Gov. John Bel Edwards is optimistic that Congress will approve billions of dollars in disaster relief for Louisiana by the end of September, even as partisan bickering in the nation's capital threatens to slow the state's recovery.
Legislation passed by House Democrats on Tuesday includes $28.6 billion for communities pummeled by a string of natural disasters over the last 18 months, with aid for those impacted by Hurricanes Ida, Delta, Zeta, and Laura.
It's unclear how much of that aid would ultimately go to Louisiana. But Edwards said Thursday the figures he's hearing should be enough to make a "down payment" on a program that tackles housing needs for low- and moderate-income residents displaced by the storms.
Louisiana will need at least $2.5 billion in federal aid to repair and replace housing following Hurricane Ida, and another $900 million to support renters and homeowners devastated by last year's storms, Edwards estimated.
If the initial allocation isn't adequate, the governor said there will be additional opportunities to secure funding in December.
"We take nothing for granted, because as of right now, not a single dollars has been approved for any of these storms," Edwards said, speaking through a video link from the White House, where he met with members of President Joe Biden's administration Thursday morning.
With thousands displaced by Hurricane Ida, Edwards said his administration is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency “to try to speed the decision making” on longer term housing options, like travel trailers or, in coastal communities, floatels and barges.
More than 8,000 homes were rendered unlivable by the storm, Edwards said, and so far, more than 700,000 residents have applied for direct assistance from FEMA. That includes funding to cover rent or temporary hotel stays, though many survivors are looking for housing options that allow them to stay near their damaged property.
But disaster relief for Louisiana is currently in limbo, as lawmakers squabble over a provision in the spending package that suspends the debt limit, an artificial cap on how much money the government can borrow that's become a favored political weapon of the GOP.
Senate Republicans have vowed to block the legislation, risking a government shutdown that could thrust the country into an economic recession.
Edwards said the partisanship is disappointing, but after a week meeting with lawmakers from both parties, he said there's near-universal support for the disaster relief component of the legislation.
"I don't think it's going to threaten whether we're going to get assistance, or ultimately how much assistance we get. It may threaten the timing of that a little bit," Edwards said. "The question is whether the disaster relief becomes collateral damage to some larger unrelated issue."
The governor added, "I feel very confident that while the next few days may have a lot of back and forth, that ultimately, and sometime before the end of the month, I believe you're going to see the passage of an instrument with relief in it for disasters."
Edwards said Louisiana won't know how much money it will receive until at least 30 days after legislation passes.
Though housing remains Lousiana’s most pressing need, Edwards said the disaster relief package pending in Congress would provide millions of dollars in aid to farmers for crop and timber damage. It would also support the state’s fishing industry, which sustained $480 million in losses, according to estimates provided by the governor.
Edwards said the legislation would allow state and local governments to use a portion of the housing funds to pay off hundreds of millions owed to FEMA as part of the non-federal share of disaster response grants.