Louisiana officials hope to have access to $1.2 billion in federal dollars for flood mitigation by February or March.
The Community Development Block Grant money, awarded in response to the widespread flooding of 2016, is meant to reduce the impact of future disasters so that Congress won’t be compelled to spend more for recovery, said Pat Forbes, who directs the state Office of Community Development.
“Recovery funds may actually be reduced in the future,” Forbes said Wednesday at a board meeting of the Louisiana Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Though the official guidance from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wasn’t available until late last month, Louisiana officials had a good idea of what the rules would look like and began working on their draft action plan early. After publishing the plan and holding four public input meetings, Forbes expects to turn in the plan well ahead of the federal government’s February deadline.
At least half of the money must be spent to benefit the 10 parishes HUD says were most impacted by the 2016 floods. Eight parishes that did not have declared flood disasters are ineligible for funding.
Forbes said the first $100 million will be spent on “no regrets” projects, meaning projects that can move forward quickly because they have very little risk of serious downsides. Some of the $1.2 billion may be spent on voluntary buyouts of communities that have suffered multiple floods.
Wendell Curole, who manages the South Lafourche Levee District, said he hoped officials would spend as much as possible on project construction, as opposed to planning and engineering. Coastal residents and officials often complain that too much time and money is spent on studies, delaying important work.
Chip Kline, who chairs the CPRA, said the state master plan includes many projects that should be considered “no regrets," and said planning that already has been done for those projects can be utilized.
“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” Kline said.
One board member said he hoped local taxpayers, not just officials and experts, are part of the decision-making process. Forbes said they would be, but stressed that state officials are pushing to have decisions made from a watershed perspective that is not dictated by parish lines.
A “watershed” is an area of land that drains all of its streams and rainfall to a common outlet, such as a reservoir outflow, the mouth of a bay, or a point along a stream’s channel. The Louisiana Watershed Initiative was established to ensure entire watersheds are taken into account when planning projects, since water doesn’t respect jurisdictional boundaries.
“This is the harder way to do this, but it’s the right way to do it,” Forbes said.