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The agency also announced it will funnel about $58 million to the state of Texas to help with Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hasn’t decided yet how to divvy-up $7.4 billion that Congress provided last month for the agency to help places recovering from recent hurricanes and other disasters.
This money falls under the department’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program. While any area covered by a presidential disaster declaration this year is technically eligible for the funds, places with the greatest “unmet needs” are prioritized.
“It is too early to make any type of prognostications,” Neal Rackleff, assistant secretary for HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development, told reporters Friday when asked about how the $7.4 billion might be divided among places recovering from disasters.
Rackleff stressed that when a disaster happens HUD’s role as an agency is not to be an immediate, first-responder. “That’s FEMA’s role,” he added, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “We are in this for the long-term recovery.”
Major hurricanes during recent weeks have included Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico; Irma, which also struck Puerto Rico as well as the U.S. Virgin Islands and Florida; and Harvey, which brought catastrophic flooding to parts of southeast Texas, including Houston.
Moody’s Analytics estimated last month that Harvey and Irma alone likely caused between $150 billion and $200 billion of damage.
Rackleff said HUD is reviewing data from FEMA and the Small Business Administration to identify jurisdictions with the greatest unmet disaster recovery needs. “The challenge,” he said, “is that those data don’t become available immediately.”
“We have pretty good data on the state of Texas, a little bit of data on Florida, and virtually no data for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Rackleff added.
Texas Recovery Funds
On Friday, HUD also announced it would funnel $57.8 million from appropriations in fiscal year 2017 spending legislation to the state of Texas to aid Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts.
This money is also Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding. Grants from the program can be used to fix or rebuild housing and businesses. They can also be used for infrastructure repairs. HUD is urging the state of Texas to put the money allotted Friday toward housing.
“Clearly, the long-term needs in Texas far exceed this allocation so I anticipate this down payment will be targeted to address damaged housing to help Texans move forward with their own recovery," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement.
There are requirements that any HUD funds used to rebuild homes must be spent on projects outside of flood-prone areas that are within what’s known as the “100-year floodplain.”
Rackleff explained that a factor in deciding to provide the funds to the state of Texas, rather than cities or counties, is that the state already has an “action plan” in place that should allow for the money to get put to use faster than if it was distributed directly to local governments.
Another HUD official, who joined Rackleff on a call with press Friday, said Texas would need to adopt certain changes to its action plan, and submit it to HUD for a review, before accessing the $57.8 million.
It’s possible, the official added, these steps could be completed by mid-December. That’s faster than if a grantee were starting from scratch to come up with an action plan, according to Rackleff.
The $57.8 million comes on top of about $313 million HUD previously allocated to Texas to aid recovery efforts for disasters that occurred in 2015 and 2016.
Money from the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program is meant to be the “last money in” for the federal response to a disaster, according to HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan, and to fill remaining gaps after money from FEMA, private insurance, state and local governments and other sources has been distributed.
Pending Disaster Aid
House lawmakers included $36.5 billion in the legislation.
That total includes $18.6 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund, $16 billion in debt cancellation for money the National Flood Insurance Program owes to the U.S. Treasury, $1.2 billion for disaster food aid to Puerto Rico and about $576 million for wildfire-related costs.
FEMA was allotted $7.4 billion for its disaster relief fund in the legislation lawmakers passed in September that included the $7.4 billion of disaster recovery funds for HUD. That bill also included $450 million for Small Business Administration disaster loans.
Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.