By John Maginnis
Following Hurricane Isaac, after most of the debris has been removed, power restored and extra food stamps distributed, political squalls continue over who should pay how much of the bill. Not surprisingly, the approaching presidential election gives rise to the latest disturbance.
Last week, Sen. David Vitter called attention to a re-surfaced 2007 video of then-candidate Barack Obama criticizing then-President George W. Bush’s administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Vitter noted that while the federal government eventually waived the state’s responsibility and paid for all Katrina relief expenses, Obama is holding Louisiana to a 25 percent cost share for Isaac. "The hypocrisy is startling," he concluded.
Gov. Bobby Jindal readily agreed. "Despite the initial response to Katrina, eventually the cost share was waived," he said. "Contrast that to the White House’s response to Isaac this year."
Now wait. Hypocrisy aside, to compare Katrina with Isaac is preposterous, even as destructive as was the latter. In the aftermath of Katrina, the federal government waived the state’s share of the $26 billion spent, which is very fortunate, because, at even 10 percent, a $2.6 billion bill would have crippled the recovery in Louisiana and Mississippi.
In contrast to his Isaac reaction, Jindal did not publicly complain when former President Bush set the state’s share at 25 percent for hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which was lowered to 10 percent for Louisiana and Texas when the costs of the September 2008 storms exceeded $1 billion.
So far, the federal government has obligated about $400 million for Isaac, according to the governor’s office, of which the state’s share, by law, is 25 percent. That’s a huge burden still, considering the state’s current fiscal straits, but it is line with what other states have shouldered following tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, mud slides and wild fires.
Sen. Mary Landrieu could have stayed above this fray, but could not resist. At a hearing on the Hurricane Isaac response, she noted that state government could help parishes meet their cost share by paying out of its so-called Rainy Day Fund, which stands at $443 million. The former state treasurer should know better, for constitutional restrictions on using the fund that would bar tapping into it for worthy causes, as Team Jindal was quick to note.
After Mount St. Helens blew her top in 1980, triggering a debris avalanche and earthquakes that destroyed homes and highways in Washington state, the federal government began requiring states and local governments to pay up to 25 percent of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response and rebuilding costs. The principle behind the FEMA legislation was that local and state governments should have a stake in their own recoveries.
FEMA can adjust the state’s cost share down to 10 percent or even zero. But normally this is done when federal expenses exceed the current threshold of $110 per capita, or $594 million for Louisiana, which it could still meet after a full post-Isaac accounting. After the 2011 flooding in North Dakota, President Obama lowered that state’s cost share to 10 percent, once the disaster response topped $730 per capita, or $500 million.
Congress can also waive a state’s cost share, which it did after the 2005 storms Katrina and Rita (also Wilma and Dennis) hit the Gulf Coast. The only previous time that Congress picked up the full tab was in response to the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center in 2001.
So, in light of all that, why again should the feds to pay 100 percent of Isaac’s costs?
Vitter’s office responded that he "supports the highest federal share available under law" and that he’s helping affected parishes collect cost information to justify that.
The governor’s communications director Kyle Plotkin said, "A core responsibility of the federal government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens when threatened. Despite having the power to grant a cost-share adjustment under the Stafford Act--regardless of the dollar threshold--the President is ignoring a core responsibility of the federal government."
He added, "Some of our communities are still paying back community disaster loans not forgiven by the Obama Administration from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita." Of course, the Bush administration could have forgiven them first. Jindal also asked Bush for the 100 percent cost share, but didn’t get it.
If the cost of Isaac goes up more, the state’s share could go down yet. But the rising tide of campaign rhetoric and vitriol post-storm appears not to be subsiding.