Why Louisiana politicians could face hurdles in fight for federal disaster recovery dollars

The Advocate

As the flood response in Louisiana turns from rescue to recovery, the role the federal government — and especially federal dollars — will play is set to become the focus in coming weeks.

The fight for federal disaster recovery dollars is often a hard one. And while it’s a familiar one for Louisiana, the state enters this round without some of the advantages it had in the past and with some new liabilities that could complicate its appeal to representatives of other states.

Louisiana’s delegation could find itself seeking hundreds of millions of dollars for unmet needs just a few years after several of its members spurned such requests in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in 2012. And the delegation, which has few senior members, will be calling for cash from a tight-fisted Republican Congress during an exceptionally heated election season that will end with at least two and possibly three of its members leaving Capitol Hill.

So far, the state’s presumed ace in the hole, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, has not publicly said where he stands on any attempt to wrangle his fellow Republicans to provide disaster aid for the state that goes above and beyond what FEMA typically provides.

The situation the state may find itself in is dire. A report released Friday by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber estimated that more than 110,000 homes worth more than $20 billion had been damaged in some way in just nine of the 20 parishes under a federal disaster declaration. Only about 15 percent of the households in those parishes had flood insurance, according to the report.

And while the Stafford Act, which governs the automatic assistance offered by FEMA after disasters, allows for grants of up to $33,000, limitations on the program mean average payouts have typically been below $8,000. That’s mainly for immediate needs such as temporary housing and the replacement of some essential items like beds.

When the costs of gutting and fixing homes, replacing vehicles and other needs are added in, the need will be far greater than those amounts, said U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican who represents some of the areas affected by the flooding.

“We absolutely need to work to provide more assistance than you would for a traditional disaster,” Graves said. “This is, by some measures, a 1,000-year storm. The Stafford Act doesn’t really think about that.”

In major disasters, the assistance offered under the Stafford Act, which provides funds to both individuals and local government agencies to cover some of their costs, is often only one part of the equation. As of Friday afternoon, FEMA had already approved more than $7 million in individual assistance, which includes money for housing and other needs.

The rest is provided through supplemental funding from Congress, which dedicates money through programs like Community Development Block Grants to meet additional needs.

That extra money is going to be needed to cover costs that aren’t met by insurance and to provide for other needs, such as providing vouchers to contractors who can gut houses.

But its availability is dependent on the willingness of lawmakers to go along with the plan, something that’s hardly a sure thing.

For just one example of the gridlock in Congress, take the ongoing fight over funding to combat the spread of the Zika virus. In February, the White House requested $1.9 billion to battle the mosquito-born virus, which is present in Florida and could threaten other states, but fights over provisions tacked onto the bill have left it in limbo.

“I certainly don’t want to mislead in regard to how easy this is going to be. This is certainly going to be a tough deal,” Graves said.

Louisiana would seem to be in a strong position headed into those discussions, with Scalise, the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House, as a member of the delegation.

However, Scalise, who is from Jefferson Parish, has not publicly commented on whether he would support any supplemental funding bill.

Saturday night, though, Scalise issued this statement though a spokesman: “My top priority is making sure that aid is available to everyone who has been affected by the devastating flooding. I’ve been in touch with top FEMA officials as well as my colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee to make sure that the federal Disaster Relief Fund has enough remaining balance to help Louisiana families and businesses recover from this disaster. When I return to Washington, I will continue making sure that Louisiana has all of the resources we need to fully recover from this disaster.”

Richard Carbo, spokesman for Gov. John Bel Edwards, said the governor has been in touch with Scalise throughout the week and suggested the congressman will be on board with an aid package. The details of that are expected to be hashed out in a meeting with the entire delegation in about a week.

“I think we’ll rely heavily on our congressional delegation to get whatever package we all develop together, and we’ve got a great delegation that is committed to the state,” Carbo said. “I think Scalise’s leadership will be a real asset to our efforts.”

Scalise could be important in part because of his standing with other Republicans, who often have voted against disaster aid in the past. That’s important for a delegation that’s lacking in seniority, often key in Washington negotiations.

Graves is still in his first term as a representative, and most of the other members have been in Washington for less than four terms.

“There’s no doubt that I’m new, and I can’t change that,” Graves said. “But I also can yell just as loud as they can.”

The delegation member with the most seniority in Congress, Sen. David Vitter, is retiring this year, and two of the state’s congressmen, Charles Boustany and John Fleming, are among those running to replace him. That ensures neither of them will be in the House next year, and, with a crowded Senate race, it’s possible neither will return to Washington at all. That could diminish their influence.

A lack of experience doesn’t necessarily doom the effort. Former Sen. Mary Landrieu, largely credited with securing the billions in federal funding necessary to recover after Hurricane Katrina, was in her second term when the storm struck and also faced lawmakers skeptical about whether the region should receive large-scale federal aid.

“The political questions are tricky, but you can overcome politics with good data. It can work, but you have to have the right messenger,” said Paul Rainwater, who headed the Louisiana Recovery Authority and later served as former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief of staff.

This time, however, the politics of previous aid packages could come back to haunt the Louisiana delegation.

The Hurricane Sandy aid package included two parts that together provided $51 billion in aid. Republicans, including almost all the members of the Louisiana delegation, unsuccessfully sought to tie that assistance to an across-the-board cut in other federal spending. When that failed, Scalise, Fleming and Bill Cassidy — then a congressman, now a first-term senator — were all among 180 House members who voted against $33 billion of the aid package. All but one of the naysayers were Republicans.

While those votes weren’t enough to block the package, officials from the states begging for aid after that storm may not forgive that stance.

“The conversations about the politics of it are pretty brutal, but that’s the nature of how it happens in Washington. People pay each other back,” said Rainwater, who has advised governments dealing with other disasters such as Sandy and last year’s South Carolina floods.

The emerging strategy is to work with other delegations whose own states have been hit by disasters but haven’t seen any money beyond what FEMA is required by law to provide.

Packaging the aid for Louisiana with money to address April’s floods in Texas, the June floods in West Virginia or to bolster the money provided to South Carolina last year would give those states’ representatives skin in the game. Locally, an aid package could also include money to recover from the March flooding in part of Louisiana.

“I don’t view this as a request for this incident only,” Graves said.

Within the delegation, several members have signaled they are planning to vote for more federal money.

“Cassidy is coordinating with the Governor’s Office and state agencies on getting damage assessments and (data on) unmet needs. That will enable Cassidy to get a more accurate picture on what needs to be included in any supplemental federal aid package,” according to an email from his office on Friday. That could come up as soon as next month.

Fleming, one of the most conservative members of Congress, said he also would support an aid package.

“A complaint we hear is the first responders come in and start passing out money, like food stamps and welfare and stuff like that for people who may be affected, but they’re not sure,” Fleming said. “Even though I’m a conservative and I’m very fiscally conservative, I think that’s the right thing to do. I would much rather see people get money they don’t deserve than people who deserve money who don’t get it.”

One of the issues that led to the Sandy battle could prove problematic with Fleming, however. The congressman tied his opposition to that bill to $17 billion in projects in the aid package that he and other Republican members said were not directly tied to the recovery effort.

In a body where it’s not uncommon to entice recalcitrant members with money for projects in their districts, Fleming said he would still oppose a package that included that kind of funding.

“That’s where principle comes in,” he said.

While Fleming and others said true disaster funding shouldn’t have to be offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget, it remains to be seen if most Republicans will share his view.

A workaround that may mollify some lawmakers not inclined to put extra money toward disaster recovery could be in the works. Graves said there’s talk of rededicating some of the money in a pot that typically pays for FEMA’s response operations, known as the Disaster Relief Fund, to pay for unmet needs.

At the end of July, the fund had a balance of about $3.8 billion. It typically is replenished on Oct. 1, the beginning of the federal fiscal year, with about $7 billion more.

And the fact that the state won’t be asking for as much as it did in 2005, or as much as was needed after Sandy, may mean the amount will be small enough that it won’t draw too much opposition.

“It’s not as big as Katrina, so it’s not going to be as expensive. But it’s a big enough and terrible enough disaster to warrant federal attention. If the delegation can be unified and work closely with the governor on a good plan, even at this time they can be successful,” Landrieu said.

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