The Trump administration’s proposed $12 billion initiative to reduce future flood damage met with skepticism in Congress, as lawmakers warned against diverting emergency funding away from hurricane survivors.
“We’ve got folks who are suffering,” said Mario Diaz-Balart, a Republican congressman from Florida and chairman of the House panel responsible for that funding. “We’ve got to deal with that right now.”
That skepticism from both Democrats and Republicans on the House spending panel underscores the headwinds facing efforts to reform the country’s approach to disaster policy. Three months after Hurricane Harvey struck Texas, beginning one of the worst strings of storms and wildfires in U.S. history, the Trump administration has called for sweeping changes to storm recovery, flood insurance and other policies.
But there’s little appetite in Congress for making changes. The administration’s calls to overhaul the taxpayer-funded and heavily indebted National Flood Insurance Program have been largely ignored in the Senate, which has failed to act on a House bill passed last month. The program will lapse on Dec. 8 unless both chambers vote to reauthorize it.
As outlined by Trump’s budget office last month, the $12 billion competition to curtail future flood risks would award money to communities that have been hit by floods and want to pursue new or unconventional approaches to reduce their exposure to future flooding. It was a concept first tried on a smaller scale under President Barack Obama.
The money would come from the administration’s $44 billion emergency budget request for the recovery from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. The administration said examples could include “large-scale buyouts” of homeowners, “disaster resistant building codes” and elevating buildings.
Members of a House Appropriations panel expressed concerns Friday to Neal Rackleff, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which would award the money. Preventing flood damage “is just not the mission” at HUD, Diaz-Balart said.
Why would the White House ask for $12 billion to fund a nationwide competition when it had yet to “address the unmet needs in Puerto Rico or the U.S. Virgin Islands” following Hurricane Maria, asked Nita Lowey, the New York congresswoman who is the top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
That complaint drew rare bipartisan agreement. It “makes no sense” to divert funds to long-term projects when those in Houston are still dealing with the flood damage from Hurricane Harvey, said John Culberson, a Republican who represents the Houston area.
“Don’t experiment with a new program on us please,” he told Rackleff.
Even the administration has hesitated to make reforms that don’t require action by Congress. In August, Brock Long, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, expressed support for a regulatory change that would shift responsibility to state and local governments for preparing for extreme weather. FEMA has yet to unveil that plan.
Congress and the administration may yet decide to implement some reforms. On Thursday, the House infrastructure committee approved a bill to overhaul federal disaster recovery spending. And the Senate could still pass flood insurance reform before the Dec. 8 deadline.
Still, advocates for changing U.S. disaster policy say the obstacles are significant, even in a year when the costs of inaction were made so evident.
“There is widespread recognition — and even agreement — on the need for reforms,” Rob Moore, an expert on disaster policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said by email. And yet “there are always those who don’t want to change the status quo.”
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