Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier

Some federal disaster aid takes years to reach SC residents. Can a new federal bill help?

By Jonah Chester

Sharonda Dudley, 40, has lived on her Dillon property for 26 years. Now she’s raising her four children on the same land, but not in the same house she grew up in.

In 2018, Dudley’s home was hammered by Hurricane Florence. The storm brought severe flooding and wind damage to South Carolina’s Pee Dee region. Dudley said her home was damaged enough by the storm that she filed for disaster relief aid.

“I did the paperwork a little bit after the storm, and they contacted me and said the damage wasn’t bad enough,” Dudley recalled.

She was able to receive enough money to cover some minor repairs, and she paid for others out of her own pocket.

“Then they called me back maybe a year-and-a-half later, and I guess they had more funding and asked me did I still need assistance.”

Dudley’s home was rebuilt after the second round of funding came in, a “smooth” process that took about three months, she said.

But Dudley isn’t the only South Carolinian who has dealt with that delay, and not everyone can afford to pay for repairs out-of-pocket.

Disaster relief is a product of a complex web of nonprofits and government agencies. There are pools of funding and community aid that can help with repairs and fixes immediately after a storm. But in the aftermath of severe weather events like Hurricane Florence, much of the money to support the process depends on the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program — CDBG-DR, for short.

CDBG-DR funds require a presidential disaster declaration followed by a Congressional appropriation. The second step in that process can take years to achieve, years during which South Carolinians may have to cover the bill. Florence happened in September 2018. CDBG-DR funds to recover from the storm weren’t available until December 2020.

″(The Federal Emergency Management Agency) does come out immediately after the storm and they can give folks money for tarping a roof or whatever,” explained Scott Sharpe, disaster recovery director for South Carolina’s Office of Resilience. “But we just know this from seeing so many damage assessments that these houses only get worse over time.”

Sharpe said that it can sometimes take up to five years after a storm for people to get all the help they need. If conditions during that time continue to worsen, they can sometimes be forced out of their homes.

The Office of Resilience begins taking relief aid applications, like Dudley’s, immediately after a severe storm. It’s an effort to fast-track the distribution process once Congress appropriates disaster relief aid. There are other steps the resilience office and its local partners take to help affected South Carolinians in the short term, and there’s a state reserve fund they can dip in to following a federally declared disaster.

But the state still relies heavily on that federal disaster relief aid to help residents shoulder the cost of reconstruction and repairs. The longer that takes, the longer South Carolinians have to wait for lasting fixes.

“This delay significantly impacts low-income, low-resourced and historically underserved communities,” Ran Reinhard, SCOR’s director of operations, told a U.S. Senate subcommittee on Dec. 12. Congress currently is weighing a bipartisan bill to streamline disaster recovery funds distribution.

“People waiting for recovery to happen, whose homes have been damaged, have two choices: live in the damaged home or leave,” Reinhard testified. “Many citizens lacking monetary resources or insurance just choose to leave. When they leave, their departure erodes the community’s tax base, which puts additional challenges on rural and historically low-resourced communities.”

Who is most vulnerable?

Three events in recent history have warranted CDBG-DR funds in South Carolina: 2018′s Florence, 2016′s Hurricane Matthew and the “thousand-year flood” of 2015. After those three events, SCOR has used federal funds to help rebuild or repair approximately 3,400 households, according to demographic data provided to The Post and Courier. Of the 3,400 homes, about 93 percent were Black households, 80 percent were female-led and most applicants were older than 65.

Susan Cutter, director of the University of South Carolina’s Hazards Vulnerability and Resilience Institute, noted that data is for recovery, not damage, and therefore might not paint a full picture of which communities are most likely to be hit by natural disasters.

“There’s a world of difference between recovery data and damage data,” she explained. “This was funded by Housing and Urban Development. They’re going to be very much interested in targeting the opportunities for lower-income populations. … They’re not going to recover houses on the beach that are worth a million dollars.”

Nearly all applicants across the three storms made 30 percent or less of their area’s median income, according to SCOR data. Still, Cutter added that the communities the disaster relief dollars flow to will likely become more vulnerable in the future, as climate change increases the frequency and severity of hurricanes or other weather events.

“Climate change is going to affect where we can build, how often we may be subject to extreme rainfall events,” she said. “So if vulnerable populations are living in vulnerable places now, it’s going to be worse.”

“Managed retreat” is a methodical and coordinated movement of people away from risk-prone areas. In South Carolina, it’s usually discussed in reference to coastal communities adapting to sea level rise. But inland areas also can be vulnerable to repeat flooding from severe storms.

Cutter said managed retreat in those communities can be particularly tricky.

“We’re not talking about the suburbs of Charleston. We’re talking about very small communities that have been there for hundreds of years and, over time, have lost their population base, have lost their economic base,” she said. “There’s really not much more places for those folks to go.”

Federal, state fixes

The bipartisan push to get Congress to reform the disaster aid process comes as impacts of climate change worsen. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that America experienced 25 climate disasters with losses equal to or exceeding $1 billion as of November 2023. That’s the highest annual amount since NOAA began recording such storms in 1980.

The total price tag for America’s disasters in 2023 rang up to about $81 billion in November. That’s above the 1980-2023 average of $54.6 billion for that point in the year, but behind the all-time high of $360.8 billion in 2017. That data has been adjusted to account for inflation, according to NOAA.

The Reforming Disaster Recovery Act was introduced by Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in May 2023. It was previously introduced in July 2021, but it died in committee without moving to a full floor vote.

“Without certainty about when and how much aid will come, local governments end up doing some things twice and other things not at all,” Schatz said at the Dec. 12 hearing on the bill. “From a governance standpoint, it’s wasteful and inefficient. And for survivors, the uncertainty and delay make the already difficult task of recovery even harder.”

The bill is based on recommendations from HUD’s Office of the Inspector General and the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, according to Schatz’s office. Among other things, it would create a standing disaster recovery fund for the department to use, eliminate red tape from the distribution process, and create a department within HUD specifically to coordinate disaster recovery and resilience.

Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Miss., a co-sponsor of the bill, called the federal government’s current approach to CDBG-DR funding “ad-hoc.” In some cases, she said a single appropriation has covered disasters across multiple years. In others, multiple appropriations have been provided for the same disaster. Hyde-Smith said that approach leaves some grantees administering several grants at the same time, applying slightly different rules and requirements for each one.

“This approach has also had the unintended consequence of slowing the delivery of assistance to communities, sometimes by several years, making it more challenging for communities to proactively design effective disaster response programs,” she said.

CDBG-DR funds are used for more than just hurricanes or floods, Hyde-Smith said. They’ve helped communities rebuild after everything from lava flows to terrorist attacks.

Closer to home, the state resilience office is looking at new ways to improve how South Carolina approaches disaster relief and steps that can be taken without waiting for federal funds. In addition to taking relief applications immediately after a storm to prepare for the release of federal aid, Lillian Adderson, SCOR’s disaster case management director, said the agency is recruiting for a new Disaster Recovery Reserve Corps.

“When it becomes fully functional, I think it’s going to be one of the best things that we can do for our citizens to get them services, accelerate that delivery and then reduce the recovery time,” she said.

According to the webpage for the corps, the agency is looking to hire reservists in all of the state’s 46 counties. Those members will be responsible for responding to disasters in their areas but may also be called to other areas of the state in certain cases.