WASHINGTON — A bill aimed at overhauling federal disaster-recovery policy and carrying a raft of tweaks that could ease bureaucratic roadblocks for Baton Rouge-area flood victims cleared a key U.S. House of Representatives committee this week.
Among the proposed Disaster Recovery Reform Act’s provisions is a change in federal law which would allow flood-hit homeowners who applied for Small Business Administration loans to access Restore Louisiana recovery grants. U.S. Reps. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, and Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, co-authored the provision.
Current federal law has severely limited or blocked access to Restore Louisiana grants for the roughly 10,000 Louisianans who applied for SBA loans in the wake of the 2016 floods — even if those homeowners never actually borrowed the money.
The Disaster Recovery Reform bill also includes a range of other significant measures, which would overhaul how the Federal Emergency Management Agency responds to natural disasters.
It would also provide additional funding for flood-prevention and disaster-mitigation work, according to Graves, and provides more flexibility for local governments to combine pots of federal funds to complete projects.
“This is one of the most significant disaster recovery and preparedness bills in decades,” Graves said in a statement. “The legislation truly captures and takes action on the frontline feedback and lessons learned from our August flood, recent hurricanes and other events. This is the way Congress is supposed to work.”
The SBA “duplication of benefits” issue has been among the most frustrating roadblocks faced by Louisiana flood victims since the August 2016 floods.
Federal disaster-response law currently prohibits victims from receiving duplicate government assistance for the same damages. The federal government has interpreted that rule to mean those approved for SBA emergency loans — even those who didn’t actually take out a cent — can’t receive recovery grants for the same amount.
Other sections of the proposed Disaster Recovery Reform Act would streamline the way federal officials determine how much damage floods dealt to roads and allow arbitrators to settle disputes between FEMA and local governments over reimbursement for disaster expenses and damage.
It would also require FEMA to work with the Federal Highway Administration on the design and construction of evacuation routes, a policy change Graves said would include a controversial portion of Interstate 12 in Livingston and East Baton Rouge parishes where local officials have blamed a center retaining wall for exacerbating flooding.
The bill’s passage by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee clears the way for a potential vote on the House floor, which Graves’ office said is expected to come in December.
If passed by the full House, the bill would need to clear the U.S. Senate before heading to President Donald Trump’s desk.
Follow Bryn Stole on Twitter, @BrynStole.