Federal funding delays following Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria were unnecessary. Let’s make meaningful change.
It is, no doubt, great news that the Biden Administration has lifted restrictions that have delayed Puerto Rico’s ability to access their congressionally allocated HUD Funding. The painfully offensive paper towel tossing that we witnessed when former President Trump belatedly visited Puerto Rico after the 2017 storm was a visible sign of the dismissive and degrading approach to these Americans’ needs. That awful moment, however, was a canary in the coal mine about the extra burdens that Puerto Ricans were forced to endure and navigate.
Make no mistake, there has been an incredible human toll from the delays caused by the restrictions placed on Puerto Rico’s aid applications that did not exist for other disaster-impacted communities that same year. Though $38 billion was allocated for Puerto Rico recovery only $3.5 billion has actually arrived for recovery efforts.
With 780,000 homes impacted by Maria, people have been suffering — at risk of being pushed beyond their breaking point — for too long.
José Juan Rivera lived his entire life on a hill overlooking the Bayamón valley and San Juan in a home he shared with his father and nephew (whom he raised as his son). José worked as a mechanic and, prior to Hurricane Maria, was able to maintain his home and keep a small stable with a few horses on the property as well. Maria completely destroyed the home, leaving only the concrete walls of the bathroom.
For a while, they all lived in a car. José’s arthritis grew more severe and his father’s fragile health began to rapidly decline. The trio eventually moved into their horse stable, and using metal sheets found in the debris, they constructed a roof. They shared a single room with a refrigerator and an electric generator. A paneled wall separated them from the horses.
José’s father died before the one year anniversary of Maria. Joshua, José’s nephew, lost his job as a security guard at a hospital because of the pandemic. He currently finds work where he can caring for horses in the area. There are so many worries, still, about housing, jobs, their generator and what happens if it’s stolen and they lose their only access to electricity.
The situation facing citizens in Puerto Rico is dire and they deserve our best efforts in improving this funding process moving forward. While their delayed funding situation is particularly unique, disaster recovery programs are, historically, painfully slow.
In Houston, the first HUD funds began making their way to citizens two years after Hurricane Harvey. To this day, only 185 homes have been rebuilt using federal funds with an additional 56 in active construction. By contrast, SBP (one of several rebuilding organizations working in disaster recovery there) has rebuilt 271 homes since Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017.
To fully understand the timeline from disaster to federal aid dollars actually reaching homeowners, I’ll briefly overview the process:
- After a disaster is federally declared, Congress has to appropriate funds to HUD. At best, this can take a few months. In the case of last summer’s disasters, Congress still has not made an appropriation, and one is not expected until April.
- After Appropriation, HUD must publish rules in the Federal Register that provide requirements for how states and entitlement communities may use funds. This takes, at a minimum, 120 days.
- States/cities must then submit an “Action Plan” — the state/city’s plan for how, specifically, they will use the funds. Action plans articulate target populations and methods of distribution of funds. The most cost-effective distribution method is reimbursement — homeowners use their own funds and then apply for government reimbursement. Allowable methods of distribution like this one must be written into the action plan.
- At best, if the grantee does everything on time and HUD approvals and processes take their typical 90 days, a grantee can access funds approximately 330 days after the disaster. In the case of Puerto Rico’s slow recovery funding, the Trump administration required extra oversight and approvals for the release of their congressionally allocated funds. To begin spending funds, states/cities must have attained a/several contractors to implement their program and the contractors must build their teams, systems and processes. That, too, takes time.
Too often, there is a lag of many months from the time an action plan is approved until the time when citizens start to see the benefits tied to HUD CDBG-DR funds. By including a reimbursement pathway in their action plans, states/cities can jumpstart their community’s recovery.
The reimbursement pathway is fast, efficient and costs less money when compared to other distribution models (such as pick-your-own-contractor and state-assigned contractor model). Traditionally, families with savings or with the capability to borrow funds have successfully used reimbursement and have enjoyed faster recovery. This pathway should be included in every recovery plan so all homeowners have access to it.
For those who cannot afford to self-fund their recovery, a Recovery Acceleration Fund (RAF) would serve as a solution for eligible homeowners. This reimbursement pathway would give homeowners access to private funders (non-profits, impact investors and philanthropic groups) via loans to support rebuilding costs, repaying them when HUD funding became available. More families and communities could begin their recovery processes sooner bringing economic and personal stability back.
By promoting this cost-saving, impact-expediting model, HUD could ensure greater equity in the disaster recovery process. For the tens of thousands of Americans impacted by disaster in 2020, this model could prevent them from being pushed beyond their breaking point.