Here is one way to help Louisiana flood victims

Joel Berg//September 2, 2016

Here is one way to help Louisiana flood victims

Joel Berg//September 2, 2016

The question is whether Americans are paying as much attention now as they did after Katrina, which played out in real time on cable news channels. The most recent floods have to compete for attention with one of the most bizarre presidential campaigns in history, among other things.

“It’s kind of under the radar of a lot of folks, but as far as actual damage, it’s pretty significant,” said Stephen Waguespack, president of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry in Baton Rouge.

He was understating the challenge. The flooding has been described as one of the worst natural disasters in the U.S. since Hurricane Sandy, which devastated coastal regions of New Jersey and New York.

The Red Cross and other aid groups, including Lancaster County-based Mennonite Disaster Service, have rushed to the scene to help residents.

Waguespack’s association, essentially the state’s chamber of commerce, is among the groups raising money for small-business relief through what it is calling the Louisiana Small Business Rebirth Fund.

So far, the fund has raised $250,000, with plans to begin distributing aid after Labor Day in blocks of $1,000 to $10,000. Businesses can apply – and, if they are interested, donate – online.

“We’re sitting at 230 roughly applications as of this morning,” Waguespack said Wednesday.

The need is widespread. The rain, which fell in mid August, swamped thousands of homes and businesses in southern Louisiana. In some places, more than 20 inches of water came down, overloading rivers and spilling over levees.

In Louisiana, Waguespack estimated that about 50,000 businesses with roughly 600,000 employees are in the 20 parishes under a federal state of emergency. A parish is Louisiana’s equivalent to a county.

“Even though we’re eight years out of the recession, a lot of businesses are still struggling, and this is the last thing that they need,” said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, based in Harrisburg.

The Pennsylvania chamber is examining what it and its members can do to pitch in, Barr said, adding that helping businesses can help communities. In small towns and rural areas, grocers and other services may be few and far between.

“Assistance in those cases is certainly necessary,” Barr said.

Many of the affected businesses, meanwhile, are in areas where flood insurance is not mandatory, and other policies generally exclude flooding from coverage, Waguespack said.

Low-interest “disaster loans” are available from the U.S. Small Business Administration, but given the uncertainty of when – and whether – employees and customers will return, business owners may be reluctant to borrow, Waguespack said.

“We have some companies that perhaps their business did not flood but 90 percent of their employees did,” Waguespack said. “They may have a store but their employees now live two hours away with a relative.”

Waguespack also is concerned about the availability of extended federal assistance. Louisiana’s political leaders are expected to press a case for aid, but Waguespack wondered whether it would be heard before politicians hit the campaign trail in October.

“September is going to move really fast in Washington, so we are worried about that,” he said, adding: “Without funding from Congress, people and businesses may walk away from their homes and it could really devastate the economy down here.”

The I-word

Once the immediate needs are addressed, he said, federal officials need to focus on prevention. It’s not just a question for Louisiana, which is not the only state to suffer through unprecedented flooding.

Businesses will invest not because houses are dried out, but because officials address things that exacerbate flooding. Yes, that means infrastructure, the pipes and levees and roads and bridges that we rarely think about but that play an outsized role when heavy rains fall.

After Katrina, for example, the New Orleans levee system was upgraded, Waguespack said. “That gave businesses the confidence to invest.”

“If we make all this effort to remediate the homes and it floods again … we’re not going to be doing ourselves much good,” he added.