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Waco-area officials hope for broader federal aid in recovery efforts

Waco-area officials hope for broader federal aid in recovery efforts

From the Winter storm in Waco, across Texas: February 2021 series
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Here are some statistics that take full measure of the winter weather crisis that gripped the region.

As individuals and organizations continue to add up the tab for the recent winter storms, the city of Waco and McLennan County will be setting up an office where people can go for help applying for assistance and the city will be adjusting water bills to avoid penalizing customers for leaks.

Exactly which categories of federal aid the city can receive will depend on how much property damage is reported through a Texas Department of Emergency Management survey that will go to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The survey and links to federal assistance applications are available at www.waco-texas.com under “Winter Weather Recovery Response Efforts.”

The first step for most property owners or renters who saw damage will be filing with insurance companies. Leah Stewart, owner of The Olive Branch cafe in River Square Center, is just starting that process.

Even if insurance fully covers damage, it should be reported through the state survey.

Stewart said her restaurant will likely be closed for months after a water pipe burst on the third floor of River Square Center.

“They’ll have to rip out sheetrock, dry it out, and all of our equipment is fried,” Stewart said. “All of our refrigerators popped, so we lost our inventory. It will be hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

While multiple businesses in the building flooded, the slope of the floor worked against her space, she said.

Under normal circumstances, 75% of her business comes from catering events, but that has not been the case under the constraints of the COVID-19 pandemic, she said. The restaurant was making decent headway before the storm but had to cancel a sold-out dinner service that cost between $8,000 and $9,000.

“Weddings went from 300 people to 30, that kind of thing,” Stewart said. “It’s been devastating. We’ve had to change the way we do business several times, from doing curbside casseroles to using delivery services to changing our menu. We’ve had to jump through so many hoops.”

Stewart said depending on resources, she may be able to pivot to more catering while repairs continue in the restaurant space. Time will tell.

“We’re going to hold tight and see what happens,” Stewart said. “We don’t even know what out of our equipment works.”

To help residents who may be uncomfortable applying for assistance online, the city and county plan to set up offices next week in the East Waco Library, Assistant City Manager Ryan Holt said. FEMA typically takes on the task of helping people apply but is not in this case, in part because of COVID-19, he said.

“Hopefully we can get it set up for next week, so people who maybe don’t have a computer or aren’t computer savvy can go in and have a human being help them with the process,” Holt said.

In the same way as many individuals, the city of Waco is still tallying costs and working to determine what insurance will cover, what FEMA will reimburse and what it will be responsible for.

Waco City Manager Bradley Ford said the city has accounted for $400,000 in expenses so far but he expects the final number to be “dramatically higher.”

The total will include the cost of repairs, as well as the salaries of city employees who worked around the clock during the disaster.

“Our staff is all over the FEMA process and certainly we’re going to advocate for as much reimbursement as possible so that any cost to restore facilities is at least shared, so our local taxpayers don’t have to make up all of that expense,” Ford said. “We do have insurance policies, but like all policies there’s limits and deductibles and things of that nature.”

Texas Governor Greg Abbott reassured residents Friday as his state suffers in the aftermath of a winter storm that knocked out power for millions and caused widespread water issues. (Feb. 19)

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Damage to city facilities was widespread and included at least six buildings at Cameron Park Zoo with major damage, but he did not have a total count of damaged facilities, Ford said. “Hundreds” of city employees were working around the clock during the disaster.

For example, Waco Police officers spent two days patrolling for water leaks while the city’s public works crew focused on maintaining the water system. Leaks pushed water use to double its normal level, though the city’s water system was able to maintain adequate pressure to avoid the need for boil water orders seen elsewhere in the state. The situation also threatened the availability of water for fire protection, and Waco firefighters drew up contingency plans to pump water directly out of the Brazos River, filter it and use it to fight fires should it ever come to that.

In light of the situation and the long list of financial burdens it will place on many residents, the Waco City Council approved a plan Friday to prevent spikes in water bills.

The city will waive permit fees for pipe repairs and will charge water customers whose bills ran higher than usual for this month the same amount they paid in January.

“We do not want to do anything to add to the burden people are facing right now,” Ford said.

Assistant City Manager Paul Cain said Utilities Director Lisa Tyer came up with the idea and made the necessary adjustments to the billing system.

“We just thought it was a more fair way to bill, and we wouldn’t have to adjust to dripping faucets or somebody that had a pipe break,” Cain said.

Cain said right now the city manager’s office is not aware of any federal aid that could reimburse the city for the cost of the excess water use. The city also saw about 100 of the waterlines it is responsible for break, and those repairs likely will not be covered by insurance.

Some water treatment equipment required minor repairs after the storm, but no water facilities took significant damage, something he credits the department with preventing.

“They just did a really good job, and we’re fortunate that we invested a lot of money in our system recently,” Cain said. “Waco is fortunate.”

Thousands of claims are being processed across Texas after millions of people lost power, had frozen pipes burst and crashed on icy roads this month.

While McLennan County does not operate a water system, it lost water service to two buildings and about 15 water leaks, County Administrator Dustin Chapman said.

All of the leaks had been repaired by Friday, and the county anticipates the total cost of the damage will range between $35,000 and $40,000, Chapman said. McLennan County Jail and the McLennan County Courthouse both had some flooding.

McLennan County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Ricky Armstrong said the jail lost electric service for 24 hours, starting about 8:30 p.m. Feb. 15. He said emergency generators immediately kicked on. Water pipes to a sprinkler system broke in a sally port, a type of secure entryway where inmates are brought inside, but the damage was minimal and repaired quickly, Armstrong said.

As it stands, local governments will have to match a quarter of of the cost of their damage or other expenses covered by FEMA. The local matches can include resources used in the immediate response to the disaster, said Frank Patterson, who is now emergency and risk coordinator for McLennan Community College and previously worked almost 20 years as Waco McLennan County Emergency Management Coordinator. He has been through multiple federally declared disasters, including the response to the West Fertilizer Co. explosion, tornadoes and floods.

“FEMA assigns a dollar amount to just about everything,” Patterson said. “Equipment, volunteers, donations… All those add up, and they can help offset that 25% the jurisdiction has to come up with.”

McLennan Community College, meanwhile, saw three of its buildings on campus and facilities at Highlander Ranch north of town affected by leaks from broken waterlines. A restoration company is dehumidifying one building, workers are almost finished making repairs on another building, and one building and the ranch have reopened, Patterson said.

“We’re fortunate compared to some colleges I’ve spoken to around the state who had millions of dollars’ worth of damage,” Patterson said.

Baylor University reported 78 leaks across campus between Feb. 15 and Monday. Baylor Spokesperson Lori Fogleman said the leaks have all been stopped, but about half still need to be repaired.

“This could be due to permanent replacement parts on order or additional restoration efforts that are still needed,” Fogleman said.

She said 37 buildings on campus took some level of flooding. Four of the flooded buildings were dorms, resulting in 40 students being moved to temporary housing. The university does not yet have an estimate for the cost of the damage.

Waco ISD Board of Trustees last week discussed an estimated $500,000 damage to district facilities, including damage to Waco High School’s boiler and performing arts center, G.W. Carver Middle School’s gym floor, classrooms at Alta Vista Elementary School and the press box and elevator at Waco ISD Stadium.

PHOTO GALLERY

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