Rep. Graves Instrumental in Helping Louisiana Flood Victims Still Struggling to Receive Funds
ammie Angel and her husband scrambled to raise the furniture in their home and evacuate at 3 a.m. on Aug. 14, 2016.
The couple had lived in their suburban Baton Rouge home for 25 years and never imagined that nearly three feet of water would swamp most of their possessions, costing them $100,000 in damages and devastating the surrounding area during historic flooding across parts of south Louisiana.
Luckily the Angels had a flood insurance policy through Allstate Corporation, which would mean swift repairs and full reimbursements on their losses.
Or so they thought.
"Allstate was saying, ‘we didn't receive your payment, so you've got no flood insurance,'" Tammie Angel said. "They had cashed the check."
Like most Louisiana homeowners, Angel filed her proof of insurance claims immediately after the flood. She had mailed her policy renewal check to Allstate at the end of the policy's grace period in early August, and her agent initially assured her that the coverage was secure. But Angel received a call days later informing her that her coverage had lapsed for one month. Her agent claimed her renewal check from the previous month arrived one day after the grace period had expired, which meant the Angels would not be covered under Allstate until September as they sought to begin repairs on their home.
Allstate manages flood claims based on regulations and guidelines enacted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA typically allows renewal offers to be paid within 30 days of the expiration of policies, and those extensions end just after midnight on the expiration date.
An Allstate spokesperson told the Washington Free Beacon that "in the wake of a catastrophe, our top priority is to help customers through the claims process so they can get back on their feet as soon as possible."
Angel pleaded with Allstate to acknowledge her insurance policy because she had been in good standing with the company for more than 20 years, and she referred to the alleged cashed check as evidence of coverage. But after several unsuccessful attempts to convince her agent to recognize full policy coverage, Angel turned to her local congressman, Rep. Garret Graves (R., La.), for help.
"He stepped up to the plate for us and so many other people in Louisiana," Angel said.
Just $344 million of the $1.7 billion Restore Louisiana flood recovery program had been allocated to Louisiana residents as of July 2018, a year-and-a-half after it was approved by Congress.
"This current performance is just unacceptable, and 2017 hurricane victims could be facing similar challenges unless this is fixed," the Republican congressman told the Washington Free Beacon.
Graves said contractors hired to repair homes were partly to blame for the major delay in funds transfers. The state initially paid $75 million to contractors to distribute money from the flood recovery package. Graves said they were making millions of dollars off of the program through an inefficient formula. He claimed contractors compiled 70-page reports for each of the 65,829 damaged homes to document the amount of destruction and assistance needed for repairs.
"It just doesn't make sense for taxpayers at the end of the day because you're taking two years to get the money out the door," Graves said. "It leaves these flood victims in two years of limbo, which then delays recovery of your tax revenues and your economic development. It's just a mess."
The Louisiana congressman has also sought to end the controversial "Duplication of Benefits" provision, which penalizes flood victims who took out Small Business Administration loans to repair their homes by preventing them from receiving grant money through Restore Louisiana. Thousands of victims who quickly took action after the flood wound up facing years of debt after they were told they couldn't receive grants, while residents who waited for the endowments to become available were qualified to secure full funding.
"I think it's wrong," Graves said. "To be clear, we are not asking for a penny of additional federal money. All we're asking for is that people be given the same eligibility for grants as if they didn't get a loan."
Graves proposed a stand-alone bill to change the "Duplication of Benefits" rule last fall. It was later incorporated into Title VI of the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which overwhelmingly passed the House in late April and currently awaits Senate approval. Graves said the measure will not only help Louisiana residents but also victims of subsequent disasters.
"We're hoping [the Senate] can keep that provision intact so hurricane victims in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, and other places can be given the same treatment or eligibility for grants," Graves said. "So what's happened as a result of this hurricane is you now have many more members of Congress who are sympathetic, empathetic and understanding of the issue and are partnering with us to get this done."
Sen. Bill Cassidy (R., La.) said in a statement on July 25 that a solution to the DOB fiasco may happen in the near future after a Senate committee included the House provisions in a series of amendments to the FAA reform. The FAA's authorization expires at the end of September, meaning the Senate has just over a month to vote on the bill when members return from recess this week.
But Graves has had other success securing protection for Louisiana residents against future natural disasters. In July, he announced $343 million would be distributed to fully fund the Comite River Diversion Canal—a long overdue flood control project in East Baton Rouge Parish that will be completed in three to four years.
The CRDC project comes at a crucial time as historic storms and floods continue to pound the southeastern United States. Louisiana State climatologist Barry Keim indicated catastrophic events such as Hurricane Harvey and flooding in states such as Louisiana, Maryland, and West Virginia are still difficult to predict as modeling companies try to pinpoint their occurrences.
The professor mentioned the major floods that occurred within two years of each other in Ellicott City, Md., in 2016 and 2018. "The bottom line is you never know, and you just need to get as prepared as you can within reason," Keim said.
For Graves, preparedness means thinking ahead and taking steps to ensure the safety of his constituents. He just hopes his fellow members of Congress are willing to engage proactively to protect all United States citizens from catastrophe as well.
"The Disaster Recovery Reform Act begins that pivot in paradigm from a reactive posture to an offensive posture where we start leaning forward," Graves said. "We start making investments, addressing vulnerabilities, and mitigating hazards to make sure that in the event of a disaster that we're actually saving money, but more importantly, that we're saving lives, and that we're improving the economic security of a community by making it just another rainy day."
Graves worked around the clock to push FEMA for an extension on premium payments to insurance providers for the Angels and other July policyholders. FEMA had previously extended late premiums for June clients but refused to extend the payment window for an additional month.
FEMA declined to comment on Angel's specific feud with Allstate, but a spokesperson told the Washington Free Beacon that FEMA extended the National Flood Insurance Program proof of loss deadline five times for policyholders to finalize claims. The final deadline to request a claim was Dec. 31, 2017.
FEMA eventually granted the extension for July policyholders, and the Angels received full coverage from Allstate that they had desperately fought for to rebuild their flooded home.
"Garret Graves really did not have to take on this responsibility," Angel added. "It's not really his area—our issue that we had with FEMA and Allstate—but he did."