The blog of the Urban Institute
January 25, 2021

Why Does Disaster Recovery Take So Long? Five Facts about Federal Housing Aid after Disasters

January 25, 2021

After a disaster strikes, relief can’t come soon enough for affected families. Immediate aid is generally provided by first responders, who are soon followed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Red Cross, and other charitable organizations. Rebuilding follows more slowly as insurance claims and federal loans are processed. But resources are not always available for low-income households, and these sources of funding aren’t always enough to rebuild the housing stock.

For larger disasters, Congress has frequently authorized additional funding for neighborhood revitalization and housing reconstruction and rehabilitation through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) program. Yet CDBG-DR appropriations are intermittent, and the overall timeframe from disaster to grant closeout varies widely. Legislation working its way through Congress would reform this process, permanently authorizing the CDBG-DR program and, ideally, reducing the time between disaster and reconstruction.

Last week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released an Urban Institute report that examines the CDBG-DR program to uncover patterns in the pace of recovery across a sample of 88 grants for disasters from 2005 to 2015. Five facts emerged from our research that can inform efforts to improve federal disaster recovery:

1. There is a lag between emergency assistance from FEMA and long-term housing aid from HUD

Most FEMA assistance ends after 18 months, if not earlier. At that point, the average CDBG-DR housing activity has yet to spend its first dollar. We found that the average CDBG-DR housing activity started distributing funds 20 months after the disaster and was still distributing funds two years after that.

This gap between FEMA and CDBG-DR assistance can be devastating to families trying to pay rent for one home while struggling to rebuild another. This might explain why the financial health of many people affected by disasters continued to decline into the third or fourth year after a disaster. Low-income households without robust safety nets are hit especially hard during these gaps.

2. Every place and every disaster is different

It seems obvious, but every disaster differs in severity, and every community has different protections beforehand and damages afterward.

The figure below shows the timeline for the average CDBG-DR housing activity after 10 disasters. The activities created in response to the Colorado floods and Hurricane Sandy in 2013 had the quickest completion rates, at 3.5 years. On the other end of the spectrum, housing activities associated with Hurricanes Ike and Gustav in 2008 had the longest recovery timeline, at 5.9 years. Our analysis suggests that local socioeconomic factors, such as the homeownership and unemployment rate, affect individual housing activities, but it isn’t clear whether they influence how quickly grants are administered.

Average recovery time for select disasters, weighted by activity expenditure

 

We also found significant variation in timing based on program type. Programs making relocation payments and direct compensation to homeowners progressed more quickly, while home rehabilitation and the construction of new housing took longer. Even after accounting for local factors, homeownership assistance programs progressed at the slowest pace.

3. Local capacity and rollout matter

Local governments’ capacity to deal with disaster recovery varies widely. Urban researchers interviewed grantee stakeholders to explore the causes of and solutions to delays. Many of these potential causes stem from challenges associated with smaller and possibly lower-capacity jurisdictions, including staffing size and quality, and administrative efficiency.

Despite these reports from local governments, we found no relationship between government size and the pace of recovery. Debate continues over whether state or local governments should manage CDBG-DR activities. But our research did not find a clear or consistent connection between the level of grantee—whether it was states or subgrantees such as counties or cities—and the pace of recovery. 

Ultimately, these variations in local capacity do not mean that there shouldn’t be standard approaches to recovery or uniform ways of measuring recovery progress. Establishing clear recovery options and ways to assess them is essential for HUD’s monitoring and for ensuring that low-income households receive the aid they need.

4. The time between a disaster and when Congress appropriates recovery funds is inconsistent, and funding isn’t guaranteed

Disaster declarations do not immediately obligate funds for CDBG-DR grants in HUD. Congress can appropriate disaster relief funds, including CDBG-DR, on any schedule. Sometimes funding occurs within weeks of an event, such as for Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Florence in 2018. But in other cases, months or years may pass between appropriations, meaning that some communities wait years before receiving funds.

For example, Congress provided $400 million for CDBG-DR (PDF) activities in November 2011, but that wasn’t enough to meet the needs of all communities affected by disasters declared that year. Communities in New York and New Jersey affected by Hurricane Irene in August 2011 received grants from this allocation. But long-term relief funds for communities in New England, which was affected by the same storm, did not come until 2013, when Congress allocated more than $15 billion to CDBG-DR after Hurricane Sandy.

And after some disasters, Congress doesn’t make CDBG-DR resources available at all. Although FEMA received more than $150 million to help residents affected by the 2014 storms and flooding in southeast Michigan, no CDBG-DR funds were ever allocated. 

5. The speed of funding to state and local governments improved during our study period, but that doesn’t necessarily mean better outcomes

Since Katrina, FEMA made many necessary reforms to disaster response. HUD has also made changes in support of delivering federal aid more quickly. The grant execution phase—the period after HUD awards funding to the grantee—takes the longest. But analysis shows this phase became quicker over the study years. This critical time between HUD’s funding allocation and the grantees’ activity completion declined an average of 6.9 percent per year between 2005 and 2015.

HUD’s actions, including allocation and grant award, also became faster during the study period. Unfortunately, recent reporting on the recovery process after Hurricane Maria suggests that this trend has not necessarily continued in the past few years.

How quickly state and local grantees can help individual households largely depends on how quickly they can set up their programs. But setting up programs too fast could produce less-than-ideal programs with confusing eligibility, intake, and aid delivery that could change later in the process.

These realities about disaster recovery’s speed—for better or worse—are all products of the current disaster management policy framework. But this framework, the efficiency of its delivery, and its effectiveness in helping families are not inevitable. There are many ways to reform our nation’s disaster recovery, but lessons from our current system should inform how we move forward.

Carla and Gil Parks have a moment with each other inside their travel trailer on August 9, 2018 in Houston, Texas. Gil and Carla Parks, along with other residents in the Bear Creek Village, have not been able to return to their homes after Hurricane Harvey. Most residents did not have flood insurance leaving their homes inhabitable. Gil and Carla live in a travel trailer parked in their driveway bought with FEMA assistance money. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

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