FEMA criticized as slow on disaster housing aid in La.

Melinda Deslatte
Associated Press

Baton Rouge, La. — The first out-of-state congressman to survey Louisiana’s damage from catastrophic flooding Monday blasted the Federal Emergency Management Agency response as “pitiful.”

U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who chairs a subcommittee with jurisdiction over FEMA, toured the destruction with U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, a Republican who represents much of the most heavily damaged region.

Mica said housing aid for the tens of thousands of people displaced by floodwaters two weeks ago has been sluggish and FEMA has been too slow to set up mobile homes that give people somewhere to stay while they repair their houses.

He said FEMA needs more “flexibility” in its programs to make them more adaptable to individual disasters.

“This is one of the biggest displacements of people I’ve ever seen in the country, and the response is pitiful from the federal level,” Mica said.

Only one manufactured housing unit has been set up so far. FEMA regional director Gerard Stolar said the agency is working to speed aid to people displaced by the flooding.

“We’re working very closely with the state. We’re well aware of the devastation that’s out there, that this is an historic event,” Stolar said.

He said that FEMA’s priority is to get people back into their homes and that 50 to 60 additional manufactured housing units are ready to be set up for homeowners after inspections of their property are complete.

“I’m very confident we’re going to be able to ramp up the capacity for this in the very near future,” Stolar said.

More than 100,000 homes are estimated to be damaged from flooding described as the worst disaster since Superstorm Sandy, after a storm that started Aug. 12 dumped as much as 2 feet of rain in some areas over two days.

More than 1,400 people remained in shelters Monday.

Entire communities were ravaged by floodwaters, and residents and volunteers have spent the last two weeks ripping out flooring, damaged furniture and drywall to ready homes for repairs. But many people didn’t have flood insurance, leaving them dependent on savings and FEMA for rebuilding assistance.

Federal officials say more than $277 million in recovery grants have been approved for households so far and 22 assistance centers are open across the damaged parishes. FEMA said it has more than 1,100 housing inspectors on the ground.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has praised the federal response.

Graves, however, said FEMA needs to quicken the pace of its inspections and grant approval. He also worried about the size of grants. While the cap on assistance to households is $33,000, Graves said the largest grant received is around $8,000 so far.

“People are sitting there, looking at their home and business situation. They’ve got to make decisions,” Graves said.

Edwards’ administration opened registration Monday for a new, FEMA-funded “shelter at home” program aimed at providing grants of up to $15,000 to help people make modest repairs that can get them quickly and safely back into their houses while they start work on the larger renovations.

Graves said that program was a “fantastic” concept.

Both congressmen said some of the flexibility they’d like to see in FEMA programs could require congressional action. Edwards was meeting with Louisiana’s congressional delegation Monday to discuss a flood relief package.