After being declared a state disaster area in May, Ellis County officials are now trying to get federal help after torrential rains since May 4 caused damage to homes, roadways and bridges, as well as agricultural land.
Starting at 9:15 a.m. Wednesday, the Ellis County Emergency Management Coordinator, and representatives from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) spent the day touring the county. The group surveyed individual homes that were either uninsured or under-insured and received 1.5-2 feet of flooding or more in the past month and a half.
The surveying will help determine if these homes and the county can then be put into a presidential declaration of disaster to receive that federal help, a TDEM representative said on scene at homes near Howland Lane in Waxahachie. The decision could take about a week or two weeks to make, but first the county has to meet different thresholds, said Stephanie Parker, the Ellis County Emergency Management coordinator.
“There’s different ways to meet that. As a county, we have to meet a $532,000 threshold. We have met that in road and bridge, and then agriculture has to meet a certain number,” Parker said. “They have already met that, and we have an excess of $12 million of agriculture loss in Ellis County. But the individual assistance is completely separate.”
The county must have a set number of damaged or destroyed homes that are uninsured or under-insured before individual assistance is available for the whole county, Parker said.
Parker, TDEM and FEMA representatives did not want to speak to what that number was exactly, because they don’t want people coming forward saying things like, “we need one more home. Let’s find that,” Parker said.
“There is a set amount of homes they have that we need to get there, and we’re doing very well at this time,” Parker said. “We have homes still in water and under water, and those homes are going to be destroyed.”
That’s in the southern part of the county, she said, around the Bardwell Lake area. At least one home is still completely under water. Surveyors were looking at structural damage Wednesday, and were going into homes if residents were home. If they weren’t home, the surveyors were assessing how high water rose on the outside of the homes, Parker said.
“We just left a house that completely shifted by a few inches. That’s considered a destroyed home,” Parker said. “Although they’re spotty throughout the county, you would think they’d be near the lakes and stuff, but it’s a lot of runoff from these roads and these fields that are damaging these homes.”
For every disaster the county declares, the recovery time is one to two years, Parker said. Ellis County was declared a disaster area by county officials out of precaution on May 27. Then, the state declared the area a disaster the following day.
The last time Ellis County was declared a disaster by the state was in 2013 because of drought conditions. The last time county officials declared the area a disaster was Aug. 31, 2008 because of the potential threat of widespread suffering from Hurricane Gustav and again on Sept. 11 of that same year because of a similar concern from Hurricane Ike, according to the Ellis County website. On June 17, parts of Texas were declared as a major disaster area on a federal level, but Ellis County was not included in that, according to the FEMA website.
“We went ahead and declared a little early this time from the flooding out of precaution, and I’m glad we did,” Parker said. “We had also started doing evacuations and we were very proactive with that, and that prevented high water rescues that other counties had. No lives were lost and there were no injuries because we were so proactive.”
Almost 30 houses in southern Ellis County were evacuated during the past month and a half, and trained local first responders handled at least three swift water rescues during that time.
More rain is in the forecast for this weekend with an incoming cool front, and Parker said Bardwell Lake is the only concern at this time.
Dubbed a “mess,” Bardwell Lake is closed from now until through the Fourth of July weekend, and will be closed until further notice because of torrential rainfall between Memorial Day and last week, said Mike Stegall, the Bardwell Lake manager, on Tuesday. The lake is one of 23 out of 25 lakes in the district at flood stage because of more than 10 inches of rain in the past month.
“The entire lake is closed, all of our parks and boat ramps are flooded and inaccessible,” Stegall said in a previous Waxahachie Daily Light article, adding getting supplemental funding will be an issue and the loss in damages may be in the millions. “And the marina is inaccessible because you can’t even get to it. This is a flood of record.”
Currently, the lake would have to fall 4.5 feet just so about seven employees, including park rangers, at the Bardwell Lake USACE Office could come off of a 24-hour monitoring cycle for lake conditions. The lake would then also have to drop an additional 10-15 feet for employees to assess damages, Stegall said in the article. This is the highest level the lake has been since excavation and the first time in history water has crested the lake’s uncontrolled emergency spillway, he added.
“You have to remember, it takes 72 hours for the rain in Dallas to get to us,” Parker said. “So, the Trinity River is back up to 36 feet, and 42 is where we get scared. However, the [Trinity River] levees are damaged, so it’s not going to take that much water for us to be a little worried. So we are watching that closely because it is kind of scary right now with those levees.”
No residents are currently threatened by any further possible flooding because most have left the area because of current flood conditions, Parker said. Only a couple business owners remain, and Parker said those people are monitoring conditions closely.
“We met with the county judge this morning as well and she thanked them [the FEMA and TDEM representatives] for being here,” Parker said. “We should be done by this afternoon and then they’ll head home and hopefully in a week, we’ll know. I think we’re going to get it. I’m hoping so.”
If the county is able to get the federal help, FEMA representatives will return to the area with a mobile unit and set up at fire departments, giving people the chance to come in with damage receipts to allow FEMA officials to fill out paperwork for assistance. If the county doesn’t qualify for individual assistance, local officials will have to rely on volunteer and nonprofit groups within the area to help residents, said Parker.
“As the county, we’ve done everything we can do. Now it’s up to FEMA. If they decide yes or no, we have nothing to do with that. We’ve done our part,” Parker said., adding requests for disaster help go from a city level, to a county level, then to a state level, where the state can then ask for federal help.