At WWL.com is an Associated Press story which begins to describe something we’ve been talking about for months at the Hayride – namely, that flood recovery is becoming a major political problem that the Edwards administration isn’t all that well-prepared to deal with.
Which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise seeing that Edwards has created that problem by failing to pay heed to the warnings the state’s congressional delegation has been peppering him with since September.
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.
Right, but a major part of the problem with getting that $2 billion more is that the state has done such a poor job of presenting the feds with spending plans for the money that’s already been appropriated. It took more than three months for Edwards to submit a spending plan for the first $438 million that was appropriated in September; a plan for the next $1.2 billion tranche hasn’t been submitted yet. Edwards blames that on the federal government and its red tape; the delegation isn’t buying it – they say the regulatory guidelines for flood recovery spending are substantially the same as they’ve been forever, and shouldn’t have been an impediment to moving the ball forward far faster.
Then there is this, which is really going to drive people up the wall and his approval rating down the tubes…
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.”
Edwards has made it known his recovery plan will favor poor people over those with means – which is going to be interpreted as favoring Democrats who voted for him rather than Republicans who didn’t. The Democrats might like that fine, but seeing as there is only one of those in the congressional delegation and two senators and five congressmen who are Republicans, all of whom have sizable microphones and will play vocal roles in the flood recovery process as it goes further – and speaking of vocal, meet new U.S. Senator John Kennedy and his copious skills in furthering media narratives unfriendly to his political opponents – it’s probably not a position the majority of people in the state are going to see as good governance.
Not to mention that when flood victims find out that taking assistance from the Shelter At Home program, in which they were issued and installed a number of fixtures largely unsuitable for anything more than temporary emergency use, will result in an offset of federal aid for permanent recovery, they will be looking for blood.
Then there is this…
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.
The vagaries of regulation and red tape aside, politically this is dumb. Really dumb.
One reason it’s dumb is that virtually everybody who lived near the Amite River and was thus flooded by its spilling its banks last August is still simmering over the fact it’s been 30 years and there has been zero functional progress in building the Comite River Diversion Canal project. No one blames Edwards for that, because obviously he just got in office. But the minute he’s given more than $200 million in federal flood recovery dollars – which he got in September when the first $438 million came in – the smart thing to do would have been to hold a groundbreaking for the CRDC, drop a shovel in the ground and say it was the first priority in order to insure such a disaster would never happen again.
Because the CRDC contains a substantial benefit. Rep. Garret Graves has noted repeatedly that building that canal would lessen the flood risk of some areas which went from not being on FEMA flood maps before August 2016 to now being the subject of government demands that they be elevated before building permits would be issued. If you’re being told you’ll have to spend $50,000 to raise your property that you didn’t even have flood insurance for because you supposedly weren’t on a flood plain, you’ve likely given up on the whole idea of rebuilding – and that money comes out of your pocket. That’s how you get people turning in their keys to a flooded house and telling the bank to stick that mortgage where the sun don’t shine.
Which is a bad outcome, and one the governor really needs to avoid if he wants the state’s second largest metro area to rebound from the flood during his term in office.
So you announce that the CRDC is getting built, and on a fast track at that, and then you start pressuring the feds to shut up about elevating houses that are no longer at risk to flood during a major event once it’s completed. Something like a quarter of the properties which took water in the Amite River Basin in August would not have; that’s as many as 15,000 to 20,000 homes. A $200 million price tag for the canal comes to about $10,000 per 20,000 homes, which is a fairly reasonable cost when compared to the burden of elevating them.
Not to mention Edwards would be seen as actually doing something. Nobody has seen him do that at all.
Now he’s leaving to go to Italy to see the pope about human trafficking, and immediately upon his return it’s expected he’ll be calling for a special session to raise taxes to balance his budget. Given that all the news he’s offering to those flood victims is bad, raising taxes on them means his days of above-water approval ratings are numbered indeed – and Edwards’ political flood is coming, quickly.