Fight over hurricane money emerging in Jefferson Parish

Some Jefferson Parish Council members are pushing to use state hazard mitigation grant money for Hurricanes Gustav and Isaac to raise houses in areas outside the 100-year federal flood protection. This house in Jean Lafitte, shown after Hurricane Isaac, was raised before the storm, but its residents posted a sign questioning why the town has been left out. (Advocate photo by Kari Dequine Harden, Friday Sept 14) Show caption
Some Jefferson Parish Council members are pushing to use state hazard mitigation grant money for Hurricanes Gustav and Isaac to raise houses in areas outside the 100-year federal flood protection. This house in Jean Lafitte, shown after Hurricane Isaac, was raised before the storm, but its residents posted a sign questioning why the town has been left out. (Advocate photo by Kari Dequine Harden, Friday Sept 14)

Confusion over the purpose of roughly $15.5 million in federal hazard mitigation funding headed to Jefferson Parish this year could create a battle over how the money should be spent by parish officials.

Jefferson Parish was approved for additional hazard mitigation grant dollars from the state related to hurricanes Gustav and Isaac. This money should flow into the parish’s coffers later this year and is separate from the roughly $17 million the parish already plans to use to elevate about 124 homes under a similar program for Hurricane Katrina.

However, while those Katrina-related dollars were used to lift homes throughout the parish, several politicians are angling to have the latest grant money spent solely in those communities outside of the parish’s flood protection system like Lafitte, Barataria, Crown Point and Grand Isle.

Council Chairman Chris Roberts said he plans to introduce an ordinance April 17 to dedicate the money to elevating any home outside the flood protection system that meets the grant requirements. He said that with the impending changes to the flood insurance program, getting those homes raised is a huge issue because residents will soon see exponential increases in their flood insurance premiums. In order to qualify for the grant program, property owners must show “repetitive” or “severe repetitive losses” at their properties, and the homes must fail to meet the new base flood elevations from the National Flood Insurance Program.

“Whatever it takes to get every eligible home done,” Roberts said.

Councilman Ricky Templet said those three areas should see all of the grant money because they have had serious flooding four times in the past seven years. Templet argues that the parish only received its most recent grants because of the damage those areas sustained in Isaac and Gustav, so it makes sense that the money would be spent there.

“The only places that went underwater and homes flooded in both of those storms came from outside the levee protection,” Temple said. “Before we start using this money across the parish for drainage projects, we need to get these homes raised.”

Templet’s comment about drainage projects relates to a fight last summer about the idea of dedicating hazard mitigation funding from Katrina to drainage projects on the east bank. Councilman Paul Johnston and Parish President John Young both advocated for that plan, arguing that the money could be used on anything that assists in stopping flooding.

Ultimately, the council decided to spend the money on home elevations in each district. About 32 homes of the 124 approved came from Templet’s district.

Johnston said he doesn’t have enough information on how the new disbursement must be spent to commit to any plan for the money. Councilman Elton Lagasse echoed those comments. Young said that he also needs to get more information on any restrictions on how the money can be spent. But if homes outside of the flood protections system qualify for grants, he said, that’s where the money should go.

“The areas that were vulnerable and damaged during Isaac were those areas outside of the flood protection system,” Young said.

However, there is still some confusion among some council members about the status of the grant, and at least two council members said they wouldn’t be willing to dedicate all of the money to District 1 when there are homes in their districts that might could qualify for grants. Council members Cynthia Lee Sheng and E. Ben Zahn III both thought the council had already dedicated the Isaac money to properties outside of the flood protection back in September.

Zahn said that if that dedication didn’t occur, then he wants any home in his district that didn’t make the cut for the Katrina grants to be raised using the Isaac money. According to parish figures, Zahn has about four homes in his district that would meet that criteria. After those homes are lifted, Zahn would be willing to dedicate the rest of the money to District 1, but he noted he has to protect the people of his district first.

Councilman Mark Spears said that any home in his district that qualifies for a grant under the program’s standards should be considered by parish officials. He noted that there are homes in Lincolnshire and other areas that have flooded multiple times, despite being within the flood protection system. They shouldn’t be barred from assistance if they meet the guidelines.

“I think it should be done evenly,” Spears argued.

But Jean Lafitte Mayor Tim Kerner said it doesn’t make sense to lift homes in areas where millions of dollars have been spent building levees, floodwalls and new pumping stations. Kerner has said that if the communities outside the system don’t get the lion’s share of the money, there will be fireworks.

“I won’t have a friend left,” Kerner said.