Jefferson County awaits disaster recovery funds

Published 5:17 pm Monday, February 12, 2018

BEAUMONT — Now that disaster recovery appropriations bill have passed Congress, part of the Fiscal Year 2019 federal budget, it’s a waiting game for when Jefferson County will receive relief.

County Judge Jeff Branick said after the regular meeting of the Jefferson County Commissioners Court on Monday county officials are holding on to see what funnels down to the South East Texas Regional Planning Commission for housing recovery efforts and to units of local government to use for road and bridge repairs in the wake of Tropical Storm Harvey.

“We can integrate our FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds for roads and bridges and integrate those with insurance,” he said. “We’re still several weeks away. We need to determine which properties are the most needy.”

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Branick said he assumes Jefferson County will get a generous allotment, though, because Jefferson County received the second-highest amount of damage to homes out of 41 counties designated by FEMA for individual assistance.

“We had a substantial amount of damage here,” Branick said. “Harris County had 116,000 homes damaged or destroyed. We had 22,000 in Jefferson County, 13,000 in Orange County and 3,700 in Hardin County.

“They need to take in consideration the number of people affected.”

With so many other counties and states also hurting, Branick doesn’t think the $90 billion in federal funds will go far enough for Jefferson County and another disaster appropriations bill will be needed.

“Our housing needs now are greater than with (Hurricanes) Rita and Ike. The majority of the damage was in Port Arthur; that is a low-to-moderate-income area. (Community Development Block Grants) funds are designed to be spent in low-to-moderate-income areas.”

It was previously reported in The Port Arthur News the government officially shut down at midnight, 11 p.m. Central time, but Congress eventually passed a massive budget bill early Friday.

Stakes were high for Texas. A long-sought-after $90 billion in federal aid for disaster relief that included money for Texans affected by Hurricane Harvey was part of the original agreement and passed within the package. The Senate eventually and overwhelmingly passed the bill just before 1 a.m. Central time, and the House easily voted for the legislation around 4:30 a.m. Central.

In other county business, a bid award for siphon control structures at Oilcut Ditch and Salt Bayou at the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway for Jefferson County was given to MK Constructors for $6,699,693.

Fred Jackson, assistant to the county judge, previously told The News construction of the siphons is to maintain freshwater viability at the Intracoastal Waterway that goes to the McFaddin Wildlife Refuge and J.D. Murphree Wildlife Refuge marshes.

“Salinity levels are rising and Tropical Storm Harvey brought saltwater intrusion,” he said.

Branick said the county received funding for the siphons to carry water from a higher elevation from the north to the marshes on the lower south side.

“This will restore the freshwater that was lost. We’re waiting on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a permit. It’s a tremendously important restoration for that ecological system,” he said. “However, the permits are not moving at the speed we hoped.”

Branick added county engineer Don Rao has been working on this project for 14 years. He completed a study and the county decided to go at the problem threefold:

  • Putting in freshwater baffles in Keith Lake
  • Siphons to restore the freshwater flow
  • Building a berm along the county’s 20 miles of shoreline for coastal restoration

Branick also said the Port Arthur Driver License Office at 900 Fourth St. will be opened Tuesday and Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The office will close for lunch those days noon to 1 p.m. It was previously announced the office would close for several weeks due to a shortage of personnel.