Louisiana Recovery Hampered by Red Tape

A well-intentioned law is causing real problems for homeowners looking to rebuild

Homeowners and municipalities in Louisiana are encountering serious funding roadblocks as they continue to rebuild. The biggest obstacle is the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which governs how the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administers aid programs.

The Stafford Act is a well-intentioned 1988 law designed to reduce fraud. It requires local governments to advance federal money for infrastructure repairs. Although the act promises they’ll be reimbursed later through a “match-share” program, most municipalities are unable to afford the up-front costs. Many also criticize the law for requiring what they describe as complicated, inflexible worksheets that both governments and individuals must file when seeking FEMA aid.

“We have a laundry list of things we’d like to change about the Stafford Act,” says Donny Williams, staff director for the Senate subcommittee on Disaster Recovery, which is chaired by Senator Mary Landrieu (D-Louisiana). “We believe it was built for a pretty bad disaster, but in no shape or form is it adequate for catastrophes.” Critics also contend that FEMA is misinterpreting parts of the act. Williams cites the practice of “underevaluation,” in which the agency only provides funding for property owners to rebuild a structure to its original condition. Without upgrades, he says, buildings remain vulnerable.

For its part, FEMA contends that it is simply following rules set forth in the act. James McIntyre, an agency spokesperson, says that President Bush has set aside local block funds to help communities make match-share payments. To cut down on delays in distributing funds, he adds, the agency has hired more staff and established better ways of organizing and verifying aid registrants. “We are constantly reviewing ourselves after each disaster to see what we did well—and what we can improve.”

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