BATON ROUGE – The first round of federal flood relief money should reach Louisiana by mid- March, the director of the Governor’s Office of Community Development told the Restore Louisiana Task Force on Friday.
The initial $438 million in community development block grants Congress approved in September as a “down payment” toward flood relief will clear the way for construction assistance to reach qualifying families, Pat Forbes told the 21-member board at the State Capitol.
Seventy percent of the first relief package will go toward low-to-middle income families, while the 26 percent will help benefit rental assistance program.
In Livingston Parish, the breakdown ranges from a $36,350 annual income limit for a one-person household to $68,550 for a family of eight.
The funding distribution method remains an area of deep criticism for members of the board.
East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome said she wants the heads of all flood-affected parishes to join forces with her to ask not only for additional funding, but for a wider scope of residents.
“It’s unjust for this state to be forced to choose which citizens qualify for aid and which do not,” she said. “Anyone questioning the justification for additional dollars now is overlooking the opportunity to bring in more dollars to help more citizens.
“Additional dollars to support unmet needs should be unchallenged,” said Broome, who took office in January. “Congress has the capacity to bring more funding our way.”
“This is what we’re going to need to do to get help for more people,” said state Rep. J. Rogers Pope, R-Denham Springs. “The only way it’s going to happen is for us to come together.”
Meanwhile, Edwards Administration Deputy Chief of Staff Julie Baxter Payer told the board reports of a 30 percent share for administrative costs are incorrect.
“The administrative cost we set is four percent, lower than the five percent set by HUD,” she said. “Admin everything from program delivery to taking applications and determining eligibility, doing inspections and reviews, making sure construction done property and make sure in the end everything is done correctly.”
Final approval of a separate $1.2 billion package Congress approved in late December will go up for approval in late March.
“It’s our hope that the approval and distribution will allow money from the first and second package to be distributed at the same time,” Payer said.
The plan on the second phases seeks to provide some assistance to residents who experienced major or severe damage to their homes, and did not have flood insurance.
It also would fund rental assistance, economic development help for small businesses and farmers, and help for parishes in meeting federal match requirements for additional assistance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Gov. Edwards was in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 24 for the seventh time since the August floods, working with the state’s congressional delegation and President Trump’s administration in securing another $2.08 billion in flood aid.
In other business, board members voiced frustration over federal regulations which could further stall recovery for flood-affected areas.
Guidelines implemented by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development allow for environmental review on communities and individual homes in the rebuilding process.
“It’s bureaucracy at its worst,” said Ascension Parish Council Chairman Randy Clouatre, who serves on the 21-member board.
State Rep. Rogers Pope, who also serves on the board, has also been critical of the federal government approach to the recovery.
“I have problems with the whole process, ranging from the way FEMA has handled this, down to the Small Business Administration and HUD,” he said. “What they’re doing to these homeowners is entirely unfair.”
The state will launch the Restore Louisiana Homeowner Program through a survey which will log basic information on impacted homeowners.
No support documentation will be collected as part of the survey process, Forbes said.
“Documentation will only be collected and verified if and when a homeowner is moved to the application phases of the program,” he said.
The survey will help minimize the number of homeowners HUD will require to “stop work” or delay the recovery process while they await federally-required environmental clearance and program process.
“The governor is working hard to encourage the Congressional Delegation and Congress to remove a federal requirement for a house-by-house environmental review process that could delay rebuilding and making the process more expensive,” Forbes said.
The state, in the meantime, will take a proactive step to implement a program which allows homeowners to move forward from the “survey” step to the application phase if they meet the prioritization factors associated with the different application phases of the program, and are ready to go into construction, he said.
“By bringing homeowners into the application process through this phased approach, the state is helping to minimize the number of homeowners HUD will then consider to have “applied” for the program, and therefore would be required to “stop work” while they go through the potential forty-five day environmental review,” Forbes said.
Gov. John Bel Edwards will work with state’s Congressional to either minimize the process or eliminate it outright, according to Pat Forbes, director of the state Office of Community Development for the Edwards Administration.
The OCD surveys work rebuilding efforts to determine it the programs or budgets need tweaking, he said.
The surveys are geared to minimize the number of homeowners who are required to “stop work” or pause their recovery while they await environmental clearance and program processing. It also involves the collection of data on the status and needs of impacted homeowners to assess programs and procedures.
Forbes told the board he wants to simplify the process for homeowners.
The state is also targeting the primary functions of contractors through monitoring and reporting on the Homeowner Program Manager Contractor for compliance with the Restore Louisiana Homeowner Program policies and procedures. It also aims to maintain consistency in damage estimates, scope of work pricing and duplication of benefits.
The program also assists in developing internal quality controls to ensure consistency of work product among the program-managed homebuilding contractors, Forbes said.
Broome spoke out against the federal statute that considers Small Business Administration loans a duplication of benefits for Community Development Block Grant funds.
“The reality is that for many families, an SBA loan is something they felt pushed towards to begin taking care of their families, dwelling and personal belongings as expeditiously as possible following the floods,” she said. “And now, the stories I hear all too often are that families are strapped with two mortgage payments – one for their home and one for the SBA loan repayment, or that they were never informed that receiving an SBA loan would count against them in applying for federal block grant dollars.
“These are the stories of Louisiana citizens who are still searching for answers after more than six months have passed since the August flood,” Broome said.