The costliest hurricane season in our nation’s history took place two years ago, when 17 named storms—including three that went by the names of Harvey, Irma, and Maria—all came ashore within a six-month period, killing more than 3,300 Americans and causing more than $300 billion in damage. So when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced last April that it would be distributing nearly $16 billion in mitigation funding to the areas hit hardest by storm activity since 2015, officials in places like Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands must have breathed a little easier.
Alongside the $12 billion HUD was already releasing for immediate disaster relief, the added funds would help states and communities protect their residents from future disasters by paying for desperately needed improvements to infrastructure, such as revamping stormwater drainage systems, raising homes and roads, and building levees and seawalls. Last year, the National Institute of Building Sciences released a report showing that for every $1 spent on disaster mitigation, the nation saves $6 in future disaster costs. So $16 billion could go a long way.
As they envisioned the many ways in which they could put this funding to good use, state officials might be forgiven for having glossed over the final, innocuous-sounding sentence in HUD’s statement, which stipulated that HUD would be “issu[ing] administrative guidelines shortly for the use of the funds to address grantees’ long-term recovery needs.” That word—shortly—is a tricky one. It can mean different things to different people. In this particular instance, folks expecting to be on the receiving end of the $16 billion probably interpreted it to mean: as soon as possible, since we at HUD know you’re all eager to get started on the kinds of huge (and hugely expensive) projects that will help keep your communities from flooding, sinking, or being blown to bits during the next major hurricane.
But apparently that’s not what shortly means to HUD officials. Because nearly one year later, there’s been no sign whatsoever of those promised administrative guidelines. What’s more, HUD officials have been giving the brush-off to states and localities that have begun to inquire—with increasing frustration—as to when said guidelines might be issued.
Why are these guidelines so important? Because what HUD is calling guidelines is really a set of rules defining how the $16 billion in funding can be used in the individual mitigation plans drafted by state and local governments. Once the rules are published in the Federal Register, these governments can immediately begin drafting those plans. But they can’t get started without knowing what the rules are. And they can’t get access to the funding without first submitting their mitigation plans to HUD for the agency’s approval. So basically, until HUD publishes the rules, nothing else can happen. Everything’s at a standstill.
Red tape is red tape, and the federal government has never been known for acting especially quickly. But what’s proving more worrisome to the state and local governments that are relying on this funding is the radio silence they’ve been encountering whenever they try to find out what, exactly, is going on. One spokesperson for the Texas General Land Office, the state agency that would oversee any mitigation plans for the highly vulnerable Texas Gulf Coast, recently told E&E News that her office hasn’t been able to get a straight answer from HUD despite making almost daily inquiries. Her boss, General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush, spent his January sending the Trump administration sharply worded letters condemning the delay as “unacceptable,” demanding that HUD make its publication of the rules “a top priority,” and otherwise making it clear that Texas “cannot afford to wait any longer.”
Finally, just last week, HUD seemed to arise from its bureaucratic torpor and address the issue, albeit weakly. An unnamed spokesperson for the agency suggested to an E&E News reporter that the delay wasn’t due to administrative incompetence, but rather to extra-thoughtful deliberation on its part: HUD, this spokesperson said, required nearly a full year to “build a [grant] program from the ground up.” This grudgingly disclosed excuse doesn’t satisfy one Texas General Land Office employee, who notes that the complete lack of response from HUD thus far—no specifics, no drafts, no details of any kind—has led the office “to believe that the rules may not exist in the first place.”
In other words, there’s every reason to believe that HUD officials totally dropped the ball and are now trying to make it look as though they’re just very carefully studying the ball: analyzing it, observing it from every conceivable angle, all to make sure that when the time comes, they can deliver the best ball possible to the people who need it.
Even if that were the truth—and not merely a face-saving story, which it almost certainly is—there would be a huge, glaring problem with it: The time for HUD to act came and went a long time ago. The 2019 North Atlantic hurricane season begins in less than four months. Even if the agency were to publish the guidelines tomorrow, finally freeing up state and local governments to set their action plans in motion, the public-review and approval processes would still stretch into the danger zone. Through its negligence, HUD is making communities still coping with crippling disasters even more vulnerable to future ones.
As President Trump weighs whether or not the situation at our southern border constitutes a national emergency—despite all the evidence indicating that it doesn’t—it’s worth considering what an actual national emergency looks like. I’d proffer that the current, desperate situation on our coastlines and island territories merits the designation. I’m willing to bet that the millions of Americans who live in these places agree.
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