The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced today it will “soon” release long-awaited regulations outlining how $9 billion dollars of flood mitigation grants can be spent by nine U.S. states, including Louisiana, which is poised to receive some $1.2 billion.
The announcement is good news for state officials, who have been planning for months how to spend the money once it actually becomes available, though they were quick to point out that it has been a long time in coming.
“It is good it is finally happening,” says U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, who passed an amendment earlier this year requiring HUD to speed up its issuance of the rules. “But we appropriated this money in February of 2018, so people should be fired up that it has taken this long.”
A HUD spokesman in Washington could not say exactly what “soon” means, but Graves says he expects the rules in the next couple of weeks. Once they are issued, states will submit their plans for how to spend it.
In the case of Louisiana, those plans will be outlined in what is called the Watershed Initiative, which has been developed by various state agencies and overseen by the Louisiana Office of Community Development. The initiative divides the state into eight watersheds, each comprising many smaller watersheds, and containing mitigation projects in each.
It’s not clear that HUD’s rules will allow the $1.2 billion to be divided among all the different watersheds statewide, or if it will limit the funds to the handful of parishes hardest hit by floods in 2016. OCD Spokesman Marvin McGraw says that’s one of many questions the rules will address.
Also, unclear is whether a portion of the money can be used to provide the local match for a separate federal grant that is funding a stormwater master plan for East Baton Rouge Parish. Mayor Sharon Weston Broome’s administration has been counting on the HUD money to provide the local match so that plan can get underway.
Graves says he is “65% certain” the HUD money will be allowed for that purpose, though he says the grant funds will likely not be allowed to provide the local match for a $255 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers grant that would fund five, long-overdue drainage projects in the parish.
Once the HUD rules are issued and the state’s plans are approved, money could start flowing in as soon as three months, a HUD spokesman says, though it could take longer.
Part of the reason the HUD funds—part of a total $16 billion appropriation— have been on hold for so long is because of the Trump administration’s reticence to dole out the money to Puerto Rice and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were hit hard by Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and together are slated to receive nearly half the money in the original appropriations bill.
Today’s announcement by HUD makes clear the money will be released in two batches, with the first tranche going to the nine U.S states and a later tranche going to the islands.