September 28, 2017

How Disaster Recovery Begins: From Congress to HUD

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Grim realities of impacts from Hurricane Maria are filtering in, and we are overwhelmed by the pictures and stories of the suffering of fellow Americans in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Recovery from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma has begun in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida, but still far too many people are displaced and struggling to find a path to stability.

It is critical that Congress and the Administration work together to urgently press forward and quickly provide more resources to help stem the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands while maintaining focus and attention on recovery in Texas and Florida.

This is the first of two blogs that will explain: 1) the resources that Congress is making available for recovering communities and then 2) how those resources will be distributed and administered.

Recovery Funding Starts in Congress

On September 8, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Congress sent the President a bill for hurricane recovery that included $7.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) disaster relief fund to keep day-to-day operations going, $450 million for the Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster funds for homeowners and businesses, and, unexpectedly an additional $7.4 billion for long term recovery through HUD’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program (CDBG-DR) for all federally-declared disasters in 2017, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. This funding prevented FEMA from running out of money and allows HUD to roll out new grants. 

While the first appropriation will get communities on the path to recovery, much more will be needed. The funds in that first appropriation are a down-payment, but do not include the kind of long term recovery dollars to help communities recover, rebuild, and futureproof their homes and communities. 

After Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012, damaging or destroying 650,000 homes and billions of dollars in infrastructure, Congress passed a $60 billion recovery package that included grants for FEMA, HUD, DOT, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Small Business Administration, and other agencies.  Enterprise’s policy team has been meeting with House and Senate appropriations, tax, and authorizations offices, advocating for additional funds and policy reforms needed to ensure a robust recovery.  We are proud to be working in close collaboration with many local and national organization focused on ensuring equity – learn more about our collective policy recommendations for an inclusive recovery.

CDBG-DR Program: How HUD Helps Communities Rebuild

The HUD funds require a key set of decisions to be made by HUD, then by direct governmental recipients of the dollars after consultation with affected citizens, and ultimately by property owners seeking to use the funds.  Secretary Carson has generally committed to cutting red tape and speeding assistance to survivors with existing authorities and floodproofing communities that are vulnerable to flooding but has not yet specified how his administration will shape the use of disaster recovery funds.

CDBG-DR program is unlike the annual CDBG program in that it doesn’t exist until Congress passes a special appropriation of CDBG-DR dollars because a disaster or series of disasters is so financially overwhelming that permanent disaster recovery programs (including FEMA grants, SBA loans, and US Army Corps of Engineers infrastructure authorities) aren’t enough to help communities recover.

These special CDBG-DR appropriations have become routine – Congress has passed 15 rounds of CDBG-DR in the 16 years since 9/11.  The CDBG-DR laws, including the one just passed, gives the HUD Secretary the discretion to waive both statutes and regulations and issue alternative requirements to tailor the annual CDBG program to the disaster recovery context (but holds back new authority to waive civil rights, nondiscrimination, labor standards, or environmental review requirements).  HUD sets disaster requirements by issuing a Federal Register Notice laying out the rules for CDBG-DR grants.  Unlike permanently authorized programs, HUD issues the rules for CDBG-DR without going through the regular process of proposed rulemaking that allows the public to offer comments. Each new appropriation offers an opportunity to change the rules to incorporate lessons learned from previous recovery efforts.

Learn how HUD allocates CDBG-DR funds to communities in my next blog post.  In addition, read Andrew Jakabovics' post on preliminary damage assessments in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.