Louisiana appears to be in line for nearly $500 million in federal aid to kick-start a long-term housing recovery from the catastrophic floods that left 13 people dead and thousands of homes damaged or destroyed last month.
After several days of negotiations, the U.S. Senate and House quickly moved Wednesday to pass a short-term spending plan that thwarts a government shutdown and provides disaster relief funding that leaders say will serve as a "down payment" on the billions more in federal aid that they hope to secure later this year. President Barack Obama has signaled his support for the measure.
"With this, folks know help is on the way. Those folks who are in circumstances that are well beyond their control — now, they can know that federal money is coming down to help," said U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge. "We're throwing people a lifeline."
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The money is set to come down in the form of semi-flexible U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants that will be used for specifically for programs that address the state's housing needs after thousands of people were displaced from their flood-ravaged homes, as well as the needs of small businesses that are struggling to recover.
The total flood damage has been estimated at $8.7 billion, and state leaders say nearly 130,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
"It's not the last piece; it's the first step," U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, said. "Obviously, there's a lot more work to do, but this first step was in many ways the hardest piece."
The stop-gap spending bill was seen as the only remaining "must-pass" bill before Congress recesses this month, so it was quickly identified as the quickest way to get aid to the thousands of Louisiana residents affected by the flood.
However, in recent days the flood aid had been directly linked to funding for Flint, Michigan's drinking water crisis. Senate Democrats said they wouldn't vote for flood relief unless aid was guaranteed for Flint, which has been seeking federal dollars to address its lead-contaminated drinking water woes for more than a year.
A Flint aid compromise was hatched late Tuesday evening in the separate Water Resources Development Act, which has already overwhelmingly passed the Senate. Funding would come for those programs in the so-called "lame duck" session after the November elections.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards said the money will be directed to help communities rebuild, though it is still unclear exactly what form the recovery programs will take.
"Obviously, we have to make sure we are prioritizing that and investing the dollars in the way that will be most effective for the recovery," Edwards said.
Edwards has appointed a 21-member panel to set the direction for the state's recovery process. That group is expected to have significant sway over the recovery plans and the initial round of federal funding.
It includes state and local officials, business leaders and other community interests from areas affected by the floods that hit south Louisiana in August, as well as north Louisiana in the Spring.
Speaking to the group at its first meeting Wednesday, Edwards charged the task force with coming up with "a plan to restore our great state."
"In a very real way, thousands and thousands of our fellow Louisianans have had their lives turned upside down," he said. "What we have to do as a task force is figure out a way to put people's lives right-size up again, as soon as possible."
Pat Forbes, the executive director of the state Office of Community Development, said that the state has been working to get things in order on the assumption that the money would come.
"One of the primary objectives for (the task force's) work will be establishing and determining the optimal way to invest that money in the recovery from the disaster," Forbes said. "This is extremely important work."
Edwards said any housing recovery programs funded with the immediate federal aid has to be approved by HUD.
"The task force is going to be working through that," he said. "I told them that we needed to be working as fast as possible so that we have a basic plan that is agreed to by HUD."
No plan has been identified and the task force's work is only in its infancy, but past disasters have shown that assistance could take the form of several housing-driven programs, including mortgage assistance for people who owe on their flood-damaged houses, the building of newer low- to moderate-income housing options and the creation of first-time homebuyer incentives.
"There are a number of things that we are going to contemplate," Edwards said. "There are things that have been done well after other disasters and some that didn't."
Edwards said "resiliency" or building more sustainable communities will be a component of the recovery.
"We've got to take all of that into consideration in how we spend this money," he said
Edwards had initially sought $2.8 billion, but leaders on Wednesday still hailed the smaller amount as a victory over the typical Washington, D.C. gridlock.
"It typically takes three-to-four months for Congress to approve a (Community Development Block Grant) program," Scalise said. "The fact we were able to put this together and get it passed is historic."
Edwards made three separate trips to Washington to lobby for the flood aid.
"We were able to work in a bipartisan way to get meaningful relief to Louisiana in September. The flooding happened in August," Edwards said. "But we are by no means saying 'Mission accomplished.' We have a lot more work to do, and we have a lot more money we need."