U.S. Chemical Safety Board urges chemical plants to weigh disaster risks

FILE PHOTO: The flooded plant of French chemical maker Arkema SA, which produces organic peroxides, is seen after fires were reported at the facilty after Tropical Storm Harvey passed in Crosby, Texas, U.S. August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

HOUSTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Chemical Safety Board on Thursday urged chemical plants to weigh the risks of natural disasters just as they would the integrity of pipes and production equipment.

“Such facilities should perform an analysis to determine their susceptibility to extreme weather events,” the board said in its final report on a chemical fire at the Arkema SA plant in Crosby, Texas, during Hurricane Harvey in August and September 2017.

“In addition, companies should assess seismic hazard maps to determine the risk of earthquakes and consider the risk of other extreme weather such as high-wind events,” the board said in the report.

Harvey dropped five feet of water on the Crosby plant, cutting off power to low-temperature warehouses meant to keep cool organic peroxides used in plastics production.

The peroxides were placed in refrigerated trailers as a last resort to keep them from decomposing and catching fire at the plant located 27 miles east of Houston.

FILE PHOTO: A fire burns at the flooded plant of French chemical maker Arkema SA after Tropical Storm Harvey passed in Crosby, Texas, U.S. August 31, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

But when flood waters cut power to the trailers, the peroxides decomposed, heated up and caught fire, forcing the evacuation of 200 people living within a 1.5 mile radius of the plant. Twenty-one people sought treatment for exposure to fumes from the blaze.

The evacuation ended after officials set fire to the storage trailers to burn up all of the peroxides.

The board, which has no enforcement or regulatory authority, recommended Arkema develop plans for flood risks at its plants and put in place multiple, redundant systems for storing chemicals.

The CSB also recommended that the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ Center for Process Safety develop guidelines so plants can evaluate risk from extreme weather.

The board said Harris County, Texas, should update training and protective equipment to emergency responders to prevent exposure to hazardous chemicals.

Many of those exposed to the fumes from the fire were emergency responders.

(Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Special Report: Unfettered construction raises U.S. hurricane costs

Special Report: Unfettered construction raises U.S. hurricane costs

By Benjamin Lesser and Ryan McNeill

PATTON VILLAGE, Texas (Reuters) – When Hurricane Harvey sent two feet of water rolling into this small community about 35 miles north of Houston, Alfredo Becerra had to flee his modest 1,500-square-foot house.

Muddy floodwater submerged the furniture and ruined carpet inside the construction worker’s longtime home. He has been living in temporary housing since the storm struck in August. He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave him $15,000 in aid.

One month later, across the Gulf of Mexico in Big Pine Key, Florida, moving company driver Byron Keeble lost about $10,000 worth of belongings, including a new sofa and his television, when Hurricane Irma sent a surge of seawater through his rented ground-floor apartment. Keeble said FEMA paid for him to stay in a hotel for a few weeks while he tried to figure out where he would go next.

Floodwaters aren’t the only common thread in the two men’s stories. Also linking them is this: Neither should have been living in harm’s way.

Becerra’s and Keeble’s homes were built or rented out in violation of National Flood Insurance Program rules. Like thousands of others in the hurricane-ravaged Florida Keys and on the Texas Gulf Coast, such houses are undermining efforts to limit flood damage, lower the cost of disaster assistance and reduce claims on the taxpayer-backed federal flood insurance program, a Reuters investigation found.

Similar rule-busting construction has happened in scores of communities across the United States, where local, state and federal officials have failed to enforce regulations intended to restrict building in areas at high risk of flooding.

Across the country, newer construction in flood-prone areas generated more than $9 billion in claims for structural damage on the cash-strapped flood insurance program between 2000 and 2015. Flood-management authorities say that some of those claims probably never would have been filed had proper building controls and accurate flood maps been in place.

“You look at the media images and you see new subdivisions, new strip malls and new buildings with water up to the rooftop. Those are red flags in my mind. Those shouldn’t be happening,” said Paul Osman, floodplain program manager for the Illinois Office of Water Resources.

Controlling construction inside flood-prone areas is critical to keeping flood insurance affordable and reducing post-disaster costs, federal officials say. The primary tool used to ensure communities are doing so effectively is a system of audits of how localities adhere to their own floodplain-management rules. But that system is crippled by a lack of funding and political will, Reuters found in a review of thousands of federal and state documents and dozens of interviews with flood-management authorities.

Many communities go years without these audits, which are conducted by FEMA or state officials and known as community assistance visits. And when serious problems are uncovered, Reuters found, FEMA has been ineffective in forcing communities to fix them.

Hurricanes Irma, which devastated Florida, and Harvey, which inundated vast sections of Texas, have already generated almost $7 billion in flood insurance claims paid. Houston, where $1.3 billion of those claims originated, has not had an audit in at least eight years.

FEMA has leverage: It oversees the National Flood Insurance Program, and can use it to punish a community that fails for years to address problems. The first sanction is probation, which imposes on all policyholders in the community a $50-a-year surcharge on flood insurance premiums until violations are resolved. If the issues aren’t fixed, FEMA can impose a tougher measure: The entire community can be suspended altogether, and all property owners lose access to flood insurance.

Residents and floodplain-management officials told Reuters they think FEMA is reluctant to use these sanctions, however. Of the 22,000 communities participating in the flood insurance program, four are now suspended for failing to enforce floodplain-management rules. Thirty have been suspended for that reason since 1978.

FEMA’s desire is to keep a community in the program “as long as there is any hope of compliance” to avoid stopping regulation altogether, said Rachel Sears, director of FEMA’s floodplain-management division. “We want to keep that relationship intact,” she said. “We only move toward probation or suspension when there is no further hope.”

UNCHECKED RISKS

When Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys, the region was filled with thousands of homes that federal or state officials suspected of having illegal ground-floor enclosures. Those code-breaking homes were unaddressed despite decades of prodding from FEMA.

It is difficult to quantify the costs to taxpayers from the failure to control development in high-risk areas. FEMA doesn’t ask insurance agents and adjusters to identify illegal structures when reviewing claims. And homeowners are allowed to claim losses for a prescribed list of items, including washers and dryers, even if they had been kept in an illegal basement or low-lying enclosure.

All of this stresses an insurance program that the Government Accountability Office, a congressional watchdog, considers to be at high risk of fraud, waste and mismanagement. Until recently, the National Flood Insurance Program owed $25 billion to U.S. taxpayers because it borrowed to cover past disaster losses. In August, President Donald Trump signed a disaster relief bill that forgave $16 billion of that debt. Congress is still considering a long-term fix to the program.

Eric Letvin, a deputy assistant administrator for the National Flood Insurance Program, said he thinks FEMA is largely successful at ensuring communities control risky development. But he acknowledged the agency could do better.

“It’s one of the areas I want to focus on for improvement, especially in the post-disaster environment,” he said.

Only 23 percent of the more than 22,000 communities that participate in the flood insurance program had an audit by federal or state floodplain-management authorities in the eight years ending in 2016, FEMA documents show.

Some communities may not need an audit: They have little new development or a low risk of flooding. But the list of areas without a recent visit includes fast-growing major cities like Miami and Houston, each of which has seen severe flooding recently.

In interviews with Reuters, state and local officials in Texas could not recall the last time federal or state auditors visited Houston, but it has been at least eight years.

“I don’t know,” said Jamila Johnson, who took the helm of the city’s floodplain office in 2009. “That was before I became the city’s floodplain manager.”

FEMA recommends to each state that an auditor visit all high-risk communities every five years. In its 2010 risk ratings, it listed Houston as the top priority in Texas for auditing.

Texas is not alone. In 13 of 50 states, no federal or state auditor visited the highest-risk community between 2009 and 2016, a Reuters review of FEMA documents found.

FEMA isn’t keeping up, either. Despite its own guidance requiring it to produce community risk ratings annually, it hasn’t done so since 2010.

Meanwhile, building continues in many flood-prone areas. There is no comprehensive way to quantify flood damage to properties built illegally. But if newer structures are built in adherence with the rules, flood specialists said, such buildings should rarely flood. Communities with many illegal buildings or inaccurate maps, on the other hand, are likely to have a high percentage of flood insurance claims from new structures in risky areas.

A Reuters analysis of all flood insurance claims filed between 2000 and 2015 found that, nationwide, 27 percent of claims in high-risk areas came from owners of newer structures. States with a high percentage of such claims included Alabama (59 percent), Mississippi (50 percent), and North Carolina (44 percent).

About 41 percent of claims in Florida and 31 percent in Texas came from newer structures.

The total cost of insurance claims for structural damage to new buildings in risky areas, in adjusted 2017 dollars: $9.5 billion.

On top of that, as in the cases of Becerra and Keeble, FEMA sometimes doles out disaster aid. Data are not available to ascertain how much of that aid goes to people living in illegal structures.

Such losses suggest something is awry, floodplain managers and researchers said. Either the community is failing to enforce its floodplain-management rules, or maps do not accurately detail the community’s flood risk.

FEMA delegates the job of conducting most audits to state officials. Those officials, in turn, say they lack resources to visit more communities. For each of the past five budget years, FEMA has allotted a total of $10.4 million to the states and territories, which must match 25 percent of the money. But the dollars must also be spent on other initiatives, such as public outreach.

The number and frequency of visits varies widely by state. In Florida, FEMA and state officials have visited 64 percent of the communities participating in the flood insurance program. In Texas, the number is 12 percent.

Alfredo Becerra’s flooded home is but one example Reuters found of the results of decades of lax oversight in the Houston area.

Becerra’s property is in a floodway – an area that carries the bulk of any floodwaters downstream and where the most destructive damage is likely. Under FEMA regulations, when Becerra built his home in 1985, Patton Village officials should have required that the house be certified as standing at an elevation above expected flood levels. City officials were also obliged under FEMA rules to require an engineering study to prove the structure wouldn’t cause floodwaters to rise even higher, damaging other properties.

Patton Village officials had no records indicating any of those steps were taken. Becerra said he did not know his property was in a floodway.

He received temporary housing assistance that paid for his stay in a hotel for at least two weeks. He says he also received $15,000 in federal disaster aid to repair the damage to his home. He did not have flood insurance.

Leah Tarrant, the mayor of Patton Village since 2013, acknowledges the village hasn’t done its part to control development.

“Honestly, we have never really dealt with floodplain management,” she said. “I’m just being honest with you.”

In surrounding Montgomery County, dozens of properties in multiple communities were built after official flood maps detailed the floodway and floodplain boundaries, according to a March 2017 FEMA audit of the county and a Reuters analysis of appraisal records and flood maps. Many of the houses had no evidence of the required hydrologic studies or proof that the building’s lowest floor exceeded the expected heights of floodwaters. Some flooded during Harvey.

Most of the properties identified by Reuters are in unincorporated areas, which fall under the jurisdiction of county government.

When questioned about the floodway structures, Mark Mooney, the county’s floodplain manager, said the county banned development in the floodway until 2014. He said he couldn’t explain how, if such a ban was in place, so many homes had been built inside the floodway over the last three decades.

“Some of the listed properties could have been constructed without the county being contacted for necessary permits,” Mooney said. “Unfortunately, we do not have a staff that can police daily, when and where everything gets built in our large county. We will definitely follow up.”

RESISTANCE AND POLITICS

Reuters obtained documents from FEMA summarizing the results of 6,253 audits of floodplain-management enforcement conducted between 2009 and 2016 in all 50 states. Auditors identified serious issues in 13 percent of those visits.

It often takes years, or even decades, to bring a community into compliance after an audit failure. As of Jan. 1, 2017, serious violations remained unresolved for three years or longer in 119 communities across the country. That list includes places at high risk of flooding such as Boca Raton, Florida, and St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana.

Monroe County, Florida, where FEMA spent decades trying to eliminate illegal construction, shows why so many known problems persist: Community resistance and politics often impede enforcement efforts.

Years before Hurricane Irma struck the county, authorities identified thousands of suspected illegal enclosures. By the time the storm hit, they had not yet inspected half of those properties to see if they complied with floodplain codes. As of the end of November, the county’s property owners had been paid $62 million in insurance claims for flood damage from Irma.

FEMA first noticed problems in Monroe County during two visits in the 1980s. But the county’s leadership was uncooperative and remained so for years, said Brad Loar, who retired in 2014 as director of the FEMA Region IV mitigation division.

“They pretty much resisted anything that we wanted to talk to them about,” said Loar, who was involved in the first FEMA visit in 1982. “We didn’t see a whole lot of understanding or corrective action for most of the whole thing.”

What auditors found in Monroe County is typical of the Florida Keys. Living space in high-risk areas is supposed to be elevated above expected 100-year floodwater heights. Here, though, property owners often furnish ground-floor enclosures, either to expand their living space or to rent out the extra rooms. The low-rent enclosures are popular with the waiters, cooks, maids and other service industry workers essential to the area’s tourism industry.

When FEMA officials returned to audit Monroe County a third time in 1995, they found the illegal living spaces had become so widespread that sanctions were warranted.

Had FEMA placed Monroe County on probation after the 1995 visit, the agency would have put one of the most hurricane-prone areas in the country on the road to losing flood insurance. Instead, FEMA pressured the county to agree in 2002 to a pilot project that called for inspections of about 5,700 properties.

Property owners with insurance were told they needed to request an inspection from the county before renewing their policies. Also, owners of the 5,700 properties who sought a building permit for any reason had to agree to an inspection.

The inspection program caused a row in county politics that lasted 11 years. Although county government had begun cooperating with FEMA, contractors complained that the inspections deterred residents from upgrading their homes. Residents complained they couldn’t sell their places. Local, state and federal officials faced calls from residents and contractors to end the inspections.

In 2011, homeowners and contractors lobbied the Florida legislature to ban local authorities from conducting the building-permit inspections. FEMA officials argued against the legislation until, local activists said, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, stepped in and pressured the agency to back off.

“It was huge,” lobbyist John November said of Nelson’s involvement. “Without his participation … that pilot program might still be going on.”

By the time the pilot program ended in 2013, only half of the 5,700 properties FEMA suspected of having illegal enclosures had been inspected.

Despite the lingering problems, Monroe County is a FEMA poster child. The agency describes the community as “one of the best examples” of compliance in the country.

(Additional reporting by Gary McWilliams. Edited by Janet Roberts.)

Hurricane Harvey makes Houston reassess growth-friendly policies

Hurricane Harvey makes Houston reassess growth-friendly policies

By Andy Sullivan

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Melinda and Joel Loshak raised two children in a stylish ranch house in Houston’s upscale Meyerland neighborhood and planned to retire there. Now they are hoping the government will knock it down.

After Hurricane Harvey pushed oily floodwaters into their house in August, the Loshaks asked local officials to buy them out, joining more than 3,000 other Houston-area homeowners who grew weary of ripping out waterlogged drywall and ruined refrigerators after three devastating floods in three years.

“I call the house my albatross. It just follows us; it’s hanging from our necks, pulling us down,” said Melinda Loshak, 61.

The buyout program is just one way Houston hopes to better protect itself against future floods. But even as the city prepares to demolish thousands of homes in low-lying areas, developers are putting up hundreds more.

Experts and some elected officials say the region needs to take a hard look at the growth-friendly policies that have increased the risk of flooding even as they have helped keep housing affordable in the United States’ fourth-largest city.

“There’s no indication that we’re going to do anything philosophically different,” said Jim Blackburn, an environmental law professor at Rice University. “With a few modifications, it’s business as usual.”

As Houston rebuilds from the most expensive hurricane in U.S. history, local officials plan to dredge waterways, build new reservoirs and a coastal barrier to protect against storms that experts say are growing in intensity due to a warming climate. They have asked Washington for $61 billion to pay for it all.

Some local leaders, such as Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, have called for development rules to be tightened and for new taxes to fund flood defenses.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner recently said his government would take a closer look at development projects.

But that has not stopped one developer from moving ahead with plans to build 900 houses on a former golf course in a flood zone. Local activists say it is a prime example of runaway development that will make flooding worse.

“That water now doesn’t have a place to go, and it has to go somewhere else – more likely into older neighborhoods that may or may not have flooded prior to this,” said Ed Browne, chairman of a grassroots group called Citizens Against Flooding. “It’s incredibly unfair to allow this to happen.”

Developer Meritage Homes says the project includes bigger retention ponds than are required by law to stop stormwater spilling into the surrounding community. The development “will have zero negative impact on downstream flooding,” the company said in a statement.

Since 2010, more than 7,000 homes have been built in flood zones in Harris County, which includes Houston, according to a ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation.

Some developers say they are willing to consider tougher guidelines – up to a point.

“Any time you have a big storm like this, it’s not a bad idea to look and make sure you have the right answers,” said Augie Campbell, president of the West Houston Association, a local business group. “It’s just important that you don’t rush to judgment too quickly.”

In the meantime, Harris County officials have allocated $20 million to buy 200 homes that flooded during Harvey and are asking the federal government for another $800 million, which would let them purchase another 5,000 houses.

Some 3,636 residents have applied for the buyouts, Harris County Flood Control District spokeswoman Karen Hastings said.

The money, if it wins approval from Congress, is not likely to come through for months.

Meanwhile, the Loshaks have torn out the waterlogged kitchen cabinets they installed after their house flooded for the first time, back in 2015. They have plugged in dehumidifiers and fans to fend off mold. They do not want to have to rebuild again.

“I just would like it to be gone, because it’s so stressful and depressing to see the house and see the neighborhood and know that it’s just going to happen over and over again,” Melinda Loshak said.

(Reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Cynthia Osterman)

White House plans to seek another $45 billion in U.S. hurricane aid

White House plans to seek another $45 billion in U.S. hurricane aid

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House plans to ask the U.S. Congress on Friday for about $45 billion in additional aid for disaster relief to cover damage from hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida and other disaster damage, a congressional aide said on late Thursday.

The request would be significantly short of what some government officials say is needed.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello on Monday requested $94.4 billion from Congress to rebuild the island’s infrastructure, housing, schools and hospitals devastated by Hurricane Maria. The state of Texas earlier this month submitted a request for $61 billion in federal aid.

Last month, Congress approved $36.5 billion in emergency relief for Puerto Rico and other areas hit by recent disasters and said it planned to seek another round of funding after it reviewed requests from federal agencies and state and U.S. commonwealth governments.

Puerto Rico sought $31.1 billion for housing, followed by $17.8 billion to rebuild and make more resilient the power grid.

Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said late Thursday at a congressional hearing his staff had been briefed on the White House that would be released on Friday that he called “wholly inadequate” but he did not disclose the precise amount.

He said the White House had also “short-changed” funding for wildfires that have struck the western United States. The October disaster assistance bill included $576.5 million for wildfire-fighting efforts.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Thursday.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Business group pushes for U.S. flood insurance reform as December deadline looms

Business group pushes for U.S. flood insurance reform as December deadline looms

By Ginger Gibson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The latest attempt to overhaul the U.S. federal flood insurance program hit a stumbling block, but a coalition of business and environmental groups renewed their push on Wednesday for lawmakers to enact an overhaul before the program expires on Dec. 8.

The SmarterSafer coalition sent a letter to members of the U.S. House urging passage of the compromise legislation that would extend to 2022 the federal program that has been heavily utilized after vast flooding from hurricanes Harvey and Irma.

“This legislative package moves the flood program in the right direction and contains needed reforms that will better protect those in harm’s way, the environment, and taxpayers,” the letter states, according to a copy seen by Reuters.

The hurdle came with the House Rules Committee indefinitely postponed a hearing on the bill that was scheduled for Tuesday night.

“Clearly they’re trying to make sure they’ve got all their ducks in a row and they’ve got all the votes they need,” said Steve Ellis, with the conservative group Taxpayers for Common Sense, which is part of a coalition pushing for reform of the program.

Joshua Saks, the legislative director of the National Wildlife Federation, said one of the shortcomings of the compromise is that it does not ensure that the money for flood mitigation projects will ever be spent.

“We need an Apollo project of mitigation right now, we need billions right now up front,” Saks said, referring to the project that put a man on the moon.

Two prominent Republican members of the U.S. House announced last week they had struck a deal that would extend the life of the program that covers most of the nation’s flood-prone properties.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling of Texas brokered the compromise and said the deal helps policy holders and taxpayers.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a $36.5 billion disaster relief bill, including $16 billion in forgiveness of some debt in the National Flood Insurance Program, which insures about 5 million homes and businesses.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson. Additional reporting by David Shepardson.)

North American commercial property insurance rates seen rising sharply in 2018

- Interstate highway 45 is submerged from the effects of Hurricane Harvey seen during widespread flooding in Houston, Texas, U.S. August 27, 2017.

By Suzanne Barlyn

(Reuters) – North American commercial property insurance rates could rise by as much as 25 percent during 2018 for properties that suffered catastrophe losses this year, according to a report on Monday by insurance brokerage Willis Towers Watson.

The commercial property insurance market, which has been soft during recent years, is now heading toward a correction, largely due to hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which together triggered one of the most destructive hurricane seasons in history, Willis Towers Watson said.

Rates for commercial properties that were not damaged, but located in catastrophe-prone areas, may increase between 10 and 20 percent, while the cost of coverage for properties in other locations could increase by up to 5 percent, Willis Towers Watson said.

Insurers around the globe are looking to raise rates after what is likely to have been their most costly quarter on record. American International Group Inc & AIG. said on Friday it would pursue double-digit rate increases and bolster reinsurance, following $3 billion in third-quarter catastrophe losses.

Hurricanes Irma and Maria alone caused as much as $135 billion in insured losses, according to modeling firm AIR Worldwide. Earthquakes in Mexico could cost billions more.

Other insurers pursuing rate increases include the Travelers Companies Inc and Chubb Ltd .

“The marketplace is going to react, and buyers need to be ready,” Willis Towers Watson wrote in the report. Insurers will have a clearer sense of their losses when policy renewals begin next year, the company said.

Auto liability rates may increase between 3 and 8 percent as insurers continue to ratchet up rates because of higher accident rates due to distracted driving and rising costs to fix damaged vehicles, Willis Towers Watson said.

Most buyers of cyber insurance, which covers certain damages if a company is hacked, will face modest increases when they renew, triggered by growth in the sector. “The cleanest risks may still see low single-digit decreases,” the report said.

 

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn in New York; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

 

Lloyd’s of London estimates Maria claims of $900 mln, cuts Harvey, Irma estimates

Buildings damaged by Hurricane Maria are seen in Lares, Puerto Rico, October 6, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

LONDON (Reuters) – Lloyd’s of London estimated net claims of $900 million for Hurricane Maria, which caused devastation in Puerto Rico last month, the specialist insurance market said on Monday.

Lloyd’s also revised down its net claims estimates for hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which hit the United States in recent weeks, to $3.9 billion from initial estimates of $4.5 billion.

Insurers and reinsurers are counting the costs of the three hurricanes, which together with earthquakes in Mexico and wildfires in California, are adding up to a heavy year for natural catastrophe losses.

Lloyd’s said it had already paid $900 million in claims for the three hurricanes.

“We are experiencing one of the most active hurricane seasons this century,” Jon Hancock, Lloyd’s performance management director said.

“While it is clear that these catastrophes will bear a heavy toll, the claims are spread across the entire Lloyd’s market, which has total net financial resources of 28 billion pounds ($36.92 billion).”

Hancock said that while Lloyd’s was cutting its earlier estimates for Harvey and Irma, “this is a developing situation and there continues to be a high degree of uncertainty around any claims estimate”.

 

 

(Reporting by Carolyn Cohn; editing by Maiya Keidan)

 

Schumer calls on Trump to appoint official to oversee Puerto Rico relief

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-NY) departs after a full-Senate briefing by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

By Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Charles Schumer, the top Democrat in the U.S. Senate, called on President Donald Trump on Sunday to name a single official to oversee and coordinate relief efforts in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Schumer, along with Representatives Nydia Velàzquez and Jose Serrano, said a “CEO of response and recovery” is needed to manage the complex and ongoing federal response in the territory, where millions of Americans remain without power and supplies.

In a statement, Schumer said the current federal response to Hurricane Maria’s impact on the island had been “disorganized, slow-footed and mismanaged.”

“This person will have the ability to bring all the federal agencies together, cut red tape on the public and private side, help turn the lights back on, get clean water flowing and help bring about recovery for millions of Americans who have gone too long in some of the worst conditions,” he said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Democrats contended that naming a lone individual to manage the government’s relief efforts was critical, particularly given that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is already stretched thin from dealing with other crises, such as the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and the wildfires in California.

The severity of the Puerto Rico crisis, where a million people do not have clean water and millions are without power nearly a month after Hurricane Maria made landfall, demand a single person to focus exclusively on relief and recovery, the Democrats said.

Forty-nine people have died in Puerto Rico officially, with dozens more missing. The hurricane did extensive damage to the island’s power grid, destroying homes, roads and other vital infrastructure. Now, the bankrupt territory is struggling to provide basic services like running water, and pay its bills.

“It’s tragically clear this Administration was caught flat footed when Maria hit Puerto Rico,” said Velàzquez. “Appointing a CEO of Response and Recovery will, at last, put one person with authority in charge to manage the response and ensure we are finally getting the people of Puerto Rico the aid they need.”

On Thursday, Trump said the federal response has been a “10” on a scale of one to 10 at a meeting with Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello.

The governor has asked the White House and Congress for at least $4.6 billion in block grants and other types of funding.

Senator Marco Rubio called on Congress to modify an $18.7 billion aid package for areas damaged by a recent swath of hurricanes to ensure that Puerto Rico can quickly access the funds.

 

(Reporting by Pete Schroeder; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Diane Craft)

 

U.S. House panel approves $36.5 billion for hurricane, wildfire relief

The U.S. Capitol Building is lit at sunset in Washington, U.S., December 20, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee has approved $36.5 billion in emergency funding for relief and recovery from the recent devastating hurricanes and wildfires, a spokeswoman for the committee’s chairman said late on Tuesday.

The bill includes $7 billion more funding than the White House had sought last week, and included nearly $6 billion more for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) than the administration’s request.

The committee’s bill also includes $576.6 million for wildfire efforts, $16 billion for the National Flood Insurance program, and a provision enabling low-income Puerto Ricans to receive emergency nutrition assistance, said Jennifer Hing, spokeswoman for Representative Rodney Frelinghuysen, the committee chairman.

It was not immediately clear when the bill would move to the floor to be voted on by the entire House.

The United States has been battered by a series of hurricanes in the Caribbean, Texas and Florida and wildfires in California.

President Donald Trump has also asked Congress to approve a $4.9 billion government loan to help Puerto Rico pay some of its bills in the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Writing by Makini Brice; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Hurricanes Harvey, Irma sink U.S. payrolls in September

FILE PHOTO: Brochures are displayed for job seekers at the Construction Careers Now! hiring event in Denver, Colorado U.S. August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. employment fell in September for the first time in seven years as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma left displaced workers temporarily unemployed and delayed hiring, the latest indication that the storms undercut economic activity in the third quarter.

The Labor Department said on Friday nonfarm payrolls decreased by 33,000 jobs last month amid a record drop in employment in the leisure and hospitality sector.

The decline in payrolls was the first since September 2010. The Department said its analysis suggested that the net effect of Harvey and Irma, which wreaked havoc in Texas and Florida in late August and early September, was to “reduce the estimate of total nonfarm payroll employment for September.”

Economists had forecast payrolls increasing by 90,000 jobs last month. Payrolls are calculated from a survey of employers, which treats any worker who was not paid for any part of the pay period that includes the 12th of the month as unemployed.

Many of the dislocated people will probably return to work. That, together with rebuilding and clean-up is expected to boost job growth in the coming months. Leisure and hospitality payrolls dived 111,000, the most since records started in 1939, after being unchanged in August.

There were also decreases in retail and manufacturing employment last month. Stripping out the effects of the hurricanes, the labor market remains strong. The government revised data for August to show 169,000 jobs created that month instead of the previously reported 156,000.

Harvey and Irma did not have an impact on the unemployment rate, which fell two-tenths of a percentage point to 4.2 percent, the lowest since February 2001. The smaller survey of households from which the jobless rate is derived treats a person as employed regardless of whether they missed work during the reference week and were unpaid as result.

The decrease in the unemployment rate reflected an increase in household employment. It also came despite more people entering the labor force.

The dollar rose against a basket of currencies after the data, while prices for U.S. Treasuries fell. U.S. stock index futures were trading lower.

DISRUPTIONS BOOST WAGES

Underscoring the disruptive impact of the hurricanes, the household survey showed 1.5 million people stayed at home in September because of the bad weather, the most since January 1996. About 2.9 million people worked part-time, the largest number since February 2014.

The length of the average workweek was unchanged at 34.4 hours. With the hurricane-driven temporary unemployment concentrated in low-paying industries like retail and leisure and hospitality, average hourly earnings increased 12 cents or 0.5 percent in September after rising 0.2 percent in August.

That pushed the annual increase in wages to 2.9 percent, the largest gain since December 2016, from 2.7 percent in August. Annual wage growth of at least 3.0 percent is need to raise inflation to the Fed’s 2 percent target, analysts say

The mixed employment report should not change views the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates in December. Fed Chair Janet Yellen cautioned last month that the hurricanes could “substantially” weigh on September job growth, but expected the effects would “unwind relatively quickly.”

The U.S. central bank said last month it expected “labor market conditions will strengthen somewhat further.” The Fed left interest rates unchanged in September, but signaled it expected one more hike by the end of the year. It has increased borrowing costs twice this year.

The employment report added to August consumer spending, industrial production, homebuilding and home sales data in suggesting that the hurricanes will dent economic growth in the third quarter.

Economists estimate that the back-to-back storms, including Hurricane Maria which destroyed infrastructure in Puerto Rico last month, could shave at least six-tenths of a percentage point from third-quarter gross domestic product.

Growth estimates for the July-September period are as low as a 1.8 percent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 3.1 percent rate in the second quarter.

Private payrolls fell by 40,000 jobs, the biggest drop since February 2010. Manufacturing employment slipped by 1,000 jobs pulled down by declines at motor vehicle assembly and chemical plants as well as textile mills.

Retail employment fell by 2,900 jobs as food stores payrolls tumbled 6,900. There were also declines in employment at department stores. Construction payrolls rose 8,000 in September as a 3,900 drop in jobs at homebuilding sites was offset by increases elsewhere.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)