President Barack Obama makes a highly anticipated visit to flood-ravaged Louisiana on Tuesday with the federal government already busy repairing damage to a large swath of the state and drawing down disaster relief funds.
It appears unlikely that the flood recovery will require additional emergency spending by Congress to address the needs of victims, federal officials said.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency official expressed confidence in a statement that sufficient dollars are in place. “Congress has appropriated the necessary funding to address disasters for this fiscal year. FEMA has enough funding to address response and recovery support to Louisiana,” said Rafael Lemaitre, the agency's director of public affairs.
Still, the devastation from the second major disaster declared in the state this year raises questions about how quickly and efficiently state and federal government officials will be able to respond. At least 60,733 homes have been damaged by floods this month, according to preliminary estimates provided by affected parishes to the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness. According to most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 41 percent of the state’s residents live in parishes affected by the August floods.
Following this month’s rains, 20 parishes — analogous to counties in other states — were declared federal disaster areas. That came after floods in March resulted in a federal disaster declaration for 36 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes. Most of the overlap from the two events was in a southeastern portion of the state. Nearly the entire state has experienced some major flooding, FEMA maps show.
Obama to Congress: Louisiana Flooding May Need More Funding
More than 106,000 Louisianians have registered for FEMA assistance, and more than $55 million in disaster relief funding has been approved to date for the August floods. Additionally, more than 25,000 flood insurance policyholders have submitted claims related to the event.
There’s still a significant store of funds to tap for recovery efforts. As of Friday, FEMA said it still had $3.4 billion in its Disaster Relief Fund for fiscal 2016. The agency had a carryover balance of $5.3 billion in the fund from the previous year. In addition, Congress appropriated nearly $7.4 billion for fiscal 2016 to the fund. That meant FEMA began fiscal 2016 with a fund balance of roughly $12 billion.
Louisiana Rep. Ralph Abraham, whose 5th District was heavily affected, said he’s willing to fight for more money if there’s a need. But damage assessments aren’t finished, making it difficult to estimate whether additional funds will be in order.
“I am going to look to the local and state leaders as well as federal budget officials for guidance on flood recovery funds. If they tell me we need more money, I’m prepared to fight for it to get our people what they need,” the Republican said in a statement Friday.
“People in nearly every parish I represent have experienced flooding, and for some this is their second flood this year,” he added.
On Monday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the Obama administration's response to the flooding "much more effective and much more impactful" than the Bush administration's immediate response to Hurricane Katrina 11 years ago. He said "the most significant difference" was that Louisiana Republicans and Democrats are praising the federal reaction this time.
Should additional disaster relief funds be needed, lawmakers could increase spending without breaking spending caps in the 2015 budget agreement. That’s because FEMA disaster relief spending enjoys special treatment under budget law.
Congress still has room to appropriate more funding to address disasters in fiscal 2016, according to the latest Office of Management and Budget report, released Friday. The limit on such disaster funding for fiscal 2016 is $14.1 billion under caps that were set by the 2011 budget law, meaning nearly $7 billion more could be appropriated.
If more were needed, it could be sought as emergency funding outside the Stafford Act, which governs how the U.S. responds to disasters. The OMB also estimated that Congress would be able to appropriate up to $8.6 billion for disaster relief in fiscal 2017. The number is lower because of the high carryover balance that boosted fiscal 2016 funds.
Louisiana lawmakers indicated that damage from the flooding will be significant, in an Aug. 14 letter expressing support for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ request for a federal major disaster declaration, which became effective that day. Storms began Aug. 11, according to the disaster declaration.
The letter, signed by Republican Sens. David Vitter and Bill Cassidy and Reps. Steve Scalise, Charles Boustany Jr., John Fleming, Cedric L. Richmond, Garret Graves and Abraham noted that in some areas flood waters exceeded the 500-year estimate.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Jen Friedman said Thursday, “FEMA has been on the ground in the region since before the flooding began and continues to mobilize across the state to respond to emergency needs and to assist with recovery, including getting people into temporary housing.” Kurt Pickering, a FEMA spokesman, said Monday the agency has done most of the damage assessment in cooperation with state and local officials, though more assessments are underway.
But disaster aid isn’t the only funding stream that will be scrutinized as Louisiana continues cleanup. Flood insurance will play a major role and could become a hot topic with lawmakers in Washington as homeowners look for help. The latest authorization for the National Flood Insurance Program was tacked on to the 2012 surface transportation bill and expires Sept. 30, 2017.
The state has already tried to smooth potential issues with flood insurance by putting emergency measures in place Friday to give policyholders more time to comply with their policy provisions. And on Monday, FEMA announced it would extend the grace period to renew certain flood insurance policies to 120 days for homeowners in the 20 parishes declared disaster areas following this month’s floods.
It’s possible Louisiana’s water woes could place a spotlight on efforts to overhaul the flood program, which has been on the Government Accountability Office’s “High Risk List” since 2006. The program currently owes $23 billion to the U.S. Treasury, according to a June report. The GAO stated in a 2015 report that current losses generated by the program as well as the potential for future losses “have created substantial financial exposure for the federal government.”
But many people affected aren’t covered by the flood insurance program because they did not apply for coverage. Only homes in designated high-risk areas must have flood insurance to qualify for federally-regulated mortgages.
Former Sen. Mary L. Landrieu welcomed FEMA's assessment that there is enough funding in the disaster relief account. But the Louisiana Democrat expressed concern about residents who don’t have flood insurance whose homes were devastated. More moisture is forecast to barrel through the state this week.
“We do have to hope that there’s not another major catastrophe that hits and that we can be effective and efficient in the way we spend the money,” Landrieu said.
John T. Bennett and Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.