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House Passes Bills to Strengthen FEMA Disaster Response, Recovery Programs; Flooding Gets DHS Review

The House recently unanimously approved three bills that will strengthen the federal disaster response and recovery programs of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The bipartisan bills would ensure the federal government fairly considers the needs of America’s smaller communities that are trying to rebuild from disasters, provide more certainty in disaster assistance decisions for state and local governments and improve FEMA transparency and efficiency for disaster grant applicants.

The Disaster Declaration Improvement Act (HR 1665) would direct FEMA to appropriately weigh and consider severe local impact when evaluating whether to recommend a major disaster declaration. The bill would ensure “a more level playing field for smaller communities when impacted by severe disasters.”

“To ensure that [the] administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency considers severe local impact in making a recommendation to the President for a major disaster declaration.” In addition, “In making recommendations to the President regarding a major disaster declaration, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency shall give greater weight and consideration to severe local impact or recent multiple disasters. Further, the administrator shall make corresponding adjustments to the agency’s policies and regulations regarding such consideration. Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this section, the administrator shall report to the [House] Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure … and the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs of the Senate on the changes made to regulations and policies and the number of declarations that have been declared based on the new criteria.”

HR 1678, which would amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act concerning the statute of limitations for actions to recover disaster or emergency assistance payments would implement a statute of limitations on FEMA’s ability to recover grant assistance from recipients after a disaster, in cases where there is no evidence of fraud, waste or abuse.

As Homeland Security Today has repeatedly reported, FEMA has been found by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General to have improperly awarded or failed to oversee local and state funding of billions of dollars under various FEMA disaster grants.

Under this bill, however, “With respect to disaster or emergency assistance provided to a state or local government on or after January 1, 2004, no administrative action may be taken to recover a payment of such assistance after the date of enactment of this Act if the action is prohibited under section 705(a)(1) of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5205(a)(1)), as amended by subsection (a); and, any administrative action to recover a payment of such assistance that is pending on such date of enactment shall be terminated if the action is prohibited under section 705(a)(1) of that Act, as amended by subsection (a).”

In addition, “This section, including the amendments made by this section, may not be construed to invalidate or otherwise affect any administration action completed before the date of enactment of this Act.”

The FEMA Accountability, Modernization and Transparency Act of 2017 (HR 1679) would modernize FEMA’s management of grant programs to improve applicant accessibility and transparency.

The FEMA administration would be required to “ensure the ongoing modernization of the grant systems for the administration of assistance under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. 5121 et seq.), including the following:

  • An online interface, including online assistance, for applicants to complete application forms, submit materials and access the status of applications;
  • Mechanisms to eliminate duplication of benefits;
  • If appropriate, enable the sharing of information among agencies and with state, local, and tribal governments, to eliminate the need to file multiple applications and speed disaster recovery;
  • Any additional tools the administrator determines will improve the implementation of this section; and
  • Implementation—to the extent practicable, the administrator shall deliver the system capabilities described in subsection (a) in increments or iterations as working components for applicant use.

Lastly, “No additional funds [would be] authorized to carry out the requirements of this Act. Such requirements [would] be carried out using amounts otherwise authorized.”

Rep. Lou Barletta (R-PA), chairman of the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee, said, “Since becoming subcommittee chairman, I have made reforming FEMA and increasing its responsiveness to local communities a top priority. These bipartisan bills will streamline assistance to areas recovering from disasters, reduce burdens on state and local governments, and help to save lives and property.”

“One important task we have in Congress is toensure that the course we set for a critical organization like FEMA is one that will ensure that states, tribes, local governments and individuals are able to participate equally, fairly and in an open manner,” added Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), ranking member of the subcommittee. “I believe the passing of these bills sets a path towards improving accessibility, transparency and certainty for all the stakeholders that FEMA serves."

“Recent severe weather in Illinois and across the Midwest reminds us that it is imperative we change the way FEMA determines the need for disaster relief,” said Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), sponsor of HR 1665. “Right now, the amount Illinois has to reach to receive federal public assistance after a major disaster is $18 million – nearly double that of any of our neighboring states. Time and time again rural communities in my state and others have been denied assistance and unfairly punished by this formula. HR 1665 simply requires FEMA to take a greater look at the localized impact of a disaster, rather than just an arbitrary per-capita formula.”

“It’s just wrong that disaster victims are often re-victimized by FEMA inefficiencies. Here we are in the 21st Century, living private lives that revolve around technology — yet interacting with the government often feels like going back in time,” said Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), sponsor of HR 1679. “Disaster victims still have to dial an 800 number, sit on hold and wait for one of the hundreds of FEMA employees to search a database to get an update on a claim’s status. The whole process is filled with uncertainty, is expensive and leaves taxpayers feeling extraordinarily frustrated. These bipartisan reforms are common sense steps toward making the agency perform at a higher level.  The American people deserve better from the federal government – especially after a disaster, when help is needed most – and we’re going to keep working to ensure they get it.”

“Florida is no stranger to the terrible power and ravages of hurricanes and tropical storms, and we recognize the need for emergency relief when such tragedies occur,” said Rep. Dan Webster (R-FL), co-sponsor HR 1678. “After approving and providing funds, it is inappropriate for FEMA to return over a decade later, when individuals and communities have finally stabilized their lives and their budgets, and attempt to recover funds. In the wake of natural disasters, displaced families and communities must know that their government stands prepared to assist in the recovery.”

“Right now in Florida we’re battling wildfires across the state and a brand new hurricane seasonis just over the horizon,” added Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), co-sponsor HR 1678. “These FEMA reforms are critical to ensuring the federal government fulfills its responsibility to help states recover when disaster strikes.”

Looking at flooding

Meanwhile, with as many as 50 percent of US property owners uninsured or underinsured in areas deemed “high risk” for floods, there is also a significant need to increase awareness and education on homeowner flood insurance to ensure greater resilience to flood hazards.

On March 2, the National Conversation on Homeland Security Technology held its first in-person engagement of the year, the Homeowner Flood Insurance Roundtable, in support of the DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate’s (S&T) Flood Apex program.The roundtable gathered information from a diverse group of flood experts and practitioners to identify decision support tools, research and development investments and data solutions that would help meet the Flood Apex’s program objective of reducing uninsured losses.

Fifteen participants representing a diverse set of perspectives attended the Homeowner Flood Insurance Roundtable.  Theyincluded representatives from the insurance industry, homebuilder industry, real estate industry, mortgage lending industry, academia, the state floodplain manager’s association, DHS S&T’s First Responders Group (FRG) and FEMA.

After an overview of S&T’s research on the challenges homeowners face when deciding whether to purchase or continue a flood insurance policy, the roundtable discussion focused on gathering information from participants on several topics:

  • What solutions, strategies and innovations (e.g., tools and data) would help address homeowner flood insurance challenges?
  • What data and capabilities are needed to support solutions?
  • What are the barriers to implementation of these solutions and strategies to overcome these barriers?

The group generated a variety of potential solutions to address homeowner flood insurance challenges, including:

  • Increasing accessibility to data sets that could help alleviate expenses homeowners face when purchasing insurance;
  • Allowing private insurers to expand into the flood insurance market;
  • Targeting the use of specific tools, such as interactive web-based tools, to help homeowners understand their flood risk better; and
  • Testing and analyzing insurance retention strategies.

Participants also discussed several barriers to the implementation of these solutions, including those related to privacy, technical complexity and communication.

According to Dr. David Alexander, the S&T FRG Flood Apex Program Manager, “Participants were engaged and conversations were productive … Observations from this event will be very useful to FRG and the Flood Apex program.”

The Homeowner Flood Insurance Roundtable was the first of several engagements the National Conversation will host in 2017 to support the Flood Apex program’s objectives.

“The National Conversation is planning additional stakeholder engagement activities to address commercial flood insurance, flood insurance for public and private infrastructure and discuss potential solutions to help individuals and communities more effectively implement mitigation investments,” DHS said. “Information gathered from these roundtables will help inform the Flood Apex Program’s future R&D investment priorities."

To participate in the conversation, visit the National Conversation’s online platform to add to the discussion and pose any questions you may have about flood insurance and other flood resilience issues. Everyone is encouraged to participate.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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