CQ HOMELAND SECURITY: Disaster Aid Overhaul Backers Get Their Wish in Sandy Legislation

Jan 30, 2013

By Jennifer Scholtes, CQ Staff

Jan. 30, 2013 – 10:34 p.m.

House lawmakers have been trying since last summer to get legislation to the president that they hoped would fix problems with disaster assistance that came to light years ago because of Hurricane Katrina. It took another Katrina-scale catastrophe to get the Senate to sign off on the proposal, but its author, California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham, says that’s often the way it goes with disaster legislation.

“Congress tends to operate when there is an emergency or a catastrophic incident,” he said Wednesday.

Denham introduced a bill in 2011 that would have reauthorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency and provided the agency with more flexibility to assist communities rebuilding after disasters.

The House passed the measure in September. But after it went nowhere in the Senate, the bill’s backers knew its only shot in the 113th Congress would be linking it to aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy. The provisions made it through the Senate this week, sent to the president within the $50.5 billion supplemental spending package for Sandy recovery.

“There was an opportunity to take a number of different reforms that had been vetted in committee and between both houses for years, and actually put it into a reform package, and do it at a time when we can actually save money,” Denham said.

After watching his bill die in the last session, Denham resurrected many of its provisions in mid-January, calling the measure the “Sandy Recovery Improvement Act of 2013.” The House passed the new bill (HR 219), 403-0, the day it was introduced. Members also approved a Rules Committee proposal to fold the legislation into the Sandy supplemental.

Denham said that this time around, selling the language in the Senate was easier “when you could show that here we are going to pass a huge amount of funding to the Northeast, let’s make sure it’s not a blank check and it has reforms to go along with it.”

Congress made changes to the disaster assistance system in 2006 (PL 109-295), but a few more years of hindsight revealed additional ways to streamline the process after Hurricane Katrina, he said.

For example, Denham said, FEMA needed to be able to deliver money to communities immediately following a disaster to speed up the process of debris removal.

The language the Senate sent to President Barack Obama on Monday, and that the president signed Tuesday, allows FEMA to be more flexible with the kind of building plans it accepts. A city can now request to consolidate some of its school facilities or rebuild in a way that makes most sense for its demographics, rather than rebuilding its schools exactly how they were.

The legislation also allows FEMA to issue fixed-price grants based on damage estimates, rather than requiring local governments to do the rebuilding work and receive reimbursement later. It lets the agency make limited repairs to housing for those displaced by a disaster, when doing so is less expensive than providing housing trailers. And it establishes a pilot program to decrease the time it takes to dispute a disaster assistance ruling.

“With Katrina, we’re still paying bills today,” Denham said. “And we have an opportunity now to cut costs in the process as well as getting people back into their communities at the same time. We think these reforms will save about 20 percent of the cost.”

The legislation also included language allowing tribal governments to make requests directly to the president for disaster declarations.

In the past, tribes would only be eligible for the elevated federal assistance that comes with a presidentially declared disaster if the White House granted that distinction to the state their lands fall within. Since a disaster’s cost is divided by the number of residents in the state to help determine whether the president will hand down a declaration, it was rare for a catastrophe that affected mostly tribal lands to warrant one, FEMA officials have said.

 

Source: CQ Homeland Security

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