South Louisiana residents responded to last August’s flood with speed and ingenuity, and they deserve the same from their federal government.
But with thousands of last summer’s flood victims still waiting for shelter as Christmas arrives — and Uncle Sam paying sky-high prices for mobile homes that have yet to reach their intended recipients — the federal role in the long-term recovery has been neither fast nor nimble. Louisiana’s people — and taxpayers across America supporting this recovery — should be incensed.
In Louisiana, of course, anger at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government’s lead recovery agency, now spans decades. After the botched response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita made FEMA synonymous with bureaucratic blundering, national outrage created momentum for reform.
The good news is that FEMA emerged better from that bitter experience. Its quick deployment of relief supplies and recovery specialists last August was a far cry from FEMA’s head-in-the-sand reaction to the tragic storms of 2005. But the agency’s current housing program for displaced flood victims reminds us of a decade ago, when Louisiana became the FEMA poster child for public policy failures.
Gone are those tiny, toxic trailers, deemed unsafe by critics, that became icons of ineptitude when FEMA distributed them to Katrina victims. In their place are nicer, bigger mobile units that cost taxpayers an arm and a leg. These units are harder to site near the flooded homes that need repair and have been tediously slow in reaching the people who need them the most.
As of this month, some 2,250 families displaced by the floods and eligible for the housing units were still waiting for one. FEMA official Tito Hernandez said that often, by the time a unit is available for qualified applicants, the people once in need have already repaired their house to a habitable condition or found a rental property.
FEMA’s housing assistance, like a parachute, isn’t much good if it arrives long after it’s needed. And given the eye-popping costs of the new FEMA units, it’s apparent that more people could have been helped more quickly if the agency had paid more attention to its bottom line.
As U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, has noted, FEMA is now spending about $150,000 per unit for its mobile homes, when the market rate is $35,000 to $45,000 each.
That head-scratching arithmetic argues for another round of reform at FEMA as a new president takes office next year.
If Louisiana’s hardships help disaster recoveries elsewhere in America go more smoothly, then the suffering of displaced flood victims will not have been completely in vain.
But it’s a shame that once again, Louisiana is serving as a practice field for policies that, in the dry light of hindsight, seem disasters in themselves.