Saturday, September 10, 2016

Re: FEMA's response to Louisiana Flooding - "The whole process is designed to exclude people, rather than help them,"

Baton Rouge-area mayors blast, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards questions federal response after flood

WASHINGTON — Frustrations over the federal response to Louisiana's catastrophic August floods were aired during a hearing on Capitol Hill on Friday.
For more nearly three hours, a U.S. House subcommittee raised questions over the pace with which assistance is making its way to flood victims, the bureaucratic back-and-forth that officials and individuals have faced when seeking aid and the lack of manufactured housing units on the ground – nearly a month into the recovery effort.
There was no final action, and more congressional hearings are expected in response to the flooding that has been characterized as the worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy struck the east coast in 2012.
But one of the key points that several leaders sought to emphasize is that FEMA is under regulations set out by Congress and tends to operate in a bubble of fear of the Inspector General's Office crying foul over how money is spent.
"Fear is holding up this process," said U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans.
Richmond has in recent years repeatedly pushed for what he calls the "FEMA Reform Act" to no success. It's meant to supplant the Stanford Act, last updated in 2013, that officials during Friday's hearing argued is not sufficient in dealing with varying circumstances for diverse disasters.
Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, shared the opinion that the current version of the Stafford Act has hindered the recovery process.
"If you let this slide, it's going to be the same thing in your state," he warned his colleagues.
Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry, Central Mayor Jr. Shelton and Walker Mayor Rick Ramsey each shared how their hard-hit communities have struggled through the recovery process and the challenges they continue to face. All three leveled harsh criticism at FEMA, which they said they have found to be too bureaucratic and idiosyncratic in their dealings.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who has generally spoken positively of the federal response, also raised questions on Friday.
"While I am grateful for the quick response we have received from this flooding, I am under no illusion that the response has been perfect," he said.
Edwards said in particular he has been disappointed about the rate of getting manufactured housing units, or mobile homes, to people whose homes were severely damaged and are not livable.
He said 62 families have been approved for manufactured housing, but only 48 mobile homes are currently in the process of being installed. It was unclear how many are actually being lived in at the moment.
FEMA regional administrator Tony Robinson, who was there to represent the agency, said he was not sure.
Robinson flatly read a prepared statement defending the agency's response, and fielded several direct questions about the response, though some he was unable to answer.
"While a lot of progress has been made, the recovery from this significant disaster will take time," he said.
Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the subcommittee and recently traveled to the Baton Rouge area to view the damage first hand, peppered Robinson with questions about what he views as failings in the federal response.
"Something's dramatically wrong," Mica said. "This is a pitiful federal response by any measure."
For weeks, FEMA leaders have stressed that the federal assistance that the agency supplies is intended to meet people's basic needs – not make them whole by replacing everything they lost in the flood.
When people have been denied assistance, FEMA has instructed them to appeal. When people have asked about the hold-up on getting manufactured housing into place, FEMA has often cited local regulations as the culprit. When flood victims go days without hearing back from FEMA about requests for housing assistance or other aid, they've been told that it's on them to keep badgering the federal agency.
The whole process is designed to exclude people, rather than help them," Shelton said.
Leaders also identified issues with communication between local and state leaders during the immediate aftermath.
Shelton said his city didn't receive supplies of water and emergency meals for several days. He reached out to Graves.
But Edwards testified he was never made aware of the issue and that Shelton was supposed to obtain those supplies from the parish.
Shelton, who noted he has only been on the job two years, said he was never made aware of the process and had expected to hear from FEMA directly.
Miscommunication and confusion over the proper procedures to follow was a common theme, as was frustration with rules that have largely been put in place to prevent fraud or inefficiency.
Ramsey recounted how he went to a recovery center to gather water and emergency meals to distribute, but was told he could only take one of each, under FEMA rules largely meant to prevent hoarding or distribution of aid based on cronyism.
Several leaders raised concerns about the federal aid requirement that allows people only to use assistance for basic needs – a measure largely put in place to prevent exorbitant spending on the federal dime.
"We assume that people are trying to scam the system," Richmond said. "They're not asking for an extra nugget at McDonald's, they are looking to be made whole."

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