GONZALES — The Ascension Parish Council wants the highest ranking FEMA official possible to come before the body and explain the agency’s rationale for ending free rent for its disaster mobile home program and also ending the entire program in May.
The council moved ahead of schedule Tuesday to adopt a resolution calling for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to halt plans to charge rent beginning March 1. Council Chairman Bill Dawson called FEMA’s plans a “joke.”
In other action, parish government also took steps to join the few hundred state and local governments nationally that have sued or are planning to sue makers, wholesalers and distributors of opioid drugs.
Governments have recently begun to go after the companies to recoup their costs as the crisis of painkiller addiction has blossomed in the past decade.
On the FEMA issue, Dawson told a top parish emergency official Tuesday night he has constituents facing more than $1,000 a month in rent for a FEMA trailer on their property come March 1 but also can’t get in touch with someone to buy the trailer. Yet, these people also haven’t been able to make progress on reconstruction after the August 2016 flood.
“What are we going to do? We going to kick them out on May 15? Who’s going to evict these people out of these trailers,” Dawson asked Rick Webre, the parish homeland security chief.
Dawson also asked Webre to try to bring the highest ranking FEMA official he can find to the council to explain what FEMA is doing, a wish that was incorporated into the subsequent resolution.
By federal law, FEMA's temporary housing program is supposed to end 18 months after a disaster declaration, in this case Feb. 14. At the state's request, FEMA agreed to extend the program until May 15.
Dawson and Councilman Randy Clouatre pressed for the resolution Tuesday in committee, a few weeks ahead of a full council meeting next month when the vote had been planned. The FEMA deadlines came up as Webre was delivering a report on the parish’s recovery and FEMA reimbursement efforts for the August 2016 flood.
Webre said he checked into past disasters and noted it is unlikely FEMA would be kicking people out of their trailers at the May 15 deadline. He said the agency sets the deadlines as a way to manage its resources in light of other disasters.
Webre, however, said he didn’t agree with that strategy. Neither did Dawson. “It doesn’t make sense to me to go kick somebody out of their house to go and help somebody in Texas,” Dawson said.
As of Feb. 1, Ascension has 202 FEMA trailers still in place, FEMA says.
Though not directly raised Tuesday, FEMA has also told occupants of its manufactured housing units that if they do not want to pay rent come March 1, they have get out by Feb. 14.
At the same time, the agency has emphasized that residents can appeal rental fees, with reductions based on ability to pay. When asked this week, FEMA spokespersons wouldn’t quantify the possible size of the reductions but said the agency considers the requests on a case-by-case basis. Applicants will be required to document their income.
“The only way to know how much of a rental reduction one may qualify for is to follow the process as presented by FEMA and apply,” FEMA officials said in a recent statement.
In the meeting Tuesday, Clouatre said he realizes FEMA must adopt end dates but he said people have been getting “scared out of their trailers” in the past two weeks as the deadlines have approached.
“They’re scared. They’re going somewhere where they’re living unsafe. They have to go somewhere where it’s totally unreasonable for them to live in that place and they still got to come back and work on their home,” Clouatre said.
He said FEMA should learn a lesson from Hurricane Katrina when people were allowed to stay near their homes to rebuild.
Parish President Kenny Matassa said he will circulate a written resolution later to council members for their signature and noted that U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, wants residents worried about losing their trailer or paying rent to call his office so he can document each case. Matassa said Graves is fighting FEMA’s plans.
In the matter of the potential opioid lawsuit, Dawson said he proposed soliciting proposals from law firms after the parish had received calls about pursuing the litigation.
Rather than dealing individually with the firms, Dawson said, he'd prefer the firms present cost proposals to the council.
Meeting as the Parish Council Finance Committee, the council backed seeking proposals from the firms and picking one through the normal professional selection process. The vote isn't final until the whole council adopts the measure, but unanimous Finance Committee actions are usually a good sign for the outcome of a final vote.
Dawson read out statistics Tuesday night that quoted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calling prescription painkiller abuse an epidemic. He estimated the cost to the parish could be $7.68 million a year in emergency, law enforcement, judicial and other operations.
In 2016, Ascension Parish had nine opioid-related deaths, up from five in 2015, according to the latest statistics from the state Department of Health.