Ben Carson: Money allocated for flood victims will be 'well spent,' but a lot of hurdles still in the way
Dr. Ben Carson, the U.S. housing secretary, made plenty of cuts and incisions during a renowned career as a neurosurgeon.
But it's blockages of another type — regulations Carson said are holding up federal flood aid — he's looking to slice.
Shortly after visiting a Denham Springs couple whose home remains a work in progress a year after taking on several feet of water, Carson told reporters that federal money earmarked for flood victims only trickled out over the past year in part because of "a labyrinth" of federal red tape.
"There is no question that the money that's been allocated is going to be well spent," Carson said while standing alongside Gov. John Bel Edwards, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and Rep. Garret Graves. "But there still remains a lot of hurdles in the system that slow down the process."
Exactly what regulations are in Carson's cross-hairs wasn't spelled out — "there's a long, long, long list," Carson said when asked before pointing to President Donald Trump's executive orders on cutting down on federal rules — but his comments echoed complaints from Louisiana politicians, officials and homeowners who've griped about the slow pace of delivering some $1.7 billion in special appropriations from Congress.
Edwards said the partnerships with Carson's Department of Housing and Urban Development and other federal agencies have been promising.
"We've got a lot of work to do in Louisiana and we're going to get it done," Edwards said.
Carson is scheduled Tuesday to visit two housing developments in New Orleans — Bienville Basin and Columbia Parc — that were rebuilt using federal HUD money following Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
State officials, meanwhile, are aggressively pushing for flood victims to fill out homeowner surveys, the first step in qualifying for additional aid and a key tool in measuring how much additional money might be needed to complete the rebuilding work. Workers are canvassing door-to-door, and the state has launched advertising campaigns to encourage those hit by the floods to take the survey.
The response so far has been less than state officials hoped, with thousands of flooded homeowners yet to respond.
Kennedy, a first-term Republican senator and former state treasurer, said he suspects frustration with the slow pace and accompanying stacks of paperwork for other federal programs are discouraging many.
"I know people are disgusted with government at all levels," Kennedy said.
The governor and his staff also have highlighted a number of regulations and quirks in federal law that have stymied some of their efforts, including a ruling by HUD that bars Louisiana residents who received Small Business Administration loans from using recovery dollars to pay down those loans, a point of particular aggravation for impacted homeowners.
Graves, whose congressional district includes much of hard-hit Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes, called conversations with Carson on Monday "incredibly refreshing." The cabinet secretary, Graves said, asked probing questions during closed-door meetings earlier Monday about the kind of "bureaucracy and red tape we're trying to cut through."
Among the beneficiaries of federal recovery funding have been Charlotte and Buddy Rimes, both 68, who tidied up their Denham Springs home as best they could to host Carson and the accompanying delegation. The couple, who had no flood insurance, rebuilt their home with help from relatives and some money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
They're now looking to finish some of the work with money from the Restore Louisiana program, a state-run homeowner assistance program fueled by federal dollars.
Some of the work is done — Charlotte Rimes chatted with Carson in her partially refurbished living room, the hardwood floors replaced with carpet to cut down on costs — but a lot remains to be done. While walking a reporter through her home after Carson departed, Rimes pointed to missing doorknobs, makeshift kitchen counter tops and unfurnished bedrooms that haven't yet been tackled.
The politicians "thought it looked nice," Rimes said of her home, "but it's not even done yet!"
The Rimeses said the flood, which filled their home with between 19 and 42 inches of water, only kept them out for a couple of days. They've been living amidst the rebuilding ever since — and both complained of discomfort after spending most of the last year sleeping on an air mattress.
The biggest hurdle still facing the couple? Lining up someone to do the remaining work for the $16,000 budgeted in the program.
"Finding a contractor has been a thing," Charlotte Rimes said.
Louisiana officials and representatives largely agree that far more money is needed to help the area bounce back from the destruction of the floods.
But lining up additional flood relief money in Washington hinges in part on disbursing the money already allocated, according to Kennedy and Graves.
"It's not as much as we need, but it's not chopped liver," Kennedy said. "We've got to get that money into the hands of the people — even if we've got to go door-to-door and beg people to fill out the forms.
"I can't go back and ask for more until this is spent. It's that simple."