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Pass the Bipartisan Disaster Recovery Act: Opinion

Survivors of natural disasters — especially the hurricanes that have hit the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico the past two decades — report years of neglect, chaos and mismanagement of emergency response.

In 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused damage and flooding along the Atlantic Coast.
In 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused massive damage and severe flooding along the Atlantic Coast.
(TNS) - Ute Schaefer remembers the snakes.

They flowed in with the flood waters swamping her Houston home during 2017's Hurricane Harvey. She was trapped inside, floating on her bed for four days, banging on windows until she was rescued by a passing boat.

It would be only the beginning of her woes.

The rescuers deposited her on the side of a highway and left to find more people trapped by flood waters.

Schaefer had nowhere to go.

"All the shelters were full," she told the Associated Press. "I was on my own."

She found herself caught in a cycle of referrals, with two cash-strapped nonprofits sending her to the county, which pointed her to the city, which sent her back to the nonprofits. There was no help to be found.

"I was grasping for anything, but there was nothing there," she said.

She's not alone.

Survivors of natural disasters — especially the hurricanes that have ravaged the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico over the past two decades — report years of neglect, chaos and mismanagement of the nation's emergency response apparatus.

"It shouldn't take weeks to get money to disaster survivors," said Leanna Jones , whose New Jersey home was destroyed during Hurricane Ida in 2021. Federal Community Development Block Grant funding isn't expected to arrive in the state until next year.

"We need to get money to people faster," Jones said.

It's clear that natural disasters have grown in number and intensity thanks to climate change. Yet local, state and especially national response efforts have not kept pace.

"Over and over we have experienced the 'disaster after the disaster' — a broken recovery system that neither helps families recover or makes us less vulnerable to the next disaster," a coalition of survivors and advocacy groups wrote in a report outlining the need for an improved federal system.

In the report, "But Next Time," the groups laid out several recommended steps to better deal with the violent effects of climate change:

  • Creating one application process for myriad local, state and federal assistance programs;
  • Lowering the cap on annual flood insurance premium rate increases;
  • Providing direct payments and health insurance to disaster victims for a period after the storm;
  • Restructuring loan or aid overpayment "clawbacks" to account for the ability to pay; and
  • Paying 100% of mitigation costs upfront for low-income storm victims instead of reimbursing them after they pay for the work.

The most important point is to get money and resources to victims quickly and without red tape, and to guard them from those seeking to profit from their pain.

When Millie Santiago left Puerto Rico for Florida after Hurricane Maria in 2017, for example, she found it next to impossible to find affordable housing.

"They were asking two to three times the normal rent, upfront," she said. "A disaster should not be an opportunity for corporations and contractors to get rich off the suffering of survivors."

Federal officials say they want to help.

"That's been the Holy Grail, to get aid to people while their house was flooded," said Michael Moriarty, director of the mitigation division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "That's taxpayer money, so we have to be cautious, not just throwing it away, making sure it gets to the right place and is properly used. We're trying to get to a mechanism that allows for quicker relief."

One step that must be made is for Congress to pass the bipartisan Reforming Disaster Recovery Act.

Under current law, every storm is treated as an unpredictable event and requires new congressional action to release relief funds. That leads to avoidable delays; it generally takes 20 months for federal aid to reach individual disaster victims.

The recovery act would make a federal aid program permanent, with the aim of moving money quicker.

The planet has changed. There are no "generational storms" any more. Houston had three "500-year" storms in the span of three years. The federal government needs to move more quickly, and Congress must approve the Disaster Recovery Act that is supported on both sides of the aisle.


©2022 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.)
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.