WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on a House oversight committee took federal and state officials to task Wednesday over what they called slow recovery efforts nearly eight months after floods devastated communities in Louisiana.
“I don’t think any of you can look at this and assess it as a B-plus or highly successful — anything other than a total and utter failure from top to bottom,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told witnesses. “I don’t understand nor should we ever tolerate such a lack of response.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards and Robert Fenton, acting administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, were among the witnesses at the committee’s hearing on the state and federal response after the historic floods last March and August. The August flood left 13 dead and damaged tens of thousands of homes and businesses.
The oversight committee also held a field hearing in Baton Rouge last September. FEMA officials as well as former President Barack Obama and then presidential candidate Donald Trump toured damaged communities promising federal help.
The hearing Wednesday lasted well over two hours and was marked by testy exchanges between lawmakers and witnesses, including Edwards who defended the state response.
“We worked around the clock to act as quickly as possible within the parameters set by federal regulations," Edwards said. “We have beaten every deadline assigned to our state in the process of bringing home Community Development Block Grant funds, and yet still, we know there are improvements we can make."
Edwards said the state submitted two recovery action plans to federal agencies in record time. He noted the state received notice last Friday that the Department of Housing and Urban Development has approved the state's final action plan for the $1.6 billion in CDBC funds Congress OK'd last year. The administration expects the funding to be available soon.
Edwards, who has visited Washington several times to lobby for recovery aid, and Louisiana's congressional delegation pushed get the $1.6 billion in recovery aid. They vow to continue to push for another $1 billion.
Republican Sen. John Kennedy, however, complained Tuesday that the effort is made more challenging because he said the state hasn't yet spent any of the CDBG funds and because of the "unmitigated disaster of the state" bidding process for contracts.
“It’s been hard,’’ said Kennedy, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee. “We’ve had $1.6 billion sitting in the bank since September. When I talk to my colleagues and say, 'Can you get us some more?' they say 'how did you spend the first $1.6 billion?'"
Kennedy also pointed to the controversy over a contract process that he said would have helped well-connected companies.
"It stinks to high heaven," he said. "It just smacks of good old Louisiana politics and it’s embarrassing."
The state recently abandoned a plan to contract for recovery efforts. State officials said the delay will not hinder rebuilding.
"I’ve been assuring my colleagues that A, we need extra money, and B, it won’t be stolen if they give it to us. And then this kind of stuff comes out," Kennedy said. “I don’t know who is running the show down there, but the governor needs to take control of this thing.''
During Wednesday's hearing, Republican lawmakers challenged Edwards, a Democrat, for giving the state a B-plus for its response to the flood.
Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala., a member of the committee, said one word keeps popping up during the hearing: incompetence.
Republican Rep. Mike Johnson called the response an epic failure at the state and federal levels.
“The sad thing about it is in Louisiana we do recovery really well. We have so much experience with it, sadly,” he said. “The reason we do recovery well in Louisiana is not because of the federal and state government; it’s because of our people, because they’re very resourceful. They’re survivors. Communities work together, neighbors band together … They take care of one another often in spite of the federal government, not because of it.”
Republican Rep. Garret Graves, whose district was the hardest hit by the August flood, also criticized the state and federal responses, saying they would have been much worse if not for neighbors helping each other.
“At end of the day, this whole thing is about people,’’ he said. “A lot of these decisions can’t be defended."
At one point, Graves and Edwards accused each other of not telling the truth about how soon the state could have received and starting using funds from HUD.
Graves blamed the state in part for the delay and said the funding could have been distributed much sooner.
Edwards disputed that charge.
“You cannot distribute money before you have it,’’ said Edwards. “There is nothing we could have done that would have made that money available any faster."
Edwards said after the hearing the slow pace and bureaucracy have been frustrating, particularly for residents trying to return home.
Edwards and Graves did agree the state needs additional recovery funds. Edwards said he doesn’t expect the hearing will impact that effort because HUD has acknowledged the need for more funds.
“I don’t anticipate that that’s going to be a hindrance,'' he said. "It would be nice if they would appropriate the full amount that we have left to meet the unmet need."
During the hearing, Chaffetz also blasted Edwards when he couldn't answer how many people were still displaced.
“Governor, you know how bad that looks, right?...," Chaffetz said. "You don’t even have a guess? You’re that clueless?"
Edwards said he didn't know exactly how many people are still displaced because some are staying with relatives.
Edwards also defended the state's Shelter at Home program, saying it served its purpose and helped more than 10,000 families repair their homes to be safe enough to return.
“The most important thing was those individuals were able to stay in their communities where they live and work," he said. “Given the concerns that we have, I would say that was largely successful, certainly not perfect."
Democrats and Republicans also criticized CB&I, a company hired to help with flood recovery efforts, and FEMA for not maintaining or providing enough temporary housing for flood victims.
“There is no doubt that things have improved since Hurricane Katrina, but I continue to have serious concerns about FEMA’s reliance and dependence on contractors, as well as its inability to hold those contractors accountable," said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the committee.
Cummings cited the death of Everett Wilson, a 84-year-old veteran who was found dead in a manufactured home he was provided after the flood. Cummings said there apparently was a thermostat malfunction and the temperature had reached 130 degrees when Wilson was found.
David Boone, president of CB&I, said the company had “zero work in backlog" and it had received praise and “flowing accolades from FEMA” for its work.
“We will stay in your districts until the job is done,'' he told Louisiana lawmakers.
But lawmakers took the company to task for a host of concerns, including not documenting or responding to maintenance calls. Chaffetz blasted officials for putting the wrong telephone number for maintenance concerns on the trailer.
"Your company has a problem... It might be you," Cummings told Boone.
Mark Harrell, the emergency coordinator in Livingston Parish, said local officials were frustrated because they constantly ran into resistance from FEMA. Livingston Parish was particularly hard hit by the flood. Harrell said local emergency officials need to have more say during disasters.
“I feel like I failed the people of Livingston Parish on this disaster, and that’s strictly due to the inability of FEMA to work as a team,” he said. “It’s not a team approach when it comes to FEMA. So, yes, give me block grants and let me handle my people."
But he said, "I stand by the B-plus ... The (state) emergency response was very, very good.''
Graves and Edwards also had a testy exchange outside the hearing room about the issue. The two were within inches of each other's faces. They shook hands, however, before parting.