WASHINGTON — Louisiana lawmakers plan to push for more federal aid to speed flood recovery efforts when they return to Congress next week.
Congressional, state and local officials are still assessing damage from last month’s flooding that killed 13 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and businesses. But congressional lawmakers say they're working on legislation and met Monday with Gov. John Bel Edwards to discuss early needs.
“It’s going to require a tailored response," said Republican Rep. Garret Graves, whose district includes hard-hit Baton Rouge. “The needs are pretty extraordinary."
With less than five weeks before Congress breaks for elections, Louisiana lawmakers vow to step up pressure to get colleagues to act.
“I certainly appreciate that this (effort) is going to have some challenges associated with it just because of the schedule, elections and everything else," said Graves. “But I’ll tell you there’s no doubt that these funds are needed yesterday."
Graves said the legislative wish-list will likely include Community Development Block Grant disaster recovery aid. Lawmakers also hope to create a task force of state, federal and local officials to coordinate and track recovery efforts.
To bolster their case, Louisiana members of Congress will invite colleagues in key positions to tour damaged communities. Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, who chairs a subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Federal Emergency Management Agency, toured Monday with Graves. California Rep. Maxine Waters, top Democrat on the Financial Services Committee, visited last Friday.
“You can’t understand the gravity of this unless you see it," Graves said.
Last week, Democratic Rep. Cedric Richmond, who also represents parts of Baton Rouge, and Waters called for a field hearing in the city. Republican Sen. David Vitter, chairman of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, will hold a hearing Sept. 15 in Washington.
Lawmakers are also looking to tap economic aid and housing-repair programs and explore U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects to stabilize the Amite and Comite rivers.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, predicts there will be bipartisan support.
“I don’t think anybody wants to appear to be hard-hearted," he said. “I would be surprised, considering the level and the scale of the loss, that there wouldn’t be something."
Ellis said Congress could attach recovery aid to a continuing resolution to fund government operations, to emergency legislation to fund anti-Zika efforts, or to some other legislative vehicle.
“If they needed to do anything more with the flooding in Louisiana, they certainly could," he said. “But that’s going to be more short-term, and what we really need is some systemic changes in how we approach disasters."
One possible complication, Ellis said, is that lawmakers who represent areas outside Louisiana that also have been hurt by recent flooding may push "to get a piece of the pie.''
President Barack Obama, who recently visited the state, urged Louisiana Republicans to press GOP leaders on recovery measures. That would include Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the majority whip and the No. 3 Republican in the House.
Obama said federal disaster relief funds will cover short-term cost, but “the issue is going to be less what we need to do in terms of paying for the short term — it’s going to be the medium-term and the long-term rebuilding."
Obama declared 20 parishes major disaster areas. More than 128,000 households have registered for FEMA aid.
FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate said the state may also need help from other federal agencies to fund emergency road repairs and provide housing aid. He said it’s too early to determine final costs, but FEMA already has approved $385 million in aid to flood victims.
“That should be some indicator ... this is not going to be a small event; it’s going to be rather large," he said.
Graves said he expects most of the recovery efforts can be funded with existing pots of money or by shifting funds.
Lawmakers are looking to model legislation introduced after other disasters, including Superstorm Sandy, which hit New Jersey and New York in 2012.
“That storm absolutely deserved a recovery package," Graves said.
Rep. Bill Pascrell, D-New Jersey, called on Congress to cut short its recess to help flood victims, even though some Louisiana lawmakers voted against a Sandy disaster aid package.
Pascrell said the lawmakers “found the dumbest reasons to vote against” the package, but that shouldn’t count against them.
“I’ll have a Jersey moment with those guys, believe me,” Pascrell said. “But retribution has no place in politics. It’s petty politics when I’m being asked, why help these people when these three congressmen didn’t help you in your state.”
Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy was still a member of the House when lawmakers voted in January 2013 on the Sandy aid package. He, Scalise and Republican Rep. John Fleming opposed an amendment offered by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-New Jersey, that provided nearly $34 billion for block grants. The Louisiana lawmakers said some of the Sandy aid measures included funding unrelated to the 2012 storm.
Their votes against Sandy aid may come back to haunt them now that their state faces similar needs, said Pearson Cross, a political scientist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
"There may be some people who have longer memories and look at that and say, payback time,'' he said. "One would hope not."
Graves said most communities will be affected in some way by a disaster.
“Disasters happen, and folks need to know that when you have a catastrophic disaster, something on the scale of a 1,000-year event, that your government is going to be there to provide some degree of a safety net," he said.
Herb Jackson with the USA TODAY Network contributed to this report.
Contact Deborah Barfield Berry at email@example.com. Twitter: @dberrygannett.
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