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The Biden administration and food banks, responding to Hurricane Ida’s devastation, are pressing Congress for more assistance to help communities hit by both the storm and the coronavirus pandemic.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Agriculture Department coordinated aid for Louisiana when Ida struck on Aug. 29. The government moved meals, water, generators, and other equipment to the region in advance. Then USDA sent food and approved waivers to help more easily feed residents on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.
The administration now wants Congress to include at least $10 billion in further Ida relief in stopgap spending legislation that would keep federal agencies funded after Sept. 30, Acting Budget Director Shalanda Young wrote in a Tuesday blog post.
About 1 million residents lost electricity when the Category 4 hurricane hit Louisiana. Many without generators were left for days lacking the refrigeration needed to store food or air conditioning during a heat wave.
While power has since been restored for many, at least 18 parishes are still struggling with outages as of Wednesday, according to data collected by PowerOutage.US.
“Recovery is going to take a long time, particularly in the middle of a pandemic,” said Carrie Calvert, vice president of government relations at Feeding America, a nonprofit network of food banks. “Additional resources are probably going to need to be allocated by Congress to help the community rebuild.”
The storm, which also flooded subways, cars, and basements in New York and New Jersey, added to concerns about addressing climate change. Lawmakers are skirmishing over priorities in a $3.5 trillion budget measure designed to expand the social safety net.
Louisiana lawmakers, including Republican spending skeptics, have called for more relief funds from their colleagues. The state’s delegation said emergency appropriations are needed to help local communities without ample access to drinking water, food, and gasoline.
President Joe Biden approved emergency declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi before Ida hit land.
The USDA’s waiver lets Louisiana SNAP participants buy hot meals with benefits through Sept. 28. The agency sent food on a short-term basis through the Disaster Household Distribution program, which allows for up to 800,000 boxes with shelf-stable items handed out by local food banks.
“One of USDA’s most important roles is to help Americans through difficult times, and none are so difficult as disasters like Hurricane Ida that threaten lives and destroy communities, along with the food systems they depend on to survive,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack after announcing the food packages.
The Food and Nutrition Service can help in disasters by giving food to shelters, sending food packages directly to households in some cases, adjusting the standards around nutrition aid to continue benefits, and approving state requests to offer SNAP benefits temporarily to households not already participating, a department spokesperson said.
SNAP flexibility is critical when people lose power, Calvert of Feeding America said.
“There’s a strong likelihood that you’ve used your SNAP benefits for that month to buy food that is now spoiled,” she said in a telephone interview.
On Sept. 5, USDA approved two state requests to waive timely reporting of food loss for Louisiana households and allow mass replacements to affected households. SNAP recipients in 18 parishes will get 55% replacement benefits on Sept. 11, Louisiana’s Children and Family Services Department said.
Calvert described the Agriculture Department and FEMA’s overall response to this hurricane as “very proactive.”
‘A Lot of Poverty’
Devin De Wulf, a New Orleanian, prepared for hurricanes by installing solar panels on his roof and buying solar-powered battery packs. Many neighbors can’t afford the same options, said De Wulf, founder of the Krewe of Red Beans, a Mardi Gras parade crew that’s organized local food initiatives.
“Our city has a long history of inequality, and there’s a lot of poverty,” De Wulf said in an interview. Long-term solutions will require resiliency and government innovation, such as a decentralized system to distribute food, he said.
Mass-feeding sites, such food banks, don’t reach everyone in need, including seniors with mobility problems or residents without transportation, De Wulf said.
“All over New Orleans, there’s just freezers rotting and fridges rotting,” he said. “There’s just an incredible amount of food waste happening, while, at the same time, there’s a lot of hunger.”
The storm is a learning opportunity as hurricanes grow in frequency and strength due to climate change, he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org