Tension over Louisiana's recovery from last year's catastrophic floods became the focus of a Congressional hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday, with Republican congressmen repeatedly taking aim at Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The committee chairman from Utah asked Edwards if he was "clueless;" a representative from Georgia repeatedly asked Edwards why he didn't call for an evacuation ahead of the floods; a North Carolina congressman demanded more information about the state's process of finding an administrator to oversee upcoming housing recovery programs.
The hearing was billed as a deep-dive into the Federal Emergency Management Agency's response to the floods nearly eight months into the recovery process, but most of the heat came down on the state.
Edwards and U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Baton Rouge Republican who took part in the U.S. House Oversight Committee hearing, have been locked in dispute over the state's response to the catastrophic flooding that left thousands of residents displaced from their flood-damaged homes.
Their disagreements over the Shelter at Home temporary housing assistance program and the speed with which the state is establishing long-range housing recovery programs, funded by $1.6 billion allocated by Congress, took center stage on Wednesday.
Others taking part in the hearing included FEMA acting administrator Robert Fenton Jr., CB&I Federal Services president David Boone and Livingston Parish emergency coordinator Mark Harrell. Central Mayor Jr. Shelton was unable to attend.
Edwards and other leaders are seeking $2 billion in additional recovery dollars from Congress, though no money from the earlier appropriations has made it to homeowners yet.
The state will next week launch the first step in it homeowner recovery program application process – an online survey – and is expected to finalize the selection of a program manager, after scrapping its first attempt and fast-tracking a second round.
Graves said the state's lack of contract means that money could come down this week without the state ready to spend it. He also questioned whether the administration has further dragged its feet since February because it wasn't ready to name a firm to oversee the program.
"The reality is, if the dollars were available in February, they wouldn't have been able to spend a penny. They still don't have a contractor in place," Graves said.
Graves said the state it could have been further in the vetting process if it had started earlier. He also suggested the state should have looked to other state expenses that could have been delayed, perhaps in capital outlay, to front the money until the federal dollars arrive.
Edwards, meanwhile, stuck to his own version of the recovery timeline. He said the state is waiting on the U.S. Housing and Urban Development to unlock the federal funding and maintained that because of the state's ongoing budget crisis there were no options for advancing the money.
"It has not been available, is not available today and won't be available sometime until the next couple of weeks," Edwards said.
Both accused the other, during their congressional testimony, of making comments that were untrue.
Afterward, Graves said that he felt the hearing had exposed "a lot of the real failures of both FEMA and the state."
Edwards, meanwhile, said Graves was misleading the public and the committee.
"I think he is needlessly adding to the frustration and anxiety of homeowners," Edwards said after the hearing.
Potentially at stake: The state's ability to secure any additional aid it may need to help with the recovery from damage that has been estimated at nearly $9 billion. Members of Congress took turns questioning the effectiveness of the state's recovery efforts.
"The federal government fell on its face, and the state didn't do too much to help either," said House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah.
Rep. Jody Hice, R-Georgia, asked Edwards about warnings the state should have given residents and what grade the governor would give himself in the response, to which Edwards said he gave his administration a "B-plus."
Homeowners affected by the historic floods that swept Louisiana in March and August can now begin the initial application process for the stat…
"That sounds like a very generous grade when there is so much destruction," Hice countered.
(Edwards later clarified that he was grading the response in the initial aftermath. As for the long-term recovery, he grades the state as an "incomplete.")
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, pressed Edwards on the status of the state's long-term recovery program administrator, repeatedly asking him about "Mr. Bankston."
Two weeks ago the state restarted its process for selecting a firm that will be awarded a lucrative contract worth up to $250 million after a state contracting board, on the advice of former state Sen. Larry Bankston, the board's attorney who previously served prison time on racketeering charges. Bankston's son is affiliated with one of the firms that had also bid.
Edwards said the contracting board's process and the state selection ran separately, and the redo goal is to get costs lower and avoid potential litigation while the state still had the temporary window to legally reject the first process.
Edwards also spent time in the hearing defending the Shelter at Home Program, which has faced criticism for the temporary, and often unsightly, repairs it offered homeowners. He said it saved money that would have been spent on hotels and kept people in their communities.
Graves said he once thought Shelter at Home was innovative. But he said he thinks Edwards' administration should have recognized people were unhappy with the scope of repairs and called it off.
"That was a complete waste of taxpayer money, a failure," Graves said. "It's once again the state trying to put lipstick on an alligator; it's just not a pretty sight."
Gov. John Bel Edwards' administration Wednesday attempted to tamp down concerns over the sta…
Edwards, unable to cite the number of homeowners who remain displaced, was accused of being unprepared during the hearing.
"You know how bad that looks right?" Chafettz asked. "You're that clueless?"
Meanwhile, Harrell, the Livingston Parish emergency director, shifted the focus back to the feds. He said his biggest problem was with FEMA's inability to work with local officials.
"I feel I have failed the people of Livingston Parish in this disaster," he said, outlining various points he felt that the federal agency had hampered recovery efforts.
Fenton, the acting head of FEMA, fielded several questions about the federal recovery, including the pace of the manufactured housing unit program's roll out, but much of the federal agency's work came under former administrator Craig Fugate, who denied invitations to speak to the oversight panel.
Committee members also had questions for private contractor CB&I about the death of Everett Wilson, an 84-year-old blind man who was found dead inside a FEMA-issued manufactured housing unit that had reached temperatures above 130 degrees, allegedly due to a faulty heating unit.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, asked CB&I head Boone about issues with subcontractors that had reportedly been notified about a heating issue but had not fixed the problem in Wilson's home.
"These problems did not get fixed before Mr. Wilson's death and did not get fixed in the months afterwards," Cummings said.
In his submitted statement, Boone said that CB&I had no reports of help line calls from Wilson before his death but "some days after Mr. Wilson's death" FEMA asked the company to replace the thermostat on the unit. The death remains under investigation.
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