FEMA’s response defies common sense, needs to be ‘Cajunized,’ Congressman Garret Graves says

FROM The Advocate, 12/12/16 Share Share

FEMA's response to the catastrophic floods that damaged much of south Louisiana in August has been unacceptable and needs to be "Cajunized," Congressman Garret Graves said on Monday at the Baton Rouge Press Club.

Cajunizing, is a reference to the Cajun Navy, a group of volunteers who emerged in the immediate hours of the August flood with their own fishing boats to rescue people trapped in their homes.

"FEMA wasn't leading that," he said. "The community was."

He said to Cajunize the response means to "apply common sense."

"What we do in government doesn't stand up to the common sense test," he said. Graves said layers of bureaucracy have led to exorbitant government waste and a painfully slow pace of progress in terms of receiving recovery dollars and delivering services.

He noted that FEMA is spending about $150,000 per unit for mobile homes for flood victims, when the going market rate is $35,000 to $40,000 each. According to a cost breakdown, FEMA is spending $62,500 for the acquisition of the mobile home and another $43,400 on transporting, installing and maintaining the unit. FEMA is also collecting a 22 percent administrative fee for another $23,000.

Graves also said it was appalling that four months after the flood, people are still waiting for trailers and could be waiting for another month and a half. He also said the "Shelter at Home" program, which provides some repairs to flooded properties to allow people to live in their own houses while finishing the rebuilding work, was a good idea in concept but "the execution was fundamentally flawed."

He's fed up with high administrative costs, noting that almost 30 percent of Congress's first allocation to Louisiana flood recovery is being eaten up by overhead and compliance costs. That means that $127 million of the $438 million will go toward program administration instead of direct relief for homeowners, renters and businesses.

Graves said administrative costs should be much closer to 5 percent.

"The situation is that the federal government has really lost its way," he said. "If this happened in the private sector, would it survive? The clear answer is absolutely not."

Gov. John Bel Edwards defended the recovery response. His spokesman Richard Carbo said in a statement that strictly administrative costs for flood recovery are capped at 5 percent, but that "program delivery" costs for outreach, environmental reviews, determining eligibility, grant tracking, fraud prevention and other overhead, would be an estimated 20 percent of the allocation. That amount is less than the 45 percent that New York spent for similar programs after Hurricane Sandy, he said.

He also took issue with Graves' criticism of the slow pace of disbursements.

"The federal government sets the criteria for submitting proposals before funds can be disbursed to the state, and you would assume that Mr. Graves is aware of that since he serves in Congress," Carbo said. "However, he made no attempts to offer legislation to expedite the process. The initial payment of assistance was secured with unprecedented speed, and we are following HUD's guidelines to obtain final approval."

Ideally, Graves said, flood victims should have their damaged assessed and be given lump sums. Then they could make their own decisions about their recovery, whether they use the money for rental assistance, their own repairs or buying a mobile home.

He acknowledged that this could lead to a slight uptick in fraudulent spending, but said the flooding is serious enough that the government should be more generous on the front end, and then have aggressive auditing and accountability measures on the back end to seek necessary repayment.

Shifting to the recent presidential election, Graves said the problem with the disaster response and recovery are not a partisan issue. But he also said he has much reason to believe there will be new and better opportunities for governmental efficiencies under President-elect Donald Trump.

"Having a president that understands that time is money is going to be good for us," he said.

Graves said he has spoken to both Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence about the need for additional flood dollars and changes to the process to hasten the time line.

He said the incoming administration agreed that the slow pace of recovery was "absurd," but didn't make a specific promise about additional money.

But Graves remains optimistic, adding that the data clearly shows Louisiana will need more federal dollars for the flood recovery.

Congress has so far approved about $1.7 billion for the flood recovery. Officials estimate the total damage to the state is $8.7 billion and will be seeking additional dollars.

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