Graves-authored FEMA reform legislation draws unanimous House Committee approval on Capitol Hill
WASHINGTON – The federal House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee unanimously approved a series of federal disaster policy changes authored by Congressman Garret Graves, a move which drew high praise from Livingston Parish officials.
The Disaster Recovery Reform Act would usher sweeping FEMA reform legislation, including changes to the much-criticized “duplication of benefits” clause which has put the recovery process in stalemate for disaster victims in Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Graves, a District 6 Republican from Baton Rouge. “We continue to spend a lot of time traveling through flood-impacted areas, talking to people about the problems they’ve experienced the Duplication of Benefits, which have topped the list of complaints we’ve received.”
House Resolution 4460, “The Disaster Recovery Reform Act,” would eliminate bureaucratic roadblocks and allow for better preparation, response and mitigation against floods, hurricanes and disasters of all kinds, Graves said.
It would also implement a federal government shift to a more proactive approach to disaster preparation, relief and recovery – issues the second-term congressman has pushed since he took office.
A vote by the full House of Representatives will come to play in December.
The bill would likely to go the Senate before Christmas, Graves said.
“This is one of the most significant disaster recovery and preparedness bills in decades,” he said. “The legislation truly captures and takes action on the frontline feedback and lessons learned from our August flood, recent hurricanes and other events. This is the way Congress is supposed to work.”
Approval of the legislation by the full House and Senate could bring much more momentum to the recovery process for Livingston and other parishes affected by the flood events of March and August 2016, Livingston Parish President Layton Ricks said.
“This could not only benefit our area, but a lot of other states and territories for our nation,” he said. “Garret has worked tirelessly to help Livingston Parish and the surrounding areas, so I’m hoping the Senate gets on board because this has the potential to really help a lot of people.”
Graves and fellow Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, spearheaded the “duplication of benefits,” which has prevented Louisiana flood survivors from gaining access to Restore Louisiana grants.
“The whole concept that the SBA loan is a duplication of a grant lacks any degree of common sense,” Graves said. “It’s very unfortunate that Congress had to step in to fix this.”
The legislation would open the gates for more than 10,000 Louisiana flood victims to access $1.7 billion in federally-funded Restore Louisiana grants administered by the state.
The policy would benefit hard-hit disaster areas, including Texas, Florida, New York, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The legislation by Graves and Richmond represents a sense of bipartisanship rarely seen in the current landscape on Capitol Hill.
“When you focus on policy and not get into the emotional stuff, it’s a lot easier and provides a good example of how congress can function,” Graves said.
The Graves-Richmond proposal also provides flexibility to states and local governments to complete much-needed flood mitigation projects, including the Comite River Diversion Canal.
“I’ve said over a year that mitigation funds that can be used, and in bill passed yesterday, we eliminated any doubt on eligibility of those dollars, and I’ve said for a year and over a year now they should be used for CRDC,” Graves said.
The provision would allow authorization of FEMA hazard mitigation funds to complete Army Corps of Engineers flood, drainage, coastal and hurricane projects.
The congressional delegation has appropriated nearly $300 million in federal funds to Louisiana for hazard mitigation projects such as Comite project.
The bill would also extend FEMA arbitration until 2022.
The move would help facilitate more rapid reimbursement to local governments that are delayed and denied due to FEMA resistance or inconsistent policies.
Arbitration creates an independent, quasi-judicial, balanced, objective process to resolve lingering, costly disputes that stymie recovery, Graves said.
“In many cases, our local governments cannot afford the legal costs of fighting FEMA,” he said. “This amendment provides a quick and fair resolution process to resolve disagreements that delay disaster recovery.”
The move drew praise from Mark Harrell, director of the Livingston Parish Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, who continues to haggle with FEMA on repairs to Livingston Parish roads that were damaged through inundation during the 2016 flood events.
“Garret has really fought for us,” he said. “To eliminate the duplication of benefits clause would be great for our recovery.”
Interstate 12 Wall
The proposed amendment also requires FEMA to collaborate with the Federal Highway Administration to develop policy on the design, construction and repair of evacuations routes like I-12 in Baton Rouge and Livingston Parish.
“This policy will help to make the necessary changes to the interstate barrier and drainage to facilitate evacuations and road usage during floods,” Graves said.
The bill would also shift communities to spending toward proactive resilience instead of response, Graves said.
“It flips the paradigm from the use of tens of billions after disaster,” he said. “Instead of focusing on how to make areas more resilient, how to make them more hurricane-proof or flood-proof.
“We have an opportunity now to lean forward and make sure these communities are ready for these types of events,” Graves said. “It makes more sense to spend more to improve resiliency, so we can make those events just another rainy day rather than a disruptive or deadly experience or an experience that freezes the economies of these different states and territories.”
The continued growth of areas outside the metropolitan areas bring more importance to the shift from response to preparation, Graves said.
“Over last several decades, as more and more people move to coastal areas, we’ll see more and more damages, more and more costs and more and more impact on our families and business,” he said. “The federal government has got to get good at resilience. We need to invest in communities.”
Resilience projects would include flood control, hurricane protection and elevation of structures.
The proactive shift would help to complete stalled Corps of Engineers projects and advance federal-state-local partnerships in preventing disaster losses and the loss of life. The legislation also provides financial incentives for states and local governments that make resilience investments to prevent flooding and other losses.
Other reform provisions in the amendment include:
Proof of Insurance – Katrina survivors receiving federal assistance are required to obtain and maintain flood insurance. FEMA requires Louisiana to act as the flood insurance police for those receiving this assistance – a job clearly outside the bounds of state responsibility – or FEMA will penalize the state for failing to enforce. The Graves "proof of insurance" maintains a reasonable insurance requirement while removing the bureaucratic, legacy Katrina mandate. Added at the state’s request, the amendment could save the state nearly $100 million in FEMA reimbursements.
Pets and Service Animals – the bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to engage veterinary schools, like the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, to develop emergency teams to launch with first responders during disasters. These specialized teams will help to train emergency managers and work to take care of service animals and others affected by disasters. In many cases, we saw animals abandoned in the 2016 floods.
Eliminate Duplicative Applications – DRRA requires FEMA and other agencies work to implement a streamlined process whereby disaster victims can provide information one time to a federal agency rather than having to apply multiple times to multiple agencies for disaster assistance.
FEMA Transparency – FEMA is required to establish an online system that discloses disaster costs, contracts and other activities to help improve accountability and prevent fraud.
FEMA assistance for Houses of Worship – Without fail, some of the most reliable, generous agents of recovery are the many churches in the Capital Region. Graves pushed hard for the H.R. 4460 provision that qualifies houses of worship and faith-based non-profits for FEMA assistance to repair, restore or replace when they are damaged.
Assistance to Survivors with Disabilities – Current law allows individuals up to $33,300 in FEMA assistance. H.R. 4460 includes a Graves-supported provision that will extend FEMA assistance above this amount to repair or replace damaged accessibility features for individuals with disabilities. During the August 2016 flood, Congressman Graves’ office worked closely with the autistic community and Trach Mommas of Louisiana to address their specific disaster needs. This provision addresses many problems identified in those efforts.
Localized Management of MHUs and Temporary Housing – H.R. 4460 authorizes states to develop regional, customized recovery housing options. This departure from FEMA’s one-size-fits-all policy will allow states to decide the best options for temporary housing solutions and will position local communities for a greater role in developing the right recovery options for South Louisiana. This provision addresses the flaws in future Shelter-at-Home type programs to provide housing to disaster victims and will help save taxpayer dollars by preventing the excessive funding spent on out of state mobile homes.