WASHINGTON – One state's funding windfall is another's frustration in the Gulf Coast, where the Bush administration is distributing billions of dollars in grants to rebuild hurricane-ravaged housing — money that falls short of what Louisiana sought.
Among the unhappy states is Texas, whose Republican governor joined a chorus of the state's lawmakers in complaining Thursday that it was being shortchanged by the $74 million it will receive.
"Thousands of Texas families and senior citizens whose homes were destroyed or severely damaged in Hurricane Rita will lack the funds to rebuild their homes as a result of this decision," Gov. Rick Perry said in a statement.
But in Mississippi, lawmakers are pleased with $5 billion that can help up to an estimated 50,000 households walloped by storm-related flooding last year.
At issue is previously announced $11.5 billion in community grants that the Bush administration said Wednesday would be divided among five states. In doing so, the White House rejected a $30 billion redevelopment plan for Louisiana that state officials considered the cornerstone of their hopes for rebuilding.
"My dad used to tell me, 'Cheer up, things could be worse,"' said Rep. Richard Baker, R-La., the architect of the $30 billion plan to jump-start his state. "So I cheered up and things got worse."
By rejecting his plan, Baker said the White House "is basically saying to Louisiana, 'If you want to rebuild, you have to find resources of your own."'
The White House action "demonstrates a continued lack of understanding for the magnitude of the devastation and the immense rebuilding task our state faces," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Louisiana would get $6.2 billion, the bulk of the $11.5 billion. But that still falls short of what state officials said was necessary to help an estimated 200,000 homeowners return and rebuild their communities.
The grants also divided Gulf Coast lawmakers who have been working together to win more assistance.
In Mississippi, lawmakers hailed the grants. "It's huge," said Rep. Gene Taylor, D-Miss., who has worked closely with Louisiana lawmakers over the last four months to ensure that Congress continues sending assistance to the region.
Under the grant program, Florida is eligible for $83 million, Alabama $75 million and Texas $74 million.
Federal Gulf Coast redevelopment officer Donald Powell said the money is intended for uninsured homeowners who lived outside flood plains but saw their property destroyed by the triple-whammy of hurricanes that began with Katrina on Aug. 29, followed by Rita on Sept. 24 and Wilma on Oct. 24.
But when asked about Louisiana's concerns that the grants would not help tens of thousands of people — mostly in low-income and working class neighborhoods around New Orleans — Powell said states can use the money to satisfy their most urgent hurricane relief priorities.
Once the grants are depleted, Powell said, "We are very open to going back and asking for more money."
Congress has so far appropriated $67 billion to help the region get back on its feet. The White House has estimated the federal government has provided at least $18 billion more in flood insurance and other assistance.
Baker proposed creating a federally supported Louisiana Recovery Corporation to buy large tracts of storm-damaged homes in Louisiana by borrowing up to $30 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds. The corporation would repair the homes and resell them — to developers or the original homeowners.
But the White House said no. Instead, the administration for now will focus on uninsured homeowners who lived outside designated flood plains, many of whom now face mortgage foreclosures that would almost certainly prevent them from rebuilding.
"This is an investment in long-term recovery and rebuilding lives," Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson said. "Working with these states and their citizens, it is our hope that the families who once had a home can return to their home."
Baker estimated the federal grants won't help 180,000 families — 140,000 of which lived in flood plains but behind more than 200 miles of levees.
"They gave us a ladder to reach our housing needs, but the top rungs are missing," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said in Baton Rouge. "Louisiana's housing needs are not complete without Rep. Baker's bill."
Still, Louisiana redevelopment officials said they would consider creating the corporation on a state level, though they made clear it would probably depend on a federal loan guarantee.
The grants were announced as officials agreed at a Senate hearing that the federal flood insurance program, currently broke because of Gulf Coast hurricane-related claims, must be restructured to make its rate structure more rational and trim unreasonable government subsidies.
The program "has only encouraged people to place themselves in harm's way and continue to build and rebuild in flood-prone areas," said Senate Banking Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala.