At the end of the day, Congress needs to be focused on the disaster victims.
That was the message being pushed by Rep. Garret Graves in front the House of Representatives on Monday, Nov. 18 as the District 6 congressman delivered an impassioned speech asking his fellow legislators not to pass a fresh-off-the-press disaster bill that, to him, “doesn’t make sense.”
The bill, H.R. 3702 - The Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019, would codify or make law all the points and principles of disaster recovery that, according to Graves, are what make the government’s involvement in the post-disaster rebound process so inefficient.
H.R. 3702 establishes a roughly 270 day timeline for HUD to sift through any proposed disaster recovery award. That 270 day timeline does not begin until congress has appropriated funds for recovery from a specific disaster - which could come several years after the disaster.
The law establishes a deadline of six years, by which time HUD will have needed to spend the money allocated for a specific disaster.
“Let’s see members of Congress go six years homeless,” Graves said forcefully, “let’s see them go 270 days, let’s see them go 270 minutes.”
Graves said that the bill was re-victimizing disaster recovery victims by forcing government inefficiencies on them.
According to Graves, the HUD approval timeline is broken down in H.R. 3702 as:
- 60 days to allocate the funds
- 90 days to file a plan
- 60 days for consideration of the plan
- 60 days for approval
According to Graves, that’s just to get the HUD-approved program off the ground.
“You still have the certification of the state’s program; you still have to hire a contractor; you have to accept applications and accept those applications; you then have to delivers grants,” Graves said angrily.
Graves went on to say that the process is so complicated that, out of the $1.7 billion awarded to Louisiana in the wake of the Great Flood and other flooding issues, the state had to give over $300 million (roughly 22%) of that award to a contractor to manage the program.
“That money should be going to disaster victims,” Graves said.
To compare, the United States Department of Commerce had been issued money for Small Business Administration loans for use in a disaster. Graves said their testimony, given at a meeting he attended in October, said that 79% of the money was awarded within a year.
By contrast, HUD had only issued 79% of the total funds allocated to them for disasters over six years, and had only issued those funds to 50% of the applicants.
Graves was also critical of the timeline with regard to its connection to the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s response time. Shortly after a disaster, he explained, FEMA arrives with immediate disaster response funds for the short term, including housing and food.
Then, the SBA shows up to offer loans.
“But after that, there’s no connectivity between your FEMA housing program and the HUD program,” he vented.
Graves cited victims in Louisiana who eventually had to move out of their Mobile Housing Unit (MHU) or FEMA-backed apartment, while still waiting for HUD to approve the state’s recovery program.
Graves was disappointed that the bill was sent to the Appropriations Committee. He sits on the Transportation Committee which, according to him, has the most disaster experience. He also said that the original, proposed fix for the HUD problems had bi-partisan support and was backed by congressional leadership - implying that the bill was usurped in favor of H.R. 3702.
Graves was focused on HUD’s handling of the situation, especially after they did not show up for a testimony hearing before the House’s Transportation Committee in October.
That meeting gave Graves a chance to open up about the Disaster Recovery Bill that had been passed in 2018, which was focused on updating FEMA and HUD post-disaster protocols.
It was a gathering for those involved in the disaster recovery process.
At least, it was supposed to be.
Instead, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee held a hearing Oct. 26 with witnesses from FEMA, Government Accountability, Economic Development Administration, and others to look at the performance of the US government’s disaster recovery programs.
HUD was absent.
That didn’t come as a surprise to Graves who was hyper-critical of HUD during his testimon.
“I know why HUD didn’t want to be here, they couldn’t stand up to scrutiny,” Graves said.
The congressman started with FEMA, however, in a discussion on a piece of legislation that would provide benefit to state and local governments for participating in activities that would make their communities more disaster resilient.
The language, which was passed as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, would run similar to a community’s ability to shore up points in the Community Rating System (CRS), which provides a discount on flood insurance for activities specifically related to flood and storm disaster prevention.
Participation in this program would help reduce a community’s portion of the cost share of disaster relief and grant programs, which at current is a 25% match.
In this case, however, FEMA has taken no steps to implement the program. Graves went on to say that, according to second-hand sources within FEMA, the administration had “no timeline to implement the program.”
“This is supposed to provide incentive for communities to become more resilient,” Graves explained, “and I urge you to consider implementation and I’d ask that you come back to this committee with an implementation timeline.
“I’m not sure that, when you read the law, it gives you (FEMA) any discretion (to not implement a plan).”
Second, the congressman said that the law was written to make schools deductible as one structure, as opposed to individual deductibles per building on school campuses. That was listed under Section 1207, Part B of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, and carries weight in Livingston Parish where, in cases like Denham Springs High School, upward of seven buildings on a single campus flooded.
According to Graves, the savings for implementing that piece of the plan would be $40 million, but local school officials and administrators are still waiting for approval on clearance from individual building deductions for flood claims.
That wait, and the confusion that comes in the post-disaster landscape, was the fuel for the third issue Graves brought to the table... with passion.
To lead, Graves cited page 47 of a specific report produced by FEMA (19-232), debriefing on disaster recovery:
“Different federal disaster recovery programs are initiated at different times,” Graves began, “Making it challenging for state and local officials to determined how to use federal funding methods in a comprehensive manner.
“It goes on to say, in a response to a survey about the report, 12 of the 13 states and cities reported that navigating the multiple funding streams and various federal regulations challenged their ability to maximize disaster resiliency opportunities.”
Graves went on to describe a situation after the flood, where FEMA was shutting down funding for hotel stays and Mobile Housing Units (MHUs) while HUD was not ready to release their funding for long-term housing recovery, and it would be over a year before their rules were released.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Graves said angrily, “we look like a circus, this is all the same federal government.”
The report concluded that Congress should consider regulation to establish a specific set of rules and regulations for disaster recovery, through HUD or “another specific regulatory body,” for future disasters.
Graves explained that HUD took 18 months to issue regulatory statutes for their block grant, and in the mean time the state (of Louisiana) had to spend $300 million for a contractor to navigate the regulations and issues, as well as administer the “Restore LA” program.
And, unfortunately, Graves added that a bill will be hitting the house floor sometime “next week” that would memorialize the program, which means establishing it as the recovery method until congress passes a law to undo that measure.
“This is stupid,” Graves said, angry again. “These are disaster victims, that I don’t hear anyone talking about, and they’ve lost everything in many cases.
“This is the United States, this is ridiculous - our own federal government re-victimizes people.”
Graves said that the regulations issued by HUD for all of these grants are ‘nearly identical’ and said that the transition from FEMA to any other agency should be seamless, and that the lessons learned in Louisiana should be applied so that the process can be adjusted and improved.