News alert

BELTON — As hurricane season starts this year, changes in how the state handles evacuees will now affect Bell County.

County commissioners received a report from Michael Harmon, executive director of the Bell County Communications Center, on Monday regarding two main changes by the state for this hurricane season. The two changes that affect the county the most is a switch-in what housing the Federal Emergency Management Agency will pay for and what counties will be responsible for evacuees from the coast.

The first change, Harmon said, is that FEMA will now focus on housing more people in congregant shelters such as churches and stadiums.

“FEMA will no longer be putting people up first in hotels, which is one means that we may get evacuees into this location,” Harmon said. “Congregant shelters will be used first and will be recommended that the COVID-19 guidelines will be followed to maintain at least a 6-foot distance.”

Harmon said the county has mainly used hotels and churches to house those fleeing hurricanes and other natural disasters in the past as other venues are unavailable.

Hurricane season, which takes place between June 1 and Nov. 30, is also a time when the county locally has many activities going on. These events end up occupying large venues such as the Bell County Expo Center, making them unavailable for long-term housing.

This restriction on congregant housing space, along with COVID-19 restrictions, led to the second change by the state that was to have the county take a step back from being on the front lines to house evacuees.

Bell County previously took in evacuees from Brazoria County, which is located on the coast, but now that responsibility will fall to Hays County south of Austin.

County David Blackburn said this change is in line with the direction the state has been going with its other changes in policy.

“I also think that the decision is consistent with the state’s overall direction for congregant housing for hurricane events,” Blackburn said. “They have targeted large, urban area as where they want to move those populations to because there is space there. There are hotels, there are stadiums and those kind of things.”

Despite the change, Harmon said the county still would need to be prepared with emergency equipment in case of other possible events.

Harmon said the county could still need its stock of cots and other supplies if another winter storm hits the area or flooding in the southern part of the state got bad enough to force residents up Interstate 35.

Blackburn agreed with Harmon and also pointed out the possibility of a hurricane hitting Houston, causing an all hands on deck situation for counties.

“If Houston were to take a direct hit, it would be a different situation. I think we are just more in a secondary role, a support role, than a primary one.”