What Gulf Coast Congressman Gene Taylor wanted the Easter Bunny to bring him.
South Mississippi Living 4/07

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Aquarium tanks are full, but bill remains unpaid

Christina Nguyen takes a snapshot of a shark as friends Huy Nguyen and Tony Nguyen, all of New Orleans, visit the restocked Gulf of Mexico exhibit at the Aquarium last month.

By Mark Schleifstein
Staff writer
November 12, 2007

When black smoke stopped streaming from an emergency generator atop the Audubon Nature Institute's Aquarium of the Americas three days after Hurricane Katrina, it marked the death of more than 8,000 of the aquarium's occupants, from huge sharks to tiny jellyfish.

Without electricity, pumps used to supply oxygen to watery exhibits throughout the aquarium went quiet, and suffocated fish quickly bobbed upside down on the surface of tanks throughout the building.

More than two years later, after an outpouring of donations from the public and from sister aquariums across the United States, the fish are swimming again in the wide variety of exhibits within the restored jewel on New Orleans' riverfront.

But aquarium officials say they're now drowning in federal bureaucracy, still wading through a series of nonsensical Federal Emergency Management Agency decisions that have held up requests for reimbursement of $90,000 in costs associated with restocking the exhibits with marine life.

Off Big Pine Key in Florida, Elizabeth Hayes captures a juvenile grunt for the Aquarium of the Americas in April 2006. Aquarium officials say FEMA decisions have held up reimbursement of $90,000 in costs associated with restocking the exhibits.


One of the city's top tourist attractions should be treated like other businesses devastated by Katrina, and allowed to recoup at least part of the cost of collecting the replacement specimens, said Audubon chief operating officer Dale Stastny.

At first, FEMA officials likened dead fish to irreplaceable works of art, like paintings lost in the flood, and declared them thus ineligible for reimbursement. Audubon officials quickly lobbied the agency to explain that, yes, fish die all the time at aquariums across the country, and are just as routinely replaced.

"We told them that, though emotionally it's true each fish is a unique living animal, none of them lives forever. And when they die, we replace them," he said.

The aquarium also showed FEMA officials where the federal agency reimbursed a Texas university for the cost of replacing a laboratory's stable of test rats killed in a similar flood -- at a much greater cost than the aquarium's fish expenses, Stastny said.

FEMA reluctantly relented, and aquarium officials then submitted a bill for expenses that had not already been reimbursed by insurance or through donations of fish by other aquariums.

That included the New Orleans aquarium's cost of transporting jellyfish from the New England Aquarium in Boston, and aquariums in Monterey, Calif., and Baltimore; five large sand tiger sharks from the Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach, S.C.; and a school of more than 100 blue runner fish donated by the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga.

But the second sticking point for FEMA officials, apparently, came over excursions to the Florida Keys, the Bahamas and Chesapeake Bay, where Audubon staffers donned swimsuits, snorkels and scuba equipment -- and suntan oil -- to collect a wide variety of exotic fish ranging from gaudy tropical reef species and nurse sharks.

Stastny said buying the same fish on the open market, if they were available, would have cost close to $500,000 -- compared with the $90,000 in expenses they're trying to collect.

"Obviously, they're not going to pay us for what other aquariums gave us," Stastny said. "But what we're requesting is reimbursement of our staff time and the use of our equipment to go collect the fish."

FEMA spokesman Bob Josephson said the agency has not yet dismissed the aquarium's request.

"I do know that there are some expenses that are being looked at, and that could be deemed eligible to being reimbursed," Josephson said. "It was denied the first time, but they have the appeals process to go through, and it's being looked at.

"We're optimistic that that will result in a conclusion that both we and the aquarium can be happy with," he said.

Stastny remains guardedly optimistic.

"They did reimburse us for some of our other cleanup expenses," he said. "Now the task is helping them understand that -- if they can get past the idea of fish as a living collection of art, irreplaceable or not -- it's no different than debris removal."

Mark Schleifstein can be reached at or at (504) 826-3327.

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