Charleston (SC) Mayor Riley Calls for Comprehensive Disaster Program Reform Before Senate Subcommittee
By Laura DeKoven Waxman
May 24, 2010
“Disasters are like a battle,” Charleston (SC) Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. told the Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee May 12. “You have to hit it with everything you've got.” Providing a catastrophic designation for major disasters would provide local officials the capacity to do that, he continued, by making 100 percent federal funding available for eligible activities. Riley further called for that funding to be provided directly to local governments, using the Community Development Block Grant model.
Riley presented the recommendations of the Conference of Mayors Task Force on Stafford Act Reform to the Subcommittee. The Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act is the federal law that supports preparation for and response to disasters. Riley stressed several key issues in addition to providing for a catastrophic designation and sending funds directly to local governments: eliminating red tape that stymies recovery efforts, increasing support to host communities, and increasing the cap on disaster loans.
Subcommittee Chair Senator Mary Landrieu (LA) indicated that she is looking at legislation that would “revise the statute to provide sharper tools for a smarter recovery.” She described several of the reforms her Subcommittee is considering, including:
- Under Public Assistance Reforms, providing advance funding for repair of public facilities, particularly when major disasters occur; speeding up arbitration and appeals when disputes need to be resolved; and increasing the $5 million cap on community disaster loans;
- Under Individual Assistance Reforms, providing adequate mental health services to both disaster victims and first responders; providing housing options other than trailers; and providing coordinated and responsive case management; and
- Under Improved Federal Coordination, providing a comprehensive single source of program information, maintaining unified command centers and joint field offices after the response phase ends, and developing a unified environmental review process.
South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, the Subcommittee's Ranking Member, indicated that he is “in the camp of looking for a major overhaul” of the Stafford Act. This came in response to comments by other witnesses who called for smaller, more incremental changes to the Stafford Act rather than a major reform. He commented that, “Cities need to be able to meet payroll,” and the system should get money out to meet local government and individual needs.
Riley told the Subcommittee that when it was clear in 1989 that Charleston would be hit directly by Hurricane Hugo, he assembled his staff in city hall and told them to consider Hugo an opportunity to serve the people when they need it most, to save lives and provide help. He commented to the Subcommittee that while it cannot legislate that, it can make sure that local officials are able to provide such service. He called on the Subcommittee to make the Stafford Act and government response to a disaster “a special opportunity for providing service to the citizens of our country.”