Saturday, April 13, 2024

Legislative task force to examine Louisiana’s disaster response protocols

by BIZ Magazine

By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor

Efforts to better coordinate and improve Louisiana’s resilience to storms and other natural disasters commenced on Monday with a new legislative task force.

Gov. John Bel Edwards addressed the first meeting of the Louisiana Resilience Task Force on Monday amid a reprieve from 50 state emergency declarations, including 24 that triggered federal declarations, since he took office in 2016.

“I’m actually sitting her today relatively calm for the first time in a long time,” Edwards said, “but what we know is this could change tonight.”

While Edwards highlighted the progress Louisiana has made to prepare for severe weather, he noted “it’s possible to stand up structures and processes that allow us to do more to adapt all across government, and to do that when the weather is clear.”

That’s the intent behind House Bill 525, now Act 315, from the 2023 legislative session that created a new chief resilience officer and laid out a framework for resilience and risk mitigation work across state agencies, which includes an Interagency Resilience Coordination Team and the task force.

The latter is comprised of members of the coordination team; officials with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness; commissioners of administration, insurance, and higher education; lawmakers, and representatives from local government, the Public Service Commission, Department of Transportation and Development, and Department of Children and Family Services.

Task force members on Monday detailed work already underway to protect residents and the coast from natural disasters, from implementation of the state’s coastal master plan to fortification of homes and the electrical grid.

Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon highlighted progress with a Fortify Homes program funded by $30 million from the legislature that has distributed half the total to 1,500 residents insured by Louisiana Citizens, the state’s market of last resort.

Two more rounds of 750 grants each will bring the total number of fortified homes to 3,000, he said.

“We need to do this on a permanent basis going forward,” said Donelon, who did not run for reelection. “I can’t tell you anything else that is more valuable, more helpful, more necessary for our state to continue to thrive … than this program that is the solution.”

Other work involves inventorying DOTD assets across the state, efforts to cut utility repair costs passed on to ratepayers, researching federal funding opportunities, and risk mitigation at GOSEP that includes cyber security.

Christina Dayries, deputy director of GOHSEP, said that in addition to the 50 state emergency declarations, Louisiana has experienced 131 cyber security events impacting state and local government, schools, hospitals, private businesses and others.

Charles Sutcliffe, the governor’s chief resilience officer and chair of the task force, noted that Louisiana has the third highest costs nationally from disasters between 1980 and 2023 at $290 billion. They’ve included droughts, severe storms, flooding, wildfires, freezes and winter storms.

The task force will continue to meet at least quarterly to develop recommendations for lawmakers next year, and resources for local governments to pursue federal funding, with a required report to the legislature annually by Feb. 15.

“We want to be coming up with new directions to go in that are super crucial issues for our state, so the report is to really try highlight and coalesce around some objectives and priorities for the coming year that will influence how we engage with the legislature,” Sutcliffe said.

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