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Aerial of severe flooding in the Watson area of Livingston Parish on Sunday August 14, 2016.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

WASHINGTON — A massive disaster-relief package awaiting U.S. senators when they return to work in January would offer states far more flexibility in deploying federal recovery dollars and put billions into flood prevention and mitigation projects across the country.

Louisiana officials who've complained for more than a year about federal regulations hindering the recovery from the 2016 floods would see a number of those rules loosened or swept aside by the overhaul.

The $81 billion package, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives on a bipartisan vote on Thursday, is primarily geared toward recovery from devastating hurricanes and wildfires this year in Texas, Florida, California, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

But a sweeping set of changes to federal disaster policy is also wrapped up in the bill. Those changes, coming on the heels of a set of tax breaks for flood victims signed into law last week, would send more cash to Louisiana residents still working to recover from the floods and give local governments more flexibility in how to rebuild damaged buildings and infrastructure.

Disputes between the House and Senate over some of the bill's provisions, as well as objections from Democrats that the bill doesn't do enough for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, put the package on hold during a flurry of end-of-year votes in Congress.

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, was the sole Louisiana congressman to vote against the bill, saying the bill shorted the Virgin Islands on recovery money.

Richmond said he otherwise supports much of the bill and expects the U.S. Senate to revise its treatment of the U.S. territory.

Members of Louisiana's congressional delegation expressed confidence that lawmakers would move quickly to approve the package in January and that most, if not all, of the bill's reforms would remain intact.

"The reality is the urgency of these dollars and the urgency of these reforms are so great that I think this will absolutely be taken up early in January," said U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, who authored several of the provisions included in the bill. "I know our delegation will be pushing."

Graves said he doesn’t expect  to see any  wholesale changes to the disaster relief package.

"We simply needed a little more time to work through some of the House language," said U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana. "It is a priority for the new year."

Louisiana would receive roughly $600 million in additional federal mitigation money to build more robust flood defenses, restore wetlands or undertake other projects to decrease the risk of future disasters.

Millions more in federal funding for Louisiana could also be available through an array of new grant programs and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers funds included in the bill. More than $12 billion in competitive grant funds are included in the bill, and Louisiana would be eligible to put in for those dollars. 

One long-talked-about project the bill should push forward? The Comite River Diversion Canal, a Corps of Engineers project designed to send water from the Comite to the Mississippi River when the Comite watershed is swollen to flood stage.

Despite a local tax to help fund the project and decades of study by the Corps of Engineers, very little progress has been made on building the diversion canal.

The bill would ease the path for completion by clearing a number of bureaucratic obstacles. For one thing, it would allow state and local governments to blend different pots of federal cash to pay for construction, something largely prohibited under current law.

Congressional sources familiar with negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the legislation, told The Advocate the bill is expected to fund dredging of shipping channels across south Louisiana that were silted-in by Hurricane Harvey's storm surge. Other projects across the state could also receive new funding.

Graves said the proposed changes to federal policy are likely to be at least as important to Louisiana as the new federal dollars flowing toward the state.

U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, sees big wins for Louisiana in the disaster relief package — among them funding for hurricane protection and mitigation projects vital to the safety of Louisiana's coastal communities and  economy.

"I’m going to continue fighting to ensure these priorities for our state get passed by the Senate and signed into law," Scalise said.

Tops among the changes that Louisiana's legislative delegation wants to see is a waiver that would allow flood-hit homeowners who applied for Small Business Administration loans to tap Restore Louisiana rebuilding grants.

Under current federal law, the 10,000 Louisiana homeowners who were authorized to take out SBA loans must have the value of those awards deducted from the grants, even if those homeowners never actually borrowed the money.

That would change if the bill becomes law. Homeowners who were approved for an SBA loan but never took out the money would become eligible for grants, while others could use Restore Louisiana grants to pay back their SBA loans.

Louisiana lawmakers and bureaucrats had spent months lobbying the Obama and Trump administrations to alter the SBA loan rules to no avail.

A range of other changes would give states far more flexibility to use federal disaster dollars in the wake of future disasters and allow more nonprofits and religious organizations to tap federal money.

  • States would be allowed to design their own short- and long-term housing recovery programs, potentially redirecting money FEMA uses to pay for repairs and temporary mobile homes.
  • Rules governing temporary housing initiatives, such as Louisiana's Shelter at Home program, would be loosened, giving states more latitude in how those programs are run.
  • Churches and other houses of worship would gain eligibility for FEMA disaster assistance under the bill. Religious facilities are largely barred from receiving federal disaster dollars under current law.
  • FEMA would be required to work more closely with non-profit food banks and long-term recovery groups — such as Rebuild Louisiana and Samaritan's Purse — in the wake of disasters.
  • Food banks that suffered serious damage in disasters — such as the Greater Baton Rouge Food Bank, which saw its warehouse flood last summer — would become eligible for federal repair and rebuilding money.

Local governments also would gain far more latitude when replacing destroyed public buildings and facilities. The federal government currently reimburses local governments for much of the cost of repairing damages, but generally requires structures be rebuilt largely as they stood before the storms.

The pending bill would change that, allowing local officials to build facilities in less vulnerable locations or, in some circumstances, apply the federal money toward construction of different types of facilities.

Local officials would also be able to turn to an arbitration panel to settle disputes with FEMA over the cost of repairs and other disaster-related expenses, while the process federal authorities use to calculate damages to roads would be streamlined.

Graves, who ran Louisiana's Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority under former Gov. Bobby Jindal, said the changes are designed to invest more heavily in preventing damage from future disasters and give state officials greater latitude to tailor recovery programs to local needs.

Graves said he's been pushing similar reforms for years but said the devastating hurricanes in 2017 helped push the issue to the fore in Congress. The large and influential congressional delegations from Texas and Florida have largely signed on to the changes, putting considerable political clout behind them.

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.