Always Investigating

$125 million in April storm recovery funds remain largely unspent

HONOLULU (KHON2) - It was supposed to be a recovery windfall: $125 million in state emergency money, mostly for Kauai, to help the Garden Island and parts of Honolulu recover from a major flood events this spring.

Always Investigating found it's largely unspent, and one state department has used up the most.

Nearly half-a-year after record rain hit Kauai and swamped East Oahu, less than half of a huge pot of money the state legislature rushed to appropriate has gone to recovery projects.

We wanted to know who got what, what's the holdup, and how they can make sure it gets used to pick up the pieces after the disasters.

It was back in April when a torrent of rain washed away or buried roads under landslides, broke homes into pieces, and reconfigured whole swaths of the Hanalei beachfront.

In East Honolulu, a surprise stall of a sudden storm flooded homes, businesses, churches, and schools.

State lawmakers were in session at the time as both areas faced the monumental task of recovery.

“The legislature acted pretty quickly to set aside $125 million for both Kauai and Oahu,” said Rep. Sylvia Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee. Of that, $100 million was for Kauai, and $25 million for Honolulu.

What did lawmakers think the money would go to by, now several months later?

“What we had intended for this money to be used for was severe cleanup,” Luke said, “because there was a lot of debris and flooding and destruction to some of the infrastructure.”

Always Investigating asked for an accounting of what went where, and we found out less than half, just $49.8 million, has been spent.

The state transferred $25 million to Kauai County and $10 million to Honolulu County back in May, for them to directly spend on county-initiated projects, but of those funds:

Both counties say they have plenty of projects pending and know what they want to do with it once steps like planning, procurement, permitting, and environmental reviews get done.

The state has been spending some directly:

  • $2.9 million went to DLNR for parks
  • $1.8 million to the Department of Agriculture for farms on Kauai and Oahu;
  • $5.1 million spent by Kauai County out of an allotment from the recover funds; and
  • $40 million to the Department of Transportation.

That's state money being allocated, even though the DOT told Always Investigating it's getting most of the Kuhio Highway and bridge restoration paid for by the federal government ($69 million to be reimbursed from the federal government toward an overall $77 million project).

Always Investigating sat down with Gov. David Ige to go over the numbers and asked him about why the DOT got the lion’s share so far.

“Part of the decision to front the money on Kuhio was because we didn't have $75 million worth of projects identified,” Ige said, referring to the remaining balance the state had to spend on Kauai after transferring $25 million out of $100 million directly to the county. “Even though we had transferred $25 million to the county of Kauai, they did not spend a whole lot of it, so we felt comfortable that the funds that we provided were able to accelerate projects and fronting the money on Kuhio Highway would allow us to initiate and work as quickly as we can.”

At some point, tens of millions of dollars will come back from the federal government as reimbursements for those highway projects.

We asked Gov. Ige, how will he trace that, get it back, and make sure it can be redistributed for other purposes for the Garden Island?

“We have been working with the county trying to identify what repair and recovery work is required,” Ige said. “We have funded the projects that are most important to the community, and should there be insufficient funds, then we can work through whatever additional work we need to do.”

Always Investigating asked Gov. Ige, why is it so hard to spend this money?

“I think part of that is really making sure that we can do the projects in the right way,” Ige said.

The letter of the law, Act 12, that made the money available said it was intended also to reduce suffering.

Always Investigating asked, are there more things that can be done on the granular, or individual, or homeowner level to really alleviate that suffering down to the individual family?

“Most of the state funding and state program is really focused on public infrastructure,” Ige said.

Always Investigating asked, they’re having a hard time identifying $125 million worth of identifiable public projects, could they look into more grant-based or loan based programs to spend the rest, because the language in that law did talk about alleviation of suffering?

“Certainly we can, and the agricultural loan programs were an example,” Ige said, of the nearly $2 million allotted to the Department of Agriculture. “Certainly we'll talk and evaluate the specific problem areas and shortfalls that we find, and then try to make examples.”

Lawmakers have other ideas of how to spend any leftovers, such as on Hawaii island lava relief.

“One of the things we had assumed was that the governor was going to use part of the $125 million to assist the disaster situation on the Big Island,” Luke said.

Hawaii island was not mentioned in the Act 12 emergency fund law, because the eruption had not happened yet.

“The emergency proclamation issued by the governor, he is free to use some of this money for the Big Island,” Luke said.

“It could be that there are excess funds in that $125 million, in that appropriation, that we could make available to Hawaii island,” Ige told Always Investigating. “Obviously, we just want to make sure that there are no specific needs that we can identify for Kauai or Honolulu before we transfer any funds.”

Recent meetings weighed whether to call a special session for Hawaii island funding, or just advance money as needed and deal with how to account for it when the next legislative session convenes in January.

“We do believe we can find sufficient funds for the immediate needs of Hawaii County without requesting a special session,” Ige said.

Luke says she does want to keep close tabs and investigate whether all the money is going to disaster relief.


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