Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration is struggling with a problem that has become all too common for Louisiana’s governors: How do you pick the winners and losers among disaster victims as you divvy up federal aid?
Louisiana’s received $1.6 billion in federal block grant aid from Congress to help recover from the March and August floods that slammed the state, damaging tens of thousands of homes and causing billions in damage. The assistance is a hefty sum to be sure, but it’s not enough to help every homeowner, renter, business owner and farmer with damage to rebuild.
While the Democratic governor already faces Republican criticism because the recovery money won’t start flowing until April or May, he’s certain to take more hits when people with flood damage learn if they can count on receiving any of the aid themselves.
The Edwards administration hammers home the idea during any talk of flood recovery that Louisiana hasn’t received as much federal assistance as it needs. Administration officials say the state is about $2 billion short. The governor already is planning more trips to Washington in February to lobby President-elect Donald Trump’s administration and Congress for more money.
“We are grateful for the money we have received so far, but make no mistake, there are many needs left to meet,” Edwards said.
The governor intends to spend 80 percent of the flood recovery money, $1.3 billion, on homeowner aid. His leader on disaster recovery, Pat Forbes, said that amount will give rebuilding assistance to an estimated 36,000 homeowners, those who have major or severe damage from the flooding but didn’t have flood insurance coverage.
But that’s only a fraction of the 112,000 homes estimated to have been damaged by last year’s floods.
The plan will leave out people whose homes were flooded with less than a foot of water or who had less than $8,000 in destruction, and it will snub those who doled out their own money to protect their homes with flood insurance – even if that insurance didn’t cover all the repair and reconstruction work.
“No matter how we slice this, there will be people who should get assistance from us and will not be able to get assistance from us,” Forbes said. “That’s just the fact is that if we don’t have enough money, we have to distribute the funds in different ways, with the ultimate goal being the large-scale recovery of the state.”
The priority for spending the combined $1.6 billion available, Forbes said, is on making sure the most heavily damaged communities and neighborhoods don’t collapse, unable to recover.
Besides the $1.3 billion for homeowners, Edwards wants to use $62 million for business and agriculture assistance, $105 million for state and local governments’ recovery costs and $100 million for rental housing and homeless prevention programs.
Right now, zero dollars are planned to pay for widespread infrastructure improvements aimed at making Louisiana a safer place to live – or making a future flood less damaging. Edwards said that’s a priority the state can’t afford with the limited block grant aid, but he’d like to allocate $600 million to the work if Louisiana gets additional help from Congress.
Louisiana is awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to start spending the first portion of congressional recovery money.
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy and U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, both Republicans, have criticized Edwards as moving too slowly to dole out the aid. GOP officials also have raised concerns about the $66 million set aside for administrative costs. Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy said Louisiana needs to show it is wisely spending the disaster recovery money Congress has allocated before expecting more.
Despite any disagreements, there appears to be little dispute between the Democratic governor and the majority-Republican congressional delegation that Louisiana could use more recovery aid. It also appears likely that – similar to Louisiana’s recovery after hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Isaac – some disaster victims will be left on their own.
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