The Wharton County Recovery Team (WCRT), whose primary mission was to assist the county in any type of disaster, formed at precisely the right time.
Started in 2016, the group’s initial focus was to help residents affected by recent flooding events that year, but the next year, the organization would be tested by a disaster of historic proportions.
Harvey developed into the first category four hurricane to hit Texas since 1961, according to the National Weather Service. Wharton found itself along the powerful storm’s path. In the aftermath, widespread destruction spanned throughout the county with some residents still recovering even now, said Pattie Odom, director of administration for the WCRT.
“Harvey was a game-changer for the WCRT,” Odom said. “The magnitude and impact of Harvey, coupled with the realization that recovery would be a three- to five-year project, led the WCRT to ramp-up efforts to provide long-haul survivor services. The executive committee of the WCRT began outreach for community, state and national funding partners and resources to aid in long-term recovery.”
After Harvey hit, more than a third of households were affected. More than 300 Harvey survivors sought assistance from the WCRT, Odom said. To date, the WCR has assisted 91 survivor families reach full recovery with 185 currently receiving assistance. The WCRT partners in disaster case management included the St. Vincent DePaul and BCFS who are serving more than 100 families.
Numerous partners emerged to provide funding and other resources for the recovery efforts and Odom said that this helped the WCRT in its long-term recovery efforts. Funding partners who have assisted with unmet needs include: The Catholic Diocese of Victoria, The Wharton Rotary Club, The Wharton and District Lions Clubs, The District Rotary Club, The El Campo Rotary, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, The Episcopal Diocese of Texas, Doc Blakley, Team Wharton, The Matagorda United Way, The American Red Cross, The Salvation Army, Tzu Chi Foundation, The Council of Victoria and The Wharton First United Methodist Church. Many citizens donated at fundraisers of the funding organizations.
Other partners included private and volunteer groups, Odom said.
“We have depended on many private foundations and volunteer groups to assist with recovery,” Odom said. “We have received funding from Rebuild Texas, Samaritan’s Purse, Center for Disaster Philanthropy, Trull Foundation, The American Red Cross, Gulf Coast Medical Foundation, Good 360 and Priessmeyer Foundation to aid in capacity building and construction.”
Odom said partnerships played a large role in the success of Harvey recovery and remains as one of the most important lessons learned from the experience of this major disaster.
“Build your relationships with partners and prepare for future disasters,” Odom said. “Recruit a strong board of directors who are in it for the long-haul. Recovery from such a catastrophic disaster takes three to five years.”
The WCRT organized an Unmet Needs Roundtable comprised of various organizations as an additional resource to meet needs for people who had exhausted all other resources
“Resources for recovery and rebuilding are strained because of the extent of the county disaster,” Odom said. “Since the spring of 2018, the WCRT has held 35 Unmet Needs Roundtables resulting in $600,000 in assistance being awarded to 167 families.”
As far as funding amounts, Odom said, direct client services through the Wharton County Unmet Needs Table reached more than $600,000 in August. Approximately $650,000 in funding was obtained from The Center for Disaster Philanthropy and The American Red Cross for repairs and construction of homes.
At both the state and federal levels, the process to apply for assistance, get approved and then receive the funds often takes time. As an example, resources that just arrived in December of 2018 and early this year are still being matched with those in need from funding.
Gwyneth Teves, community development director for the city, said funding from the government, such as the General Land Office Homeowner’s Assistance Program, has been approved for new housing but construction can’t start immediately.
“It’s like any other state programs,” Teves said. “There’s a lapse from when you get funded, when you apply and how soon that construction actually begins.”
Moving forward, the repair and reconstruction of homes for families still not recovered from Harvey will be the WCRT’s focus as they continue providing coordinated management of long-term recovery to Wharton County residents, Odom said.
“Most recently, the Wharton West End Initiative was formed with the goal of building 40 new homes in the West End of Wharton, an area of the city struck by the floods of 2015, 2016 and 2017,” Odom said. “The West End Initiative began construction of the first 10 homes in January 2019 and 22 of the homes will be under construction by the end of September,” Odom said.
Funding already secured for construction in the West End totals $3,342,875.00 with funding for other construction is $600,000.00. Good 360 donated through a donation from DOW Chemical donated 17 RV’s to house clients whose homes are under construction, valued at $375,000. Our warehouse and office space is donated by The Grand Wharton Investments and Russel Baird, totaling $48,000 a year.
Mennonite Disaster Service has partnered to provide labor for 10 of the homes while the WCRT’s construction and rehabilitation grant funding from the American Red Cross began in January 2019, Odom said. Funding for construction and repair was just secured from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy.
Odom said another important learning experience from the disaster recovery efforts has been to reach out to other leaders and keep the community informed.
“Seek advice and council from those who have been through catastrophic disasters,” Odom said. “Community is most important. “
As part of this community and leadership collaboration, another important factor in the recovery efforts was a strong relationship with both the city and county governments, Odom said. Odom also wanted to thank the WCRT’s board of directors.
“I’d like to thank the City of Wharton,” Odom said. “We couldn’t do this without a cooperative city and county government.”
Teves agrees and said the recovery team played a vital role with logistics and outreach immediately following Hurricane Harvey. First, the team effectively allocated the supplies that poured in from donations, which ranged from cleaning kits to building supplies like sheetrock and lumber.
“Really, the city wasn’t in a position to help with that distribution,” Teves said. “We were being approached by all of these people wanting to help, but we didn’t have the facilities or staff to assist with that distribution so the recovery team stepped up and did a lot of that storage and distribution. They already had volunteers and staff in place who could start doing those things, so they really assisted.”
Teves said the recovery team’s outreach efforts in the community also proved essential in matching residents with the appropriate funding and program assistance they needed.
“(They) assisted us, with their case management, to make sure we were reaching out to the correct people for these programs,” Teves said. “They’ve been a really big help as far as making sure we’re getting the information to the right people so that we can get as many people that would be eligible for those benefits to apply.”
In a county with an older population, getting the word out must go beyond just the local newspaper and online resources and the recovery team met that need, Teves said.
“Not everybody gets on the website or on the Internet, so making sure we get that information out there, they’ve been a really big help with that,” Teves said.
Teves said the recovery team’s annual county potluck, set for Aug. 27, is just another example of how the team interacts with the community and brings people together.
“They’ve been real good about getting out and getting involved in the community, not only through their casework but also through any programs and community outreach that they do,” Teves said. “They’ve actually been a real big asset to the city.”