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A year after Delta, $600M in relief heads to Lake Charles. Officials call the amount ‘pitiful’

A flyover of southwest Louisiana communities affected by Hurricane Delta, just one month after Hurricane Laura impacted the area. Oct. 10, 2020.
Courtsey of Gov. John Bel Edwards' Office
Southwest Louisiana communities hit hard by Hurricane Delta were impacted by Hurricane Laura one month earlier. Oct. 10, 2020.

At the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Delta’s landfall in Louisiana, state and local officials have mixed feelings about a long-awaited federal disaster relief bill that covers just a fraction of the estimated damage costs of that storm and Hurricane Laura before it.

Last week in a brief break in the heated debate over federal spending, Congress passed a continuing resolution to keep the federal government running for two more months and to appropriate $28.6 billion for disaster relief across the country. That figure included a $2.7 billion “down payment” for Hurricane Ida relief and an estimated $500 million to $600 million in relief for Hurricane Laura and Delta, which hit southwest Louisiana as a Category 2 hurricane on Oct. 9, 2020.

Republican and Democratic members of the state’s congressional delegation joined together to vote in favor of the legislation.

“Louisiana will finally get the disaster relief we need,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). “It took too long, especially for those in southwest Louisiana, but getting this done is a huge win for our state.”

But after pleading for supplemental disaster aid for months, officials in southwest Louisiana are crying foul at receiving only about one-fifth of the state’s estimated $3 billion unmet needs after Hurricanes Laura, Delta and Zeta.

Lake Charles Mayor Nic Hunter said that figure does not include damage estimates from February’s winter storms and widespread flooding the region experienced in May — an event that saw water in more structures than Laura and Delta combined.

Brian Abshire, president of the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, described the sum as “pitiful.”

“When the governor requests $3 billion for the entire state and southwest Louisiana can show over $1 billion in damages, $500 million is just a drop in the bucket,” Abshire said.

During the long wait for a supplemental disaster relief bill from Congress, state and local officials leveraged hundreds of millions of dollars from the FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grants and the American Rescue Plan — the Biden administration’s coronavirus relief bill included large sums for infrastructure projects across the country.

This spring the state legislature directed hundreds of millions of dollars from that bill to southwest Louisiana parishes affected by the disasters. Much of the money has been dedicated to long-awaited transportation projects and improvements to water and sewer infrastructure. In many cases, the upgrades will repair and improve infrastructure systems that sustained damage during the storms. The state is also authorized to spend the remainder on hurricane relief.

The funding workaround allows state and local officials to devote the roughly $500 million southwest Louisiana will receive through last week’s federal relief bill to a long-term housing program for victims of Hurricanes Laura and Delta.

But local officials say it is not enough to stand up a program like Road Home and Restore Louisiana that helped Louisianans repair their homes after Hurricane Katrina and the 2016 floods. Parish officials are working with the Edwards administration to set up something similar, but it’s unclear when the recently appropriated funds will arrive in the state’s bank accounts and ultimately the hands of homeowners affected by the storms.

Abshire and Hunter said it would take another large-scale appropriation from Congress to adequately fund the housing assistance program — an appropriation they consider unlikely given the long wait for and low return of the first bill.

Abshire said he has no confidence in the Biden administration and Democrat-controlled Congress’ ability or willingness to prioritize additional relief for southwest Louisiana.

“We were promised money by two different presidents and repeatedly pleaded for help through our congressional delegation, and you know it took 13 months to even get an inkling that we were going to get something,” Abshire said. “It’s a sad day when it takes another hurricane hitting a larger metropolitan area to light a fire under Washington to get us recovery dollars.”

Hunter said he is looking beyond Congress for a way to pay for recovery, utilizing smaller federal grants to chip away at his city’s needs. The city also is working with state and federal officials to repurpose annual Housing and Urban Development block grants to help with home rehabilitation, but Hunter said that solution is “like searching the couch cushions for coins to go pay the electric bill.”

“I just cannot see some miracle happening or some knight in shining armor riding in and helping out this community with additional funds,” Hunter said. “If it happens, great — we’ll be grateful for it, but at this point, local leadership is realizing that we are going to have to pivot and we’re going to have to get creative with local resources.”

In the last week, the members of the state’s congressional delegation have announced a $112 million grant for the Calcasieu Parish School Board and tens of millions of additional dollars for debris removal, but those are small compared to the overwhelming need in the region.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.