Disaster-stricken communities aren't receiving the funds they were promised

Disaster-stricken communities aren't receiving the funds they were promised

Investing federal dollars to help communities affected by extreme weather disasters is something that people on both sides of the aisle can support — and have promised as much.

In February, Congress approved nearly $16 billion for disaster mitigation activities — infrastructure upgrades, building retrofits and other improvements — that protect us from future hazards. Funds were allocated to places like California, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands that experienced devastating disasters. It’s been more than a year since Congress appropriated these funds and the Office of Management and Budget has yet to approve the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) rules for how states and territories can use these dollars, a move that would release these funds to struggling communities.

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) just released a report that said the federal government is not doing enough to reduce its fiscal exposure to risks, including the rising number of natural disasters, made worse by climate change. Delaying these rules is a case in point.

The start of the next hurricane and peak wildfire seasons is just months away. It’s high time the administration moves urgently to take the steps needed to get funds flowing and protect our fellow Americans. Based on a soon-to-be-released study by the Urban Institute, the average timeframe for Congressional appropriation to HUD program requirements range from 2.5 to 3.5 months, much shorter than the current delay. 

We live in a world that has already warmed 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial levels thanks to climate change. Science finds that higher temperatures are causing a range of worsening impacts and we’re already seeing damages. Communities across the nation are being forced to cope with dangerously high temperatures, rapidly rising seas, deadly wildfires, torrential rainfalls and devastating hurricanes.

Studies indicate that climate change increases the frequency and intensity of events like extreme heat and extreme rainfall from hurricanes. In fact, we know that climate change influenced the record rainfall that hit Houston during Hurricane Harvey, making it three times more likely and 15 times more intense. The costs of weather and climate related disasters are on an upward trend, exceeding $450 billion between 2016 and 2018 alone, for an average of $150 billion per year.

While extreme weather events might be erratic, their impact to property and safety are predictable and preventable. Low- and fixed-income households, and historically disadvantaged communities, often have fewer options and resources to cope and thus pay the heaviest price when disasters strike. What’s more, studies have found when low- and fixed-income households lose their home after a disaster, they have the hardest time accessing federal grant funds and recovering quickly. This is why HUD should require 70 percent of these mitigation funds to benefit low- and moderate-income communities, as is the norm with other HUD disaster recovery grants. Additionally, grantees need to incorporate input from vulnerable communities throughout the life cycle of the mitigation process, including planning and implementation, to ensure that programs meet evolving community needs.

As a nation, we’re currently underinvesting in preparing for the impacts of these extreme weather events, even though these federal investments have proven to be a wise use of taxpayer dollars. In fact, the nation can save $6 in future disaster costs, for every $1 spent on pre-hazard mitigation. Pre-disaster mitigation can include elevating homes and roads in flood-prone areas, making structures wildfire resistant, or supporting nature-based defenses like living shorelines. 

The startling images from Mexico City Beach, Florida following Hurricane Michael starkly reinforced the power of Mother Nature, while proving the effectiveness of wind-proofing homes in hurricane-prone areas. Disaster mitigation strategies work and state and local governments urgently need the already-allocated funds now so they can get to work implementing these strategies.

It’s past time for the administration to create the rules that would get disaster relief funding flowing to the most impacted areas immediately, so communities can work towards building a more resilient future. 

Carlos Martín is a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he leads research on the physical quality of housing and disaster management in communities.

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.

Shana Udvardy is a climate resilience analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Udvardy speaks with impacted communities on climate change adaptation solutions and co-authored the UCS report “Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate.”