As deadly floodwaters damaged homes and choked major roadways throughout Texas Tuesday, Federal Emergency Relief Administration representatives arrived in the Lone Star State to aid local officials in damage assessment and recovery efforts. U.S. President Barack Obama formally offered federal disaster resources to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, but FEMA officials have so far served an auxiliary role.
Nearly a foot of rain fell in Harris County, Texas from late Monday to early Tuesday, according to the National Weather Service. Flash floods killed at least three people in the Houston area, while hundreds of Harris County homes experienced some form of damage. FEMA officials have already performed preliminary damage assessments, or PDAs, in two of the 37 counties Abbott declared disaster areas on Monday. Abbott had yet to formally request financial assistance from the federal government, but information gleaned from the FEMA reports was expected to factor into his decision.
“As you see, this is a very fluid situation, and we always come in at the invitation of the state,” FEMA Region IV spokeswoman Stephanie Moffett said. “The Governor’s office and the state will analyze the information and they will decide, the governor will decide whether to ask for federal disaster assistance.”
FEMA officials warned Texas citizens as far back as May 13 to prepare for flash floods brought on by heavy rains experienced in the region, but severe weather reached its peak this weekend in Texas and neighboring Oklahoma. The drowning deaths of three individuals in Houston brought the two states’ storm-related death toll to 11, with search efforts underway for at least 30 missing people in Texas alone, the Associated Press reports. Crews used rafts and helicopters to perform dozens of high-risk rescues throughout the state.
Storms also caused widespread damage to public infrastructure. Tens of thousands of customers were left without electricity in Harris County, the Houston Chronicle reports. Approximately 500 to 700 homes in the same area suffered some sort of damage from the flooding, while high waters, abandoned vehicles and uprooted trees made travel impossible on major roadways, public transportation systems and local airports. Dozens of Texas schools canceled classes or instituted delayed openings.
“We have FEMA personnel already on the ground. They are coordinating with Texas emergency management authorities and I will anticipate that there will be some significant requests made to Washington,” Obama said at a White House briefing. “My pledge to [Gov. Abbott] is that we will expedite those requests to make sure that both search and rescue operations where necessary, but also recovery operations occur as efficiently and as quickly as possible.”
While Texas state officials have yet to request a full-fledged federal response to the deadly floods, Abbott announced Monday that at least 10 state agencies would participate in recovery efforts across the 37 counties identified as disaster areas, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Parks & Wildlife Department and the Commission on Environmental Quality.
The state’s response included ongoing search-and-rescue missions by boat and helicopter crews, debris cleanup and repairs to damaged power infrastructures, as well as shelters and supplies for displaced citizens. Charities have also gotten involved with recovery efforts. The American Red Cross set up a “Safe and Well” website through which victims could update their loved ones on their status.
“The State of Texas has taken brisk action in dispatching all available resources to aid those affected by this severe weather system, and I strongly urge all Texans to exercise every possible precaution to ensure their safety and the safety of their families and neighbors,” Abbott said in a press release.
Ultimately, it will be left to Abbott and his advisors to determine the extent to which FEMA and the federal government are involved in ongoing recovery efforts. FEMA stressed Tuesday that it was too soon to determine whether the situation in Texas will merit federal disaster aid, as officials had yet to fully assess storm-related fallout and were likely still focused on response as opposed to recovery. But significant damage to vital infrastructure, such as major roads and schools, could eventually trigger federal assistance.
“It’s usually dependent on a number of factors, like what other assistance is available for people, whether that’s voluntary assistance or insurance, scope of the damage, the conditions associated with that,” Moffett said.