The Coming Disaster Assistance Battles

AP Photo/Max Becherer

Standing water closes roads in Sorrento, Louisiana, Saturday, August 20, 2016. Louisiana continues to dig itself out from devastating floods, with search parties going door to door looking for survivors or bodies trapped by flooding. 

The southern Louisiana floods have unleashed squabbles over how much federal aid Louisiana will ultimately receive. Thirteen have died in the affected parishes, and thousands more have lost their homes and plan to seek millions in aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the indispensable but much-maligned agency charged with overseeing response and recovery in places like Baton Rouge and its environs.

Dealing with federal disaster assistance requests in the wake of major floods, snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and wildfires should be straightforward. Sometimes an event may hit a local community hard, but not hard enough to warrant a federal disaster declaration and the dollars that come with it. Depending on the severity of a catastrophe, some communities might require additional federal aid.

Unfortunately, state and federal response to natural disasters is increasingly complicated by political spats and deepening ideological fissures. As climate change fuels extreme weather events and prods the United States toward a new, unsettling normal, partisan gridlock is hampering the government’s ability to respond. Instead of moving swiftly and decisively to help Louisiana, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are now bickering over the federal aid doled out after Hurricane Sandy four years ago. It’s a preview of the regional conflicts and ideological rifts to come as the nation braces for more national disasters.

It shouldn’t be this complicated. The Louisiana floods, the worst domestic natural disaster since Sandy, are a textbook case for supplemental federal aid. The recovery will likely carry a price tag that runs into the multiple billions. But instead of focusing on the crisis at hand, members of the Louisiana and New Jersey congressional delegations are fixated on what happened four years ago. They are trading barbs on whether the Northeast merited a $50 billion package of additional assistance on top of FEMA grants, federal flood insurance and other payouts in 2013 following Hurricane Sandy.

Three Louisiana Republicans, Senator Bill Cassidy, and House members John Fleming and Steve Scalise, are at the center of this spat. Louisiana residents can currently secure FEMA grants and National Flood Insurance payouts. The federal lawmakers may seek additional federal assistance for the recovery and rebuilding effort, which requires congressional approval. But they could run into some resistance.

After Superstorm Sandy devastated the areas of the coastal mid-Atlantic region in 2012, the three men, who are climate change deniers, took issue with how Congress structured the post-Sandy relief and rebuilding package. This trio did vote for an initial $17 billion in federal funding, along with other Republicans in the House. But they objected that a federal supplement of $33 billion got added onto the package, arguing that this additional money was for spending unrelated to storm recovery. (At the time of this dispute, in 2013, Cassidy was a representative; Fleming and Scalise still serve in the House.)

When the entire $50 billion relief program came up for final vote, Cassidy, Fleming, and Scalise were among the House Republicans who voted against it, on the grounds that the appropriations went beyond what they had initially supported, and were not offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget.  

That vote was a full three years ago, but hell hath no fury like a New Jersey politician scorned. So it did not take long for the New Jersey delegation’s outrage to catch up with the three Republicans. For East Coast lawmakers like Bill Pascrell, a Garden State Democrat, the insistent requests for aid to Louisiana from Cassidy, Fleming, and Scalise smells of hypocrisy.

“They don't get it until they get hit on the side of the head themselves by a two-by-four and everything's supposed to stop,” Pascrell told the Advocate of Baton Rouge “All of a sudden it’s ‘This is different, this is oranges and apples.’” (When a Los Angeles Times columnist asked a Scalise spokesman about the 2013 vote on Sandy aid, he said that the two requests were like comparing “apples and oranges.”)

Not that Pascrell plans to retaliate. Pascrell later said that while he would have a “Jersey moment” with his Louisiana colleagues, “retribution has no place in politics.” He called on Congress to end its summer recess early to work on the funding response to the Louisiana floods. But Congress has not shown any interest in hurrying back to Washington to deal with natural disasters (or with other public health emergencies like the Zika crisis in the Miami area).

However, the Jersey snark put the Louisianans on the defensive. “I voted for Sandy relief,” Cassidy told the CBS affiliate in New Orleans. “What I didn’t vote for was $20 billion or so tacked on as pork unrelated to Sandy relief. … I want this to be related to disasters, and obviously, we’ve had a disaster in our state.”

Foster Campbell, the Louisiana Public Service Commissioner and a Democratic candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Republican David Vitter, called on members of the Louisiana delegation to apologize. “If Congress denies Louisiana the aid funds necessary for recovery, it will be because some of our own congressional delegation turned their backs on the victims of Hurricane Sandy to prove a political point about federal budgeting,” he said in an op-ed in The Hill. The Los Angeles Times predicted that “an insistence by lawmakers from outside the flood-stricken region on budget offsets resembling what the Louisiana congressmen demanded will delay that relief.”

This political one-upmanship may seem trivial. But ideological disputes could take on a nasty dimension as natural disasters play havoc with the federal budget and states compete for dollars. Louisiana is just one of several states, including Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, that have been collectively hit by 18 major floods since March 2015, according to Weather.com. During that period, these states have racked up 16 FEMA major disaster declarations.

As catastrophic events erupt with greater frequency and severity, flooding of the type seen in Louisiana is likely to make states that are at high risk for severe storms and hurricanes regular supplicants for federal disaster aid. Even now, two tropical disturbances in the Atlantic are headed toward Florida and the Gulf Coast.

Though Congress is unlikely to deny supplemental funding to Louisiana in the wake of its epic flooding, it’s anyone’s guess when lawmakers might actually get around to voting on that additional funding, and how they will respond to future disasters.

Congress will also eventually have to act on a related problem: The imminent insolvency of the National Flood Insurance Program, which is $23 billion in debt. Total payments to Louisiana homeowners need to come in under $3 billion, which is all the program has left in ready cash and reserves. The authorization for the flood insurance program expires in September 2017, and some members of Congress would like to see it revamped, especially since under current rules people who receive payouts tend to rebuild in flood-prone areas.

When disaster strikes, federal lawmakers have a responsibility to expedite dollars for cleanup and to help survivors, regardless of whether the money is offset by cuts elsewhere in the federal budget. Congress must also tackle head-on the preparedness and emergency response challenges presented by climate change. (Lawmakers who wear climate denial as a badge of honor will have a hard time responding to constituents who are having to navigate alligator- and snake-infested waters.) If 1,000-year floods and coastal superstorms end up as regular features of American life, the country remains tethered to ideological rigidity and legislative delays in Washington at its peril.

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