October 22, 2019

Chairs DeFazio, Titus Statements from Hearing on Assessment of Federal Recovery Efforts After Catastrophic Disaster Seasons

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Chair of the Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Dina Titus (D-NV) during today’s hearing titled: “An Assessment of Federal Recovery Efforts from Recent Disasters.”

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chairwoman Titus.

It’s hard to believe that we’re already at the two-year anniversary of the devastating series of 2017 Hurricanes – Harvey, Irma, and Maria – that devastated Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Those incredibly powerful storms were followed very quickly by a series of massive wildfires in the West.

2018 was another year of strong storms, stretching thin an already strained disaster workforce. Hurricane Michael leveled areas of the Florida panhandle and wildfires continued to lash California communities.

And this year, our nation continues to be battered with storms, floods, and earthquakes.

Right now, just under 80% of the members of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee represent districts with active FEMA recovery efforts underway. I’m included in that group, with several counties in southwest Oregon being declared earlier this year as a result of severe winter storms.

I’ll defer to Associate Administrator Byard to confirm this, but I can’t recall the last time FEMA was working on so many costly recoveries simultaneously.

While the Budget Control Act in 2011 made appropriations for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund more predictable, Congress has been forced to provide significant supplemental resources to fund these recoveries.

And we’ve also worked across the aisle several times in the wake of disaster to reform the Stafford Act and to cut red tape – the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, the Sandy Recovery Improvement Act, and the Disaster Recovery Reform Act being the most recent three bipartisan efforts.

But, given reports from across the country, there’s more we can do to continue to improve not only how FEMA administers its assistance programs, but also how other Federal disaster recovery programs function.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is responsible for administering the Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery program, or C-D-B-G-D-R.

Congress has poured tens of billions of dollars into C-D-B-G-D-R over the last decade alone, intended for long-term recovery efforts.

However, this money is incredibly slow getting out the door. Just last Thursday, HUD officials told our colleagues on the appropriations committee that they had no legitimate reason for withholding funds for Puerto Rico that should have started flowing months ago.

While I’m glad we have testimony for the record from HUD and they briefed our members on Friday, I hope that in the future they will sit at the table alongside their Federal partners and share with us the successes and challenges the Department has experienced administering C-D-B-G-D-R.

I’m glad the Economic Development Administration is here to provide their insight into administering the first tranche of supplemental disaster funding provided in the 2018 Bipartisan Budget Act, as well as any steps it is taking differently as it approaches the second tranche of funds.

As I noted, FEMA is stretched thin. And I fear it’s delayed some of these larger recoveries, beyond the delays being experienced as a result of a slow C-D-B-G-D-R process.

These disaster-impacted communities – in Oregon and elsewhere – want nothing more than to recover, and to recover quickly. The same goes for disaster survivors.

As I’m sure our Government Accountability Office witness can attest to, delays in disaster recovery can be devastating for the economic well-being of these communities. If survivors can’t work because they are tangled in the red tape of recovery programs, then they risk losing their jobs and not being able to provide for their families. If businesses can’t open because of workforce challenges or depleted customer bases, they close. Delays with recovery can spiral out of control and be yet another catastrophe for these communities.

So, it’s vital that each of the departments and agencies tasked with recovery have the resources and expertise to fulfill their missions. And for state and local governments to have the capacity and wherewithal to navigate these recovery programs, as well.

I am looking forward to today’s hearing to see what steps we might take next to further detangle existing red tape in the recovery process and see where improvements can be made to ensure that we’re leveraging the interest of all parties – government, non-profit, and private sector – to get our disaster-impacted communities on a faster path to recovery.

Chair DeFazio’s remarks as delivered can be found here.

Chair Titus:

I want to thank our witnesses for joining us today as we take a look at the status of Federal disaster recovery efforts.

Never before has the Federal government had to respond to so many costly disasters at the same time. Hurricanes Irma, Harvey, Maria, Michael, and Dorian have caused catastrophic damage in the States and the territories.

And just over this past weekend, the Dallas suburbs suffered widespread damage from a major tornado, and thousands across the South are cleaning up from damage and debris left in the wake of Tropical Storm Nestor.

We are here because we are interested in finding solutions to hasten and improve disaster recovery.

The reality is that the Federal government’s resources are being exhausted during a time when the rising costs of disasters show no signs of slowing.

FEMA continues to experience staffing challenges, with most of its incident management workforce already deployed around the country. The agency is several thousand workers short of its own estimated needs for current and future recovery efforts.

During this time of recovery, focus needs to be on the communities struggling to rebuild in the wake of these disasters and preparing for what may come in the future. They need our help now more than ever. 

Of particular concern are the territories, which have been battered by a series of disasters in recent years.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study in July detailing the challenges of implementing the new Public Assistance National Delivery Model in Puerto Rico. I look forward to hearing from Mr. Currie from GAO as to how we can address those and other challenges.

We’ll also hear testimony from the Housing Secretary from the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico which remains extremely vulnerable two years after the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria.

Although additional resources are necessary to adequately respond to mounting disasters, consideration also needs to be given to the responsibilities of Federal, State, and local stakeholders. With so many levels of government participating in disaster recovery, coordination needs to be streamlined to ensure that survivors get the assistance they need as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Fortunately, we have several witnesses here with us today who can speak on their experience with disaster recovery coordination at state and local levels.

With that said, I look forward to hearing testimony from our witnesses so we can get started on solutions to address the challenges we face going forward.

Chair Titus’s remarks as delivered can be found here.