It comes as no surprise to those who dealt with FEMA after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that the agency denied Gov. John Bel Edwards' requests for additional federal assistance to area residents, businesses and parish governments hit by the Feb. 7 tornadoes. Despite upgrades to the agency after the 2005 storms, the default response of many bureaucrats is still "no."
Proof of that came last week, when FEMA told Edwards it wouldn't send additional public assistance money to Orleans, Jefferson, Ascension, St. James and Livingston parishes. FEMA also declined to send additional "individual assistance" to Ascension and St. James parishes. Public assistance is money for governments to rebuild infrastructure and recoup the cost of responding to a disaster. Individual assistance is money for residents and business owners.
A spokesman for the governor says he will appeal FEMA's decision. Edwards has 30 days to file that appeal. Getting the money will take far longer — but it's worth the effort.
The overarching lesson learned by those who successfully navigated FEMA's Byzantine appeals process after Katrina is this: Don't give up. Ever. When they say "no," go back and ask again. And again, until you prevail.
I saw this firsthand when my high school alma mater, Holy Cross, had to make its case for a new campus after Katrina. I had the honor — and the daunting challenge — of chairing the school's board of directors when the storm hit, and for nearly a year after that. My successor as board chair, Bill Chauvin, became the school's point man with FEMA. Time and again the agency low-balled us, but Chauvin never gave up. Eventually, he and the school's team of consultants wore FEMA down, and today Holy Cross has a beautiful new campus.
Friends who worked with other hard-hit schools tell similar stories. In fact, one bureaucrat (who shall remain nameless) confided to me years later that the secret to local institutions' success in getting additional (read: fair) FEMA settlements after Katrina was the fact that we never gave up. "We figured we just had to wear you guys out," I said to him. He smiled and nodded in agreement.
That's not the way the system is supposed to work, but that's the reality. I pass this along to encourage not only Edwards but also area residents, business owners and parish leaders not to give up hope. It's a long, often frustrating process, but if you persist you can wear FEMA down.
It also helps to have powerful allies in Washington. After Katrina, then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu championed the cause of many local institutions dealing with FEMA. Landrieu's gone now, but U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson and the House Majority Whip, is perfectly situated to help. Moreover, this should be a nonpartisan issue.
We in south Louisiana take pride in our resiliency. That word got plum worn out during the 10-year anniversary of Katina, but now's a good time to invoke it again — in the context of not letting FEMA wear us out this go-round.