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.
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.”
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