WASHINGTON – The Trump administration has delayed the release of $16 billion in storm protection funds, prompting complaints from officials in Puerto Rico and Texas who say the money is vital to protect coastal communities before the next hurricane season.
Congress last February authorized the $16 billion in disaster mitigation funds, to be used for projects to better safeguard communities damaged by floods and hurricanes in 2017. Among the states and territories in line for money, Puerto Rico was to receive $8.3 billion, followed by Texas ($4 billion), Louisiana ($1.2 billion), the U.S. Virgin Islands ($774 million) and Florida ($550 million).
But according to state officials, the Department of Housing and Urban Development has yet to issue regulations on how states and U.S. territories can apply for the money. While the ongoing government shutdown is adding to the delays, the problems preceded it, according to the office of Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who this week sent the Trump administration a letter complaining about the situation.
"I am writing to ask you to please approve these rules for publication as soon as possible so we can get started on construction of vital infrastructure projects to protect Texans from the type of damage caused by Hurricane Harvey," Bush, son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, said in a letter Wednesday to Trump's budget director and acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
"We cannot afford to wait any longer," he said.
Neither HUD nor staff at the Office of Management and Budget responded to inquiries about Bush's letter, which was previously reported by Bloomberg. HUD says on its website that the entire department is closed, "due to the lapse in Congressional Appropriations for Fiscal Year 2019."
This is not the first time that HUD Secretary Ben Carson has heard complaints about delays in disbursing hurricane relief funds. In August, Puerto Rico's nonvoting congressional representative, Jenniffer Gonzalez Colon, joined 15 senators and representatives from Florida, Louisiana and other states in pressing Carson to speed release of money for disaster recovery and mitigation.
"Our communities remain vulnerable to the hurricane season without having been able to use the funds," the group said in a letter to Carson.
While President Donald Trump is on good terms with Republicans in Texas and Florida, he's lashed out at Puerto Rican leaders who've been critical of the federal response to Hurricane Maria. He's also disputed estimates that the hurricane and its aftermath killed 2,975 people in Puerto Rico.
According to the Texas land office, the holdup stems from HUD's inability to agree on what kind of projects qualify as "mitigation" under the federal appropriation. In his letter, Bush said his office "has provided information to HUD on what type of mitigation projects would best serve those impacted by Hurricane Harvey. This collaboration was done in part to help expedite publication of the rules government these funds in the Federal Register."
Flood control experts have long advocated more investment in mitigation, such as elevating or moving vulnerable homes, or improving drainage. Part of the aim is to reduce the kind of multibillion-dollar damages that threaten the solvency of the National Flood Insurance Program.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2017 was the most expensive year on record for U.S. disaster damages, with about $306 billion in losses. Even before Hurricane Florence hit last September, the National Flood Insurance Program was in debt for $20.5 billion.