Opinion | The US disaster relief system was not built for our new climate

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Devastating flash floods struck Eastern Kentucky last month, leaving at least 37 dead and many more missing. The floods occurred just months after the state was roiled by an outbreak of tornadoes that killed 74 and just after St. Louis experienced its own record-breaking, deadly floods. A wildfire in Northern California, meanwhile, has scorched more than 55,000 acres and continues to spread.

Together, the catastrophes forced thousands from their homes. Some will join the ever-growing group of displaced Americans forced to navigate the country’s patchwork of disaster relief programs.

After the president issues a disaster declaration — as President Biden did for the Kentucky floods — the Federal Emergency Management Agency steps in to offer short-term support. Along with limited home-repair assistance, it provides survivors with temporary rental assistance or shelter, sometimes consisting of mobile homes or trailers. This generally lasts for up to 18 months while residents attempt to find permanent lodging — a daunting task amid an affordable housing crisis.

In the long-term, the Department of Housing and Urban Development offers disaster recovery grants, which can be used to rebuild homes. Although these grants have existed for decades, the program has not been permanently authorized. That means Congress must appropriate funding for it and HUD must then create rules and publish them for notice and comment in the Federal Register. In some cases, it can take nearly two years after a disaster declaration for states and localities to receive these grants — and even more time for them to be distributed. That leaves many households — often the most vulnerable — in the lurch after support from FEMA lapses.

For example, Lake Charles, La., was decimated by Hurricane Laura in August 2020, but grant funding to rebuild homes is only now being delivered. Some survivors have spent years living in cramped trailers that cost more on average to move and install than building a new house in the area, as Christopher Flavelle and Edmund D. Fountain recently detailed in the New York Times.

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The issue goes beyond the agencies, which are overwhelmed and limited by what they are authorized to do. With extreme weather events occurring more frequently and with greater intensity, the disaster-recovery framework is not equipped to handle the rising need.

The Biden administration is working to address some of these concerns, and FEMA is in the middle of an initiative to “reimagine” its direct housing assistance program. But Congress could do more to improve the system. Permanently authorizing the disaster-recovery grant program would help, although efforts should be made to build in sustainable funding and accountability mechanisms. Legislators should also consider ways to boost interagency coordination and reduce the procedural burden on survivors.

An analysis by The Post’s Sarah Kaplan and Andrew Ba Tran found that more than 40 percent of Americans lived in a county that experienced a weather catastrophe last year. Policies to boost climate resilience and disaster preparedness are crucial to limiting damage once calamity strikes. But, with millions of Americans at risk of losing their homes and livelihoods in natural disasters, the US disaster-recovery system must also adapt — soon.

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