The federal agency tasked with managing billions in long-term hurricane-relief money is on the Trump administration’s chopping block.
In May, President Donald Trump announced that he wanted to cut the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Block Grant Program, which administers about $3 billion a year to local communities for programs like Meals on Wheels.
“The program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated a measurable impact on communities,” the White House explained it its budget document.
But the Community Block Grant Program has also managed more than $50 billion in taxpayer dollars since 1993 to help with long-term disaster relief. Another $7.4 billion is coming after Congress approved a Hurricane Harvey aid bill earlier this month, and more money will likely flow to HUD as Congress formulates relief packages for Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
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“We have gained a high degree of experience and knowledge as to how these funds can be applied to long-term recovery,” said Stan Gimont, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for grant programs.
While the Federal Emergency Management Agency is tasked with short-term disaster relief, HUD coordinates requests for long-term relief by local governments. The agency determines which state and local governments are most in need and evaluates various grant proposals from areas hit by natural disasters.
In many cases, the HUD money often ends up in the hands of homeowners and businesses after local governments dole it out.
“They have been silent warriors really since [Hurricane] Andrew,” said Jeffrey Thomas, a New Orleans lawyer who supervised that city’s long-term disaster recovery plan after Hurricane Katrina. “Much attention is given to FEMA in the aftermath of a disaster, but the importance of HUD can’t be understated. FEMA repairs broken public things... but that goes away pretty quickly. A rebuild in the private sphere is all about the HUD money.”
Thomas said FEMA gives as much as $33,000 per household in the 18 months after a disaster, but HUD money will be vital to homeowners in the Florida Keys who lost everything.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and it’s unclear how the federal government would coordinate long-term disaster relief without the Community Development Block Grant program.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, is a member of the powerful congressional committee tasked with determining how much money HUD should get for disaster relief. He doesn’t think the Community Block Grant Program should be eliminated.
“The CDBG Disaster Recovery program is a critical tool that helps communities and neighborhoods rebuild and start the recovery process following a natural disaster,” he said.
Diaz-Balart’s office cited the sewer system in Everglades City as an example of a public project that would benefit from HUD funding after Hurricane Irma. The system, which runs on electrical power, is still not working and sewage is backing up into the street.
The long-term funds could be used for a project like the Everglades City sewer to not only repair it, but strengthen so it can better withstand future hurricanes.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who serves alongside Diaz-Balart on the federal spending committee, wasn’t happy that the Trump administration’s initial request for hurricane relief money earlier this month didn’t include HUD funding.
“The president in his initial request for Irma supplemental funds did not include CDBG,” Wasserman Schultz said. “It was only at the request of Congress that those funds were added. They lack the empathy and understanding of what the essential impact of CDBG funds are.”
Diaz-Balart and Wasserman Schultz are leading a draft letter to Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney, urging the Trump administration to quickly approve additional disaster relief funds.
“We are concerned the agencies responsible for the recovery could run out of funds in the near term and be forced to await Congressional action to continue their vital work,” the draft letter reads. “As Representatives of those districts that have been severely affected by the recent natural disasters, we urge the Office of Management and Budget to send Congress a request for additional supplemental appropriations, that includes robust funding for, but not limited to, FEMA, SBA (Small Business Administration), and CDBG-DR, as soon as possible.”
Miami Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also wants to see the block-grant program continue.
“It serves as a critical tool in creating job opportunities and spurring economic development in some of the most distressed areas,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “Instead of trying to cut this program, the administration should work to promote and strengthen it in ways that reflect its utility.”
Thomas argued that moving long-term disaster relief to another federal agency would be a bad idea, as the government could be ill-equipped to manage relief money if another hurricane strikes.
“I don’t see why you would wholesale abandon HUD,” he said.