Recovery aid remains up in the air

Officials point at federal ‘threshold’

Hurricane Isaac and its floodwaters may have hit southern Louisiana nearly six months ago, but exactly how the recovery is paid for remains up in the air.

State officials are still working with the federal government to see if the damages and recovery costs will hit a threshold to trigger the federal government covering 90 percent of the costs. But until that time comes, the state, parishes and more remain responsible for 25 percent of the costs with the Federal Emergency Management Agency assuming three-quarters of the pie.

“It certainly is a process,” said Kevin Davis, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. “It’s something the president could’ve already granted, but they’re making us go through the process.”

FEMA has processed $454 million in damages thus far, Davis said, but the mathematical formula requires $593.8 million in damages to hit the 90 percent cost sharing threshold. The damage estimates exceed $600 million, Davis said, so it is just a matter of slowly going through the project worksheets and getting everything formally “obligated.”

“I wish it was happening faster,” Davis said. “Believe me.”

While the hope was the process would be done in January, he said, Hurricane Sandy in the northeast pulled away some of FEMA’s overall resources. Davis said he is now more optimistic the threshold will be met in April.

But Davis said he is concerned about all of the state and local agencies going through budget planning processes without knowing how much Isaac will cost them.

“Why not go ahead and do it now because we have all these local entities and fire departments working on budgets,” he said.

Davis is referring to President Barack Obama’s ability to unilaterally grant the 90 percent cost sharing.

Louisiana ultimately received 100 percent federal support in 2005 after Katrina and Rita and the level of support in 2008 after Gustav was eventually lifted to 90 percent after the storm. But the extra Gustav support only came after going through the full FEMA process.

Obama’s pre-landfall emergency declaration for Louisiana last year authorized the 75 percent federal cost sharing that still exists thus far.

Ascension Parish President Tommy Martinez acknowledged the concerns about Isaac costs and budget planning.

“We always want the smallest amount of match funding in parish dollars,” Martinez said, “and I will do everything I can as parish president to minimize our cost.”

The positive news though is that FEMA confirmed most damage assessment amounts sent to them, Davis said, or at least at amounts very close to the estimates.

“Our first numbers were well over $600 million,” Davis said. “So far, it’s folding pretty close to the numbers that were given.”

The other concern is the federal sequester budget cuts scheduled to go into effect on March 1 unless Congress acts. FEMA’s disaster funding budget would see a roughly $1 billion hit if that occurs and could impact overall funding issues.

FEMA on Friday broke down its Isaac-related funding from state and federal sources thus far for several of the worst-hit parishes.

For instance, Plaquemines Parish has received nearly $112 million thus far — $76 million in public assistant, $25 million in small business disaster loans and $11 million in individual assistance.

Elsewhere, $91 million has gone to the badly hit St. John the Baptist Parish, $66 million to Jefferson Parish, $58 million in Orleans Parish, $31 million in St. Tammany Parish, and $16.5 million in Tangipahoa Parish, just to name a few.

Likewise, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., announced this week $12 million in FEMA funds for Isaac and Hurricane Katrina-related repair projects, $6 million of which is for drainage improvement projects in St. John, Tangipahoa and Plaquemines parishes.

Out of the other $6 million, $3.7 million is going to the state Department of Agriculture and Forestry for emergency fuel distribution services after disasters, $1.1 million to the state Department of Health and Hospitals for Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge sheltering hurricane victims, and $1.2 million to the St. John the Baptist Parish School Board for transporting children to alternative schools after Isaac.