What a difference a year doesn’t make.
In late January, three months after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the east coast, Congress passed the $60 billion emergency sandy supplemental bill, H.R. 152, appropriating $50.3 billion for relief and reconstruction efforts and adding $9.7 billion to cover flood insurance claims. Passage came after months filled with policymakers pointing to the plight of residents hit hard by the storm and the need to quickly pass the legislation in order to prepare for the next big one. Yet, as TCS noted at the time, the final bill contained a number of provisions directing money to areas unaffected by Sandy or to projects that should have been funded through the normal appropriations process. Now that we’ve reached the one-year anniversary of Sandy’s landfall, it’s time to look at what’s been spent.
A year after Sandy landed on shore, not only are most of the checks not written but for the bulk of the cash awarded most agencies haven’t even figured out what they are buying.
Though members of Congress repeatedly expressed how urgent the need was for relief funds, federal agencies haven’t demonstrated much urgency in disbursing the funds. Of the $58 billion appropriated (sequestration chopped $2 billion out) only 23 percent has been directed for a specific purpose (‘obligated’) and less than 11 percent has actually gone out the door (‘outlayed’). Even when you leave out the roughly $5 billion remaining in the disaster relief fund (DRF) that is available for other post-disaster needs, 74 percent of the Sandy funding remains unspent.
With each passing month, the Sandy spending increases, but money outlayed for disaster relief one year after the disaster is hardly emergency spending. Some agencies and departments are using up the appropriated funds at a faster rate than others though, perhaps indicating which agencies met the most urgent need for federal relief (See Figure-1).
It’s also been difficult to determine exactly where the money is being spent. And not just for us. In the wake of the Sandy supplemental, the watchdog of the 2009 stimulus bill, the Recovery Act Transparency (RAT) board, was tasked with oversight of the money. The board’s reports were an invaluable tool for tracking the stimulus money. But for Sandy spending, they are hamstrung. Since lawmakers didn’t give them the power to compel agencies to disclose their information; they can’t even force them all to tag the spending as Sandy related. When agencies did document their Sandy spending, they didn’t always note what it was spent on (See Figure-2). Our own database of Sandy spending compiled using the Federal Procurement Data System can be seen here.
And the dismal results are clear. The spending data, scattered across multiple online platforms, does indicate that some of the spending was waste (separate from the hundreds of thousands spent on porta potties) some was spent on projects that have little to do with Superstorm Sandy and should have been funded through the normal budget process– see Figures 3,4.
This needs to change. Part of the problem is agencies need to giddy up. Local and state governments have followed the rules and met the needs of rebuilding infrastructure or otherwise deploying resources. Now the federal government needs to hold up their end of the bargain and give the cash to those who followed the rules.
A year removed from Sandy, we see it was not just the second most costly natural disaster but a prime example of what’s wrong with national disaster policy. Despite claims of poverty and need, the slow walk of delivering the aid shows this is a great example of Washington’s penchant to use an event, even a natural disaster which evokes the natural inclination to help, as a political opportunity to garner taxpayer cash for pet projects. Also, disaster spending should come with strings to ensure communities plan for the inevitable disasters of the future. We don’t know where and when, but we do know these disasters are going to occur.
Superstorm Sandy and the experience with the supplemental funding should be a wakeup call for the need to change how we respond to and prepare for disasters. Every dime we spend on disaster recovery should ensure that we don’t have to spend that same dime again in the future.
Here is TCS’s Disaster Reforms for Resiliency.