- Associated Press - Thursday, May 4, 2017

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - A proposal to divert $190 million of Louisiana’s disaster recovery money to a flood protection project was scrapped Thursday amid criticism that it risked stripping aid from thousands of homeowners trying to rebuild after last year’s devastating floods.

The money shift was added into the state operating budget by Republican Rep. Valarie Hodges, whose Denham Springs home flooded in August. She proposed to pay for the Comite River Diversion Canal from $1.6 billion in flood aid allocated to Louisiana by Congress.

Several lawmakers objected to the move, saying it could take away assistance for 4,000 homeowners with damage from the March and August 2016 floods. They said they supported the diversion canal work but believe it’s inappropriate to steer money to a flood project in one area, rather than distribute it equitably to flood victims across north and south Louisiana.

Democrat Rep. Ted James said more than 80 percent of his Baton Rouge district was damaged in the August flood. He described driving past FEMA trailers on his way to the Louisiana Capitol, with people living in manufactured housing because they’ve been unable to repair their homes.

“I cannot support taking money away from my neighbors who I see every single day,” he said. “I will support any other single avenue to get this project moving other than taking money from homeowners.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards also opposed the reshuffling of the flood aid.

Hodges said the diversion canal, on the drawing board for three decades, would protect thousands of homes from future floods.

The project involves constructing a 12-mile (20-kilometer) diversion channel that would siphon high water from the Comite River and send it to the Mississippi River, to reduce flooding in areas near the Comite River. Funding has been the repeated stumbling block to construction, and Hodges said without the project, homeowners such as her own relatives intend to move, rather than rebuild.

“I think it’s reckless to give people money to rebuild their home and not fix the problem,” she said. “We’re going to continue to flood over and over again.”

Other lawmakers questioned whether the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - which already has approved the Edwards’ administration’s plan to spend the $1.6 billion in disaster aid - would agree to divert the dollars to the flood project. They suggested refiling the paperwork could create new red tape and slow delivery of aid.

Hodges initially resisted removing the $190 million funding plan from next year’s budget bill. But amid opposition from Democrats and some Republicans, she agreed to jettison the language. She said she’ll continue to work to find money for the flood control project.

Edwards and Louisiana’s congressional delegation have been seeking additional dollars from Congress for homeowner rebuilding - and for the Comite River Diversion Canal.


Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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