Congressman Garret Graves

Congressman Garret Graves

WASHINGTON, D.C. - It was a gathering for those involved in the disaster recovery process.

At least, it was supposed to be.

Instead, the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee held a hearing Tuesday with witnesses from FEMA, Government Accountability, Economic Development Administration, and others to look at the performance of the US government's disaster recovery programs.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was absent.

That didn't come as a surprise to Congressman Garret Graves (R-LA, District 6) who was hyper-critical of HUD during his testimony Tuesday.

"I know why HUD didn't want to be here, they couldn't stand up to scrutiny," Graves said.

The congressman started with FEMA, however, in a discussion on a piece of legislation that would provide benefit to state and local governments for participating in activities that would make their communities more disaster resilient.

The language, which was passed as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, would run similar to a community's ability to shore up points in the Community Rating System (CRS), which provides a discount on flood insurance for activities specifically related to flood and storm disaster prevention.

Participation in this program would help reduce a community's portion of the cost share of disaster relief and grant programs, which at current is a 25% match.

In this case, however, FEMA has taken no steps to implement the program. Graves went on to say that, according to second-hand sources within FEMA, the administration had "no timeline to implement the program."

"This is supposed to provide incentive for communities to become more resilient," Graves explained, "and I urge you to consider implementation and I'd ask that you come back to this committee with an implementation timeline.

"I'm not sure that, when you read the law, it gives you (FEMA) any discretion (to not implement a plan)."

Second, the congressman said that the law was written to make schools deductible as one structure, as opposed to individual deductibles per building on school campuses. That was listed under Section 1207, Part B of the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018, and carries weight in Livingston Parish where, in cases like Denham Springs High School, upward of seven buildings on a single campus flooded.

According to Graves, the savings for implementing that piece of the plan would be $40 million, but local school officials and administrators are still waiting for approval on clearance from individual building deductions for flood claims.

That wait, and the confusion that comes in the post-disaster landscape, was the fuel for the third issue Graves brought to the table... with passion.

To lead, Graves cited page 47 of a specific report produced by FEMA (19-232), debriefing on disaster recovery:

"Different federal disaster recovery programs are initiated at different times," Graves began, "Making it challenging for state and local officials to determined how to use federal funding methods in a comprehensive manner.

"It goes on to say, in a response to a survey about the report, 12 of the 13 states and cities reported that navigating the multiple funding streams and various federal regulations challenged their ability to maximize disaster resiliency opportunities."

Graves went on to describe a situation after the flood, where FEMA was shutting down funding for hotel stays and Mobile Housing Units (MHUs) while HUD was not ready to release their funding for long-term housing recovery, and it would be over a year before their rules were released.

"It doesn't make sense," Graves said angrily, "we look like a circus, this is all the same federal government."

The report concluded that Congress should consider regulation to establish a specific set of rules and regulations for disaster recovery, through HUD or "another specific regulatory body," for future disasters.

Graves explained that HUD took 18 months to issue regulatory statutes for their block grant, and in the mean time the state (of Louisiana) had to spend $300 million for a contractor to navigate the regulations and issues, as well as administer the "Restore LA" program.

And, unfortunately, Graves added that a bill will be hitting the house floor sometime "next week" that would memorialize the program, which means establishing it as the recovery method until congress passes a law to undo that measure.

"This is stupid," Graves said, angry again. "These are disaster victims, that I don't hear anyone talking about, and they've lost everything in many cases.

"This is the United States, this is ridiculous - our own federal government re-victimizes people."

Graves said that the regulations issued by HUD for all of these grants are 'nearly identical' and said that the transition from FEMA to any other agency should be seamless, and that the lessons learned in Louisiana should be applied so that the process can be adjusted and improved.

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