That Louisiana did not get its fair share of federal hurricane relief funds after Katrina and Rita is old news here, but for some reason, the rest of the nation hasn't taken note. Specifically, Congress has been slow to address the disparity between Louisiana's and Mississippi's relative shares of post-storm federal aid. Mississippi officials seem particularly irked by the fact that Louisiana dares to complain about its smaller share of federal aid. To our neighbors in Mississippi and to the rest of the nation, we want to be clear on two points: (1) We don't begrudge Mississippi one penny of the aid it received. We have no doubt that all of that money " possibly more " is needed to help the Magnolia State recover from Katrina. Anyone who has visited Mississippi's coastal communities knows that the devastation there was just as severe, though not as widespread or as costly, as it was in southeast Louisiana. All we're asking is that Louisiana get its proportionate share in the form of additional federal aid so that relief dollars match the damage.
(2) By far, most of the damage sustained in southeast Louisiana was caused not by the storm but by the federal government's incompetence. Specifically, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed and built defective floodwalls in and around New Orleans " and then lied to people living here by telling them they were protected. Because the federal government caused most of the damage, the feds have a moral and legal obligation to fix it.
Lest anyone think these observations flow from a parochial interest in seeing more 'free money" flow to Louisiana, a new report by two independent, nonpartisan public policy research organizations offers objective proof of these claims and more. The report, 'Spending Federal Disaster Aid," comes from the Baton Rouge-based Public Affairs Research Council (PAR) and the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, which is based at the State University of New York. Moreover, the research partners behind the report include two Mississippi-based institutions " the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University and the Center for Urban Planning and Policy Assessment at Jackson State University " and the advisory committee for the project is chaired by former Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter. Clearly, Louisiana has a sound argument for additional aid.
The report analyzes two major types of federal aid used for post-storm reconstruction and recovery: FEMA Public Assistance grants and Community Development Block Grants (CDBG). The report reaches five major conclusions:
The amount of federal aid provided to Louisiana and Mississippi is not proportional to the amount of damage each state suffered. This is particularly true in the area of housing damage and CDBG funding. 'Louisiana suffered 67 percent of the major and severe housing damage and received 62 percent of the CDBG funding, while Mississippi suffered 20 percent of the damage and received 33 percent of the funding," the report states. 'Florida, Alabama, and Texas each suffered proportionally more damage than they received in CDBG funding." In addition, Louisiana suffered proportionately more 'severe" housing damage.
The sluggishness with which aid has been distributed remains the top concern of officials in both states. The most glaring examples of this are the Louisiana Road Home program, which initially had so many 'safeguards" against corruption that virtually nothing happened, and CDBG funds needed to rebuild public infrastructure. Barely one-fourth of the nearly $17 billion in CDBG funds approved for Louisiana and Mississippi was spent as of August 2007. 'Most public infrastructure rebuilding projects are still in the planning stages," the report states.
The 'reimbursement" nature of FEMA's Public Assistance program puts many local governments at a severe disadvantage because they cannot come up with the 'up-front money" to start recovery projects. Thus, the recovery process stalled from its inception.
Current federal disaster relief programs were never designed to handle a catastrophe of Katrina's scope and scale. New programs need to be designed for large-scale disasters.
There are two phases in the aftermath of a disaster " immediate response and long-term recovery " and they involve different needs, logistics and politics. Furthermore, the needs vary from community to community. Federal aid programs must recognize and respond to these differences.
'While more than $8 billion has been disbursed through these federal recovery programs, the costs for full recovery continue to climb," says Jim Brandt, president of PAR and co-principal investigator on the project. 'A new level of communication and cooperation will be necessary to speed up the recovery and finish the job of rebuilding this region."
We agree, and we suggest that the new level of communication and cooperation should start with congressional recognition that Louisiana has not been adequately compensated. We urge all members of Congress to heed the fact-based conclusions of the PAR-Rockefeller report. It is available online at www.la-par.org.