By Harvey Rice
Galveston’s Mayor Joe Jaworski joined about 300 people Sunday to dance at an intersection in The Strand historic district to celebrate recovery efforts.
GALVESTON — Houston-area social service agencies may have to give back nearly half of their share of a $93 million federal grant for Hurricane Ike recovery more than two years after the devastating storm struck on Sept. 13, 2008.
The agencies are promoting an online petition to have Congress roll back a Sept. 30 deadline for spending the money and have enlisted the aid of elected officials.
The agencies were supposed to have a year to spend the money, but bureaucratic delays held up the funds for six months.
“You awarded us a 12-month grant, but we didn’t get 12 months,” said Carolyn Rose, chief administrative officer for the Gulf Coast Center in Galveston, which provides mental health services.
Moreover, the money will be lost as the need is growing, agencies say. The University of Texas Medical Branch predicted in its application for $6.3 million that along with subcontractor agencies it would help about 109,000 Ike victims, but as of July it already had assisted 174,726, said Becky Walsdorf, UTMB community relations director.
Those they assist must prove they were affected by Ike. Even so, UTMB and its subcontracting nonprofits are serving about 20,000 clients per month, Walsdorf said. UTMB may have to give back about $2.5 million if Congress refuses to extend the deadline.
Lobbying for extension
Rose said repressed mental health issues from the storm are only now starting to surface. She said the Gulf Coast Center and its 17 subcontractors may have to return about $3 million of their $6.8 million grant.
“We would just hate to see critically needed dollars go back,” she said.
Joe Compian, a Gulf Coast Interfaith board member, said the deadline for similar funds given to Katrina victims was routinely extended by Congress.
Nonprofit agencies have enlisted the aid of Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land.
Both have introduced legislation to extend the deadline.
Texas nonprofits are not alone in asking Congress to roll back the deadline. They are joining groups in Illinois, Louisiana and Missouri that fear they will lose huge chunks of $600 million in disaster-relief funds handed out in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Texas received about $124 million in social service block grants for hurricane damage. Of that, the Houston area got about $93 million.
Although government and non-government agencies in 12 counties received parts of the $93 million, the hard-hit Galveston-Brazoria area received nearly one-third of the total.
A Galveston-area consortium of social service agencies led by the University of Texas Medical Branch, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Services and the Gulf Coast center divided up about $33 million.
Now those agencies fear they may have to return as much as half the money on Sept. 30.
‘It’s kept me afloat’
Catholic Charities and other agencies have helped hundreds of Ike victims purchase furniture since the storm, giving a financial boost to small businesses.
Ben Ray Stein, owner of Star Furniture in Galveston, said, “It’s kept me afloat this last year with this crazy economy.”
Catholic Charities and its subcontractors have spent about $9 million of its $15 million portion, said Harold Fattig, Catholic Charities southern regional director. If Catholic Charities is forced to return the unused $6 million, hundreds of families may find themselves without furniture as both Galveston County and Galveston City ramp up programs to rebuild Ike-damaged houses with money that came from a separate housing grant.
Compian said a portion of the money given to the social service agencies was intended to be used to buy furniture and appliances for hundreds of houses that are only beginning to be built under the city and county housing programs.
Galveston City is expected to begin construction on its first house in 45 days – after the Sept. 30 deadline, city spokeswoman Alicia Cahill said.
“The loss of the Social Service Block Grant funds will severely impact a number of low-income individuals,” Galveston Assistant City Manager Sterling Patrick said.
If the money is returned, Ike victim Tina Colunga, 50, may not get furniture for her newly rebuilt home. Colunga is legally blind and lives on a disability check of less than $1,000 per month.
Her home was recently rebuilt with Hurricane Rita aid, but it was damaged was by Hurricane Ike, making her eligible for assistance from Catholic Charities.
Taking 5 years
“Without assistance from those (federal) funds, I may not get any furniture,” Colunga said.
Noting that it took five years for her house to be rebuilt after Rita, she said, “My concern is that with the end of the (federal) funding, will people five years from now be in the same position I’m in?”