For Houston, Congress’s disaster aid package is long overdue

For Houston, Congress’s disaster aid package is long overdue
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For the fifth time since last September, Congress struggled to pass a stop-gap funding measure to keep the government open and address the needs of millions of Americans suffering in the aftermath of natural disasters.

While Congress has scrambled to do its most basic job — approving a long-term budget agreement — victims of Hurricane Harvey, Irma, Maria and the wildfires desperately need Congress to pass the $81 billion disaster aid package approved by the House in December. 

After months of dragging their feet, Senate leaders reached a deal Wednesday, agreeing to between $80 billion and $90 billion for emergency disaster aid. 

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Waiting for adequate funding since the storm, low-income Houstonians and other victims of recent natural disasters have suffered.

 

Within four days of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, President George W. Bush signed a $10.5 billion disaster recovery package, and several days later, Congress approved an additional $51.8 billion. After Hurricane Sandy in 2013, Congress passed $50.5 billion dollars in recovery funding three months after the storm struck.

Hurricane Harvey is the second most costly storm on record. Yet for months, no comprehensive recovery package has been passed to help people rebuild their lives. Congress and the administration know they should do better. Hopefully, the latest deal will be passed before politicking wins out over the needs of storm victims.

The delay in passing a budget with a significant disaster package has been devastating for people in Houston. At a Texas State House hearing in January, Malberth Moses, a Houston auto mechanic, testified that he and his fiancé are living in a hotel while they appeal a FEMA denial, uncertain about where their next meal will come from.

Others in the city are still living in moldy apartments and motels. Our country must do better for Mr. Moses and the thousands of others like him who are still suffering after this storm.

In the absence of federal funding, non-profit and advocacy groups have stepped up to help and advocate for those most in need. Our organizations have come together with more than a dozen community-based groups to form a coalition called Houston Rising that will fight to make sure that Houstonians get the help they need, and that federal disaster recovery dollars benefit those disproportionately affected by natural disasters. We have been in the community, knocking on doors, checking on our neighbors, since the storm. We see first hand how far Houston has to go. 

FEMA tells us that nearly 900,000 Texans applied for emergency assistance after Harvey. To date, the agency has approved only 41 percent of applications with many applications denied in African-American and Latino neighborhoods. And while Congress did previously pass a small preliminary disaster package in September, the $7.9 billion appropriated for housing funding and other long-term assistance is still sitting at U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The $5.04 billion of this that HUD announced on Nov. 17 allocated for Texas is still awaiting a simple notification in the federal register before it can be disbursed to the people who desperately need it.   

The long overdue disaster funding failure is the direct result of Congress and the administration’s inability to compromise and carry out their most basic responsibility of passing a budget that helps Americans in need.

Hurricane season starts again June 1. Houston, Texas and the country must be prepared for future storms, while we rebuild stronger from the last one. As Washington is lurching from one self-made crisis to another, survivors of disasters continue to struggle with real ones.

Michelle Tremillo is the executive director and co-founder of the Texas Organizing Project.