Much like post-Katrina, a major homeowner aid package could make or break flood recovery

The Advocate

Drop the phrase “Road Home” around New Orleans and other parts of southern Louisiana, and you’re likely to hear groans, followed by horror stories about interacting with the suits who ran a homeowner-aid program that became synonymous with government inefficiency.

But dig deeper, and many people will tell you the money that flowed through the Road Home — even if it was too little and very late — was the difference between rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina or walking away.

“The Road Home was the key to the region’s recovery,” says former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who traveled to Washington nine times to seek money for the program and then opted not to seek a second term in the wake of its frustrating launch.

Now, after historic flooding in Baton Rouge and other areas of the state, Louisiana may have arrived at another moment where a decision by lawmakers in Washington on how generously to respond will be make-or-break for a whole region.

It’s no stretch to say that the Road Home, warts and all, saved New Orleans after the disaster that struck 11 years ago this week. In the months after the storm, the scale of the damage, the realization that many devastated homeowners lacked flood insurance and the fact that many of the hardest-hit survivors were among the region’s poorest led to a surreal debate about whether New Orleans would ever recover, or whether parts of it should simply be abandoned.

In the end, Congress and the George W. Bush administration doled out $13.4 billion to underwrite the Road Home program. Affected homeowners, about 130,000 of them, got an average of $70,000 apiece.

Were it not for the Road Home, most experts believe the New Orleans of today — not to mention Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes — would look very different.

Vera Triplett, an educator who after Katrina led the Gentilly Civic Improvement Association, shudders to think about it.

“Even now, you see blocks and blocks of homes that are unfinished, or where more work still needs to be done,” Triplett said. “I imagine we’d have that on a much more massive scale had it not been for the infusion of those funds.”

There’s no guarantee the great flood of 2016 will attract a federal care package. It will be up to Congress to decide that.

But in New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s view, getting Congress on board with a program that bridges the huge gap between the losses suffered by property owners and the amount they’ll receive from their insurance claims is more than crucial. It’s the “whole ballgame,” the mayor said in a recent interview.

Going beyond the basics

For now, Louisiana is receiving the basics that come with every federally declared disaster: temporary housing assistance and help with debris removal and other short-term needs, including “individual assistance” grants handed out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency that top out at $33,000 but are usually a fraction of that amount.

But larger bailouts of affected property owners have become increasingly common in recent years, starting with a special package aimed at helping lower Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks of 2001 and continuing four years later with grant programs for those whose homes were ruined by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

Congress sent a similarly massive pile of money to help the Eastern seaboard recover from 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, but even more modest disasters, such as last year’s devastating floods in Texas and South Carolina, have been deemed worthy of special appropriations.

Typically, money to support homeowners’ recovery comes through a supplemental appropriations bill that is passed by Congress, allocated to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and then sent to the affected state in the form of block grants. It’s up to the state to design the program, though HUD must sign off on the rules.

Not surprisingly, there’s a consensus among Louisiana’s largely Republican congressional delegation and its Democratic governor that plenty more aid will be needed this time. The Obama administration is also showing clear signs of support.

Julian Castro, the HUD secretary, said Thursday after touring the flooded region that the administration sees “a real need for significant investment in getting people back to where they were before.”

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, called the standard off-the-shelf aid “wholly insufficient” and said a much bigger aid package will be needed.

So did U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, one of three members of Louisiana’s delegation who voted against the omnibus bill for Sandy victims in 2013 — a stand that has drawn criticism recently as Louisiana’s delegation prepares to rattle the cup for money for the Pelican State.

Several members of New Jersey’s delegation have said they still have a sour taste in their mouths over the Sandy votes, but they promised not to hold it against Louisiana in 2016.

Edwards will meet with Louisiana’s entire congressional delegation Monday in Baton Rouge to make sure everyone’s on the same page, according to a spokesman. U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, who as majority whip is the third-ranking member of the House, is expected to carry the ball on an appropriations bill.

No one has yet begun to float specific amounts of aid that will be needed, in part because damage estimates — and estimates of uninsured losses — are still all over the map.

They’ve been changing steadily as the floodwaters slowly recede. Some reports — such as one by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber — have estimated there could be as many as 145,000 flooded homes across the region, a number that would put this unnamed rainstorm within an order of magnitude of Katrina. (The federal government’s final estimates for Katrina damage in Louisiana were 515,000 housing units damaged, 204,682 of them severely or totally.)

In a letter delivered to the president during his visit to Baton Rouge on Tuesday, Edwards said he expects to provide the Obama administration with “clear information about the damage assessments and specifics about the necessary federal assistance” by Sept. 2.

Worse than Katrina?

The numbers that have emerged so far suggest that a request for several billion dollars could be in the offing.

While the scope of damage is certainly less, the insurance picture could be much worse, at least proportionally, than it was after Katrina. Whereas only about one-quarter of the owner-occupied homes ruined in Katrina lacked flood insurance, early estimates are that at least two of every three homes inundated in the 2016 storm were not covered by flood policies.

Many of those who got swamped had good reason to think they’d never see water in their homes — another reason there could be broad support for an aid package.

New data released by East Baton Rouge city-parish officials, for instance, indicate that about half of the homes inundated in this month’s floods were not considered to be in “high-risk” areas, meaning their risk of flooding was less than once per 100 years — and their banks therefore didn’t require the owners to carry flood insurance.

“Most of the people affected by this disaster received advice through their lenders that they didn’t need insurance,” said Walter Leger, a lawyer and native of St. Bernard Parish who headed the Housing Committee for Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority after Katrina. “And that advice was given indirectly by the federal government through the development of the (federal) flood maps.

“You can’t accuse homeowners in these areas of being irresponsible. The federal government basically said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ Does the federal government now have an obligation to help? A legal obligation, maybe not. But a moral obligation? Probably yes.”

In such large-scale events, refusing to help the uninsured punishes the insured as well, Blanco pointed out. “Their properties are devalued when they’re living next to blight,” she said. “There’s a common good here we need to look for.”

If there’s a consensus that a homeowner-aid program is needed for the Baton Rouge region, that doesn’t mean the lamented Road Home model must be re-created exactly.

There’s no reason to think it would be. The Road Home was the first such effort of its kind and thus presented a raft of unique challenges. There was endless debate over rules: how much money was required; how to give it out; what steps homeowners should be forced to take to reduce future risk.

Then, an entire bureaucracy had to be built from the ground up to oversee the dispensing of the money and make sure it was being spent as intended. The rules were constantly being rewritten as problems arose.

Most significantly, the program was changed at HUD’s insistence from one based on reimbursements for completed renovations to straight-up grants.

The Blanco administration had designed the program so that homeowners would be reimbursed as they rebuilt, figuring that more people would actually renovate that way, and that it would be harder for unscrupulous contractors to take advantage of unwary homeowners. The Bush administration wanted to get the money moving more quickly, and it forced the change to a lump-sum grant.

Learning from experience

That dust-up was one of many signs of partisan tension between the Blanco and Bush administrations — tension that appears to be mostly absent so far in this disaster, with Edwards and Obama belonging to the same political party.

Also in the plus column for Louisiana this time: Residents and officials now have a much better idea about what to do, and what not to do, after such an event.

That’s been obvious even in the immediate response to the storm, with volunteer gutting crews from around south Louisiana ripping out sodden drywall and insulation as soon as the waters receded.

As Leger put it: “Unfortunately, we have gained a tremendous amount of experience and expertise.”

Leger, who has been involved in discussions about what a new homeowner aid program might look like, said Louisiana will benefit both from its history with the Road Home and from the experiences New York and New Jersey have had with dispensing Sandy aid.

“We have the benefit of both the achievements and the failures of various programs,” he said. “Certainly there are things that we’ll model.”

In Sandy, for instance, the aid programs that policymakers built managed to avoid the accusations of built-in racial discrimination that dogged the Road Home, according to James Perry.

Perry, a New Orleans fair housing advocate who successfully sued the Road Home over its practice of awarding grants based on a house’s pre-storm value rather than the cost of rebuilding it — effectively punishing people in poor neighborhoods — said HUD has since “universally agreed” that the cost of rebuilding should govern the size of the grant.

All of this was uncharted territory 11 years ago, when Leger recalled acquiring a copy of the Marshall Plan — the American blueprint for reviving Western Europe after World War II — because there didn’t seem to be another prototype.

“I’d put it under my pillow at night, hoping I’d learn by osmosis,” he said.

One common element among all large-scale disasters, in Leger’s view, is that people will be reluctant to reinvest in their communities without robust government intervention. That’s especially true in the most damaged areas, like Livingston Parish this time.

Leger said: “I used to tell people all the time, ‘When a house burns down, it’s a terrible tragedy. But when a whole community floods, you lose everything that makes a community your home: your dentist, your favorite restaurant, the grocery store. Until you know they’re coming back, it’s hard to come back, and until they know you’re coming back, they might not come back.’ ”

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