Louisiana’s congressional delegation is working on legislation for additional funding to supplement recovery efforts from the historic flooding.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter said Thursday he and the other members of the delegation are gathering the facts and figures – number of homes and businesses lost, for instance – that would support a request for billions of extra dollars beyond the federal disaster assistance available when the president declares an emergency under the Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.
The delegation’s bill for additional recovery money – similar to measures approved for Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy – will be filed in “a few weeks,” Vitter said.
“Given the enormity of this event, it’s clearly warranted,” Vitter told a luncheon he hosted for area business owners to speak to Maria Contreras-Sweet, administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, both members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet.
Castro stopped short of saying the Obama administration would back supplemental funding legislation, but his staff already is gathering statistics for the congressmen.
“We are already working with Congress on that,” Castro said. "I know HUD has already provided some technical assistance in the drafting of that kind of legislation, but I cannot make any commitment on that right now because that is Congress's call.”
After touring Thursday public housing for elderly and disabled people in Denham Springs, where five feet of water destroyed the units, Castro said he better understood the extent of the displacement of people and loss of property.
“We see a real need for significant investment in getting people back to where they were before,” Castro said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards plans to meet with the entire congressional delegation on Monday to outline the state's needs, said his spokesman Richard Carbo.
"While there hasn’t been a formal discussion regarding additional assistance from the federal government, Gov. Edwards will meet with the entire delegation on Monday to outline the state’s needs and intends to work closely with them to make sure the needs of our people are met,” he said.
U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson, is waiting for the total damages to be calculated, said his spokesman T.J. Tatum.
"The evaluation process is ongoing in terms of assessing the total scope of damages," he said. "The needs for additional federal aid is being determined, but I know those conversations are ongoing."
“I’m a limited government guy, but this is an area where it’s critical to have federal government response,” said U.S. Rep. John Fleming, R-Minden, who toured flood damage in Ascension and Livingston parishes with Contreras-Sweet and Vitter.
Generally, Congress would vote to make federal money available through Community Development Block Grants, a program that gives money to local governments to development urban areas. It has been adapted to help during disasters.
Tammye Trevino, the regional administrator for HUD, said when the community block development grants program is put together, the governor’s office will have to submit an “action plan” for how the money will be spent.
Congressman Garret Graves, the Baton Rouge Republican who represents much of the area flooded after prolonged rains fell, details are still being developed.
“Without question the regular disaster assistance available under the Stafford Act is wholly insufficient to respond to this catastrophe,” Graves said before sitting down to jambalaya and catfish strips at the luncheon.
A large number of home and business owners were not in flood zones and didn’t have flood insurance, he said. That means tens of thousands won’t have enough money to restore their property to any condition close to where it was prior to the rain fall.
Without enough money, property owners very well may have little choice other than to hand over the keys and default on their mortgages.
Supplemental dollars could be used to help those homeowners and business people get their property back in order. Otherwise, taxpayers will have to pick up the costs through social programs, decreased property values and increased mortgage rates.
“There’s going to be a cost, no matter what,” Graves said.
Additionally, Graves said he’d like to see dollars used to not only complete the decades-old Comite River Diversion Project, which would move floodwaters from the eastern portions of East Baton Rouge Parish to the Mississippi River.
Plus, money for additional engineering that would siphon off excess waters in the Amite River. These long-term – and admittedly expensive – projects would lower the possibility of waters getting so high in the streets and neighborhoods, he said.
Deciding what should be included in the supplemental appropriations bill and exactly how to translate those plans into the language of bills is what the delegation is working on now, he said.