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South Mississippi Living 4/07

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

FEMA slowing Coast building

Chris Joyner • • January 30, 2008

BILOXI — Two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, less than a fourth of the 10,833 public rebuilding projects are completed.

Many haven't even broken ground.

And local officials are finding it harder to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Long Beach Mayor Billy Skellie spent much of Tuesday in a meeting with FEMA accountants arguing over whether the federal government will help pay overtime costs incurred by his fire and police departments in the days and weeks after the storm.

"They are wanting to deobligate about half of that," he said.

In regular language, Skellie explained FEMA is hedging on paying the city's costs of more than $350,000 because the agency's contract accountants are not satisfied with the time sheets kept by first responders immediately after Katrina hit.

"We were just trying to survive. I mean, my God," Skellie said. "It's these people who worked around the clock pulling bodies out. ... They don't want to pay for any of that because a person's name doesn't appear on a time sheet."

It is a familiar complaint along the Coast, especially among the smaller cities. Recovery is slow because FEMA and its state-level partner, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, spent months arguing with local government officials over what is and is not covered under grants set aside to pay for rebuilding government buildings, roads and infrastructure and paying other public costs.

After more than two years of hearing the complaints, FEMA and MEMA officials Tuesday held a news briefing at their Biloxi headquarters to plead their case.

"There's a lot of misconceptions about this program and a lot of misconceptions about what FEMA and MEMA can and can't do," MEMA Director Mike Womack said.

Recovery is "one team, one fight," Womack said, but there are legal limits to the public assistance grants.

For instance, under the federal rules, a fire station destroyed by Katrina can be rebuilt completely using federal money, as long as it is rebuilt the way it was before the storm using the former building's "footprint." But if a city wants to expand the fire station, relocate it or use the money to improve a fire station across town, then the project has to go through another vetting process and the city may be required to provide some matching funds.

"It's an area that confuses the applicants quite a bit," Womack said.

The process is tougher on smaller communities. When FEMA negotiates payments with the largest cities of Gulfport and Biloxi, those cities bring in-house experts who are dedicated to shepherding projects through the labyrinthine federal process, but smaller cities do not have the money to hire their own advocates.

"Myself, the city clerk and my fire chief," Skellie said. "That's just about it."

Since the storm, about $1.3 billion has been paid out to cover the costs of rebuilding to local governments, school systems and eligible nonprofits.

But as Mississippi approaches its third hurricane season since Katrina, many of the projects have not made it out of the planning stages. In all, 22 percent of Mississippi's 10,833 public projects have been completed.

FEMA Transitional Recovery Office Director Sid Melton said the agency is working to improve the process. Development of an electronic database of ongoing projects is nearly completed, he said. Since the storm, tracking of progress of public assistance projects has been a manual process.

Melton said FEMA is a willing partner with local governments to get them the funds they need and get their projects done.

"Our job is to move the state of Mississippi forward, and if we are not doing that, then we need to get out of the way," he said.

That's just what Skellie would like to see happen. Once he receives bids on a project, Skellie said it takes several months for FEMA to review and approve them before work can begin.

He said he believes it is getting harder to get FEMA to approve projects as the agency pores over worksheets in what he sees as an attempt to reduce how much money his city receives.

"They are watching for thieves, and I understand that," he said. "We haven't asked for anything more than we need, and we still get punched in the nose."

Womack agreed one of the problems with the system is it is adversarial. He said he hopes the Katrina experience will spur Washington to find a new way, but in the meantime, there are rules that have to be followed.

But it's not all the fault of FEMA or MEMA, he said. Internal squabbling among local government officials has slowed the rebuilding, too, he said.

"There are disagreements in local governments on how to rebuild," he said. "These are very difficult decisions for local communities."

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1 comment:

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