with them. We can share our lessons learned. We’re also presenting at some conferences, some program proposals for the Texas Emergency Management Conference coming up this spring. We’ll be submitting proposals for next year’s IAEM conference to present there and we’ve also provided FEMA a significant amount of feedback and have gone to Washington dc to discuss lessons learned. So we’re available and they have the opportunities to find the phone line. Um, and certainly folks can contact me individually setting any questions as well.

Todd DeVoe:      If you guys are driving down the road or you’re short your pencils, don’t worry. We’re going to have this information in our show notes. You can also find it on the website. Okay. Here comes the last hard question. What book books or publications do you recommend to somebody who’s getting involved or is involved in emergency management

Christa Lopez:    Disasters by Design, by Dr Dennis Mileti I used several times and still continued to refer to it. Um, and Dr. Mileti certainly has had an impact on emergency management and education in emergency management, disaster recovery and resilience. Amanda Ripley, wrote a book called unthinkable who survives, when a disaster strikes and why this was a really important lesson learned to understand the survivor impact and how individuals survive disasters and I think it’s a good perspective as professionals that we understand the people we’re serving. And then finally a personal book that I think is a great book about looking at any situation from a variety of perspectives and not just specific to disasters, is the sunflower by Simon license.

Todd DeVoe:      That’s a unique one right there. Tell me about the Sunflower.

Christa Lopez:    So, the sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal shares a story of interviewing a soldier from the Nazi war camps and this soldier is infirmed and asks for an individual serving them who’s in prison to ADVO camp for forgiveness. And so Simon goes out to interview public figures to ask what would they do if they were faced with a situation. And it’s really interesting to hear a variety of perspectives as to how individuals would respond on the topic of forgiveness and understanding. And I think that that’s an important message we all need to understand.

Todd DeVoe:      That’s true. Thank you for sharing that. Talking directly to the emergency manager right now, what would you want to say to them?

Christa Lopez:    I’d want to say remember that recovery takes a long time. Identify who your partners are in disaster recovery because it’s easy to get caught up. It’s exciting sometimes for emergency managers to get caught up in the response phase, and it is important because we’re saving lives. When we think about the principles of emergency management, some people refer to as the lip’s principles, life safety incident, incident stabilization and property conservation. Those are the immediate needs, but then they have a long term need. And so I think understanding recovery, the importance of recovery, training for recovery will make a disaster where more smoothly and think about who you’re transitioning to and how you’re going to transition. So for example, here in Texas, now in the state operation center, not only our partners in the room discussing response, but recovery is being discussed as a disasters unfolding because we know that as soon as the disaster strikes, the recovery process begins. So I would say continuing to think about recovery and start having that dialogue.

Todd DeVoe:      It was a Pleasure meeting you and a pleasure having you on the show.

Christa Lopez:    Todd, Thank you so much for having me on the show. I really appreciate it. I appreciate everyone listening in. As Todd mentioned, there’s going to be lots of information after this, so if you need to reach out to us and contact us, we’re happy to be a partner in all of this across the country and across the globe and Todd I look forward to seeing you at the next conference.

Todd DeVoe:      Have a great day.

Christa Lopez:    Bye.







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