September 6, 2017

5 Ways Congress & Federal Agencies Can Help Harvey Survivors Now

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As the forecast for Hurricane Irma grows increasingly ominous, like you, my heart is with loved ones living in or near the storm’s path. At the same time, our attention and efforts are intensely focused on recovery and rebuilding after Harvey.

Experience has taught us that effective recovery always begins by listening to residents and local officials. The process is never fast enough to meet the real and immediate needs of survivors of natural disasters – but there are several ways Congress and federal agencies can act now to shorten the amount of time and money needed to help people return home again and prepare communities to undertake infrastructure repairs. 

Building on the knowledge we gained on the ground after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and last year’s flooding in Louisiana, we are confident our recommendations can help shorten the time it takes federal resources to reach people who depend on them – and maximize the effectiveness of every dollar.

As we prepare for Hurricane Irma, we are optimistic that Congress will appropriate needed funds to replenish FEMA’s budget and keep the National Flood Insurance program operational.

At this moment, here are the five things Congress and the federal government must do now to incorporate lessons learned from past disasters and speed up and improve the process.

  1. Approve a comprehensive aid package that includes emergency relief AND long-term recovery assistance. If we truly want to relieve storm survivors’ displacement and suffering, Congress cannot wait months to contemplate long-term recovery. After Hurricane Sandy, the single-largest appropriation for long-term recovery did not go to FEMA, the Transportation Department or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – it went to HUD’s Community Development Block Grant program (CDBG), which offers the most flexibility for rebuilding after disasters. The Administration – which proposed zeroing out annual CDBG grants – has not requested this long-term funding for Harvey recovery efforts.
  2. Instead of relying solely on grants for affordable rental homes and community development, Congress should facilitate proven public-private partnerships. Key to this approach is the inclusion of funding for both grants and tax credits as part of long-term recovery assistance so government dollars leverage private investments. The Gulf Opportunity Zone Act did this after Hurricane Katrina to great success. In addition to funding HUD programs like CDBG, we urge Congress to include two proven tools – the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit and the New Markets Tax Credit – as part of any recovery package.
  3. Congress and the Administration should make it easier for different sources of government grants to be combined by streamlining environmental review requirements (what occurred after Superstorm Sandy was a step in the right direction). Such streamlining is critical for infrastructure projects that combine multiple federal funding sources. Let’s spare the property owners, as well states and localities, who administer federal funds the added burden of layering together countless requirements that stem from the same laws; instead, the rules of the agency providing the bulk of a project’s funding should govern.
  4. Related, Congress and HUD should ensure that housing grants actually fund rehabilitation programs, not just compensate owners for their economic loss. With the best of intentions, states tried to facilitate recovery after Hurricane Katrina by giving homeowners cash equal to the reduced property value caused by the storm.  Time proved that this method didn’t help people return home because the amount provided didn’t correlate with the cost to rebuild, and it disproportionally affected low-income homeowners and people of color with lower-value homes. Congress and HUD should ensure each housing dollar spent can be used to “build it back better.” We have learned from past mistakes: Resources need to be spent wisely on long-term investments that rebuild lives and communities.
  5. Congress and the Administration should require all projects built with federal rebuilding dollars address future risk, including setting elevation standards extending two or more feet above the current Base Flood Elevation for federally funded substantial rehabilitation or reconstruction of any property in a 100-year floodplain. What may sound like a technicality is in fact lifesaving protection for residents living and rebuilding in Harvey-affected areas – as well as a critical means to safeguard property and taxpayer dollars. Past rebuilding efforts show elevation standards are a proven risk mitigation tool. Just last month, we saw the return on these investments, when our Faubourg Lafitte development in New Orleans escaped intense flooding that would have incurred major costs and damage to homes if water had breached the first floor.

Taken together, our five policy recommendations set the stage for effective, equitable and inclusive recovery and rebuilding in every storm-damaged community. We are committed to ensuring all families can return to well-designed, affordable homes connected to opportunity. And now, more than ever, we are grateful for your support and partnership.

Recover today, rebuild tomorrow. We’re in it for the long haul in the Gulf Coast, and we’re in it for good. Learn about The Harvey Community Recovery Fund and how we’re sharing what we’ve learned.

Support the Harvey Community Recovery Fund