After months of delay, Congress passed a $19 billion aid bill on Monday to help places recover from natural disasters that have struck over the last two years -- and to help cover costs of the ones yet to come.
As the political infighting wore on this year, more natural disasters -- such as flooding in the Midwest and tornadoes in the South -- bumped up the price of the legislation by roughly $5 billion. It’s now one of the most sweeping disaster aid packages ever passed and heads to President Trump for his expected signature.
Communities in California, Florida and Texas -- which have been ravaged by wildfires, hurricanes and floods -- will likely be among the biggest beneficiaries. U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein says her state of California is eligible for more than $12 billion. The Texas Tribune reports that the legislation includes a provision to force the federal government to release more than $4 billion to Texas that Congress already allocated to the state a year ago.
But the bill is likely to touch nearly every corner of the U.S. and territories.
It covers losses and destruction from a volcano that erupted in Hawaii last year and a powerful earthquake in Alaska last November.
The package also includes about $1.4 billion in assistance for Puerto Rico, which is in bankruptcy and still struggling to rebuild nearly two years after the one-two punch of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
A political standoff over funding for Puerto Rico and for a border wall (the latter was eventually dropped) resulted in the longest delay between a disaster and congressional aid. (FEMA aid has already been deployed.)
As places waited for relief, they have had to make cuts. Puerto Rico slashed food assistance programs. Reconstruction work at Tyndall Air Force Base near Panama City, Fla., has been halted. Nearly everywhere, communities have been waiting for months for federal aid to pay for food, labor and construction materials.
Now, it’s up to federal agencies like the departments of Agriculture and Housing to start planning how they will dole out the money to states. In the meantime, here’s a breakdown of some of the key provisions affecting states and localities:
One of the biggest line-items in the bill is nearly $2.5 billion for Community Development Block Grants-Disaster Recovery. These grants are administered by states and localities and help communities rebuild housing, businesses and roads in areas that have been hardest-hit.
The bill also includes $1.65 billion to reimburse states and territories for repairing damage to federally managed roads and bridges.
Many farmers and ranchers across the country lost livestock and crops to a natural disaster or weren’t able to plant this year due to flooding.
The disaster bill will give $3 billion in U.S. Department of Agriculture funding to assist farmers with those crop and livestock losses, with higher payments to farmers who had insurance.
The aid package also includes coverage for farmers’ losses of already harvested crops that were in storage. Previously, there was no program to cover stored-crop losses.
The flooding triggered by the “bomb cyclone” that hit the Midwest in March led to catastrophic losses, in part because farmers had an unusually high amount in storage after the U.S. trade war with China slowed demand for things like soybeans and corn.
Water contamination is common following a natural disaster and is expensive and time-consuming to remedy. The bill includes nearly $350 million for water quality costs and for grants to assess post-disaster water quality conditions, to replace damaged monitoring equipment, and to inspect and clean up hazardous waste facilities.
Resilience and Prevention
A significant amount of funding will be available for disaster mitigation in the affected areas.
One of the largest items is $600 million for Economic Development Assistance grants for long-term recovery in areas affected by major disasters in 2018 and 2019.
Two other provisions signal a broader approach to natural disasters.
Congress has slated $100 million for mental health to support behavioral health treatment, crisis counseling, helplines and other related activities for people affected by recent natural disasters. It’s an acknowledgement of the very real and prolonged mental toll that natural disasters have on those who survive them.
In addition, the bill marks $25 million in funding for improved weather and fire prediction and forecasting equipment. Such money can supplement state and local projects already underway.
In Northern California, for example, Sonoma County and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have partnered on a four-year, $19-million project to build a new regional radar and forecast system that will provide more warning for atmospheric rivers that elude most modern radar systems and cause massive flooding.