Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Disaster and Neglect in Louisiana

A year after the worst rainstorm in a rainy state’s history killed 13 and damaged nearly 100,000 homes, the federal government has provided less than half of what Louisiana says it needs to recover. Adding to the rebuilding woes, FEMA rejected a request to fund counseling services beyond this month.

Floodwaters submerged a subdivision in north Baton Rouge on Aug. 15, 2016. (Credit: Bill Feig/The Advocate) Click to Enlarge.
The worst rainstorm in Louisiana’s history began innocuously when a low-pressure system formed early last August near the coast.  A week later, the system had barely budged, boxed in place by other weather patterns.  From Aug. 11 it erupted for days with unimagined force over a sweeping stretch of the Pelican State, bringing more rain than Hurricane Katrina.

In some places more than 2 feet of rain fell over three days, overtopping rivers and canals. The flooding killed 13 and affected hundreds of thousands, causing major damage to tens of thousands of homes.  Research has shown it was one of the worst storms yet to have been clearly linked to climate change.  The estimated $10.3 billion in damage ranked it as one of the worst floods in American history, but the national reaction has been muted in the year since. (Northern Louisiana was hit by flooding that caused $2.3 billion in damage earlier in 2016.)

The storm in August had no name and it affected a neglected corner of the country.  At the same time, the Olympic Games and a divisive national election reduced news coverage, leaving national reports on the flooding scarce.  A New Orleans Times-Picayune movie critic wrote a week into the disaster that “locals have every reason to worry that recovery funds will be just as scarce.”

The storm left families struggling with twin traumas of losing everything and feeling abandoned at a time of need.  The victims include some of America’s most vulnerable residents, many of them poor, many of them living in households headed by single working women like Smith. Survivors have struggled not just to rebuild their homes, but their lives, with psychological wounds festering long after flood waters receded.

Nickels to the Dollar
In the parts of Louisiana hardest hit, including Baton Rouge, more than one in four households live in poverty.  There are visible signs of national neglect as Congress has provided nickels to the dollar to help Louisianans recover.  Turning off the main roads into the side streets of northern Baton Rouge reveals how the devastation disproportionately affected the most disadvantaged.

America deals with disasters by throwing money at them after they hit, which federal, state and local agencies use to rebuild homes, businesses and infrastructure.  The federal government spent $278 billion on disasters from 2005 through 2014, the Government Accountability Office reported.  The amount of money that follows a disaster depends largely on the whims of Congress.  That puts victims of low-profile storms in politically weak states at risk of being cast aside as requests for aid tick upward with global temperatures.

For every dollar of damage caused by the 2016 floods, Congress is providing Louisiana with 13 cents to help it recover.  The funding seems “low for the level of damage that occurred,” said Jeffrey Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Compare that with the 65 to 70 cents to the dollar for recoveries following hurricanes Sandy in the Northeast and Katrina in the Deep South, which were the most damaging storms in U.S. history and received far more attention.  “This was not a well-covered disaster,” he said.  “Not a lot of people know about it.”

Presidentially declared disasters tend to qualify automatically for some recovery funds, with lawmakers charged with passing bills to boost the amount for catastrophes and disasters not usually covered.  To help Louisiana recover from the 2016 floods, Congress raised $1.7 billion through amendments to three separate bills — $2 billion less than state officials say is needed. Gov. John Bel Edwards has asked Congress for more.

“Congress is getting a little frustrated with these emergency supplementals,” Schlegelmilch said. Disasters are increasing nationally and globally, and he pointed out that America’s approach to funding recoveries was created in the 1970s and 1980s, when the nation’s political climate and its vulnerability to extreme weather were both more tempered.  “They’re very large-ticket items that are put out there, and they’ve gotten more difficult to pass.”

FEMA is considering requiring states to help fund their own recoveries by paying deductibles. That could hurt poor and disaster-prone states like Louisiana and its Southern neighbors, though the agency argues in a rulemaking notice that it would “incentivize greater state resilience to future disasters.”

Schlegelmilch supports reforming the current system, which emphasizes recovery efforts over preparedness.  (Research has shown that spending on preparedness substantially reduces spending on recoveries, but that U.S. voters prioritize the latter over the former.)  “We need to do more to incentivize state and local investments in mitigation for climate change and for other kinds of disasters, so that we’re not waiting on a bailout every time that disaster strikes,” he said.

The Unseen Toll
The forlornness of families and the mental health maladies from their trauma are less visible than physical scars etched in urban streetscapes.

“You see people who still don’t have homes, and it’s so sad, it’s heartbreaking,” said Katherine Washington, a 59-year old teacher living with a daughter and foster daughters in a FEMA trailer in their north Baton Rouge yard while their house is repaired.  Their furniture, clothes, photos and toys were destroyed by the flood.  Later, thieves took Washington’s washer and dryer from her wrecked laundry room and the tires off her flood-damaged car.  Their street is still pocked by empty houses.

Read more at Disaster and Neglect in Louisiana

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