Disaster Aid Is Part of Bi-Partisan Budget Bill
A bi-partisan budget bill includes some encouraging provisions that should improve rebuilding efforts in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Not only are there tens of billions of dollars in much-needed disaster aid, but there are also several provisions that will help ensure that the nation rebuilds in a way that makes us better prepared for future disasters.
The bill also does not include two poison pills that the House had included in the Disaster Supplemental bill they passed in December. A provision was stricken that would have allowed costly Corps of Engineers projects to divert funding from the Hazard Mitigation Grants Program run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which funds efforts to buy out flood-prone properties and home elevations after floods. An attempt to exempt the National Flood Insurance Program from complying with the Endangered Species Act also was left on the cutting room floor. NRDC and many other organizations have been working to knock these provisions out of any disaster aid package.
There are also many provisions that could benefit the nation’s disaster recovery efforts.
One provision would allow FEMA to rebuild public facilities to higher building codes and standards than the local community, state or territory has formally adopted (p. 46-47). This provision would give FEMA the ability to pay to rebuild to recognized industry standards, like the most recent International Building Code or the American Society of Civil Engineers standards for public infrastructure projects. The House bill passed in December included a similar provision. This is a significant improvement over simply restoring service or rebuilding to the pre-disaster condition of public infrastructure, which is as far as FEMA is allowed to go, normally.
The bill would also allow affected states to take some of their unused federal water infrastructure funding to make storm-related repairs, as well as make wastewater, drinking water, and stormwater systems more resilient to future storms and floods (p. 59). And these funds could be used to replace lead service lines, a major problem in areas like Puerto Rico. While no new money was appropriated to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for these activities (an oversight in NRDC's opinion), the provision allows states to use existing but unallocated federal dollars for State Revolving Funds for these purposes. States would no longer have to provide the minimum 20% match of these dollars. Moreover, the funds could essentially be distributed to communities as grants. We do not know how much funding this makes available to states, but it’s a smart idea.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) also will be doing far more to help make communities better prepared for future disasters. HUD would receive $12 billion specifically for disaster mitigation projects which will help reduce the potential for future damage (p. 91). The Trump administration had originally requested $12 billion for a resilience competition, but the House and Senate are instead proposing that the $12 billion in disaster mitigation assistance be given to states who have previously received supplemental disaster assistance in recent years. In addition, $2 billion in HUD aid is specifically earmarked for rebuilding Puerto Rico’s battered energy grid (p. 91).
NRDC is still going through the details of this enormous bill, but at least on the disaster aid, there are some very encouraging features.