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Stephanie Grace: Ida’s long reach could help take the politics out of disaster aid

Nathan Fabre checks on his home and boat destroyed by Hurricane Ida in Lafitte. PHOTO BY JOHN LOCHER / AP

Posted on September 14, 2021

Louisianans have faced enough natural disasters not to wish the experience on anyone else, not even the insensitive souls elsewhere who, each time a big storm roars ashore, wonder aloud why people live here.

So there was no joy in watching the remnants of Hurricane Ida deal a deadly blow to the Northeast so soon after she’d had her way with our state. There was, though, recognition. And there should be common purpose.

The country should be long past the point where floods in one area and fires in another pit region against region, or Democrat versus Republican. We know perfectly well that climate change is coming for all of us, that while New Orleans and Louisiana’s coastal areas are vulnerable, so are New York and Texas and California, just to name a few states that have suffered from extreme weather recently. It’s now a given that any part of the country could need help at any time.

Some federal aid is triggered automatically when disaster strikes, including much of what comes from FEMA. But then there are different pots of money that must be approved through Congress, and that’s where things get bogged down.

More than a year after the Category 4 Hurricane Laura struck, the Lake Charles area is still waiting for Community Development Block Grant disaster funds, which come through the Department of Housing and Urban Development and can be used to fill in the gaps in other sorts of recovery aid and insurance coverage. The top priority in the Calcasieu area is a permanent housing program, along the lines of the Road Home after Katrina and Rita in 2005.

“When we’re talking about housing, it affects everything else,” Parish Administrator Bryan Beam told me as the Laura anniversary approached. The lack of suitable housing means people can’t come home, and it means the area’s “very challenged” with labor, both to keep the community running and to do the work of rebuilding. It also wears on the collective resolve.

“It’s been a year,” Beam said. “People can only wait so long before they say, ‘I’m outa here.’ ”

If there’s any silver lining to the latest storm, it’s that it has refocused attention on Louisiana’s unmet needs. The Biden administration has finally asked Congress to approve $2.3 billion in disaster block grants, a significant proportion of which would likely go to Laura relief, as part of a short-term government funding bill.

Areas affected by Ida will need a lot of federal aid too — there’s already a budding housing crisis developing in Houma, where hundreds of tenants are being evicted from apartments deemed uninhabitable — which could mean yet another long political slog.

Or maybe not this time. The White House proposal calls for $10 billion or more for Ida-related costs, at least initially. And given the storm’s long reach, there’s the real possibility of a multi-region, bipartisan coalition in support.

This sort of thing, involving these same areas, has happened before. Back in 2014, Louisiana lawmakers looking to reform the federal flood insurance program teamed up with members whose districts had been devastated by Superstorm Sandy to make sure the cost of flood insurance wouldn’t force people out of their homes.

Yet it’s just as common for politics to rear its head.

Some small-government conservatives voted against aid for Sandy survivors after the 2012 storm, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who got called out as a hypocrite by New Jersey Gov. and fellow Republican Chris Christie when he sought help after Hurricane Harvey struck his state five years later.

Several Louisiana Republicans opposed Sandy aid as well; at the time, then-U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, who voted for the aid, noted that the opponents had not been in Congress after hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005 and hadn’t lived through Louisiana’s long battle for fair treatment. When Harvey struck, the delegation voted in unison to provide aid.

We’ve all seen a lot of storms since then, certainly enough to understand that regional and partisan politics should play no role in determining who gets money and how quickly. There are proposals before Congress to take the political maneuvering out of the process, and they deserve serious consideration.

Until that happens, it would really help if everyone in Congress voted as if their own constituents were the ones in need. It’s only a matter of time until they are.


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