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Federal aid is reaching storm-damaged communities too late

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Tropical Storm Imelda just dumped 40 inches of rain on Houston and southeast Texas, causing deadly flooding and millions of dollars in damage to infrastructure. Many of the hardest-hit communities were still recovering from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which killed 88 people, caused $125 billion in damages, and affected roughly 300,000 structures. As the frequency and intensity of major catastrophes grow stronger, local governments are realizing that existing resources for recovery and rebuilding are simply not enough. The economic toll has become too great to ignore: In 2017 and 2018 alone, natural disasters cost the U.S. economy over $350 billion.

Never do people need the federal government more than after a major disaster. Houston knows these challenges all too well. The city has done its best to rebuild and become more resilient to protect against storms. Still, Houston residents, and people throughout the country, need more efficient, equitable, and fair disaster recovery programs that can deliver funds without delay.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Program in many ways is the last line of defense for survivors in affected areas whose needs have not been met by other government programs. Designed to cover the gaps left when all other sources have fallen short, it pays for repairs and rebuilding of homes and apartment buildings. CDBG-DR dollars help to reopen hospitals, schools, and shopping centers and cover uninsured losses for small businesses, allowing them to retool to meet the realities of a disaster-impacted economy.

CDBG-DR has become an indispensable tool in the federal government’s disaster recovery arsenal: As of June 2019, the CDBG-DR Portfolio includes 137 grants totaling $89.7 billion to 58 grantees, including 30 states and territories and 28 local governments.

Despite its scale, the disaster part of CDBG is not a standing program. Congress must fund a recovery package after each disaster on a one-off basis. Grantees need to then study the rules, make policy choices, and build up their own disaster programs. This leads to a delay of as much as nine to 12 months from when the disaster hits to when CDBG-DR funds start reaching communities on the ground.

Disaster aid is too slow for everyone. But the pace hits especially hard for people who aren’t wealthy, whose homes are often in places more likely to be damaged. In Houston, immediately after Harvey, thousands of residents responded to a survey saying they wanted their homes to be bought out from areas that repeatedly flood. By the time funds finally became available 18 months later, most had rebuilt or repaired their homes, missing the potential opportunity for support and remaining in areas likely to flood again.

Legislation working its way through both chambers of Congress would address the issue. Led by Reps. Al Green (D-Texas) and Ann Wagner (R-Mo.) and Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act, H.R. 3702 and S. 2301, would permanently authorize CDBG-DR, enabling HUD to shorten the time it takes to get funds to people on the ground.

This legislation also enables communities to take essential steps in preparing for disasters. Individual extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires might be challenging to predict, but their impact on property and safety are predictable and preventable. In addition, a FEMA-endorsed study by the National Institute of Building Science found that taxpayers save an average of $4-$6 in disaster recovery costs for every dollar spent on hazard mitigation.

The unprecedented focus on climate change in this presidential primary season offers all Americans a rare opportunity to demand that the federal government do better when families and communities experience the worst. Not only can we ensure that our most vulnerable communities have the resources and structures necessary to remain safe from natural disasters, but along the way we can also support neighborhood-based initiatives that will create jobs and a healthier, greener environment for residents. The more we can accomplish now on disaster resilience and mitigation, the better off future generations will be. The country and our leaders should take a lesson from the communities hit hardest by Harvey, Dorian, Maria, Irma, Imelda, and so many other storms: we can never be too prepared for the next disaster.

Sylvester Turner is the mayor of Houston. Marion McFadden is the senior vice president of public policy and senior advisor for resilience at Enterprise Community Partners, where she leads the organization’s policy and advocacy efforts for affordable housing, community development, and disaster resilience.

Tags Al Green Ann Wagner Brian Schatz Disaster preparedness Todd Young

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