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Thursday, May 23, 2024

NC legislators seek to streamline federal funding following major disasters

A mother and her infant were killed Friday morning when a large tree, pictured, fell onto their house, marking the first confirmed fatalities of Hurricane Florence in Wilmington. (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)
Some homeowners who faced damage to their property during hurricanes Mathhew and Florence are still waiting for funding and assistance; two new bills introduced by NC U.S. representatives would help streamline the process. (Port City Daily/file)

SOUTHEASTERN N.C. — Four-and-a-half years after Hurricane Florence pummeled the Cape Fear region, some homeowners are still waiting for federal assistance.

Two U.S. legislators representing North Carolina have filed bills that would streamline the process.

As of September 2019 — one year after Florence made landfall along the coast of Wrightsville Beach — 139,813 North Carolina residents had applied for disaster assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

More than $134 million in grant funding was given to 34,713 individuals and households, meaning some were either denied or are still waiting.

Rep. David Rouzer (NC-07) introduced in the House the Natural Disaster Recovery Program Act to “cut unnecessary red rape” and provide local governments more flexibility getting reimbursed for disaster-related activities.

Following Florence, FEMA awarded $767.3 million to reimburse the state and local governments for recovery projects. Another $78 million was doled out to communities for mitigation projects to rebuild more resilient than before the disaster. 

As of 2021, the City of Wilmington received $19.4 million in FEMA reimbursements, but estimated damages from the hurricane at nearly $33 million.

The Stafford Act allows FEMA to provide assistance to individuals for 18 months following a major disaster declaration; but federal money continues to be funneled through state programs to assist. That’s where more hang-ups and delays tend to play in.

North Carolina’s ReBuild NC program receives funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grants. According to NPR, there are still 3,783 families waiting for their homes to be rebuilt from 2018’s Florence and 2016’s Hurricane Matthew. Though more than 10,000 have been repaired statewide since 2016 by local, state, federal and nonprofit agencies combined.

In the Senate, North Carolina Republican Thom Tillis is sponsoring the Reforming Recovery Act, which would create a separate fund for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to assist communities more easily.

Both pieces of legislation have the same end goal: to get money into the hands of impacted families in a more timely fashion. 

For FEMA, a state must prove severity of damage from a disaster and show it cannot afford with its own resources a clean-up and recovery effort. Governors must also submit an estimate of damage, description of available resources and certification they will comply with cost-sharing requirements.

Applicants must submit proof of insurance, settlement of insurance claims, proof of occupancy and ownership, and verify the damaged property was the primary residence at time of the disaster. All which take time to be reviewed.

Insurance status and the extent and type of damage incurred all factor into how much financial assistance is given; FEMA funding can’t be received for items already covered by insurance or another funding source. 

FEMA money is meant to pay for basic needs to make a home livable, such as toilets, utilities, windows, roofs and doors. Federal funding can also cover temporary lodging, replacement of personal property, funeral expenses, and uninsured or out-of-pocket medical, dental, childcare, moving and storage expenses.

Under new administrator Deanne Criswell, who was appointed April 2021, FEMA simplified its disaster assistance process. It expanded the types of documents it accepts to ensure more people receive help. Due to the updated standards, more than 128,000 residents who would have previously been ineligible, have received over $754 million to jumpstart recovery efforts.

One of the piles of house debris on U.S. 53 just northeast of Burgaw near the Northeast Cape Fear River six weeks after Florence made landfall. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A pile of house debris on U.S. 53 just northeast of Burgaw near the Northeast Cape Fear River six weeks after Florence made landfall. (Port City Daily/file)

Natural Disaster Recovery Program Act

Rouzer’s version of the bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Garret Graves (LA-06) and introduced in March, would scrap the Community Development Block Grants process altogether and replace it with a simpler grant program. It also would no longer require the governor to submit a lengthy action plan before getting help. Meaning funds are not contingent on first devising a thorough strategy.

“I have victims from Hurricane Florence [that] still have no recovery help,” Rouzer said May 19 during a Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee. “So, anyhow, personally I think simple is better. Simple is easy to implement. Simple is easy to enforce.”

He pointed to Hurricane Florence survivors still waiting for help, and emphasized how the current process can take years for homes to be rebuilt and communities to return to a state of normalcy.

House Bill 1605 would award states half of the needed grant money immediately following a federally declared disaster. Once states report on how the initial funds were used, the second half of the grant would be released.

Currently, there are multiple steps before any money reaches the community. Following a disaster, a damage assessment must be completed and reviewed by the federal government to determine the extent of the impact. 

Then the governor has to estimate the amount of money needed and submit a disaster declaration request, which is reviewed by the president before FEMA can begin providing resources.

It’s a way to put money in the hands of the communities needing it, “no questions asked,” according to Rouzer’s office, but also mandating some oversight before receiving the other half, to be financially responsible.

States would be liable for the direction of the money, except a portion must be used to clean debris and sediment from rivers, creeks, streams and ditches to alleviate inland flooding.

The Natural Disaster Recovery Program Act would create a new section of the Stafford Act with FEMA, rather than through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Currently, when a disaster is declared, Congress can choose to allocate funds to HUD, which are then sent to the impacted communities; it can take up to six months before the money is available to use. 

“States would therefore be empowered with the decision-making capability to decide where to spend disaster dollars and the ability to create a program structure to get the money out the door faster — taking power away from HUD, while maintaining oversight of taxpayer dollars,” a release from Rouzer’s office states. “In the critical months after a devastating natural disaster, the needs of survivors should be the highest priority. The more efficiently these needs are met, the more quickly communities can fully recover.”

FEMA would serve as a pass-through for grant funds and reclaim any misspent or fraudulently used funds.

In March, the House legislation was referred to the committee on transportation and infrastructure, as well as the subcommittee on economic development, public buildings, and emergency management.

The intersection of Water and Market Streets flooded as rain from Hurricane Matthew caused the Cape Fear River to overflow. (Port City Daily/file)

Reforming Disaster Recovery Act

The main difference in Tillis’ legislation is the funding would still come from HUD.

Tillis and a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation earlier in May that would accelerate assistance to disaster-impacted towns. It would require funding to eligible to communities within 90 and no later than 120 days after a declared disaster.

The legislation states that during a federally declared disaster, communities most impacted and distressed as a result, “face critical social, economic and environmental obstacles to recovery, including insufficient public and private resources to address disaster-related housing and community development needs for lower income households.”

The extremely low- to moderate-income families face the greatest struggles, it adds, and at least 70% of funding will be targeted to those communities.

The Senate version of the bill also would authorize a “quick release” of funds right after an event. It would improve federal coordination by establishing an office at HUD devoted to recovery and resilience.

“The Tillis bill streamlines the process by no longer requiring Congress to act AND then HUD to act after a storm,” a spokesperson for Tillis’ office wrote in an email to PCD. “Instead, HUD would not have the authority to administer funds as soon as there are unmet needs following a disaster.”

If signed into law, the bill would establish an Office of Disaster Management and Resiliency to oversee disaster preparedness and response responsibilities. Staff would coordinate with FEMA, the Small Business Administration — which assists with low-interest disaster loans — and the Office of Community Planning and Development to support recovery with a “comprehensive approach in working with communities.”

The goal is to modify recovery and disaster-preparedness plans tailored to each community.

A long-term recovery fund would provide grants to disaster-prone municipalities to assist with salaries, technology, capacity buildings and technical assistance — including disaster planning.

Grants, capped at $5 million each, would pass through states to local towns for long-term recovery, restoration of housing and infrastructure., economic revitalization and mitigation. After the money is awarded, the recipient must submit a report on how it will be used; community participation is required in creating a plan for spending.

The Senate bill was read twice before being referred to the committee on banking, housing and urban affairs in May. 

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