As Louisiana looks to secure more federal flood aid, leaders voice frustration over process so far
Louisiana leaders are voicing frustration with the federal bureaucracy tied to $1.6 billion that Congress has set aside for the state's flood recovery, as the state's Congressional delegation pushes for more money.
"It's not nimble. It's not efficient," U.S. Rep. Garret Graves' Chief of Staff Paul Sawyer told state lawmakers of the federal government's approach to disaster recovery during a hearing at the State Capitol on Thursday.
Had that been different, Sawyer said, "then I think the recovery would look a lot different today."
U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said in a letter to members of the state Legislature that the congressional delegation is currently lobbying for a third round of funding.
"It's our hope that we can secure the additional funding in spring 2017," Cassidy wrote.
But the State Senate Select Committee on Homeland Security hearing highlighted the red tape that has bogged down the aid the state already has been assigned.
Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration says that homeowners and others affected by the floods likely won't benefit from the money until later this spring because of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulates several steps that must be taken before the state can gain access to the money.
"We're hampered by the rules the federal government has implemented," Edwards' Chief of Staff Ben Nevers said. "We're frustrated, too."
Edwards' administration had generally refrained from highlighting negative interactions with President Barack Obama's administration related to the flood recovery process. Edwards, a Democrat, often spoke highly of the White House and FEMA's efforts.
Thursday's hearing was the first full meeting for flood officials to give a detailed update since President Donald Trump, a Republican, took office last week. With Obama no longer in charge, members of Edwards' administration and other leaders offered additional details about working with the federal government over the past six months.
Edwards had asked for the state to receive nearly $4 billion in flood aid, including money for the long-stalled Comite River diversion project that's intended to mitigate future flood damage.
The Obama administration never sent a letter to Congress instructing it to fund the Comite project and neither of the White House's requests included the full funding amount requested.
Sawyer said Congress typically won't fund beyond what the president recommends.
"If the executive branch doesn't ask for it, it's the clear signal to Congress that it's not needed," he said. "Unless it's requested, then Congress is not inclined to fund it."
Nevers said he personally saw Edwards ask FEMA for flexibility with disaster assistance programs and the ability to make changes to programs, including Shelter At Home that provided basic but only temporary home repairs.
"I saw this governor ask for waiver after waiver," Nevers said. "They were continually rejected."
Nevers, a Democrat who served in the state Legislature for 15 years, went on to voice optimism that Trump's administration may be able to cut through some of the regulations.
"We have a new president today. I would hope he could waive some of the (federal regulations) as easily as he could work to build a wall," Nevers said, referencing Trump's commitment to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to curb illegal immigration. "Our people deserve no less than immediate attention."
Edwards briefly met with Trump ahead of a Republican rally in Baton Rouge in December and delivered a letter to him outlining the state's flood recovery needs. He said he expects to meet with the president in the coming months to discuss the issue further.
Sawyer said Graves' office continues to receive ten to 20 messages a day from constituents who were affected by the floods and still need help. Many of the calls are about manufactured housing units or issues with flood insurance.
To date, 3,673 manufactured housing units have been licensed, and FEMA is working to set up a site for more by the end of the month.
But Sawyer described two "outrageous" scenarios in which he said FEMA quirks had prevented people from being allowed to use the housing units that were fully installed on their properties.
In one case, a man was unable to prove that his daughter and her five children were living with him before the flood, so he was given the keys to one unit on his property, while another next to it sits empty. In the other case, a man waited three months for FEMA to finally sign off on him moving into the housing unit that had already been fully installed.
"The trailer was on his property for three months just waiting for keys," Sawyer said. "These are human beings; they're not statistics."
"The way that we treat our survivors is unacceptable," he added.
Rowdy Gaudet of the state Office of Community Development, which is handling the process of drawing down the money that Congress has made available through semi-flexible block grants that are overseen by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that the state has been discouraged by HUD from formally requesting waivers for how the funding is distributed.
Several leaders have pressed on Edwards' administration to seek a waiver from the normal requirement that 70 percent of the funds go toward low- to moderate income residents.
Gaudet said HUD had only granted such a request twice in recent years and both came after programs were already implemented and the needs of the poorer population had been met.
"No other grantees have come in on the front end and made this request," he said. "The feedback we've gotten so far is we have more work to do."