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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

FEMA Flip-Flops, OKs $100K for La. Fish

FEMA Admits Fishing Expedition Paid Off, Relents on $100K Reimbursement to La. Aquarium

The Associated Press
November 21, 2007


Reversing a decision that some found bureaucratically absurd, the Federal Emergency Management Agency granted $99,766 Wednesday to an aquarium that saved taxpayers a bundle by catching replacements for the fish it lost to Hurricane Katrina.

FEMA had said that the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas needed to buy the fish from commercial vendors, a method the agency said would cost $616,849 but would comply with disaster aid laws.

When aquarium staff went out and caught them for $99,766, FEMA denied their petition for reimbursement, though the move had saved half a million dollars.

The aquarium appealed, and the dispute dragged on for 17 months until Carlos Castillo, FEMA's assistant director of disaster assistance, notified the aquarium in a letter Wednesday that the federal agency would pick up the tab after all for the aquarium's catch of 1,681 fish from the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys and Bahamas.

"We felt confident that our appeal would go through. But of course, it's a nice Thanksgiving," said Melissa Lee, a spokeswoman for the aquarium. "We'll be able to use this to make things better at the aquarium."

A linchpin of the city's tourism-based economy, the aquarium is seeing only 70 percent of its pre-storm visitors and has laid off 80 percent of its staff.

FEMA initially denied the aquarium's petition because it believed catching new fish improved the collection. Under federal law, facilities cannot be improved upon with federal money, only restored to their pre-disaster condition.

State officials say the majority of 35,000 Katrina rebuilding projects have been stalled in strict interpretations of the same law, generating mountains of paperwork in which FEMA takes stock of damages as minute as the number of pencils lost at a school.

Bob Josephson, FEMA's director of external affairs in Louisiana, said the reversal is proof that the process works.

"That's why we have a formalized appeal process, to ensure that the applicants are getting a first and second look and we are providing all the disaster assistance available," said Josephson, who was first alerted to the aquarium case by The Associated Press. "I think were always looking for cost-effective measures to save taxpayer's money."

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