BATON ROUGE – Nearly two years after Livingston Parish’s worst flood in modern history, the slow and tedious process to implement flood disaster reform continues to frustrate U.S. Congressman Garret Graves.
Graves seemed relaxed on the exterior when he spoke at length with The News at a trendy Mid-City Baton Rouge coffeeshop, but issues ranging from the stalemate on the “Duplication of Benefits” provision down to the ongoing struggles of displaced residents in mobile housing units strike a nerve with the two-term District 6 congressman from Baton Rouge.
The logjam on the “Duplication of Benefits” bill has spilled over to a battle between the House and Senate over intentions of the plan.
Graves and fellow congressman Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, engineered a bill which drew a 394-13 House vote Dec. 21, which would eliminate the clause – unpopular on both sides of the floor – that has delayed the return home for thousands of south Louisiana residents.
“You have the recovery groups, the feds, the state and locals on board, and look at the margin – you don’t get stronger votes than that on a big bill, and that showed a lot of momentum and a lot of support in the House,” Graves said.
The Senate refused to act on the bill in December and said it would act on it in January but took no steps on the legislation.
Congress worked to put it in two subsequent appropriations bills – one in February, the other in April – but Senate pushback halted both attempts.
The House will incorporate a new strategy that bypasses the Senate Appropriations Committee and moves it into the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
“It means we’re in the room during negotiations,” Graves said.
The lag came despite senior Oregon Democratic Congressman Peter De
Fazio’s recommendations that Graves seek bipartisan support, which led him to Richmond, who also represents a large portion of the flooded areas in south Louisiana.
They eventually brought Gov. John Bel Edwards into the mix, along with lawmakers from Texas and Florida, as well as a delegation from the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico – all of which suffered extensive damage during the active 2017 hurricane season.
“They’re all a year behind on the recovery,” Graves said. “I told them this issue may not be their problem now, but it will be, at some point.”
Senate members on Capitol Hill remain apprehensive because it would apply both to private and public entities.
The House bill provides a solution to the Comite River Diversion Canal, but some senators fear it will lead to FEMA doling out revenue to the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers.
“Governor Edwards has already said they have the sufficient amount of money for the project, so that’s not an issue,” Graves said.
Senators also fear the DOB elimination would increase the federal amount toward recovery because it would appropriate money for HUD loans, Graves said.
The new bill will, among other things, address a solution for the Interstate 12 barriers at Walker which blocked the flow of water and added to the deluge on the northside during the 2016 flood.
It will also allow for an independent arbitration process for FEMA appeals.
FEMA itself plays a role in much of what Graves wants to change in disaster recovery.
He took issue with its handling of the slow distribution of the mobile housing units, as well as the costs for each trailer and how much the agency gets when each previously occupied unit goes up for sale.
An amendment in the disaster reform bill would move toward improving the efficiency – both and time and cost – of the temporary housing for displaced victims in the wake of a natural disaster.
The amendment would allow local or nonfederal entities to step up and provide broad housing solutions.
Graves said the approach Livingston Parish Sheriff Jason Ard took to house displaced deputies after the flood figured much more efficient – and far cheaper – than the FEMA method.
Ard doled out $34,000 per unit and sold them for $28,000 once his deputies returned to their homes, Graves said.
“Think about that … FEMA spends $170,000 on one trailer and sold them at a cost between $5,000 and $15,000,” he said. “What makes more sense to the taxpayer’s perspective?”
Graves has also been critical of the slow distribution of Community Development Block Grant funds doled out through the Restore Louisiana program.
The tie-up between the state, FEMA and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has made the recovery far more complicated, which he described as “government bureaucracy at its worst.”
“Restore has only awarded $60 million in grants to homeowners, means 99 percent of the money is still in the back, yet FEMA was trying to charge rent by March 1,” he said. “So, you can’t get Restore and FEMA says it will charge rent by a certain date and tell them they’ll pull out trailers.
“You have three agencies that are supposed to be working together, but what you have is complete miscommunication,” Graves said. “It’s like “The Three Stooges.”