FEMA head speaks out about ‘racial disparity’ in Hurricane Maria aid

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency testified on Tuesday that her agency is committed to addressing racial disparities in aid to survivors of hurricanes that devastated areas of Puerto Rico and the…

FEMA head speaks out about ‘racial disparity’ in Hurricane Maria aid

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency testified on Tuesday that her agency is committed to addressing racial disparities in aid to survivors of hurricanes that devastated areas of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands last year.

But while Representative Henry Cuellar, a Texas Democrat, asked Administrator Brock Long to name specific initiatives that have been implemented since September, she was unable to do so. Instead, Long seemed to refer to a more general commitment by FEMA to “fix things that happened in the past” and look for new ways to improve aid to survivors.

The remarks came in a hearing before the House Committee on Small Business, which sought to examine complaints from Virginia-based small business owners and their representatives about FEMA’s poor response to Hurricanes Matthew and Maria. In response to the hearing, the office of Democratic Representative Bobby Scott of Virginia issued a statement noting that both Senator Tim Kaine and Congressman Scott “has provided requests for emergency funding on several occasions to ensure that our constituents and small businesses were not left out of the recovery, including requests from Richmond, Hampton Roads, the New River Valley, or among the most impacted parts of Puerto Rico.”

It is worth noting that FEMA assistance tends to be more generous for residents of Puerto Rico, where many small businesses pay few or no taxes. The agency spent $12.9 billion on assistance to survivors of Maria, while Hurricane Matthew was billed at $4.7 billion.

The majority of those funds, however, went to hotels and hotels-for-dollars. Nonprofits that help those displaced by the storms have complained that small businesses are not receiving as much aid as they did, a point highlighted by Scott. He has said that the rate for small businesses in Puerto Rico is 10 times the national average, and has pointed to data showing that participants in the Small Business Administration’s disaster business loans program in Puerto Rico saw an average loan of $1.4 million and a 12 percent average annual loan repayment rate, which he has labeled “staggering.”

“These people need help with fuel, they need help with building supplies, and a lot of their companies have not been open yet or aren’t going to be for months,” he said. “We have businesses that are going to lose all their customers, their leases have broken, their auto loans have broken, their business partners have lost their jobs. And they are struggling to get their businesses going again.”

Scott has argued that FEMA’s emphasis on helping residents of the U.S. commonwealth should not have interfered with the agency’s assistance to the Virgin Islands.

“If there was a default here, it would have been in the Virgin Islands,” he said. “They have a history of wanting support, as well. I think FEMA and the administration did the right thing and went to Puerto Rico first. I think they did that to get the balance that we needed. But I can’t believe that any of us can accept the fact that a delegation from the Virgin Islands would go first. I just can’t.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Long was adamant that the federal agency would adjust aid as it saw fit in response to Hurricane Maria.

“We have a very strong focus on efficiency,” she said. “I can assure you that every dollar we spend, every dollar spent supporting recovery and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, we have a well-thought out process in place. We are not just throwing money out.”

In the past year, significant numbers of people left Puerto Rico for the mainland U.S. following the 2017 storm, with more than half a million arriving in Florida. Hurricane Irma has also devastated the Caribbean and other parts of the world this year.

Long’s presentation Tuesday showed that the agency has been subject to criticism in recent months for not embracing new technologies that some agencies have used to deliver relief aid more quickly, and for failing to respond as quickly as some lawmakers have desired to. On Tuesday, Long stressed the agency’s commitment to changing its processes and working with other agencies to see that Puerto Rico residents receive full and fair assistance.

“We are listening, we’re learning and we’re making changes as we go,” she said.

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