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Jindal Testifies About Recovery Red Tape

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Location: Washington, DC


Jindal Testifies About Recovery Red Tape

Congressman Bobby Jindal today testified before a House subcommittee hearing that the bureaucracy at both the federal and state levels have impeded recovery efforts in Louisiana. At the "Legislative Fixes for Lingering Problems that Hinder Katrina Recovery" hearing, Congressman Jindal also noted that reforms to the Stafford Act would help in the state's recovery, reduce federal red tape during future disasters, and provide more flexibility to homeowners to rebuild.

"Twenty months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the inadequacy of the Stafford Act, as well as the inconsistency and lack of flexibility in FEMA's interpretation of it in these extraordinary circumstances, continue to hinder Louisiana in its rebuilding efforts," Jindal said before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management.

Jindal specifically mentioned the current dispute between state and federal officials over the use of the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program as a possible revenue stream to help with the budget shortfall within Louisiana's Road Home Program. Jindal brought the shortfall to the attention of Governor Blanco and State Legislators last week in a letter that asked for the exact amount of the expected shortfall.

In today's testimony, Jindal said, "The people who had their homes ravaged by the hurricanes and floods should have access to the tools necessary to rebuild and mitigate against future disasters. If the Stafford Act impedes the allocation of hazard mitigation funds to the Road Home Program and its applicants, then adjustments should be considered to provide homeowners with more flexibility to rebuild."

Jindal continued that flexibility should be added to allow for more efficient and effective mitigation measures.

Jindal also reminded the committee that FEMA has failed to abide by the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, which directed the agency to develop and submit to Congress by April 2, 2007 a strategic plan to improve FEMA's workforce, along with plans on limiting future turnover of its staff on the ground. Jindal said to date a report has not been received by Congress and again urged FEMA to finalize its workface plans and minimize the turnover of its staff on the ground.

Jindal suggested that the Stafford Act and FEMA regulations be clarified, with acquisition applications being streamlined. Jindal also stated that applications should be submitted by applicants and approved for developmental funding by FEMA, and the developmental funding should be available through the program to fund the more in-depth activities required to advance a project.

"The Stafford Act and FEMA regulations should be clarified so that a community has the option to use a trained code enforcement officer or a licensed engineer for the design of a project instead of having to go through a FEMA review requirement," Jindal said.

Jindal also suggested that alternate public assistance projects should be funded at the full 90 percent federal share, instead of 67 percent of the federal share, in order to encourage comprehensive community redeployment that takes into account the post-disaster opportunities and needs, as well as promote the reconstruction of safer and more sustainable communities.

Jindal emphasized the need to waive the local funding match requirements for the repair of public facilities and for public and individual assistance related to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita so that the federal share is 100 percent, allowing local governments to continue to rebuild and recover.

Jindal concluded his testimony by stating that the Stafford Act should distinguish between "catastrophic" and "major" disasters and suggested that a "catastrophic disaster" designation be established based on total population displaced, residential property damage, and the scope of failure of critical infrastructure and other vital services. FEMA's regulations for assistance would then be adjusted accordingly, including up-front funding in lieu of existing reimbursement schemes.

"As witnessed in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it is evident that when a disaster simultaneously impacts thousands of square miles and virtually shuts down entire metropolitan areas, a separate designation is required to adequately respond to an event of such magnitude," Jindal said.

Jindal has worked in Congress since the landfalls of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to ensure that the failures of FEMA highlighted two years ago in Louisiana are never repeated.

Jindal advocated for several provisions that were included in last year's Fiscal Year 2007 Homeland Security Appropriations Act to improve FEMA's response and preparedness to catastrophic disasters. Some of those measures include:

* creating and deploying Federal Strike Teams to provide the federal government with first-line response to a disaster;
* establishing pre-negotiated contracts to provide surge capacity for critical resources prior to disaster;
* establishing a national asset and inventory program to track and identify community needs during a national emergency; and
* transferring preparedness functions within DHS back to FEMA.

Jindal's complete testimony is below:

Legislative Fixes for Hurricane Katrina Recovery

Testimony of Congressman Bobby Jindal

House Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management

May 10, 2007

Thank you Chairwoman Norton, Ranking Member Shuster, and members of the Committee for the opportunity to discuss lingering problems that are impeding recovery in the Gulf Coast, including my district in Louisiana.

More than 90,000 square miles of Gulf Coast land was devastated by Hurricane Katrina, 650,000 people were displaced, 275,000 homes were completely destroyed. In Louisiana alone, a quarter of a million jobs were lost and 20,000 businesses were destroyed. More than $590 million in agriculture damages occurred in Louisiana resulting from Hurricane Rita devastation.

I have been working in Congress since the landfalls of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to ensure that the failures of FEMA highlighted two years ago in Louisiana are never repeated. The federal and state governments' response was marred by bureaucracy at its worst.

I am thankful that many of my colleagues worked with me in passing important FEMA reform provisions included in last year's FY07 Homeland Security Appropriations Act. The bill included several measures I advocated to improve FEMA's response and preparedness to catastrophic disasters. Such as (1) creating and deploying Federal Strike Teams to provide the federal government with first-line response to a disaster, (2) establishing pre-negotiated contracts to provide surge capacity for critical resources prior to disaster, (3) establishing a national asset and inventory program to track and identify community needs during a national emergency. Perhaps most importantly, transferring preparedness functions within DHS back to FEMA. Preparedness and response go hand and hand, and we must do all that we can to prepare for and respond to future disasters, especially as the start of the next hurricane season rapidly approaches.

I believe it was essential to reform a system that proved ineffective at both the state and federal levels. However, there are still outstanding needs and steps that should be taken to help break the current element of red tape and bureaucracy, which is still plaguing recovery in the Gulf Coast. Twenty months after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the inadequacy of the Stafford Act, as well as the inconsistency and lack of flexibility in FEMA's interpretation of it in these extraordinary circumstances continue to hinder Louisiana in its rebuilding efforts.

Hazard Mitigation Grants Program Flexibility

The recent attention to the budget shortfall within Louisiana's Road Home Program draws attention to a prospective revenue stream in dispute between FEMA and the state of Louisiana. The Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP) was designated by state officials to supplement Road Home grants by funding $1.2 billion in mitigation efforts. However, FEMA claims the current structure of the Road Home Program is not compliant with the law governing HMGP - the Stafford Act.

Federal and state officials need to find common ground in order to move forward with the allocation of these funds. The people who had their homes ravaged by the hurricanes and floods should have access to the tools necessary to rebuild and mitigate against future disasters. If the Stafford Act impedes the allocation of HMGP to the Road Home Program and its applicants, then adjustments to Section 5170c of the code should be considered to provide homeowners with more flexibility to rebuild. Also, the Act should allow for global benefit-cost approvals to be issued for mitigation measures that commonly prove effective. For example, determining the cost-effectiveness of acquiring a block of 20 homes across a jurisdiction shall be determined not on a structure-by-structure basis, but on whether the total cost of all 20 homes being acquired exceeds the expected benefits of the acquisition of all 20 homes. Conducting benefit-cost analysis in this way would speed the review and approval of mitigation projects under the Stafford Act, while still ensuring that funded projects produce more benefit then they cost overall.

Streamlined Public Assistance

As of May 5, 2007, $4.76 billion in FEMA public infrastructure assistance was available to the state of Louisiana, $2.34 billion was paid out to local applicants, but FEMA claims $2.42 billion remains held up in Baton Rouge. There are many causes for this perpetual bottleneck. One example are the project worksheets that define what FEMA will pay local government entities in reimbursement for their losses due to the hurricanes and flooding that have been routinely underestimated. While local officials have worked with FEMA staff to create new versions of these Public Worksheets, the frequent rotations of FEMA staff have caused severe backlogs and continual substantiation of claims. This slows down an already tedious grant assistance process.

In addition, FEMA's public assistance program functions as a reimbursement process. Given the level of destruction in Louisiana, where more than $6.3 billion in public infrastructure was damaged, it is a stretch to assume that local stakeholders could even be able to make such substantial investments to be reimbursed later. FEMA has also made decisions that would allow public assistance applicants to replace destroyed equipment such as vehicles with new products only to reverse its decision later.

This behavior was witnessed in my district when FEMA estimated the Madisonville Branch Library would need $500,000 to $750,000 to repair all storm damages and bring the facility to code standards. While negotiating how much the library would actually receive in FEMA public assistance, library officials spent $5,000 to $10,000 on minor renovations and reopened the first floor of the library in May 2006. After months of arbitration, FEMA officials verbally offered the library $187,000 to restore the building only to the condition it was in before the storm, which was barely functional. If library officials use the money for another purpose, such as the construction of a new library, FEMA would rescind the offer.

Similar cases of inflexibility exist with plans to consolidate schools in St. Tammany, Iberia, and Vermilion Parishes, where post-hurricane population shifts have changed serviced constituency demand. The lack of consistency in public assistance assessment further complicates what is already a challenging process of recovery.

There are, however, solutions for all levels of government to administer when seeking to achieve a streamlined supply chain of public assistance. Since this hearing focuses on Stafford Act fixes, I will focus my recommendations on three areas:

1. Human Capital Retention: The Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006 directed FEMA to develop and submit to Congress, within six months of enactment, a strategic human capital plan to improve FEMA's workforce, including critical skills needed, expected losses due to retirement and attrition, and current gaps in the workforce. A program was to be established and a report submitted to Congress by April 2, 2007; this has not yet been done. FEMA needs to finalize its workforce plans and needs to minimize the turnover of its staff on the ground.

2. Streamlined Evaluation: Acquisition applications should be streamlined, and should not require detailed engineering, design, environmental / historic preservation studies, benefit-cost information, etc. Instead, applications should be submitted by applicants and approved for developmental funding by FEMA with limited information about the proposed project, and the developmental funding should be available through the program to fund the more in-depth activities required to advance a project. The Stafford Act and FEMA regulations should be clarified so that a community has the option to use a trained code enforcement officer or a licensed engineer for the design of a project instead of having to go through a FEMA review requirement.

3. Alternative Buildings Construction: Alternate public assistance projects should be funded at the full 90 percent federal share, instead of 67 percent of the federal share, in order to encourage comprehensive community redeployment that takes into account the post-disaster opportunities and needs, as well as promote the reconstruction of safer and more sustainable communities.

Moving Forward

FEMA has taken steps to better respond to the unprecedented disaster caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. A recent example includes FEMA's partnership with HUD to provide longer-term housing solutions. I also applaud FEMA for reversing its previous decision regarding students who were living in university or college owned dormitories during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. FEMA had previously ruled that students who were living in these types of dormitories during Katrina and Rita must return any emergency assistance funds that they received. I am glad FEMA decided to reverse this decision, as it is essential to support these students, especially since so many of them returned to their schools following the storms and are vital to rebuilding and strengthening our communities.

Despite this progress, the Stafford Act's current legal and policy framework does not match the emergency response and long-term recovery needs of catastrophic disasters. In dealing with the Katrina and Rita disaster aftermath, current federal rules for intergovernmental coordination, funding assistance, and long-term recovery are more suitable for smaller scale disasters than for regional areas that were significantly destroyed by large-scale catastrophic disasters.

The Stafford Act should distinguish between "catastrophic" and "major" disasters. As witnessed in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it is evident that when a disaster simultaneously impacts thousands of square miles and virtually shut-down entire metropolitan areas, a separate designation is required to adequately respond to an event of such magnitude. A "catastrophic disaster" designation should be established based on total population displaced, residential property damage, and the scope of failure of critical infrastructure and other vital services. FEMA's regulations for assistance would then be adjusted accordingly, including up-front funding in lieu of existing reimbursement schemes.

In moving forward, there already exists federal precedent for establishing separate procedures for catastrophic disasters, by virtue of Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD)-5, and its establishment of a "National Response Plan" (NRP) that is invoked for a declared "Incident of National Significance." As we continue to rebuild the Gulf Coast, we must have the utmost confidence in FEMA and other federal agencies that they are working as efficiently and effectively as possible not only for the present, but for the future as well.


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