Eighteen months after Congress approved a $16 billion package of disaster recovery money meant for states devastated by natural disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday said it was taking the next step to actually make those funds available.
Housing Secretary Ben Carson on Friday announced the department would publish notices in the Federal Register about how the money can be spent. The money was first approved by Congress in February 2018, six months after Hurricane Harvey devastated parts of Texas.
The rules must be published and receive public comment before the money can be released. The rules are expected to outline where local governments can use federal recovery funds for flood mitigation projects, the kind of work that could help prevent the kind of damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
Texas is slated to receive $4.3 billion from the recovery package.
Although the money was approved relatively quickly after Harvey, its actual disbursement has languished in Washington, D.C. for more than a year.
Multiple news reports, including by in the New York Times and the Washington Post, have blamed the delay on the Trump administration’s resistance to providing federal funding to Puerto Rico.
And in announcing the plans to release the rules, Carson said the housing department would release the money in two parts. The first is meant for nine U.S. states, including Texas. The second is meant for the Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Recovery efforts in jurisdictions prepared to do their part should not be held back due to alleged corruption, fiscal irregularities and financial mismanagement occurring in Puerto Rico and capacity issues in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which is why HUD will award disaster mitigation funds in two separate tranches,” Carson said.
“Untangling these funds from each other will help recovery and planning move forward in communities capable of properly and prudently disbursing funds, all the while protecting taxpayers who are footing the bill.”
The housing department pointed to recent news stories about Puerto Rico’s former secretary of education being charged with corruption as a reason for splitting the funds.
But Trump has openly said that the federal government has given too much money to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. He has asserted in tweets the U.S. territory has received $92 billion in disaster aid since that storm.
As of Aug. 2, federal agencies have sent about $13.6 billion to Puerto Rico for disaster aid, according to a FEMA website designed to track disaster spending.
The delay in approving the disaster funding has frustrated Texas leaders who want to move ahead with Harvey-related disaster projects.
Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush, who wrote a public letter to Trump urging the release of the disaster funds, called Carson’s announcement “welcome news.”
“These rules will determine how we can use our funds to better protect Texans living along our coast,” Bush said. “Our hope is that these rules will be limited, allowing for the greatest flexibility to best protect coastal communities as quickly as possible.”
He noted that Texas is already two months into the 2019 hurricane season.
U.S. Rep. Randy Weber, a Republican from Friendswood, also made public efforts to get the money released. In May, Weber was among a bipartisan group that called for Congress and Trump to pass a bill directing the Office of Management and Budget to release the disaster funds.
The bill was introduced in the Senate, but was not acted on.
Weber called the delays to the disaster relief one of the “single most frustrating” issues he’d dealt with while in office.
“There are few things more frustrating than being approved and allocated an amount for funding, and then waiting months on end to actually receive the check in the mail,” Weber said.
Weber recently met with the budget office and pleaded for the money to be released, he said. He was relieved by Friday’s announcement, he said.
“Finally, we can move forward with plans to better protect Texans,” Weber said.