By Madeline Urbish
There is “no accountability of the money that’s being spent – there’s no coordination.” The stark reality of Former FEMA Director R. David Paulison’s statement regarding Superstorm Sandy disaster funding did not come as a surprise to many members of the congressional roundtable hosted by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Building, and Emergency Management this week. Other attendees made similar comments, including Jeffrey Stern, State Coordinator for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, and Christopher Currie, Director for the Government Accountability Office’s Homeland Security and Justice team who noted that “most of these departmental programs were never designed to work together for disaster mitigation or recovery. There’s no national investment strategy.”
Paulison joined the House subcommittee roundtable, along with Marion McFadden, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Grant Programs with the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Community Planning and Development, William Irwin, Disaster Program Manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), and Henrika Buchanan-Smith, Associate Administrator for Program Management at the Federal Transit Administration (FTA).
The roundtable discussion was called to examine the federal disaster assistance program and the coordination among the 19 agencies that had money appropriated for Superstorm Sandy relief via the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013. Environment & Energy Daily reported the roundtable focused largely on the lack of money flowing to projects, insurance payouts, and the different uses for which it was appropriated.
The federal government assumed responsibility for approximately 80 percent of recovery costs following Sandy in late 2012; however, only a fraction of $50 billion has been paid out. According to Henrika Buchanan-Smith of the FTA, “A lot of these are major infrastructure projects…are multi-year,” with funds disbursed only after projects are completed. The systems in place at the different agencies have made it incredibly slow and difficult to actually get the money out into the communities that are still recovering after the storm more than two years later.
The Hurricane Sandy Program Management Office, which tracks awarded and paid-out funds for federal agencies, reports only $23 billion of the total appropriated amount has been awarded, and of that amount, only $13 billion has been paid out. Of the top five programs that received funding, only one has actually been allocated the full amount Congress appropriated. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) has actually been awarded more than originally appropriated at $11.57 billion, yet only $7.4 billion of that amount has so far been distributed.
The Department of Transportation’s Public Transit Emergency Relief Program and Highways Emergency Relief Program has paid out less than half of the money it has received so far, which is still less than 30 percent of what Congress appropriated. The same goes for HUD’s Community Development Fund, and the Army Corps of Engineers has received just 10 percent of its appropriated funds, and doled out less than two percent of that amount.
Members of the House subcommittee expressed serious concern over the lack of funds reaching communities in need. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) noted her lack of confidence that “the few pennies we’re using to help those who suffer disasters will do anything for the moment to take care of the problem. This is very serious, my friends.” Ranking member André Carson (D-IN) said more meetings will be held on the topic later in the year.
A bill introduced earlier this year by subcommittee chairman Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA) would establish a comprehensive study to assess some of these issues. The FEMA Disaster Assistance Reform Act of 2015 calls on FEMA’s National Advisory Council, to conduct the study to assess disaster costs and develop a series of recommendations to improve federal response and coordination following a natural disaster. The National Advisory Council advises the FEMA Administrator on all aspects of emergency management, and is responsible for ensuring effective and ongoing coordination of Federal preparedness, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation for natural and manmade disasters, as well as acts of terrorism. The bill, H.R. 1471, was reported favorably out of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management in April, and will next be considered by the full committee.
For more information, contact Madeline Urbish at firstname.lastname@example.org.