- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Red tape at the Department of Housing and Urban Development has prevented $35 billion in disaster relief from being delivered to states and territories hit by hurricanes in 2017, the Government Accountability Office says.

The federal funds are destined for Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which are still recovering from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria more than 1½ years ago.

The GAO found that HUD has bogged down the states in a disaster funding request process involving community development block grants. Initially designed to create oversight, the process instead has caused major bottlenecks.

As of January, Texas had drawn just $18 million from more than $5 billion in congressionally approved grants, and Florida had tapped only $1 million of $616 million set aside for disaster relief, the GAO reported. Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands had not accessed any of the $1.5 billion and $243 million, respectively, that they were allocated.

In a report released last week, the federal auditors criticized the approval process for community block grants, which were customized for each disaster. The auditors called it “a time-consuming process that has delayed the disbursement of funds.”



The GAO said “the expected increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events underscore the need for a permanent program to address unmet disaster needs.” The accounting agency recommended that Congress establish HUD regulations that expedite the delivery of disaster relief funds.

In an official response, Stanley Gimont, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for grant programs, argued that the GAO’s recommended fixes “leave an erroneous impression” that the housing department must develop standards for approving grants.

Mr. Gimont said HUD already has standards that include certifying that disaster relief grant recipients can perform the necessary work and authorizing plans for certain expenditures such as business recovery funds and voluntary home buyouts.

On Wednesday, HUD officials told The Washington Times that while “they were always looking to refine how they respond to disasters,” they stand by their official response.

The GAO concluded that HUD’s process is too complex and that HUD workers lack the capacity and training to quickly approve grants and contracts to independent vendors, suppliers and auditors selected by state officials.

The breakdown has stirred anger across areas most affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma, which caused $125 billion, $92 billion and $50 billion, respectively, in Texas, Florida and U.S. territories in the Caribbean.

In February, a frustrated Texas state Land Commissioner George P. Bush sent “a strongly worded letter to the president asking him to intervene” in the grant proposal process, according to The Texas Tribune.

That month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and Houston’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney requesting that the executive branch get involved in the “expeditious approval of the rules at HUD that will define mitigation projects for CDBG [Community Development Block Grant] disaster recovery grants.”

A 2018 Pew Charitable Trusts report on government spending for natural disasters highlighted another oversight issue: the lack of accountability at the local level.

The report concluded that “most states do not comprehensively track natural disaster spending” and that “state spending is highly variable.”

Pew noted “that one of the challenges in collecting and comparing disaster spending information stems from the coordination of, or lack of, record-keeping and reporting across the different agencies.”

Colin Foard, a Pew Charitable Trust associate manager, told The Times in an email that “it is a complex relationship with complex funding flows [between Washington and the states]. At least 17 major federal departments are involved in disaster assistance, much of which goes to states,” with even more layers of bureaucracy at the state level.

“Right now, neither level of government [state or federal] comprehensively tracks its spending across programs or all phases of disaster — mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery,” Mr. Foard wrote.

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