Marchand Wraps Protest with Louisiana Road Home Changes

On Monday December 18, maverick Democrat Louisiana Rep. Charmaine Marchand pitched a tent on the lawn of the State Capitol in Baton Rouge and vowed to stay there until changes were made to speed up the Road Home program.

The following evening, she had achieved her aims and was packing up camp.

The Road Home is a federally-funded disaster relief program managed by the state of Louisiana that aims to help an estimated 123,000 local residents rebuild their homes which were destroyed or severely damaged in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August-September 2005.

Ms Marchand’s electorate includes the devastated Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans where entire neighborhoods remain uninhabited, and many properties’ front steps lead to open spaces where homes once stood. Although the Ninth Ward has one of the highest rates of home ownership in the city, it also has one of the highest rates of poverty, which has hampered the ability of many local residents to return.

Sixteen months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, only 85 Road Home applicants in Louisiana have received their awards, which are capped at $150,000. One Ninth Ward homeowner received a Road Home offer of $87.

The coming months mark a critical threshold for the rebuilding process. Many residents and business owners in New Orleans have said that the early new year will be their make-or-break decision time, to either rebuild or leave for good.

On December 15, the Louisiana State legislature passed a non-binding resolution calling for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to terminate the state’s contract with ICF, the Virginia-based company hired to administer the Road Home program.

ICF maintains that it has met or exceeded all its requirements under its contract.

Frustrated with the program’s glacial rate of progress, and the perceived lack of urgency from Governor Blanco and ICF, Ms Marchand decided to camp outside the State Capitol to raise public awareness of the plight of desperate homeowners who remain scattered across the United States and feel all but forgotten.

News of the one-woman protest spread like wildfire through Louisiana. Yet the story’s significance seemed all but lost on some commentators who dismissed Ms Marchand’s action as a frivolous grab for publicity: “Well, that’s show business. A New Orleans legislator plans to sleep in a tent on the State Capitol grounds until the ‘Road Home’ program is working the way she thinks it should … The needed changes in the program must come from action taken in the governor’s office, not in Marchand’s tent,” grizzled The Advertiser in Lafayette.

The Advertisermay be pleased to know that Ms Marchand’s action got results that will now help speed up the rebuilding process for tens of thousands of homeowners throughout the state.

On Tuesday, Ms Marchand met with Governor Blanco, fellow legislators and representatives of ICF and the Louisiana Recovery Authority for a full and frank discussion on the Road Home’s shortcomings.

At the end of the meeting, three main improvements had been negotiated:

Improvement 1:  ICF to obtain more accurate property values using local appraisers

ICF now plans to use local Louisiana licensed appraisers to provide more accurate pre-storm values of properties, instead of continuing to use a national system that lists average property values for neighborhoods. High rates of variation within neighborhoods had resulted in flawed calculations and numerous appeals by homeowners.

Improvement 2:  Homeowners to be given money to start rebuilding during appeals

Homeowners who dispute the amount of their award currently don’t have access to any money until their disputes are settled. ICF Road Home director Mike Byrne has agreed to pursue changes so that homeowners can have access to some of their funds while their disputes are being settled.

Improvement 3:  Money to be made available to homeowners when grants approved

Currently, federal money is not placed in state accounts until final agreements are reached with homeowners, on a case-by-case basis. Mr Byrne said he would now seek a federal waiver to make large blocks of money available in Louisiana so that ICF can disburse funds to homeowners as soon as their awards are approved.

ICF is also looking at ways to make the third-party verification process more efficient. Ms Marchand, who is an attorney, suggested that this process could be shortened by calculating awards using FEMA and insurance payments; the amounts could be included in sworn affidavits submitted by applicants and later verified by Road Home representatives. Intentionally deceptive applicants could be prosecuted.

It seems that Ms Marchand and her legislative colleagues have given input that stands to significantly improve the Road Home process. These changes were previously not negotiated because both ICF and the LRA were appointed by the governor, which effectively locked state representatives out of their processes.

That’s not show business, that’s taking care of business. That’s freedom of expression and democracy in action – and an elected representative prepared to do what it takes to help her constituents come home.  

At the end of the day, Ms Marchand’s success represents a victory for people throughout New Orleans and Louisiana who are relying on Road Home grants to rebuild their lives and communities.

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