LIV.FloodAerials0771

Downtown Denham Springs is one of several sections of Livingston Parish which flooded in August 2016.

WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Garret Graves is pointing to recovery hurdles Louisiana faced in the wake of historic flooding in 2016 and other recent disasters in arguing for a major overhaul in how federal long-term recovery efforts are handled. But he's not a fan of a proposal that's making its way through Congress currently.

The U.S. House voted 290-118 in favor of advancing to the Senate a bipartisan bill that seeks to streamline federal long-term recovery efforts through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In a fiery speech on the House floor Monday, Graves, a Baton Rouge Republican whose district was heavily affected by the August 2016 floods, argued that the latest proposal doesn't go far enough and could further bog down the process if other reforms don't accompany it, though.

“You’re talking about a year after a disaster, at least, under this bill,” he said. “It could be a year later, it could be two years later. It doesn’t make sense.”

The measure, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, and U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Missouri, aims to set out specific guidelines for how HUD distributes Community Development Block Grant disaster funds, which are the major source for long-term recovery dollars for states. Separately, the Federal Emergency Management Agency handles initial response and short-term recovery programs.

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat who is the only member of the majority party representing Louisiana in the House, was the lone vote in favor of the bill among the state's delegation. All five Republicans representing Louisiana in the U.S. House voted against.

The proposed legislation would establish timelines and set ground rules for the CDBG program, which has been around since the early 1990s but has largely operated through loose provisions that aren't in federal law. Each disaster requires a separate notice in the federal register, for example, but the need for that would be eliminated if the Wagner-Green measure passes. 

Wagner said the goal is to clarify the process while rooting out fraud and waste with additional oversight. She said she was "dismayed" by the"purely philosophical" opposition from Graves and other critics of the plan.

"Their opposition is so strong that they would allow waste, fraud and abuse to continue to overrun the program instead of codifying and reforming it," she said. "It is not practical."

Graves, who ushered legislation through Congress to secure more than $1.7 billion in CDBG funds for the 2016 flood relief, said Louisiana leaders know from experience how lackadaisical the federal program can appear.

“There’s not a more experienced state in terms of dealing with disasters,” he said, detailing the lengthy process that the Green-Wagner bill would set out.

Green, who was born in New Orleans and now represents a Houston district that was heavily impacted by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, said he doesn't think that the bill is perfect but he sees it as a start.

"We want to make it easier for the persons who are victimized to have a better means to acquire long-term relief," he said.


How the Louisiana delegation voted on proposed disaster recovery bill:

For:

  • U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans

Against:

  • U.S. Reps. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto
  • U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge
  • U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre
  • U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, R-Benton
  • U.S. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson.

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.