FRENCH SETTLEMENT -- Governor John Bel Edwards wants to steer toward flood control and avoid home elevation projects, according to a state official who spoke at a task force meeting Oct. 17.
Pat Forbes, who oversees the Community Development Block Grant Program for the Governor’s Office, said Edwards believes home elevation is a short-sighted solution to flood protection.
“He wants to focus on lowering base flood elevation rather than raising homes,” said Forbes, who was among the speakers on hand for the meeting of the Louisiana Flood Recovery Task Force, a joint committee of state senators and representatives who gathered for the public meeting at St. Joseph Catholic Church Parish Hall.
Edwards, along with members of Louisiana’s Washington delegation, believe the Comite River Diversion Canal and other flood-prevention projects would be more feasible for the state.
“He’d rather see us lower base flood levels rather than raising homes,” he said. “He wants us to help all the homeowners rather than just a few.
“Besides, we’d never have enough money to raise every home that flooded,” Forbes said. “We need to look at basin-wide approaches.”
How long it takes residents to return to their homes remains another question.
Thousands in Livingston Parish and across the southern region remain displaced two months after the flood.
Mark Riley, deputy director of Disaster Response for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the costs related to the August flood will likely surpass the amount the state and federal government doled out after Hurricane Gustav in 2008.
“It’s not as big as Katrina, but at least as big as Gustav, and probably bigger in terms of the number of people affected,” Riley said.
FEMA took a step to stabilize the housing situation Oct. 17 when the agency extended its Temporary Shelter Program until Nov. 14. The program, which grants free hotel stays for qualified applicants, has sheltered nearly 2,800 displaced residents at a price tag of $11 million, Riley said.
Distribution of the MHUs has been one of the biggest sore spots. FEMA projects it will distribute 4,000 homes by the end of the year, but only 563 were occupied as of Oct. 17.
The delay is not FEMA’s fault, Riley said.
“They come to town with the federal bureaucracy on its back,” he said. “They have to do things the federal way, and that takes time.”
Riley said he has worked closely with Livingston Parish GOHSEP director Mark Harrell, who has worked to cut the time frame on placement.
The logistics posed the biggest obstacle, he said.
“It’s up and running now and it’s going pretty well,” Riley said.
The 18-month period on use of the MHUs begins once the residents move in to the trailers, he said.
The state also faces a dilemma on where else to house displaced flood victims.
Louisiana faced a shortage of rental properties before the flood, but damage to some of the existing tenant housing has magnified the problem, Forbes said.
He hinted that a program may come into play which would provide low-interest or zero-interest loans to landlords who lost their rental properties in the flood.
“We may even want to consider purchase of adjudicated properties, spend some money to fix them up and get cities to rent them out to displaced residents,” Forbes said.
The rental properties represent a major piece of the recovery puzzle, he said.
“We know whole communities flooded and there were areas where the damage was far more dense – not just in a flood plane, but an entire neighborhood,” Forbes said. “We need to find ways to keep the neighborhoods in communities and stop them from dying.”
The infusion of $438 million in community block grant revenue from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development will put the wheels in the right direction, but the magnitude of the flood warrants much more revenue.
“We have far more problems than we have money to fix them,” Forbes said.
The state will need to outline its spending plan to the federal government if it wants greater leverage to acquire a relief package, he said.
The federal government requires HUD to write a federal registry notice to document how funds will be spent before it approves the plan.
“That’s where the line of credit exists and that’s when we can start spending,” Forbes said.
It will probably take three months for the federal funds to reach the state and local level, he said.
The process usually takes between six months and a year.
“What we’ve been able to acquire in such a short amount of time has been a Herculean task,” he said.
Forbes and SBA public information officer Garth McDonald, meanwhile, urged residents to take caution when they apply for a loan.
Federal government laws now stop the “double up” of grant funding and SBA loans.
Forbes suggested residents wait to see if grants are available before they obtain a loan.
“Everyone should register with FEMA, but they should be warned that if they get a loan, it’s still considered a duplication of benefits,” he said. “SBA is a valuable tool in recovery, but people who get the loan have to realize it may derail their ability to get a grant.”
Funding issues aren’t the only problem for local residents, one state lawmaker said.
State Rep. Clay Schexnayder – who represents French Settlement, Port Vincent and Maurepas – cited communication as the biggest fallout from the flood.
The lack of cellular service posed a huge roadblock in the distribution of emergency supplies to the area, he said.
“How can we go about making a phone call to say we need supplies?” said Schexnayder, R-Gonzales.
He also chided FEMA for the slow movement on the MHU placements.
Schexnayder said he could not understand why the agency would not allow the trailers on certain properties.
“I understood the battle in which we couldn’t get these mobile homes on lots in New Orleans, but we have a lot of people who can fit a mobile home on properties in this area – and some even have the mobile home hookups,” he said. “But they’re prolonging it by telling these people the property is not viable for the mobile homes.”
He also took issue with the Shelter at Home program. The representative said the program is failing because some of the contractors authorized for the program have done a poor job.
“They’re putting things in so shabby, and it’s not costing the state or contractor – it costs the homeowner,” Schexnayder said. “We’re failing in part because the contractors Governor Edwards put on the list should be able to do these jobs.”
Some of his constituents commute back and forth from a hotel in Kenner to bring their children to Livingston Parish schools, Schexnayder said.
“The state is failing my district and failing my constituency …this isn’t acceptable at all,” he said. “The people in this area fought a good fight to make this work and all they’re seeking is a little help.”
Resident Lynn McMorris, speaking on behalf of 10 households in the 36-home Cypress Point Subdivision, said the federal government has ignored their concerns about erosion which has taken chunks off their backyard areas along the Amite River.
Water did not get into the homes, but took down yards, boat, sheds and bulkheads, she said.
“The National Flood Insurance Program doesn’t pay for soil erosion, nor does homeowners insurance,” McMorris said. “We have mortgage companies holding mortgages, and now we have a huge gap in coverage with no place to turn.
“We’ve done everything we were supposed to do, and we thought we’d have federal help, but we don’t,” she said.
Other residents complained about the lack of assistance for veterans and retirees, while one complained about the slow response on debris removal along La. 16 by the state Department of Transportation and Development.
“I was told six weeks ago to have everything by the curb, and I call them every day … my front yard looks like Mount Trash,” resident Pat Gaines said.
“We’ve waited six weeks and we’ve been told nothing. They tell me they’re working in other areas, but I pay taxes, too,” another resident said.