Flood waters were rising, so Rep. Garret Graves threw his kayak and paddle board on his truck, just in case.
As floods tore into the Louisiana Republican's Baton Rouge-area district on Aug. 13, he joined what he called the "Cajun Navy," hopping in his kayak to pull people from their homes. Residents in their own boats helped rescue neighbors as their houses flooded. Graves said that without these residents taking the initiative, the death toll would probably have been higher.
Thirteen people perished in the floods. A recent Baton Rouge Area Chamber of Commerce analysis showed that more than 110,000 homes were located in the flood area.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards said on Aug. 18 that more than 40,000 homes were impacted by the flooding. More than 100,000 residents have registered for assistance so far, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Edwards is expected to meet with the state's congressional delegation on Monday to discuss priorities moving forward, according to an aide to Louisiana GOP Rep. Steve Scalise. Agencies are also conducting a detailed damage assessment to determine the next steps.
The immediate needs of the flooded areas will be a top priority for Louisiana lawmakers as they head back to Capitol Hill in September. That could include additional funds for the area based on the results of the assessment.
Graves said he is also working with congressional leadership offices to bring members of Congress to the disaster areas so they can see the damage first hand.
But in the long term, the events in Louisiana could shed light on concerns about disaster response across the country. Graves said recently on MSNBC that the current process of responding to natural disasters is "unforgivable."
“Ultimately, we’ve got to pivot from a country of reaction to a country of proactive actions,” Graves said in an interview with Roll Call.
Graves pointed to a 2005 study by the Multihazard Mitigation Council at the National Institute of Building Sciences that said every dollar spent on mitigating disasters saves four dollars that would have been spent recovering from those occurrences.
This has been one of the freshman lawmaker's top causes during his first term in office. He has helped bring roughly 50 lawmakers to Louisiana over the past year to talk about disasters.
Graves also worked to insert a disaster cost analysis provision in a FEMA overhaul bill that passed the House in February. The bill is currently in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Graves also pointed to efficiency issues with the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages large development projects. A long-delayed river diversion project under the corps in Louisiana could have helped quell some of the recent flooding, the Amite River Basin Commission president told The Advocate.
Graves has experience in this area, previously serving as the chairman of the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority under former Gov. Bobby Jindal. He said a lack of understanding about disaster response is one of the challenges in getting lawmakers to rethink the country's recovery posture.
“This is definitely one of those nerdy niche areas that a lot of people don’t have a lot of background on," Graves said.
Zack Rosenburg, the CEO of the disaster response group SBP that he co-founded after Hurricane Katrina, agreed with Graves that something must be done to better mitigate weather-related catastrophes.
“There’s an incredible human toll when recovery is delayed or unpredictable,” Rosenburg said.
SBP already is on the ground in Baton Rouge, which has been hit hard by the recent flooding. The group's volunteers are at work gutting and repairing damaged houses, training other organizations on remedial construction work, and educating residents on how to navigate FEMA.
Rosenburg and the group's other co-founder, Liz McCartney, laid out several steps Congress could take to improve the disaster recovery process — like allowing information sharing between FEMA and the Internal Revenue Service to streamline the FEMA application process.
They also suggested ensuring that people who apply for FEMA assistance get the amount they deserve, and relaxing environmental review requirements for certain housing grants.
Rosenburg said AmeriCorps volunteers are the "lifeblood" of their group and increased funding for that program is vital as well. He is hopeful change will happen since disasters affect so many Americans.
A 2013 report from the Environment America Research & Policy Center found that since 2007, nearly 80 percent of Americans have been affected by weather-related disasters.
“The time is right to show that disaster recovery transcends politics and regional allegiances, to be sure," Rosenburg said. "We see disasters all over the country."
Graves, for his part, said he would keep working to overhaul how the country responds to catastrophes like the floods that engulfed his district.
“Is it going to be easy?" he asked. "No.”
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