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Advice from a Disaster Recovery Expert on the FEMA Funding of COVID-19 Response

COVID-19 Disaster Recovery information you need to know.

by Eric Holdeman / July 26, 2020

Jerry Quinn, a disaster recovery expert, shared the following information via email. It is a complex web we weave in emergency management land!

"Advance planning is vital to managing emergencies. For the COVID-19 national health emergency the HHS secretary extended that USPHS declaration for up to 90 days, (10/23; eleven days before the presidential election). The 2nd extension was announced about 36 hours before extension #1 expired. The HHS secretary has the authority to close the emergency before 90 days.

FEMA published that it is not bound to recognize the incident period defined by HHS/USPHS. FEMA indicated it would provide advance notice that it is closing the Public Assistance incident period. FEMA indicated that upon such notice deadlines will be identified for the submission of the Request for Public Assistance (RPA) document and to complete entry of project scopes of work and cost estimates into its PORTAL. FEMA has the ability to shut the portal door on submission of additional project scopes of work at that time. Cash flow aside applicants for Public Assistance grants should being entering projects and cost estimates into their portal site. Managers with experience dealing with FEMA should prescreen all project data contemplated for uploading to the portal. Applicants have only a limited amount of time to correct uploaded information.

There are 57 COVID19 major disaster declarations in effect; a Gulf Coast tribal request has been pending since 5/15/20. Among the unusual aspects of these declarations is that the incident period was retroactive to January and at the moment has no end date. The unprecedented volume of governmental and non-profit applicants for FEMA’s very limited, Category B only Public Assistance subgrants forced acceleration of FEMA’s drive to a self-service disaster assistance grant program. FEMA’s portal is loaded with forced choices, from drop boxes, of federal jargon.  Decades of federal versus state versus local jargon differences have created disagreements, delays and costly appeals in the past. Professional jargon across the health care professions make it more complex. Add a plethora of inexperienced reviewers and consolidated resource center (CRC) staffers and the climb to an approved, obligated project application will be steep. Plenty of inexperience on the applicants side as well.

Congress, under SRIA, changed the intent of the Stafford Act from “expedite disaster recovery” to “save the federal government money”. There are no indications that any money has been saved. The hurdles to obtaining and retaining disaster assistance grant proceeds keep getting higher and more complex. Under DRRA and now the 4th Public Assistance Program and Policy Guide (effective 6/1/20) more hurdles and deadlines complicate obtaining and retaining disaster assistance grant proceeds.

The first 57 COVID 19 declarations are under PAPPG 3.1. Category B, “Emergency Protective Measures” have a six (6) month completion requirements. Extension of that statutory requirement are available for circumstances beyond an applicants’ control. No federal agency, no state agency and no local government or nonprofit can predict, plan or control this pandemic event. Historically an applicant is required to submit a written request for an extension through its state emergency management agency for a recommendation to FEMA. 

FEMA has, in the past, been approving most recommended requests. The Public Assistance Appeals data base illustrates that FEMA will be enforcing completion date requirements and their timely extension request submission. DRRA strengthened FEMA’s authority to deny extensions and related requests. Only a wild speculative guess suggests tens of thousands such COVID-19 requests and appeals for those denied.

A significant bureaucratic requirement to a timely extension request is an approved and obligated project. No approved, obligated project – you cannot submit an extension request. For the COVID-19 major disaster declarations under FEMA’s Public Assistance grant program face a mid-September completion “deadline.” FEMA has published several COVID-19 nationals, all emergency mangers, guidance letters including extensions to appeal filing deadlines. It would be helpful to see a national guidance letter extending the COVID-19 Category B completion requirement to 12 months, at least. That would save a lot of grants manager anxiety, time and several forests."


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