JBE’s Letter To Kennedy Defending His Flood Response, Or Lack Thereof, Is Generating Reverberations

We touched on this in yesterday’s Hither And Yon at some length, and now that the elections are over you can expect to hear a lot more about it. But there is a growing bit of discussion around the idea that Louisiana’s response to the August flooding, and in particular the governor’s response, is starting to look like a disaster.

And particularly the governor’s lack of a clear plan on how to spend federal flood recovery money, now that a second tranche of aid has been passed as an appropriation. Louisiana picked up another $1.2 billion in aid on top of $438 million initially thrown the state’s way. Over the weekend, Senator-elect John Kennedy was quoted criticizing Edwards for not coming up with a plan for how to spend that aid, and Edwards wrote him a letter in response that, amid a mountain of snark, essentially claimed he couldn’t do anything in the way of formulating a recovery plan until the federal government gave him guidelines for it.

But it’s not just Kennedy Edwards is sniping back and forth with. Baton Rouge area congressman Garret Graves has been on the warpath against the pace and quality of the flood recovery effort at both the state and federal level, and Monday Graves absolutely went off on FEMA’s abject waste of money buying and installing trailers on the lots of flood-damaged homes for the residents to live in…

FEMA’s response to the catastrophic floods that damaged much of south Louisiana in August has been unacceptable and needs to be “Cajunized,” U.S. Rep. Garret Graves said on Monday to the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

He noted that FEMA is spending about $150,000 per unit for mobile homes for flood victims, when the going market rate is $35,000 to $40,000 each. According to a cost breakdown, FEMA is spending $62,500 for the acquisition of the mobile home and another $43,400 on transporting, installing and maintaining the unit. FEMA is also collecting a 22 percent administrative fee for another $23,000.

Graves also said it was appalling that four months after the flood, people are still waiting for trailers and could be waiting for another month and a half. He also said the “Shelter at Home” program, which provides some repairs to flooded properties to allow people to live in their own houses while finishing the rebuilding work, was a good idea in concept but “the execution was fundamentally flawed.”

He complained that almost 30 percent of Congress’s first allocation to Louisiana flood recovery is being eaten up by overhead and compliance costs. That means that $127 million of the $438 million will go toward program administration instead of direct relief for homeowners, renters and businesses.

Graves said administrative costs should be much closer to 5 percent.

“The situation is that the federal government has really lost its way,” he said. “If this happened in the private sector, would it survive? The clear answer is absolutely not.”

To which Edwards’ spokesman Richard Carbo responded with this rather dismissive statement…

Gov. John Bel Edwards defended the recovery response. His spokesman Richard Carbo said in a statement that strictly administrative costs for flood recovery are capped at 5 percent, but that “program delivery” costs for outreach, environmental reviews, determining eligibility, grant tracking, fraud prevention and other overhead, would be an estimated 20 percent of the allocation. That amount is less than the 45 percent that New York spent for similar programs after Hurricane Sandy, he said.

He also took issue with Graves’ criticism of the pace of disbursements.

“The federal government sets the criteria for submitting proposals before funds can be disbursed to the state, and you would assume that Mr. Graves is aware of that since he serves in Congress,” Carbo said. “However, he made no attempts to offer legislation to expedite the process. The initial payment of assistance was secured with unprecedented speed, and we are following HUD’s guidelines to obtain final approval.”

Again with the excuses, if you’ll notice. It’s HUD’s fault the state doesn’t have a recovery plan.

We went around and talked to a few staffers from senators and congressmen around the state who are working on the flood recovery and gathered reaction to what Edwards’ camp is saying. They’re really not impressed. Among the responses…

  • John Bel Edwards was asked to develop a flood recovery plan back in August that the delegation could use to justify the scope and urgency of the appropriation. He had it reiterated to him time and time again and it’s now four months later.
  • There is a pretty good set of institutional knowledge for Louisiana’s governor to draw from in formulating such a plan. “We’ve seen this movie before.” Making up a recovery plan and anticipating what the federal guidelines will be, since they generally don’t change all that much from the last time there was a flood or a hurricane, really shouldn’t be a question of reinventing the wheel.
  • The simpler your recovery plan is – and the simplest plan is to get applications from flood victims that look as close to standard flood insurance claims as possible, then disburse money to the flood victims so they can start rebuilding – then the easier and quicker it is to write it. And the simpler the plan, generally speaking, the more scalable it is and therefore the better the argument is for chasing down more money to apply it to more victims.
  • By the way, the HUD federal register notice is pointless. Again, nothing much changes from disaster to disaster – what would it say differently than it’s ever said?  They money needs to get into the flood victim’s hands ASAP. Why wait on HUD?
  • John Bel Edwards makes a big deal out of his relationship with President Obama. If that’s so, why can’t he leverage that relationship? Write a recovery plan, take it to Obama and have that plan drive the federal guidelines – or if nothing else, get on the inside to have input from the feds as to changes in the plan needed to comply with those guidelines as they’re anticipated. Incidentally, this is how Haley Barbour, then-governor of Mississippi, leveraged his relationship with George W. Bush to run a proper recovery after Katrina while Kathleen Blanco oversaw a debacle next door.
  • There is also no law to waive.  The state doesn’t need to take 30% administration cost off the top. The environmental compliance requirements can be changed under current law, and the White House has discretion to change things now – which the delegation asked for months ago. Edwards’ relationship with Obama should make this an easy problem to solve.

The point being, it’s not just Kennedy Edwards has a problem with. It’s not just Graves, either. It’s more or less the state’s entire congressional delegation. They’ve got specific concerns with how this is being handled, and those concerns are only going to grow as the pressure builds to land more recovery dollars without a plan for the current ones to be spent.

 

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