Congressional and National Updates
Senators Rick Scott (R-FL) and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Gary Peters have reintroduced a bipartisan bill seeking to mitigate waste, fraud, and abuse within disaster recovery contracting. The bill, the “Disaster Contract Improvement Act,” would create a working group to research the problem of contractor fraud during debris removal operations and investigate whether modifications to federal policy are necessary to increase accountability and efficiency when contracting with companies to remove disaster debris.
A disaster relief consultant employed during the response to Hurricane Harvey pled guilty to federal corruption charges on February 7. The contractor filed fraudulent reimbursement requests of approximately $250,000 for bogus travel and lodging expenses.
Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced a bill addressing disaster recovery efforts in southern Florida. “The Hurricanes of 2022 Disaster Relief Rectification Act” would direct agricultural recovery assistance payments to be paid out as block grants to the state and create a process for waiving flood zone restrictions maintained by FEMA for the purpose of siting temporary trailers for disaster survivors.
Congressman Brian Higgins (D-NY) and Congressman Nick Langworthy (R-NY) sent a letter to FEMA requesting that the agency grant an extension for the currently ongoing preliminary damage assessment in upstate New York following Winter Storm Elliot. Preliminary damage assessments are typically required to be completed before a disaster declaration can be issued by the President.
The Chinook Indian Nation has been petitioning for federal recognition for years. Should recognition be granted, the Nation stands to gain substantive disaster recovery benefits.
Representative Greg Steube (R-FL) sent a letter to congressional appropriators requesting additional funding for disaster recovery following Hurricanes Ian and Nicole. Representative Steube cited the significant impact of the storms on Florida’s economy in his letter.
State and Local
The City of Humboldt, the City of Rio Dell, and the California Office of Emergency Services are continuing long-term planning efforts for earthquake recovery after their area was impacted by shaking and tremors in late 2022.
Many renters in San Luis Obispo County impacted by recent flooding are wondering where robust assistance can be found. “Our role is just to help you get back on your feet,” explained a FEMA public relations specialist. “[We] start the recovery process, not to get you back to where you were before the flood. Our role is limited in what we can provide.”
The ongoing storms in California have left many farmworkers in need of emergency financial support. Farmworkers in California have been unable to work during the storms. Farmworker families typically plan for months in advance to anticipate seasonal variations in work. But with the sudden storms, many are unable to afford rent. The Sonoma County government opened a $1 million emergency funds to assist families. Meanwhile, some grape growers have observed that a $2 million assistance fund is in operation but that no farm worker has applied for assistance because the website for the fund does not include an application for flood-related assistance.
Florida residents impacted by Hurricane Ian are now working through the “storm after the storm” of endless efforts to access funds to recover via frustrating appeals, phone calls, and emails. Many households simply do not have a choice to take part in this slog while also trying to regain a sense of normalcy.
Denials of assistance and mixed messages about the availability of assistance and the application process are frustrating disaster survivors in Florida.
Housing advocates are continuing their efforts to convince lawmakers to put $150 million into the Affordable Housing Emergency Action Recovery Trust Fund (AHEART). Currently, the available housing stock in the state is more than 50 years old and requires maintenance before sheltering the over 800 Kentucky residents living in state parks and travel trailers. The AHEART funds could be used to construct or keep up 1,500 homes.
Millions in donations have been given to the Kentucky government to assist survivors of the western Kentucky tornados in 2021. The majority of those funds have not been spent; recovery workers and advocates blame this on concerns that the receipt of additional funds could endanger the ability of a survivor to access FEMA assistance, a $3,500 cap on individual assistance, and the decision to funnel funds through long-term recovery committees that vary wildly in terms of capacity to administer large amounts of funding.
An op-ed published in the Independent Record calls for more attention not only to the effort to build more housing in the state but to ensuring that the housing being built can survive wildfires and flooding, which have both recently impacted the state.
Richard Trumper, the director of disaster recovery at the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management, will move to the state’s Department of Public Safety as a senior advisor for disaster recovery. The newly created position will assist ReBuild NC – the state’s disaster recovery program – whose staff were harangued by lawmakers earlier this year.
Contractor ICF has potentially received a five-year, $51 million contract to help the Puerto Rico Housing Department scale up funding programs for home repair and reconstruction in areas impacted by recent disasters.
The Houston City Council will be voting on whether to utilize HUD long-term disaster recovery dollars for a 50-unit complex offering housing for youth transitioning out of foster care. The new building would provide additional wrap-around services for residents and will be managed by an existing non-profit working with foster care youth in the Houston area.
The Austin City Council is reviewing the city’s response to a recent ice storm. The ice storm left many without power for days and required those in need of warmth to abandon homes in favor of city-run shelters. The city manager now faces a council evaluation for his oversight of the storm’s response.