Louisiana has inched a few steps closer to getting its hands on a sorely needed federal appropriation of $1.6 billion for victims of August's floods. But it's still unclear when the money will become available, and the discrepancy over the timeline has fueled a feud among top Louisiana elected officials.
On Friday afternoon, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved the state's action plan for an appropriation of $1.2 billion, and the state signed off on a grant agreement. HUD had previously approved a separate allocation of $437.8 million. None of the federal dollars have yet been dispersed to Louisiana for the long-term recovery plans.
The state will use the $1.6 billion to help flood victims rebuild or elevate their homes, or reimburse them for some costs. The funds also will support renters and businesses who were affected.
"This is a significant milestone in our flood recovery," Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a statement. "While the process takes too long, this approval means that we are one step closer to actually having the funds available that Congress appropriated to the state last year."
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But news of the latest federal approval set off alarms in the office of U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, who says the Edwards administration is unprepared to receive the money because the state does not yet have a contractor in place to execute the massive recovery plan. Two weeks ago, the administration voided a bid solicitation, opting to restart the selection process after issues were raised about the eligibility of the bidders.
Early Friday, Graves issued a press release announcing that the flood recovery dollars would be released that afternoon; a spokesman later clarified that the plan was merely being approved and the money would come later. But he stressed that the money could be released to the state within six to 10 days, and said Louisiana would not be ready to start allocating it to flood victims.
The Edwards administration expects to have a flood recovery management contractor in place by April 13.
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"If the money is available today or available six days from now, is the governor going to spend the money? Are they ready?" asked Graves' spokesman, Kevin Roig.
Edwards shot back that Graves is being "reckless, irresponsible and flat-out wrong to suggest to homeowners that funds will be available today."
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Richard Carbo, a spokesman for the governor, said the state is in daily contact with HUD officials, who have suggested the money might not arrive for another two to three weeks.
The recent bid snafu didn't change the state's timeline one whit, Carbo said. Initially, state officials expected the dollars to be made available in May, he said. Next week, the state moves forward with its plan to survey flood victims to determine eligibility for the new recovery program.
Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman, declined comment when asked when the funds might become available.
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"I defer to the state officials to describe the next steps," he said.