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Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Aerial of the Comite Diversion Canal. Looking west. Mississippi River at top.

BILL FEIG

WASHINGTON — The federal government will be sending more than $1.2 billion in grant money to pay for flood-control and prevention projects in the state, Gov. John Bel Edwards and U.S. Rep. Garret Graves announced Thursday.

A number of long-stalled U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects in the state — including the Comite River Diversion Canal, New Orleans-area flood protection projects or parts of the Morganza to the Gulf levee system — could get funded through the massive federal allocation.

Just which projects will be in line for the funds remains unclear. Edwards said in a statement Thursday evening that state officials are waiting for details from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — the agency handling the grant — on exactly how the dollars can be spent.

The cash comes out of a larger pot of grant money included in a roughly $90 billion disaster-recovery package Congress passed in February primarily to respond to a series of devastating hurricanes and deadly wildfires that pummeled Texas, Florida, California and the U.S. Caribbean territories of the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico in 2017.

Although the package was largely aimed at disasters last year, Louisiana was also eligible for money to beef up flood defenses in parishes hit with floods in 2016.

The $1.2 billion grant is roughly twice as much money as Louisiana officials initially expected to receive under the program.

"This new investment from HUD is critically important to our rebuilding efforts," Edwards said. "It will allow us to make investments in flood risk reduction and infrastructure projects in areas of our state that were devastated by the 2016 floods, including partnering with the Army Corps of Engineers to make investments in large-scale projects such as the Comite River Diversion Canal."

Graves, a Baton Rouge Republican, said in a phone interview Thursday evening that the block-grant funding from HUD provides Louisiana considerable flexibility to decide which projects to invest in and frees the state to move on Corps projects that have sat stalled for years.

Efforts to clear debris from bayous and ditches in flood-hit parishes could also receive funding under the HUD grant, Graves said.

"These resources will be used as part of an overall solution for Comite (River Diversion Canal) — a solution that will include Army Corps of Engineers funding — but will also give Louisiana flexibility to directly take the lead on implementing and completing projects instead of being held hostage by the bureaucracy of the Corps," Graves said in a statement.

The Corps is also expected to budget additional money for flood-control work in Louisiana in the coming months.

Congress sent the Corps roughly $12.5 billion for flood protection projects in states hit by recent disasters as part of the February disaster package and also included hundreds of millions in extra funding for the Corps in the recently passed federal budget.

Corps officials have not yet announced which specific projects will be built with that money. Graves said Thursday he's been working with officials at the Corps to prioritize critical Louisiana projects, including Comite and the West Shore Lake Pontchartrain Levee Project, an 18-mile stretch of levees that would protect parts of the River Parishes against floodwaters from the lake.

The $90 billion disaster-relief relief package passed Congress in early February as part of a broader budget deal that kept the federal government operating and raised budget caps. A majority of Louisiana's congressional delegation — including Graves — voted against the overall bill.

Graves at the time criticized the overall deal for driving up the federal budget deficit and criticized congressional leaders for cutting a number of changes to federal disaster-relief policy, including a broader fix to rules blocking flooded homeowners who'd been approved for SBA loans from tapping federally funded rebuilding grants.

House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, backed the package, as did Reps. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, and Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre.

“Congressman Scalise was proud to work with his colleagues in Congress and the Trump Administration to pass the disaster appropriations bill that provided these important funds to help Louisiana continue rebuilding after the 2016 floods and further protect families and communities in Louisiana against future storms,” a spokesperson for Scalise said Thursday night.

Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.