Rep. Foxx: When disaster relief hurts

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 16, 2019

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Rep. Virginia Foxx
North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District

People here in North Carolina are asking what is the hold up with disaster relief funding? Hurricane Florence happened eight months ago, and within two weeks of the storm, Congress passed $8.8 billion in regular appropriations to FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund as well as supplemental appropriations including $1.7 billion for the Community Development Block Grant — Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR). As disaster-struck communities wait for this CDBG-DR funding to be disbursed, people continue to suffer, in some cases, depleting their savings and taking on debt to cope with the disaster’s aftermath.

Even more shocking is that many North Carolinians are not just talking about the last major storm to sweep through the state. They are referring to Hurricane Matthew, which hit on Oct. 8, 2016. As late as last week, some victims of Hurricane Matthew finally received CDBG-DR funds allocated to repair homes rendered unlivable more than two and a half years ago. Other victims are still waiting. This delay is unacceptable. The CDBG-DR program and the entire process for disaster relief appropriations are broken, and the solution is not to spend more money that won’t assist the communities that are in need now. That is misguided policy at best and disingenuous political fodder at worst.

The CDBG-DR program is supposed to fulfill the unmet needs of disaster victims after FEMA funds, SBA loans and private insurance payments are taken into account. Once supplemental appropriations are made (unfortunately often without regard for FEMA’s cost estimate), HUD issues a federal register notice that specifies eligible grantees and criteria for allocation. Accordingly, grantees submit plans and allocations are made to the grantees that HUD approves. This entire process is known to take as long as 18 months. Yet, Washington continues to pass off “disaster relief” supplementals as the immediate answer to every natural disaster.

Even if CDBG-DR funding was intended solely for long-term recovery, the program is far from the right approach for sustained economic revitalization efforts. CDBG-DR is not authorized in statute and HUD does not have consistent personnel or standard models for handling the supplemental appropriations it uses for disaster recovery. Neither has the department adequately overseen the administration of grants once they are allocated, which resulted in $700 million unaccounted for CDBG-DR funds for Hurricane Katrina alone.

Furthermore, during a 2017 Congressional hearing, now deputy inspector general at HUD, Helen Albert, testified that over $11.5 billion CDBG-DR funds appropriated for disasters between 9/11 in 2001 and 2016 have gone unused, remaining parked in HUD coffers. Worse yet, under present law, these appropriations cannot be recovered and made available for ongoing or upcoming disaster relief. If this discrepancy doesn’t demonstrate Congress’s thoughtless reaction to natural disasters, then the findings of our government’s own independent, nonpartisan agency confirm that supplemental appropriations do not keep our promise of immediate relief to hurricane victims.

This March, GAO published a study that cites numerous suggested reforms to improve CDBG-DR. Most notably, the report states, “Congress should consider legislation establishing permanent statutory authority for a disaster assistance program administered by HUD or another agency that responds to unmet needs in a timely manner and directing the applicable agency to issue implementing regulations.” None of GAO’s reform proposals are included in H.R. 2157, the Supplemental Appropriations Act before the House today nor will any meaningful reforms for genuine disaster relief be considered in debate.

It’s said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Congress has a record of insane spending, but this time it will cost more than taxpayers’ bottom-line. Maintaining the status-quo hurts disaster-struck communities and prolongs their road to recovery. Since being in Congress, I have voted consistently, and often conspicuously, against disaster supplemental appropriations and plan on continuing to do so until reforms improve timeliness, efficiency and oversight of disaster relief funds. I encourage my colleagues to join me in rejecting the Supplemental Appropriations Act and to re-examine our whole approach to disaster relief.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx represents North Carolina’s 5th Congressional District and is Senior Republican of the House Committee on Education and Labor.