Federal funds expected soon to help with disaster relief

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald Fissure 8 feeds a river of lava July 19 in Leilani Estates in this file photo.

State and county officials seeking recovery funding for recent disasters got some welcome news Wednesday when the U.S. House of Representatives green-lighted $1.7 billion in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding.

CDBG-DR grants help state and local governments rebuild impacted communities, especially in low- and moderate-income areas, and provide resources to help businesses recover. The grants afford officials a great deal of flexibility in their use.

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According to a statement from U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, the legislation “is expected to easily pass the Senate.”

“There is a long road ahead to recovery for the state, which has been hit by historic flooding, hurricanes and volcanoes in a matter of a few months,” Schatz said. “These block grants will help, but they are not our sole chance at additional federal funding. So I want to be clear that this is a down payment. And I will continue to fight for federal resources at every opportunity to help Hawaii move forward.”

Also looking for a share of the $1.7 billion, provided it’s approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Donald Trump, will be states and municipalities on the East and West coasts. The East Coast is reeling because of Hurricane Florence, which recently ripped through the Carolinas and, as of Wednesday, claimed 47 lives in several states. The West Coast has been struck by wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington, which scorched more than 1.5 million acres and killed eight civilians and six firefighters — including Hilo native Brian Hughes, a federal firefighter in California.

Schatz, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he began working with federal agencies and state and county officials to ensure Hawaii submits a strong application to receive the maximum amount of eligible funding.

To date, Hawaii has received more than $120 million in federal relief funding, including more than $56 million to help Hawaii Island recover from the Kilauea eruption, which covered highways and destroyed more than 700 homes, and $64 million for the flooding on Kauai and Oahu.

“Sen. Schatz’s office made it clear that this is just a down payment,” said Roy Takemoto, executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim. “When we met with Sen. Schatz’s staff, they were trying to manage our expectations, is how they put it. When we threw out the number that we’re looking at, $400 million, they had a mixed reaction to that. One staffer said that’s too much, but the other staffer said if that is a part of a bigger ask in relation to Hurricane Florence … what we’re asking for is so minuscule to the bigger request, this staff person thought a $400 million request wasn’t that unreasonable.”

Takemoto said that first, planning studies need to be done “to figure out what is feasible.”

The county is seeking funds to recover from torrential flooding in late August from Hurricane Lane, as well as from lava damage.

“We would need in the order of $6 million to $7 million to get us through a solid planning phase,” Takemoto said. “And were making that $6 million or $7 million request to the governor’s office, to see if they have any emergency or discretionary funds that they can make available to us right away. The second request is to the state Legislature if the governor’s office does not have that kind of funding available. And then the third request would be this CDBG-DR, which, hopefully, could be made available sooner rather than later.”

The block grants, which are administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, are separate from funding the state and county might receive from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“For Hurricane Lane, we’re still waiting to hear whether or not we get the presidential (disaster) declaration that would trigger FEMA funding,” Takemoto said. “For the volcano, we are still working on estimates of damages done to our public facilities. And when we get their blessing on those estimates, then that money would be in process already because that declaration has already been done.”

Puna is the district hardest hit by the recent disasters. The district’s state legislators, Sen. Russell Ruderman and Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, identified road repairs and housing for lava evacuees as top priorities.

Highways 11 and 130, both state highways, suffered structural damage. Highway 11 sustained cracks and sinkholes in the Volcano area and steel plates were installed to make 130 passable between Pahoa High School and Kalapana.

In addition, Highways 137 and 132, both county roads, were overrun in places by lava.

“The one thing I keep hearing about nowadays is to reopen Highway 132 … to somehow get access to the hundreds of farms and residences that are isolated,” Ruderman said. “You have people and trucks coming in all the way through Waa Waa on what is really a one-lane emergency access road.

“What once was a 15-minute commute is now 45, and some folks can’t access their farms at all. So, hopefully, a block grant could help the county with funds for that.”

“The county, even with the quarter-percent (general excise tax surcharge), does not have enough money to fix the roads of the Big Island,” San Buenaventura added. “I’m hoping … we can get back the moneys lost in repair and go back to square one of the traffic improvement plan … so we can get back to repairing roads and bridges and people can get back to business and back to the way things were.”

San Buenaventura said she hopes the grant will provide enough money “to increase affordable housing availability for the lava evacuees and, hopefully, relieve the stress on the limited affordable housing for everyone else.”

“Puna is the last affordable housing district in the state, and a number of (those displaced by lava) could not afford to move anywhere else, really, for what they had,” she said. “Basically we’ve increased our homelessness because we had all these people who were able to house themselves cheaply, who now are bunking in with friends and family, with whatever limited resources that are there.

“And frankly, what also happened is a ripple effect … on our public housing because the people who were on the wait list got pushed back because the priority was for the lava evacuees.”

Ruderman said he thinks housing relocation is the highest priority. He noted two church-driven projects, one that put 20 tiny homes on land owned by Pahoa Sacred Heart Church and another project, Hale Iki Village, 11 micro-units on land owned in Hawaiian Paradise Park by Connect Point Church, which will be blessed at 1 p.m. Saturday.

“But we’re clearly not doing enough about it,” he said.

Takemoto said he hopes a special session of the state Legislature to consider disaster funding is “still on the table.”

“The governor’s office is helping us coordinate with state House and Senate leadership on this,” he said. “We are sending a revised request to the House leadership this week to see what their reaction is. We tried to respond to their comments, and we’re not sure if we’re hitting all the right notes with them yet. But I think this is our last chance, what we’re submitting this week.”

If the hoped for session occurs — and it would have to be completed before the general election in November — there are two things for which the county is asking.

“One is to give us more leeway on the GET surcharge, to allow us to use the money beyond just transportation. That would greatly help us help ourselves … ,” Takemoto said. “The second request, on the assumption that the governor could help fund us through the end of the fiscal year for immediate needs, in the order of $7 million, we would like to start on our bigger recovery initiatives. That ask is for about $140 million, which includes funding that would go directly to state departments that would also be assisting us. … And that would set us up to go beyond just next fiscal year. That would really launch us into recovery and implementation.”

Ruderman said he thinks chances of a special session “are still 50-50, but they’re going down with every passing week.”

“I did just learn that the Senate is calling itself into special session on Oct. 25 and 26, and this is to confirm some judges. So its only a two-day session,” he said. “The thought was, if there’s going to be a special session, might as well have them coincide and do it all at once. The email I got said this is a Senate-only special session.”

San Buenaventura is less optimistic about the chances of a special session with both houses of the legislature.

“It sounds less likely. It’s getting too close,” she said. “Without the special session, hopefully we’ll get enough money from this Community Development Block Grant.

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“The federal government has not declared FEMA benefits for Hurricane Lane yet. So this is such a welcome relief.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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