HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Manuel Benitez III still can't believe what he saw when Hurricane Harvey made landfall on Aug. 25, 2017.
A bamboo plant that floated onto his mantel was the only thing he could salvage from the first floor of his Kingwood home after 7 feet of water flooded it five years ago.
"I had furniture that was floating around and (it) busted out all of the windows down on the first floor," Benitez said. "Then it started to get really chaotic because everybody was looking for contractors and couldn't get them. I never expected that much damage. I didn't know - I've never been involved in a flood and that house never flooded before."
But, five years later, it's not Benitez's home anymore. After years of delays trying to get reimbursement aid from the City of Houston's Homeowner Assistance Program, Benitez said help came too late for him.
The city offered him a check for $35,790 four and a half years after the storm, but he said program rules required him to live in the home another year. By then, he said he was so behind on taxes that he couldn't afford to own the home any longer. He refused the check and gave up.
"It's a (expletive) up deal," Benitez told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg. "I would have gladly taken (the aid, but) instead of paying taxes on my house, I had to spend it on repairs, so I kept kicking the can down the road hoping maybe I could get something enough to cover everything, but I didn't. I didn't have enough."
13 Investigates found the problem in getting recovery aid to victims soon after a disaster is bigger than just Hurricane Harvey, or even Texas.
Since 2017, there has been $183.5 billion in federal funds allocated across the nation for long-term disaster recovery programs, including mitigation projects, building and repairing disaster victims' homes, or providing victims with reimbursement for out-of-pocket rebuilding expenses.
Our investigation found only $81 billion, or 44%, of that funding has been spent, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) data.
Part of the problem stems from federal rules, which require Congress to pass an actual act to authorize aid programs. That means for every large-scale disaster, Congress has to meet and pass a new federal law allowing aid to be allocated for longer-term recovery programs.
"I think there's a misconception that all of that money sort of immediately gets injected into the community and that's really not what happens," Chris Currie, director of the Government Accountability Office's Homeland Security and Justice Team, said. "There's a lot of money that is spent for response issues, rescuing people, helicopters, water, food, getting people to safety, but most of the federal dollars in disaster recovery are spent years and years after. ... It means the community does not get back on its feet as quickly as it could."
The cumbersome rules meant it took 16 months from the day Harvey hit until the first storm victim could apply for federal housing aid in Houston.
"The recovery phase (can) often be the disaster after the disaster and the most frustrating part for the state and local officials that are having to deal with the management and implementation of these very complicated programs," Currie said. "If we can't get to the point where we streamline these programs, just to rebuild the way things were, it's going to be very hard to rebuild things to withstand the future risk, and that's what we have to do because we're going to see more and more disasters."
Our investigation found that in Texas, just $13.1 billion of the $29.2 billion available have been spent.
We looked at how other cities across the U.S. are spending their disaster aid and found millions more left unspent.
A federal grant expenditure report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development shows New York City still has $174 million left to spend on a project to protect lower Manhattan. The city has only spent 1% of the money sent its way more than five and half years ago.
Orange County in upstate New York spent just 8% of the federal aid set aside for them to recover from Hurricane Irene, which hit in 2011.
New Orleans is sitting on $123 million and California has $35 million in the bank that was supposed to help rebuild after a 2013 fire, the report shows.
Currie said even after funds are approved, the government still has to create program guidelines and work with states and local communities to decide how the funds will be spent.
"There's a tremendous amount of process and paperwork upfront to even get to the point where you can start planning to spend the money," he said. "This can take years, if not more than a decade. The example I like to use is in Louisiana and Hurricane Katrina. FEMA and other agencies are actually still cutting checks for recovery projects after Hurricane Katrina (hit in 2005)."
Getting funds to communities quicker is an issue that U.S. Government Accountability Office auditors have recommended fixing for years.
"We have pointed out problems with the slowness of it before and the administrative burden that it creates, and I think that's why it's important that we pointed out that Congress actually needs to take action here to do something about this to speed up the program," Currie said.
For years, U.S. Congressman Al Green, D-Texas, has introduced the bipartisan Reforming Disaster Recovery Act in an effort to get Congress to fix the issue by establishing a permanent set of rules for when disaster strikes.
If passed, the act would get aid to storm victims quicker because they would no longer have to wait for the approval of funds and program guidelines on how federal aid can be spent.
Green said the Act passed the U.S. House twice, but failed the Senate both times.
"It just makes sense that you would have something codified so that we would know what the rules of the road would be," Green said. "It does not make sense for us to have people who may be new to the process ... have to come up with a means by which we will deal with these concerns, so it just makes sense, good old common sense, that we would have a codification of the process so that everybody would get some sense of what's going to be expected when a hurricane hits and they will hit again and again and again."
The city, state and federal government all agree that a standard set of rules are needed so victims can get help quicker.
Bill Kelly, the City of Houston's director of government relations, said the "city is 100% supportive of permanently authorizing the (Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery process), that way it doesn't literally take an act of Congress to get funding passed."
In Houston, the city's assistance program was designed to help homeowners affected by Hurricane Harvey, like Benitez, by reimbursing them for out-of-pocket expenses or repairing and rebuilding their damaged homes.
Five years after the storm, Houston's program has only helped 6.5% of the 10,229 people who were invited to apply for aid, according to the city's latest report on July 31. The city has issued 391 reimbursement checks, rebuilt 204 homes and completed repairs for 71 others.
Houston didn't provide us with how many people, like Benitez, gave up or withdrew from all of its programs, but said "there were 63 applicants that voluntarily withdrew from the (home rebuilding program) before a preliminary eligibility determination."
The City of Houston's Housing and Community Development Department initially agreed to speak with 13 Investigates about its recovery programs, but canceled four days before our scheduled interview, saying the director of the department was no longer available.
In response to our questions, the city said, "While we had hoped to do much more (recovery), we had many successes considering the challenges in getting started."
The city said funding wasn't available until 2019, and there were multiple management changes for some of its disaster recovery programs.
"The funds do not arrive soon enough, which means the programs are unable to start helping people immediately after a storm when they need it the most. In this case, the storm (Harvey) was in 2017. The (Texas General Land Office) received the funds from (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) in 2019. Then we worked with GLO to implement our programs," the City said in a statement. "The only way programs could have started sooner is if the City of Houston had direct allocations from HUD. Unfortunately, going through a third party creates additional requirements, steps, and delays, which means delays in getting much-needed assistance to our residents."
For past natural disasters, the GLO led recovery efforts, but following Harvey, the City of Houston fought for and received direct allocation of $1.2 billion to rebuild storm-damaged homes.
In April 2020, the GLO announced it would take over the program, saying the city "hindered" recovery for thousands of 2017 flood victims.
Since taking over the City of Houston's program, the GLO said it has rebuilt 547 homes, with another 101 under construction and 866 approved and pending construction. The GLO says it has also completed construction on 5,184 homes in 48 counties outside of Houston and Harris County following Harvey.
The GLO agrees changes could be made to allow disaster recovery funds to get to communities quicker.
In a statement, GLO spokesperson Brittany Eck said, "The current process requiring a new set of regulations with every grant is not effective. Codifying (Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery) rules would definitely expedite the action plan process, which is required before programs can begin. Currently the action plan drafting and approval process takes a minimum of six months, including for amendments. While many of the GLO's recommendations for disaster assistance have been made at the state level, a comprehensive overhaul of how funds get from Washington to impacted communities would benefit those in need of assistance."
Green said codifying disaster aid rules would help get money to communities quicker, but it would still require states to distribute the funds appropriately.
"It's a negative impact on people who are not getting the help that they need," Green said. "It's not a good thing. I hope that we can improve upon it, but my constant refrain is this: Texas is a state that discriminates against minority people. It has a history of doing it, and until we face that reality, it's going to be difficult. Poor people get discriminated against in Texas, regardless of their color. This bill that we have, hopefully, will bring Texas in line."
Currie said there's agreement across the board that the system is too complicated and needs to be streamlined.
"The time between disasters is shrinking across communities. They're much more recurrent and frequent, and so I think the pendulum has started to shift so that people know that they can't just ignore disasters after one happens, because there could be another one that happens a year from now or two years from now," he said.
Houston didn't respond to our questions about why it took so long for Benitez to receive aid, which he said he ultimately had to turn down.
Earlier this month, Benitez visited his old neighborhood for the first time since selling the home. The memories came flooding back.
Benitez loved that house, and after all the hard work he put into fixing it after the storm, he said it was perfect. He looked forward to spending summers in the backyard, enjoying cookouts with his grandchildren. But, that didn't happen. He ended up moving to a smaller home in Spring.
"If they had not taken so long to issue the assistance checks, I would still be here," Benitez said. "I was perfectly all set to have that house for the rest of my life."
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