Delays in disaster relief funding: latest verse in a long, sad song

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Hurricane Harvey

Texas officials recently celebrated the awarding of another round of federal funds to help the state recover from the effects of Hurricane Harvey.

For communities and individuals still dealing with the aftermath of the 2017 storm, however, that news may not bring instant cheering. It’s more like starving people hearing that, somewhere far away, a charity has secured the loan to buy the land where they will plant the crops that will eventually be harvested, sold to food companies, and turned into meals-ready-to-eat, which will be kept in a warehouse for a while, and then delivered. To the starving people. If they have filled out the correct forms.

In fact, as recent studies have documented, Harvey and the storms that hit other parts of the U.S. and environs in 2017 are proving all over again that government systems in this country — local, state, and federal – are woefully inadequate in providing actual, timely relief when natural disasters strike.

Take the process of providing relief from Hurricane Harvey’s damages in Texas. Initially the state was awarded $5 billion in federal funds for that purpose. According to an audit released last month by the federal Government Accountability Office, only $18 million of that has been spent thus far, most of it, even more than a year after the storm, on “administration and planning.”

The GAO found that much of the fault goes to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which is charged with distributing the federal money. In January, HUD still had not published – and therefore had not finalized – rules governing the use of the money.

But the problem is not just at the federal level. A report last year from Pew Charitable Trusts highlighted the lack of accountability by local governments for their spending on natural disasters. The report said that states generally do not comprehensively track natural disaster spending.

How did Texas rate in accountability? No way to tell from the report. Pew received returned surveys from only 23 states. Texas was not one of them.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush sent a letter to President Trump in January expressing his displeasure with HUD’s delay in publishing its rules in the Federal Register.

“Mitigation should be a top priority to prevent future damage from hurricanes and storms while maximizing the use of recovery dollars, yet the federal bureaucracy is slowing recovery in Texas,” Bush wrote. He said the delay “is resulting in homeowner distress, community degradation and increased costs to the federal government due to subsequent damaging events.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and U.S. HUD Secretary Ben Carson held a joint press conference call in February to announce that Texas would receive an additional $652 million in aid, but it’s anybody’s guess when the state will actually get the money, because of the excruciatingly slow federal process.

But the GAO audit, in addition to criticizing HUD, also revealed that Texas’ own weak financial processes and procedures have played a part in why the state has thus far spent just $18 million of the original $5 billion award.

In all, about $35 billion in federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds was awarded for damage from 2017 hurricanes, to Florida, Puerto Rico, Texas and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The spending by all those grantees has been slow, the GAO says.

Despite Texas’ slow response to relief needs, its $18 million in spending has topped all other recipients. At the time the report was released, Florida had spent just $1 million of $616 million awarded, while Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands hadn’t drawn down a dime, the report said.

“Over a year after the first funds were appropriated, much of the money remains unspent because grantees … are still in planning phases. Also, the Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t have the review guidance and monitoring plans it needs for good grantee oversight,” the GAO said in its summary.

The agency report said that includes the ability to assess the capacity and unmet needs of grantees, as well as a good monitoring plan to identify risk factors that might prevent grantees from completing their plans for spending the disaster funds.

“States don’t know the full cost of natural disasters, and that lack of understanding could be detrimental,” said Anne Stauffer, who directs the Pew Charitable Trusts’ research on disaster spending. “You can’t effectively manage what you don’t track, and the absence of information creates uncertainty for state budgets in this era of increasing costs.”

Zoe Middleton, southeast Texas region director for Texas Housers, a group that supports better housing for low-income residents, lays most blame with the federal government. She said HUD lost much of its institutional knowledge in the changeover from the Obama to the Trump administrations.

“A lot of seasoned HUD staff left in the current political climate,” she told The Texas Monitor.

Middleton said governments are ill prepared for such disasters as hurricanes, and the lack of laws or practices in dealing with equitable recovery often leave low-income residents in the lurch.

“This audit really points this out and the need for ‘precovery’ ” — her term, she said, for disaster preparedness. She said, for instance, that infrastructure could not only be replaced but also improved in historically minority neighborhoods during disaster recovery.

“There’s so much money that comes down from the federal government to right historical wrongs,” Middleton said.

The GAO recommended that Congress codify regulations that would speed up HUD’s delivery of disaster relief money. “The expected increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events underscores the need for a permanent program to address unmet disaster needs,” the audit says.

The Texas land commissioner wasn’t the only state official to express frustration with HUD over disaster relief.

Abbott, the state’s two U.S. senators and the congressional delegation from Houston co-signed a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney requesting assistance from the executive branch in expediting the approval of HUD rules so the money can be released.

The Texas Legislature is now pushing a legislative package that would provide more Hurricane Harvey relief, including pulling $1.8 billion from the state’s rainy day fund.

Johnny Kampis can be reached at [email protected].

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