September 21, 2017

Trump wants to eliminate the federal program that oversees long-term hurricane relief

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@alextdaugherty 

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.

“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.”

Read more here.

In Miami, House Speaker Ryan says more FEMA money coming in October

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@NewsbySmiley

Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan promised Wednesday, after a tour of the damage inflicted across hundreds of miles by Hurricane Irma, that Congress would once again replenish strained disaster recovery coffers in order to help Floridians bounce back from the storm.

Ryan, who flew with the U.S. Coast Guard over Jacksonville and the Florida Keys, called the scene along the Overseas Highway “astounding.” He acknowledged the need to release more money to help pay for a storm sandwiched between Hurricane Harvey on the Gulf Coast and Hurricane Maria over Puerto Rico, but stayed away from any specific dollar amounts.

“What matters most is the Disaster [Relief] Fund at FEMA is full and it can respond. That’s why just a few weeks ago we made sure that the FEMA funds were there because the spend-down rate was accelerating very quickly as opposed to other hurricanes,” Ryan, R-Wisc., said during a press conference at the U.S. Coast Guard air station at Opa-locka Executive Airport. “I’m sure that we’re going to do another, what we call supplemental, sometime in October once we have a full assessment of what is needed.”

 

FEMA’s relief fund had $6.3 billion unallocated as of Wednesday morning, according to Bloomberg Government. The fund will receive another $6.7 billion in 10 days as part of a $15 billion Hurricane Harvey relief bill passed this month by Congress as part of a deal between President Donald Trump and Democrats that included raising the nation’s debt ceiling and a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through December.

But given the amount of damage already inflicted this hurricane season, those dollars aren’t expected to last long.
 
Read more here.

September 20, 2017

Haunted by nursing home horror, task force joins rush to make sure it isn’t repeated

Frederica Wilson

via @ceostroff

In a crowded North Miami Beach City Hall chamber, elected officials, first responders and healthcare workers gathered to establish a task force to better regulate senior facilities, in the wake of eight deaths in Hollywood.

The task force, started Tuesday, aims to combine efforts to enact national, state and local policies to ensure the safety of those in assisted living facilities in the wake of a disaster. Last week, eight at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died after the building’s air cooling system failed in the aftermath of Irma.

“I am livid,” said U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, a Democrat whose district includes the Hollywood nursing home. “We should all be beside ourselves.”

Wilson said the task force will split into smaller groups looking at first responders, utilities and other areas of concern. Mental health was added to the list during the meeting at the behest of one attendee.

Wilson said she wants to amend the Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act to make hospitals and nursing homes a top priority in disaster response. She also will work to require that the Federal Emergency Management Agency prioritize critical care facilities to be up and running again quickly after disaster.
 
Wilson also wants to enact legislation to require that assisted living facilities have a backup generator or power source if they want to be eligible for federal funds.

“We do not want another Hollywood Hills,” she said.

Read more here.

September 19, 2017

Puerto Rico will need billions in federal help after Hurricane Maria

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@alextdaugherty 

Puerto Rico’s power grid is a mess.

The island’s utility provider filed for a form of bankruptcy in July, and two months later Hurricane Irma passed just north of San Juan, knocking out power to nearly 1 million people and causing an estimated $1 billion in damage.

With thousands still without power, Hurricane Maria is approaching. It will likely be Puerto Rico’s first direct hit from a Category 5 hurricane since 1928.

“No generation has seen a hurricane like this since San Felipe II in 1928,” said Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló in a statement on Tuesday. “This is an unprecedented atmospheric system.”

The Puerto Rican government, which sought bankruptcy relief in exchange for supervised fiscal belt-tightening in May, will need federal assistance to recover from Maria and Irma. Repairing and replacing power lines and stations throughout the territory after Maria will likely cost billions, though the island doesn’t have any voting power in Congress.
 
“No member of Congress is going to want to see thousands of people die in Puerto Rico,” said Rep. Darren Soto, a Florida Democrat of Puerto Rican descent whose Orlando-based district includes a large number of Puerto Ricans.

“Certainly... the fiscal crisis has made PREPA [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] less financially prepared to do this on their own and the fact remains that this is part of the U.S,” Soto added.

Congress passed a Hurricane Harvey relief bill two weeks ago after Texas sustained billions in flood damage. The $15.25 billion package was part of a deal between President Donald Trump and Democrats that included raising the nation’s debt ceiling and a continuing resolution to fund the federal government through December.

Florida Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday that Irma and Maria will require “much more” than $15 billion in federal relief.

“We’re going to have to put the full resources of the federal government in there because this is a Cat 5 and they lost power on the last hurricane that brushed them,” Nelson said. “This is going full bore right into the island.”

Read more here.

September 18, 2017

Every South Floridian in Congress wants to extend Haiti's TPS

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@alextdaugherty 

Every member of Congress from South Florida is in favor of extending a temporary program run by the Department of Homeland Security that allows Haitians to live and work in the United States. 

Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Delray Beach, led a letter on Monday to acting DHS secretary Elaine Duke signed by every member of Congress who represents Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties urging the Trump administration to extend Haiti's Temporary Protected status for 18 months. 

"The Haitian people, and now their government, continue to work diligently to rebuild the country after the earthquake, cholera outbreak, and Hurricane Matthew," the letter said. "This work will be made more difficult if the country must also welcome back over 50,000 Haitian nationals at once." 

Former DHS secretary and current White House chief of staff Gen. John Kelly extended Haiti's TPS status for six months instead of 18 earlier this year and he also said that Haitian nationals in the United States should begin making plans to return home. Haiti's TPS status runs out in January 2018. 

Hastings was part of a group of Democrats who huddled in the Haitian embassy last week to discuss a strategy for getting more awareness about how important TPS is for Haiti. 

The letter was also signed by Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson along with Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, Carlos Curbelo, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Frederica Wilson, Ted Deutch and Lois Frankel. 

View the letter here.

September 13, 2017

Democrats plot their Haiti strategy as TPS deadline looms

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@alextdaugherty 

A half dozen Democratic lawmakers met with Haiti’s ambassador in an intimate dinner on Tuesday night to craft a new strategy aimed at convincing the White House to extend a temporary program set to expire in January 2018 that allows thousands of Haitians to work and live in the U.S.

Over rum punch and pikliz, the Democrats said it’s time to tie what’s known as TPS for Haiti to recent activism over DACA, an executive order signed by Barack Obama that gave protections to undocumented young people brought to the U.S. as minors.

“We have to create the atmosphere where the man in the Oval Office says ‘I’m considering it,’” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said at the dinner.

Creating the atmosphere won’t come from signing letters or talking with administration officials about humanitarian concerns in Haiti. Instead, Democrats argue that repeatedly bringing up TPS during every DACA protest and getting business leaders to realize the disruption to labor markets if 58,000 Haitians are required to leave will increase public pressure on Trump to grant the TPS extension.

“If all the Haitian workers at Fort Lauderdale International Airport left tomorrow, they would have the messiest bathrooms of any airport, even messier than LaGuardia,” said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
 
Hastings and Jackson Lee said that widespread outrage from Democrats—and business leaders—over President Donald Trump’s decision to end DACA last week created a massive amount of public pressure. Trump indicated over Twitter after the decision to end DACA was announced that he would “revisit” DACA if Congress is unable to draft and pass a legislative fix that would keep those young people from being deported.
 
The TPS program is administered by the Homeland Security Department and allows foreign nationals already in the United States from 10 countries to stay in the United States for a designated period of time. TPS was granted to Haiti in 2011 after a massive 2010 earthquake.

When Haiti’s TPS was up for renewal in May, Democrats asked then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to show “compassion.”

Kelly ultimately decided to extend Haiti’s status, but only for six months instead of the usual 18. He also said Haitians “need to start thinking about returning.”

“It’s all or nothing at this point given the time frame, the consequences, if nothing happens between now and November,” ambassador Paul Altidor said. “We’re trying to ensure that as many people from Capitol Hill, from either side of the aisle, are involved in this, and we’ve seen that from members of the Florida delegation.”

One Florida Republican, Rep. Brian Mast, was scheduled to attend Tuesday’s dinner but was unable, due to Hurricane Irma. His office confirmed to Miami Herald that he is in favor of extending Haiti’s TPS status by 18 months.

Mast joins Miami Republicans Marco Rubio, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Carlos Curbelo and Mario Diaz-Balart, who all signed a letter in March urging Kelly to extend Haiti’s TPS status.

Tuesday’s dinner was organized by Altidor and Rep. Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y., a longtime proponent of extending Haiti’s TPS status.

“We’re going to go to whomever we need to make the case,” Clarke said, adding that bringing TPS into the larger DACA debate will help combat the spread of misinformation, such as false reports that Canada was offering free residency to Haitians in the United States.

Read more here.

Irma is just the beginning, Sandy victims warn Floridians

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@alextdaugherty 

In 2011, The National Flood Insurance Program told Claudette D’Arrigo that her Highlands, New Jersey home was structurally sound after Hurricane Irene.

When Superstorm Sandy hit 13 months later and caused her home to flood, it was a different story.

The nation’s government-run flood insurance program, which ensures 1.7 million homeowners in Florida, determined that she had 20 years of earth erosion under her home, which meant she wasn’t eligible for an insurance payout.

After submitting her 2011 document three times and contacting New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez failed to result in a payout, D’Arrigo filed an appeal in April 2015. Her appeal was heard in January 2017 and she received her payout in August 2017.

“It was a low offer, but I accepted the offer because we needed to move on,” D’Arrigo said. “That is the process that will happen to everyone in Houston and everyone in Florida. It was a five-year wait for us to receive our money.”

As Florida and Texas begin cleanup from Hurricane Irma, New Jersey and New York homeowners who endured flooding from Superstorm Sandy five years ago are urging Congress to overhaul the nation’s flood insurance program. They want greater protections from fraud while allowing private insurers to enter the market to avoid the delays after Superstorm Sandy.

“The current program needs to be reformed,” said New Jersey Republican Rep. Tom MacArthur, who represents a stretch of coastal New Jersey damaged by Sandy. “I hear from a lot of people who paid premiums for decades and now they are getting treated in a way that no private insurer could ever treat people without being called to account. What’s the difference? You can sue your private insurance company.”

Key West resident Lee Cummings, a 69-year-old who spends his summers in the Washington, D.C. area, is worried that the delays after Sandy will also happen to people flooded by Irma after hearing D’Arrigo speak.

“They seem pretty certain that the storm is stage one and the real battle is stage two,” Cummings said. “I certainly hope that’s not true.”

Cummings, who said he used satellite maps to see that his Key West house still has its roof after Irma, has no idea if flood waters damaged his property.


Read more here.

September 12, 2017

Florida presses for federal dollars after Irma, but budget hawks resist

Middle Key Boat Block

@alextdaugherty

Many members of Florida’s congressional delegation couldn’t be in Washington for votes on Tuesday, as the state began a massive cleanup after Hurricane Irma. But that hasn’t stopped them from pressing colleagues who were spared Irma’s wrath to join in their quest for federal help.

Miami Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the only member from Florida in office when Hurricane Andrew made landfall 25 years ago, is urging Washington to treat her state as it did Texas just a week ago.

Carlos Curbelo and I are determined to go back to D.C. and work with our colleagues to find the funds needed for the hurricane relief efforts,” Ros-Lehtinen said at a press conference. “We found it for Hurricane Harvey, we're going to band together and find it for the residents who are survivors of Hurricane Irma.”

But efforts to spend billions on hurricane relief will likely meet resistance from conservative Republicans who bristle at any new spending that doesn’t include corresponding cuts elsewhere. For them, Florida’s storm damage is a secondary concern to the long-term consequences of increasing the federal deficit.

“The unsustainable national debt remains the greatest existential threat to our nation that is routinely ignored in Washington,” said Texas Republican Rep. Jeb Hensarling in a statement. “Emergency funding should not come to the House without an opportunity to propose offsets, a number of which can easily be found in President Trump’s budget.”

Last week, Hensarling, along with 106 Republicans in the House and Senate, voted against a $15.25 billion Hurricane Harvey relief bill that was coupled with an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling and a measure to keep the government funded for a short period, signaling that a faction of conservatives will likely vote against billions in Irma relief if they deem the money isn’t directly related to storm recovery.

“The extremists in the Republican conference who somehow think we should be offsetting the cost of an emergency don’t understand the concept of an emergency,” Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said. “ It was the largest storm to hit the state in modern times. We are going to need significant relief and recovery.”

But despite the opposition, Miami-Dade’s congressional delegation, including Ros-Lehtinen, Curbelo, Wasserman Schultz, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Rep. Frederica Wilson, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson are united in getting attention, and funding, for Florida.

“I spoke to Speaker Ryan last night and we were talking about how we have to get FEMA funded,” Wasserman Schultz said. “There’s no question that we’re going to need an emergency supplemental. He’s already put people on notice.”

Wasserman Schultz said it’s impossible to even ballpark how much money Florida will need from the federal government. The cleanup is just beginning, and the immediate priorities are restoring power and getting fuel into the state. Those efforts don’t require additional funding from Congress.

Nelson and Rubio have teamed up for a variety of press conferences and events before and after the storm, notably a flyover of the Florida Keys with Coast Guard personnel on Monday to view the damage and recovery efforts.

Read more here.

September 11, 2017

Miami politicians take to the skies to view Irma damage

@alextdaugherty 

A gaggle of Miami politicians are getting an up-close-and-personal view of Hurricane Irma's destruction in Key West. 

Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson along with Rep. Carlos Curbelo, state Sen. Anitere Flores and Miami-Dade County commissioner José Pepe Díaz were all aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cargo plane bound for Key West with personnel dispatched to help with recover operations. 

The flight followed a Miami press conference with Curbelo, Flores Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Gov. Rick Scott

"We're working with FEMA, I can tell you the White House has been outstanding," Scott said. "I talked to President Trump three times yesterday, I talked to administrator Brock Long of FEMA multiple times yesterday. The White House and everybody at the federal level is showing up and my belief is they are going to show up and do everything they can." 

"Carlos Curbelo and I are determined to go back to D.C. and work with our colleagues to find the funds needed for the hurricane relief efforts," Ros-Lehtinen said. "We found it for Hurricane Harvey, we're going to band together and find it for the residents who are survivors of Hurricane Irma." 

"The Florida Keys is going to need a lot of help and we're blessed to have a wonderful governor and a very effective adminstrator at FEMA who is well aware of what the sitaution on the ground is starting to look like," Curbelo said. "We keep getting this question of how much this is going to cost and we don't have an exact estimate. But I can guarantee you this, it's going to cost billions upon billions upon billions of dollars to help the Florida Keys, Florida's Southwest Coast and obviously some of our residents here in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties to recover."  

Curbelo said he talked to Long, who relayed to him that FEMA has enough money to get through September. 

"What I would tell all my colleagues is...we cannot fund an agency like FEMA month to month," Curbelo said, adding that he plans to speak with Speaker Paul Ryan about a "robust" funding plan for FEMA.

 

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen asks Paul Ryan, Nancy Pelosi to visit Florida

Ileana 2

@alextdaugherty 

Miami Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is asking congressional leaders to visit Florida after Hurricane Irma made landfall and tracked along the state's Gulf Coast, as the state will likely need billions in federal relief to recover from the storm. 

Ros-Lehtinen will send a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and the leaders of the congressional committee that controls federal spending, urging them to join their Florida colleagues to assess the damage. 

"As Members of the Florida Congressional delegation, we strongly encourage you to visit our state and join us in assessing the extent of the damage," Ros-Lehtinen said in the letter. "While Floridians are coming together to begin the recovery process, we will need assistance from the federal government in the coming weeks and months to help rebuild our communities in the aftermath of this devastating storm. Florida is home to over 20 million residents, all of whom must know that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will have the resources necessary to assist and respond effectively."

Before the storm hit, Congress passed $15 billion in hurricane relief funding as part of a package to raise the nation's debt ceiling. Ros-Lehtinen and others from Florida urged Congress to vote in favor of the bill, which passed by a large margin. Just over 100 Republicans in the House and Senate voted against the package because they did not approve of a deal struck between President Donald Trump and Democratic leaders to tie much-needed hurricane funding to the nation's debt ceiling. 

Two members of Congress from Florida, Reps. Matt Gaetz and Ted Yoho, voted against the package. 

"We commend last week’s passage of supplemental emergency funding to assist FEMA with its recovery efforts to those impacted by Hurricane Harvey," the letter said. "However, the destruction caused by Irma throughout Florida means that Congress must again act swiftly to ensure the availability of additional funding needed for recovery efforts. We hope you will join us in Florida to bear witness to our resolve, and return to Washington with a renewed commitment to act quickly to provide the assistance that our families desperately require." 

A spokesman for Ros-Lehtinen said collecting signatures for the letter may take longer than usual due to the storm.