Trickle Down: Parsing Federal Relief
Despite best intentions, coordination in crisis does not always produce the best recovery
Disaster relief funding can seem like its own crisis. After the Bastrop fire, people who lost property or incurred significant damage suddenly found themselves in a bureaucratic maze of a thousand moving parts. Relief from private and public social service groups might provide temporary sustenance, but long-term sustainability requires the coordination of the bigger guns of relief – the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and private insurers. Despite best intentions and even best practices, coordination in crisis does not always produce the best possible recovery scenario for each person.
Katy Sellers, director of operations and public affairs for the Disaster Recovery Program of the Texas General Land Office – the agency in charge of distributing the $28 million HUD community development block grant allowed for Bastrop County – sums it up as "a timing issue": "Ideally if you are getting insurance funds, and you are getting FEMA funds, and then you're getting HUD funds, and you combine that all together, then you'd be okay. But the problem is that it takes so long for that to trickle out that you're having to pay for unanticipated things like rent and food and temporary storage and these extra costs."
HUD, for example, does not get its appropriation for relief until six months after an event, Sellers says. "Even though there is a federal disaster declared which triggers funding from FEMA, it still takes another act from the federal government, and an act of Congress, to activate HUD funding."
And for the folks who thought they were being prudent by applying their first round of financial relief – in most cases, either FEMA or insurance coverage – to pay down or pay off the mortgage that was still due, despite their property being destroyed or seriously devalued, it came as a shock that this decision would make them ineligible for a share of the HUD block grant allocated more than a year after the event. The grant money, according to the feds, would result in a "duplication of benefits."
And by the time the HUD money factored into Bastrop relief, many folks' insurance or FEMA allowances had long been spent.
Most of the overall HUD allocation of about $35 million, initially intended for direct relief to homeowners and the community – after the GLO and Bastrop County split roughly $2 million for administration costs, according to Jim Suydam, GLO press secretary – will instead go to Bastrop County, to determine its best use for infrastructure repairs and revitalization, like culvert repair, erosion control, a radio tower, and fire engines.
About $8 million of the HUD grant will go to rebuild or repair or assist 31 homeowners. "We were [initially] imagining a couple hundred homes," said Suydam. "As folks went through the application process and worked with the FEMA guidelines, it got winnowed down to these 31." Of the 184 homeowners that applied for the HUD grant, 23 were ineligible due to the duplication of benefits, and the remainder were disqualified or withdrew due to a myriad of reasons (ownership issues, income exceeding limits, owner deceased, and, yes, even "will not take government money").
So, in addition to timing, there is also the issue of communication during a crisis. According to Jacqueline Chandler, public affairs specialist at FEMA Region 6, "Eligible applicants receive a letter explaining" the proper use of benefits, and "If a grant is used to pay off a mortgage and the applicant requests additional assistance, FEMA would require additional information to determine eligibility."
"We went door-to-door, to churches and schools, and put ads in the newspaper," said Suydam. "You can work hard to communicate with people, but that doesn't necessarily mean you are being heard or understood."
"The rules change from disaster to disaster," says Sellers. Or as Suydam says, "These are complicated bureaucratic programs. That's the nature of the beast. You can't plan for a disaster that hasn't occurred yet."