“We Must Streamline Disaster Recovery Before the Next Disaster”

By George P. Bush

George P. Bush is Commissioner for the Texas General Land Office (GLO), the state agency tasked with leading the disaster recovery process after Hurricane Harvey, the second most destructive storm in American history. This guest editorial is a response to yesterday’s post about disaster recovery taking more time than it took to win World War II. In it, Mr. Bush suggests specific ways to accelerate disaster recovery.

As June 1st rapidly approaches, Texas coastal communities are wondering what the 2021 Hurricane Season will hold. Will thousands of Texas families be spared, or will they endure hurricane-force winds and flooding with years of recovery ahead of them? 

Hurricane Harvey at its peak intensity as it hit Texas in August 2017. Photo courtesy of National Hurricane Center.

We cannot stop natural disasters from happening, but we can certainly speed recovery efforts. The Texas General Land Office (GLO) has administered recovery programs for seven of the 18 major declared disasters the State of Texas has experienced in the last 15 years. We know firsthand how exhausting and lengthy this process can be. After flood waters have abated and the debris has been cleared, communities face the next hurdle – navigating the arduous and overly burdensome bureaucracy shackling speedy recovery efforts. 

Cutting Red Tape

My GLO team and I recognize the importance of following procedures to safeguard federal funds, but also understand bureaucracy is an obstruction to recovery and mitigation. Community Development Block Grants for Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) appropriated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) take years to reach disaster survivors. One of the most frequent concerns we hear—from survivors, county and local officials, and other stakeholders—is that CDBG-DR funds do not flow quickly enough to communities in need.

These dollars should be deployed as quickly and flexibly as possible to support recovery with as few additional regulations as possible. 

First, we must ensure effective and efficient disaster recovery by providing the framework for programs and activities that provide disaster relief; resiliency; long-term recovery; restoration of infrastructure and housing; economic revitalization; and mitigation in areas impacted by Presidentially declared disasters. This begins with codification of CDBG-DR program rules and regulations. 

Reducing Upfront Delays

For every new allocation, a new series of rules are written and published in the Federal Register. In Texas we are currently implementing CDBG supplemental funding for 8 events governed by 22 separate Federal Registers (rule books for how funding allocations may be used). A good amount of those rules, such as the national objectives imposed and the range of eligible activities, remain largely the same each time, but others are entirely new. Based on our experience, it takes between nine to sixteen months for a Federal Register Notice to be published for allocations of recovery funding after the major disaster declaration takes place. These allocations must first be granted to a state or other grantee following a special appropriation from Congress. 

The Federal Register for the CDBG-MIT funds was posted two years to the day after Hurricane Harvey made its final landfall on the coast of western Louisiana. 

Inspector General Recommends Codifying Rules

HUD going back to the drawing board for each appropriation consumes critical time that could be spent setting up programs at the state and local levels if the rules were codified. In July 2018, the HUD Office of Inspector General (HUD OIG) issued a report that identified 59 common rules HUD issues when drafting Federal Registers. The same report recommended HUD work to codify the CDBG-DR program.  

Fund deployment speed can also be enhanced by:

  • Streamlining processes at the federal level and at HUD
  • Retaining and developing in-house knowledge
  • Empowering grantees to move with a purpose. 

Five Specific Recommendations to Expedite Process

There are several steps the federal government can take to expedite this process. Here are the five I consider to be the most impactful:

  1. Create Office of Disaster Relief and Recovery – HUD currently has several offices with jurisdiction over CDBG-DR funds. This creates a tangled web of bureaucracy when HUD drafts a Federal Register, approves an Action Plan, or a grantee must seek a waiver or other change to program, vastly delaying the distribution of funds. A distinct disaster recovery division headed by an Assistant Secretary with discretion over disaster recovery funds would limit stove-piped information, reduce redundancies, and expedite decision-making authority within HUD. This change alone would vastly reduce delays in program progress.  
  • Facilitate capacity building – HUD should provide grantees an initial amount of administrative funds prior to approval of the action plan and grant agreement. This would enable grantees to hire staff to provide technical assistance for drafting the action plan and begin to build programs while the action plan is being developed so recovery efforts would not be delayed 6+ months while the process concludes. Many grantees lack the resources to essentially operate on credit until these funds are made available.
  • Standardize programs and only post changes – Congress should pass legislation standardizing rules so the Federal Register only includes what you cannot do versus everything you can. This would lessen the time waiting for the rules to be written and allow grantees to begin working on the general premise of what the program cannot do.
  • Codify data coordination between FEMA and HUD – The federal government must build a capable national data system to coordinate data sharing between federal, state, and local agencies. FEMA collects a tremendous amount of data following every disaster. This data is used to inform HUD allocations as well as to develop needs assessments by grantees. However, there is not a system in place that enables this data sharing to happen quickly, safely and effectively. 
  • Codify allocation timeline – HUD is not currently restricted in how long it takes to allocate special appropriations of CDBG-DR and CDBG-Mitigation to grantees. Additionally, grantees cannot begin drafting hundreds of pages of state and local action plans until HUD issues the rules for use of funds in the Federal Register. 

Example of Delays in Current System

For example, Congress appropriated nearly $28 billion to help disaster-affected states rebuild on February 9, 2018. Two months later, HUD allocated $4.383 billion to Texas. At the time, HUD also stated it “will issue administrative guidelines shortly for use of the funds to address grantees’ long-term recovery needs.” However, this did not happen for nearly a year and a half.

On August 30, 2019, HUD finally published the Federal Register notice enabling the State of Texas to proceed in drafting an action plan for the CDBG-MIT funds. The Federal Register required a robust public outreach component. The GLO went above and beyond HUD’s mandates by extending the required 45-day public-comment period to 50 days and surpassed HUD requirements by hosting eight public hearings – three public hearings prior to the completion of the draft plan and five following publication of the draft plan. Prior to finalizing the draft of the action plan, the GLO responded to thousands of comments collected from 117 meetings and 936 individuals

While the GLO waited 16 months for rules for the action plan, it only took the GLO approximately five months to draft the nearly 500 page document, conduct a historic public outreach effort, respond to comments, make revisions, and submit the plan to HUD for approval. It then took nearly two months before the GLO received approval from HUD.

The turnaround time for announcing rules should be substantially reduced to expedite the use of disaster recovery funding for those in urgent need of assistance.

Reducing Redundancies, Implementing Common-Sense Reforms

Since 2011, the GLO has worked with hundreds of communities and several thousand families to repair homes; reimburse out-of-pocket home repairs; conduct buyouts and acquire flood-prone properties; strengthen infrastructure; and conduct major planning studies to support local government mitigation efforts. The success of our programs can be attributed in part to our staff of dedicated experts as well as our streamlined grant administration.

No additional regulations or rules are added to our programs beyond what the federal government requires. 

George P. Bush

The GLO has proven that you can expedite recovery by eliminating unnecessary regulations, pre-positioning resources and putting contracts in place before a disaster. Disaster survivors shouldn’t have to wait years for assistance. It is plain and simple – we can and should lessen the burden on families and communities by reducing redundancies and implementing common-sense reforms. 

Guest Editorial by Texas General Land Office Commissioner George P. Bush on May 8, 2021

1348 Days after Hurricane Harvey