Lawmakers urge more disaster relief outside of FEMA

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America’s local communities are woefully ill-equipped to deal with the steady onslaught of disasters happening across the country and Congressional leaders need to act to lower the threshold and permanently reauthorize the Community Development Block Grants – Disaster Relief program.

That was one key message delivered during the Senate Committee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development hearing Tuesday which took a closer look at how local communities are affected when disaster relief funds are delayed.

“While Congress took an important step in September to fund FEMA’s disaster relief, much more is needed for programs like CDBG-DR,” Sen. Brian Schatz, chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development said. “FEMA is only one piece of the puzzle.”

Schatz, D-Hawaii, along with thirteen co-sponsors reintroduced the bipartisan Reforming Disaster Recovery Act in May that would permanently reauthorize the CDBG-DR program, create a disaster recovery fund for HUD to assist communities, authorize “quick release” funds so recipients aren’t left waiting for months or years, and reduce unnecessary administrative burdens.

“While Congress took an important step in September to fund FEMA’s disaster relief, much more is needed for programs like CDBG-DR,” Sen. Brian Schatz, chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development said. “FEMA is only one piece of the puzzle.”

Bloomberg News

The Biden Administration urged Congress in October to pass nearly $56 billion in emergency spending on natural disasters, including $2.8 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Schatz welcomed this, but urged that much more needs to be done to better serve those affected.

“By failing to authorize CDBG-DR, we force HUD to rewrite rules for funding every single time we finally get around to providing funding, meaning communities are left waiting for months or years for aid to arrive,” Schatz said. “Without certainty about when and how much aid will come, local governments end up doing some things twice and other things not at all. From a governance standpoint, it’s wasteful, it’s inefficient and for survivors, the uncertainty and delay make the already difficult task of recovery even harder.”

But even running at full capacity, the CDBG-DR program does not pay local governments quickly enough to meet their needs, due to the arduous application and appropriations process.

“At first, HUD only receives CDBG-DR dollars when Congress provides special appropriations with updated legislative language each time, which often pushes funding to end of year spending negotiations,” said Shaun Donovan, chief executive officer and president of Enterprise Community Partners and former HUD Secretary. “To put that into perspective, all of the communities that have experienced tragedies this year, including Maui, where the devastating wildfire took place over four months ago, are still waiting to find out if they’ll receive funding.”

Donovan added that once money is appropriated, HUD writes new regulations for each allocation and state and local jurisdictions then start from scratch, developing new programs and guidelines to distribute the funds, taking an average of 20 months and leading to significant inequities in the process.

“To be clear, codifying disaster block grant funding does not mean more funding, it means better delivery,” said Jennifer Gray Thompson, founder and chief executive officer of After the Fire USA. 

“The fact is that a delay is not just an irritant, it is a life or death question for individuals and also for communities,” Schatz said. “And so this idea that we should do this thing, because it’ll make it more efficient, sort of is a bloodless way to describe it,” he added. “You’ve all been out there on the front lines, and you understand that individual people suffer because we haven’t gotten our act together to have a program that is predictable.”

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