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More hurricanes loom, but Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands are still waiting on disaster funding

Hurricane Maria

A lot of ink has recently been spilled detailing President Trump’s notion to buy Greenland. But as this week’s looming threat reminds us, another hurricane season now finds the Caribbean in the crosshairs of tropical cyclones once again and the residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands surely appreciate the irony. While the White House ponders adding another island to the country’s territorial holdings, the administration is reallocating already promised disaster recovery and prevention resources away from existing island territories to bolster southern border protection efforts.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that it would delay almost $9 billion in disaster recovery and prevention funds for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. These funds are intended to help the two U.S. territories become more resilient to future disasters. But in its brief announcement, HUD justified the delay on grounds that the territorial governments cannot be trusted to effectively administer the funds, citing corruption in Puerto Rico and lack of technical know-how in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

It’s admirable that HUD wants to ensure that public funds are spent responsibly. But despite HUD’s stated fears, we know that it has proven strategies for overcoming government corruption and effectively allocating federal disaster funds. An aide to HUD Secretary Ben Carson explained that ensuring federal funds were properly spent in Puerto Rico would require a “monitoring process on steroids.” And that’s exactly what HUD’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) delivered following Katrina and Rita.

Congress worried that Louisiana’s historic culture of graft — at all levels of government — would keep federal dollars from reaching those who desperately needed them. Congress addressed this concern by assuring that HUD’s OIG had the necessary resources to effectively audit Louisiana’s recovery programs. To this end, the OIG audited Louisiana’s flagship Road Home program 52 times between June 2006 and August 2009.

Puerto Rico’s reputation for allegedly untoward administration of public funds may be formidable. But it certainly doesn’t eclipse Louisiana’s legendary history of corruption, and this challenge was met and overcome. In fact, it is hard to imagine a better time for HUD and Puerto Rico to tap the territory’s grassroots commitment to integrity and equity in the administration of government resources. A grassroots citizen movement strong enough to oust an unethical and self-serving governor represents exactly the type of engaged citizenry that can hold to account a new or re-invigorated Puerto Rican recovery authority that represents a true cross-section of Puerto Rico’s residents.

At the same time, it is also curious that HUD bases its decision to delay delivery of resilience grant funds to the U.S. Virgin Islands on a perceived lack of technical capacity. Almost every recent recovery process underscores the fact that no state or local government is ever fully ready to receive an enormous influx of federal grant funds to carry out locally-tailored, often path-breaking disaster recovery work — even jurisdictions that have prior recovery experience. In 2018, for example, HUD’s Inspector General issued reports questioning the capacity of Florida and Texas to administer their disaster recovery funds, yet each allocation was nonetheless approved.

From Katrina to Sandy to more recent disasters, the historical narrative is discouragingly similar. Destructive disasters cause long-term financial setbacks for low- and moderate-income and middle-income families. Federal recovery funds are a lifeline for communities who lack the resources to rebuild in the safest manner. 

Significant delays in delivering resilience grant monies to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands exact tangible costs from cities and towns still reeling from catastrophic storms. Those communities can’t proceed with forward-looking projects that will save lives, protect the resources and livelihoods of families and small businesses, and conserve scarce public funds by preventing future damage to infrastructure.

Withholding Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Island’s HUD funding over alleged lack of technical capacity risks weaponizing disaster recovery by politicizing tragedy. Congress and HUD must be vigilant in ensuring that all citizens, regardless of where they happen to reside, have the same benefits and protections offered by our federal laws and programs.

Smaller or more rural states and territories with high numbers of low- and moderate-income families already face longer odds of recovery from major disasters. The federal government should not exacerbate that challenge but instead step in to augment local personnel and expertise and assure that funds are spent quickly and deliberately. Failing to do so robs us all of the important lessons that Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands would teach us on their road to a more resilient future.

Donovan Finn is an assistant professor of Environmental Design, Policy, and Planning in the Sustainability Studies Program and School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University.

John Travis Marshall is associate professor of Law at Georgia State University College of Law and co-editor of the forthcoming “Handbook on Disaster Law.”

Tags Ben Carson Disaster aid Donald Trump Donovan Finn hurricanes John Travis Marshall Natural disasters

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