Cities Still Await 2017 Aid as New Hurricane Season Starts

By Christopher Flavelle | June 4, 2018

Allen Owen, the mayor of Missouri City, Texas, wants to do more to protect his town from the next disaster. But the city hasn’t gotten any of the roughly $1 million in federal disaster funds he said it’s owed after Hurricane Harvey. That means less money to flood-proof the local bayou, install bigger pumps or buy and demolish homes that keep flooding.

“We’re getting into hurricane season,” Owen, a Republican, said in an interview. “It’s going to happen again.”

With the arrival of a new hurricane season Friday, towns and cities in Florida and Texas are still waiting for hundreds of millions of dollars in promised reimbursement from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency for last year’s record destruction. In Texas, more than one-third of the expected $695 million is still outstanding. And that’s a wild success compared with Florida, where less than 1 percent of the promised $83 million in federal money has reached cities and counties.

The result is that local governments must tap emergency funds, borrow money and cut spending, leaving them less fiscal room to get ready for the next disaster.

“If we have another storm this year, then we’ll really be in trouble,” said Roman Gastesi, administrator of Monroe County, Florida, which is waiting for $34 million.

In the meantime, the county has implemented what he called “a pretty severe austerity program,” including a hiring freeze, purchasing constraints and new limits on public services.

Advocacy groups and federal auditors say the fault lies with an unwieldy reimbursement process and the fact that FEMA is stretched thin by the pace and scale of disasters. FEMA says the responsibility lies with the states, who act as middlemen in distributing the funds.

“For the cities that are in the front lines of this, it’s very concerning,” said Yucel Ors, program director for public safety for the National League of Cities. “It’s very difficult to meet all the demands that are out there.”

The National Association of Counties is also getting complaints from its members, according to spokesman Fred Wong. He said he didn’t know whether that reflects problems with the process, or simply the unusually high number of counties hit by last year’s disasters.

The money comes from FEMA’s Public Assistance program, which has gotten poor marks from federal auditors. After last year’s disasters, the U.S. Government Accountability Office called it “a complex and multistep grant program,” with an “extensive paperwork and review process” and too few trained staff, leading to delays in funding.

The program is supposed to pay local governments at least 75 percent of the cost of emergency services, debris removal and repairing or replacing public infrastructure after a presidentially declared disaster. It is FEMA’s largest disaster grants program, committing more than $36 billion between 2009 and 2016.

The agency had planned to overhaul it this year to address the GAO’s concerns. When last year’s disasters struck, FEMA decided to speed up the overhaul, introducing the new system ahead of schedule. The result of that shift, according to Chris Currie, the office’s director for emergency management, was some degree of bureaucratic disruption – exacerbated by the scale of last year’s disasters, and FEMA’s already overworked staff.

“Not everybody was trained and ready to go,” Currie said in an interview. “Our concerns about the workforce being ready – they certainly haven’t gotten any better, because the workload is only going up.”

Jenny Burke, a FEMA spokeswoman, rejected the notion that the agency has been slow delivering disaster aid, saying that criticism does “not reflect the true recovery process or progress that continues to be made following last year’s historic disasters.”

She said any concerns about the pace of reimbursements should be directed to state governments. “Once funding reaches the states, tribes and territories, it is their responsibility to disburse funds to local governments,” Burke said.

In a closed-door meeting at FEMA headquarters earlier this month with local officials and associations of cities, the agency’s director, Brock Long, said the agency needs to move faster, according to the National League of Cities’ Ors, who attended the meeting.

“FEMA acknowledged that they need to work to improve the way that the money is getting out there,” Ors said. He said Long described getting aid out more quickly as “one of their priorities.”

When asked whether Texas had been too slow in distributing FEMA aid to its cities and counties, Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said it was a “top priority to help communities recover as quickly as possible.” He called the grants “a joint effort” between the state, FEMA and local governments.

As far as Missouri City, Vinger said the state is still waiting for local officials to provide more documentation of its costs.

In Florida, getting money to cities and counties hit by Hurricane Irma has been even slower. Of the $83 million in Public Assistance money promised by FEMA, the state has distributed just $604,000, according to Alberto Moscoso, spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

Moscoso said the state is just trying to be thorough.

The state is pursuing “a deliberate method of reviewing these payments,” Moscoso said. He noted that if FEMA later decides any of those payments were spent improperly, it’s the state — rather than local governments — that is responsible for paying FEMA back.

Still, Moscoso rejected the notion that the program is moving slowly. “It’s very early in the recovery process,” he said.

Officials in the Florida Keys, which experienced the greatest damage from Irma, feel differently.

After Irma crashed into the Keys, Monroe County officials submitted paperwork for $35 million in reimbursement from FEMA. The expenses included $547,000 in sheltering and evacuation costs, $110,000 in medical supplies for fire and rescue services and $17 million in debris removal.

As of last week, the county had received less than 2 percent of that money. Moscoso said the county has yet to submit all the required documentation. “It’s a long and complicated process,” he said.

To get by, Monroe County took out a bank loan for $40 million. “We’re borrowing money to be able to pay the bills,” said Gastesi, the county administrator.

Jeff Branch, a legislative advocate for the Florida League of Cities, said the Keys’ concerns reflect “a broader complaint statewide.” And he said it’s not just funds from Irma that have been delayed.

“Our members are still waiting on reimbursements dating back to Matthew,” Branch said, referring to a hurricane that hit Florida in October 2016.

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