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"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." - John 8:32
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Author:  Diane M. Grassi
Bio: Diane M. Grassi
Date:  February 1, 2006
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Topic category:  Other/General

Disparity of Katrina Funds Shortchanges Bayou

With so many agencies, primarily federal, without their own proverbial maps on how to proceed in un-chartered waters, it necessitates new ways of doing business in order to meet the imminent needs from the Gulf Coast disaster.

Division and disagreement over funding and methods of appropriations, for recovery in the communities along the U.S. Gulf Coast, is knee deep in bureaucratic paper shuffling and politics the expanse of Hurricane Katrina herself. The challenge of disentangling the mistakes made before, during and after the storm has started by way of Congressional hearings, such as the one being held by the U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Thus far, more and more layers of dysfunction in the bowels of multiple bureaucracies are being revealed.

Unfortunately, for residents of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas and Florida who were victims of not only Hurricane Katrina but subsequent storms, Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Wilma, during the 2005 hurricane season, as well intentioned as lawmakers may be, politics has become an integral part of getting future help for hundreds of thousands still trying to rebuild their lives.

Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, perhaps summed it up best when referring to missteps made by the federal government prior to Katrina’s coming ashore, stating, “An outrage on top of an outrage.” But his phraseology could apply to almost everything government and how it is choking on its own red tape. Hopefully, the hearings and the investigations will not derail the efforts of the responsible agencies on all levels of government, playing a game of catch-up, in expediting the housing and rebuilding needs of the displaced.

While the federal government approved $67 billion dollars for emergency relief and long-term recovery in the Gulf Coast region over five months ago, the time frame in which it is to be disbursed and the breakdown for individual states has been met with both angst and approval depending upon the state. The necessary housing for homeowners as well as renters who no longer have inhabitable dwellings, has been a nightmare for Louisiana with thousands of people still living in hotels, motels and even retired merchant marine ships, with less than 2,000 living in trailers, as originally promised.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), there is a need for 85,000 trailers just in Louisiana in order to accommodate residents who have temporarily been living in hotels. But there remain discrepancies about how many evacuees actually are residing in over 6,000 hotels in several different states. FEMA admittedly does not know which Katrina victims are occupying over 25,000 subsidized hotel rooms or whether they have sought or have been denied FEMA aid. Due to the American Red Cross initially handling the hotel program, coordinating both housing and aid programs have become unwieldy.

About 20,000 trailers are held in staging areas collectively in Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Mississippi, However, due to non-repaired infrastructure, there are utilities which remain down and necessary for trailers to be inhabited. With 6,000 trailers allocated for New Orleans parishes, 3,000 have now been delivered, but only 1,950 currently are hooked up. In contrast, Mississippi has over 30,000 trailers distributed and functioning and well ahead of Louisiana in terms of infrastructure repair and the removal of debris, also lagging well behind that of Mississippi. In fairness, the amount of people displaced in New Orleans and Louisiana vastly outnumber the amount of victims of Mississippi.

But politics has been a benefactor for Mississippi as well, evidenced by the rewards they have reaped and in the smoothness in which they have been carried out through the efforts of Governor Haley Barbour and Senator Trent Lott (R-MS). For instance, in Mississippi, 33,378 occupied and hooked up trailers are meeting the housing needs of approximately 89% of the displaced. Unfortunately, there have been 34,000 maintenance requests, according to U.S. Representative Gene Taylor (D-MS), for trailers which were to have cost $19,000.00 each and have now escalated to nearly $75,000.00 since FEMA acquired them. Pro-rated over an 18-month period, FEMA will be paying $3,200.00 monthly per trailer, arriving at that figure.

Yet, this endless bad dream for so many shows no sign of ending for 90,000 displaced families of New Orleans, as the housing assistance allowance for those lucky enough to be in apartments outside of southern Louisiana as well as those in hotels, is set to end shortly. The housing aid will only be extended beyond February 7, 2006, for those getting the run around for five months, on a case-by-case basis, with the 2006 hurricane season but four months away.

But the most difficult pill to swallow for many has been what many federal, state and local officials from Louisiana say is a gross miscalculation of its share of the $67 billion approved by the U.S. Congress in 2005. Out of the $67 billion, $11.5 billion has been approved for hurricane relief through the Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) program from which Louisiana will receive $6.2 billion. Mississippi will receive $5.3 billion and Florida will receive $83 million, with Alabama and Texas to receive $74 million each. The maximum allowed any one state under the relief law passed by Congress at the end of 2005 is 54% of the allocated amount which Louisiana was given.

That now leaves Louisiana with $6.2 billion which it must specifically pass on to the 20,000 homes destroyed outside of federally insured flood zones, essentially giving up on 185,000 home owners with destroyed homes, many of whom have been denied their insurance claims by either their provider or the federal flood insurance program, or those who did not have adequate insurance. Louisiana will now be required to find alternative funding for the state and its parishes for debris removal, barely begun, infrastructure repair, law enforcement, re-opening hospitals and schools, in addition to helping businesses rebuild.

Andy Kopplin, Executive Director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, called it an “inadequate distribution.” “No one believes that Louisiana had only 54% of the damages,” he said. The department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) oversees the CDBG program. U.S. Representative Bobby Jindal (R-LA) said, “I certainly think we will need more. The key to getting more is spending the money well.” However, how the money is spent must be approved by HUD. And the U.S. Stafford Act mandates how federal dollars will be spent for any additional appropriations to be made.

The announcement in late January 2006 of the $11.5 billion being approved for the disbursement of funds will follow a payment schedule, the bulk of which is not expected to come through until 2008, according to lawmakers. Prior to the announcement, U.S. Representative Richard Baker (R-LA) submitted a redevelopment plan to the White House which was outright rejected. It had the bi-partisan approval of federal and state lawmakers which calls for creating a federal supported Louisiana Recovery Corporation. It requires purchase of large tracts of storm-damaged homes in Louisiana, borrowing up to $30 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds. The corporation would absorb the costs of home repair and resell the homes to either developers or to their original owners.

Baker believes those homeowners who lived in flood plains should be accorded an out, as it was the federal government’s responsibility to maintain the levees, through the Army Corps of Engineers, which breached and thus flooded New Orleans. Under the present funding, the most damaged areas of New Orleans would be unavailable for homeowners’ relief. And given that the federal flood insurance program is near bankruptcy, the Baker proposal would offer quick buyouts to homeowners in rebuilding efforts. But in another Catch-22 scenario, rebuilding must meet the approval of new advisory flood maps which FEMA officials said will not be available until mid-March 2006. Therefore, commitments to invest in rebuilding are on shaky ground without as of yet fully repaired levees, and not knowing whether they will be additionally funded in order to sustain more than a Category 3 hurricane.

With so many agencies, at this point primarily federal, without their own proverbial maps on how to proceed in un-chartered waters, it necessitates new ways of doing business in order to meet the imminent needs from the Gulf Coast disaster. Creative and critical thinking, something in short supply in bureaucratic management, is essential. Mechanisms to encourage better communications and oversight between the federal and state levels must be implemented in order to be prepared for future disasters, whether they be Acts of God or acts of terror. Only then will those people in the Delta who have sacrificed and suffered so much feel redeemed. And only then will lawmakers, and the agencies they are responsible to hold accountable, recover from the breached trust of the American people.

Diane M. Grassi

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Biography - Diane M. Grassi

Diane M. Grassi is an investigative and research journalist, providing topical and in-depth articles and analysis on U.S. public policy and governmental affairs; key federal and state legislation and court decisions relative to the public interests of average Americans. In addition, she reports on legal and governmental affairs relative to professional and amateur sports. She sticks to the facts on myriad issues, given short shrift by the mainstream press. With a passion for holding U.S. lawmakers and government officials accountable, Ms. Grassi has a resolve to keep readers informed in that they might become advocates on their own behalf.

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