Businesses seek post-flood assistance
By GEOFFREY STOUTE
Their businesses may be water-free now that the Atchafalaya River and its tributaries have slithered back into their banks following near record high waters this spring, but local business owners and executives said they need help to recover.
Wednesday, they took their pleas public when they met with officials from the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to see what kind of financial assistance was available for them.
“I just don’t want our concerns to go away with the water, and I think the longer this goes (without action),” the possibility of that is more apparent,” said Darby Washburn, owner of Washburn Marine in Morgan City.
Connie Mincey, individual assistance officer with the GOHSEP, told leaders from such companies as Conrad Industries, Swiftships Shipbuilders, and Crawls and Claws that the first step would be to identify where damages are and submit a preliminary estimate of them — including revenue lost and projected revenue that will be lost, as well as photos of their facilities during the high-water period.
“It’s an attention-getter,” Mincey said.
That documentation should be submitted to St. Mary Parish Director of Homeland Security Duval Arthur Jr., who will compile it and submit it to the state.
Then, Mincey said a preliminary damage assessment team of state representatives and Small Business Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials would assess damages here.
SBA has small interest loans available that locals may qualify for.
“What they’re looking for is uninsured loss or underinsured loss,” Mincey said.
If the area applies for a federal disaster declaration, it could hold up the SBA work, though, because they would wait for the federal declaration, Mincey said.
Another option, she said, would be to go straight to the SBA, who could grant an emergency declaration without the federal government’s approval.
However, if possible, business owners said they don’t want to be saddled with a loan to pay because they already have expenses.
“In my mind, they (the Corps) chose to allow us to flood along the river to save New Orleans and Baton Rouge to protect those areas because of the millions of dollars they would suffer in the event something were to happen. We kind of took the bullet for them,” Swiftships Safety Director Eric Geibel said of local businesses. “The idea would be here, ‘We don’t mind taking the bullet, but make us whole.’”
Thus far, the only disaster declaration in place is one to local governments used to help flood-fight. In that declaration, FEMA picks up 75 percent of costs, while local governments pay the remaining 25 percent.
Mincey said she would consult GOHSEP to see what other options are available.
State Rep. Sam Jones, D-Franklin, suggested using Community Development Block Grant Economic Development monies remaining from hurricanes Gustav and Ike for this disaster.
“It’s still going to take a federal rule change, at the least, if not taking it on to a piece of federal legislation,” Jones said to utilize the monies in this situation.
Jones also recommended looking into using the National Flood Insurance Program’s Increased Cost of Compliance Coverage, in which monies are spent for prevention after multiple floods occur.
As for flood insurance, at least, Washburn said he hasn’t been paid nearly what he put into the system.
While he said he spent $350,000 on flood-proofing his property and moving equipment for the high water, he said his insurance company has said they will give him $1,000. He said he pays $1,600 a year in premiums.
Meanwhile, Morgan City Councilman Lou Tamporello noted that insurance companies saved lots of money in potential claims from the quick thinking of locals who helped facilitate the sinking of a barge in Bayou Chene.
Geibel said that most of the big businesses that provide jobs and tax revenue for the area are located on the unprotected side of the floodwall.
His boss, Swiftships President Calvin Leleux, agreed.
“Morgan City existed because of the river. It was a strategic spot along the river and the waterfront industries is what really keeps the thing going. All of us here (at the meeting) are on some kind of water. That’s how we’ve derived our livelihoods here. We can’t be anywhere else except on the water,” said Leleux, whose company was flooded after a blowout near one of the company’s bulkheads that were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Leleux said the Corps told him the bulkhead would be built to protect the facility to a 100-year flood, and this flood, he said, proved otherwise because water reached about 11.5 feet. The bulkhead was built to 10 feet above sea level.
“Is it possible to sue them?” Leleux asked about the Corps. “I’ve been told ‘no, you’re never going to have any success there.’”
St. Mary Parish President Paul Naquin said he would be contacting the area’s congressional and senate delegations, both state and nationally, to see what can be done. Local business owners said they would be writing to them, too.
“It’s (the flood) that is our problem, but we didn’t create the problem,” Naquin said, explaining that 31 other states that drain into the Mississippi River did.
Naquin said the federal government is more responsible for assisting the locals than the state, because the state didn’t cause the flooding.
“These people need help,” he said. “Some of these people might not make it. They got so much expense to pay. Hopefully everybody can.”
Even if money is found to help businesses, the battle is not over.
The next hurdle, Tamporello said, would be finding the funds to complete emergency dredging here. The Corps has applied for emergency funding to complete that dredging and already began some at 20 Grand Point.
Tamporello noted that the Corps already struggles to complete routine maintenance dredging locally.
Jones said the state’s capital outlay budget includes $500,000 to identify “hot spots” that need to be dredged, and Arthur said the Corps is supposed to bring a jet barge in to dredge these spots.
The idea, he said, is that the current would take it downstream. However, locals agreed that would be almost for naught because it would clog those waterways further downstream.
Local businesses, such as Basin Fleeting in Berwick, already said they have experienced shoaling problems.
“Last week we tried to get some 8-foot-draft barges to our piers and we couldn’t get within 50 feet of them,” General Manager Joey Galloway said. “This is an every-year situation.”
For more information about assistance, contact Arthur at 337-828-4100, ext. 135.