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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Saturday, October 13, 2007

$1.3B spent on debris removal FEMA money moves slowly

# FEMA reports $2.3 billion obligated for Coast recovery efforts

By Natalie Chandler

Two years after Hurricane Katrina flattened the Gulf Coast, more than $1.23 billion has been spent repairing structures and removing debris, latest recovery figures compiled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency show.

A total of $2.3 billion has been obligated for recovery efforts.

Some Coast leaders are frustrated by the pace of recovery from the Aug. 29, 2005, storm and cite multiple layers of bureaucracy for delays in getting needed funds. Federal and state agencies responsible for the money said auditing procedures, cost re-estimates and insufficient documents are factors.

FEMA pays 100 percent for all recovery projects eligible for reimbursements. They include debris removal and repairing or replacing public buildings, utilities, recreational facilities, roads and bridges and other projects. FEMA obligates the money, while the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency distributes it.

Waveland Mayor Tommy Longo said, "We've had a hell of a time getting the check." A year and a half after FEMA agreed to fully finance the replacement of two fire trucks, the agency said it would pay half the costs instead, he said.

"We are appealing it, but we had to float $2 million that we didn't have," Longo said.

FEMA also has denied Harrison County officials more than $11 million for debris removal services. It questioned rates the county paid.

Tim Holleman, an attorney for the county, said he believes FEMA will pay the bill. The state has asked FEMA to do the same.

Responding to questions, FEMA spokesman Brent McMahan wrote, "It is not unusual for final payments for estimated project work sheets to be less than originally estimated. This can occur when the final expenditures come in less than the original or altered estimates. It can occur when some expenditures are claimed by the local applicant but not substantiated by documentation."

Coast communities have problems presenting documents required for expenses, such as proof of insurance policies and "complete and accurate documentation of all disaster-related costs," he wrote.

Projects must be completed before final payments are made. Audits must be finalized before reimbursement, and projects costing more than $1 million must undergo additional reviews at the federal level, officials said.

MEMA has hired additional help to move the process along, agency spokeswoman Ashley Roth said.

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