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Taking any suggestions: Lamar, Branick partner for storm resiliency study

BEAUMONT — The Jefferson County commissioners voted to allow county judge Jeff Branick to write a letter to the Lamar University Institutional Review Board to allow the university to contact county employees to participate in focus groups about hurricane resiliency and recovery.

“They have been studying economic costs of disasters,” Branick said. “They want to know individuals’ feelings about what would make our county more resilient.”

According to the letter Branick wrote to Lamar, the university will separate focus groups into three large clusters under the categories of government, health and special population.

Branick granted the university permission to contact county employees to see if they are interested in voluntarily participating. The information shared with the group will be confidential and the interactions will be recorded and transcribed.

In the letter, Branick said the researcher agreed to provide his office a copy of the aggregate results from the study.

The county judge is also waiting for the $4 billion in federal aide to kick in. The money meant to help with disaster relief in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey is currently held up in the federal government.

In late April, Branick wrote a letter to U.S. senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz along with congressmen Brian Babin, Randy Weber and Garret Graves regarding his concern about the past and present federal disaster recovery process and suggested changes.

“Everything at the state and local level is going pretty well,” he said. “At the federal level we are having difficulty because of the federal code of regulations. We’re having problems getting the $4.5 billion in Community Block Grant Development, because it’s hung up in regulations that they said were going to be done by May 1.”

In his letter, Branick says because of regulations, homeowners will not see any federal money until 14 months after a disaster at the earliest.

“Every year, the State of Texas and my county enter into pre-disaster contracts for all of the services we anticipate needing in the event of a hurricane or other event,” Branick wrote. “I say all of this to highlight the need for more expedient processes to deal with recovery.”

Branick suggested FEMA and HUD have pre-disaster contracts in place to help speed up the process. The judge also suggested a change to FEMA’s “substantial damage rule.”

“When a county chooses to participate in the National Flood Insurance Program, the county must adopt a rule for new construction,” Branick wrote. “The elevation can be base flood elevation 1, 2 or 3 feet above base flood elevation. The higher the county requires the new structure to be built, the higher premium for residents.

“Under FEMA/NFIP rules, if a structure suffers substantial damage (50% or more of its pre-disaster value), then to qualify for continued participation in the NFIP, the county would have to prohibit homeowners from repairing their homes unless they meet current elevation rules.”

Branick said elevating homes could cost more than constructing a new home entirely.

“Not only would I have a riot on my hands, I would be forcing my constituents to abandon what would in most cases be their biggest financial asset.” Branick wrote.