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Texas, FEMA feud over storm relief

- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2008

As far as many Texans are concerned, Hurricane Ike never went away. Almost three months after the storm struck the Lone Star State, debris and animal carcasses still litter coastal beaches.

Alligators roam through broken buildings; homeless families are holed up in tents. Relief is delayed by red tape and bureaucracy. And in a now familiar scenario, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been cast in the role of inept villain.

It's a mess all right, and most state officials - beginning with Gov. Rick Perry - are fit to be tied.

"All along, we have simply asked that Texas receive the same considerations afforded Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. To be honest, the response from Washington has been underwhelming," Mr. Perry said, announcing two weeks ago he would create his own strategic disaster response team.

"And we're still underwhelmed," Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said Wednesday.

"We knew Ike was coming, and prepared for it. FEMA knew as well, and it should have been a time when the agency should shine. It's been a struggle. We don't want to point fingers, we just want the coast to recover, and that won't happen if there's red tape," Ms. Cesinger said.

"Sometimes it seems that Texans help Texans best," she added.

According to FEMA's records, the agency already has approved more than $1 billion in disaster assistance for communities and businesses damaged by the Sept. 13 storm, which left a 30-mile patch of destruction on the coast that the Associated Press deemed "a symbol of U.S. agency delays."

FEMA spokesman David Riedman wanted to clarify that description.

"FEMA does not remove debris. We reimburse a community's debris removal expense and provide operational oversight. And, we are limited by law to the types of debris removal we can reimburse. We can only pay for debris that resides on a public right of way or, in limited cases, from private property when health and safety are threatened," he said Wednesday.

"In Texas, we are reimbursing local jurisdictions at 100 percent, not the normal 75/25 percent split," Mr. Riedman said, noting that Galveston and Chambers counties are being reimbursed at 100 percent for the removal of dangerous debris on private property.

"The 100 percent cost-share reimbursement has recently been extended to cover an additional six months," he added, calling the debris problem the worst in Texas history - and one with clean-up costs that eventually could reach $800 million.

"Municipalities have been able to remove almost 80 percent of the debris strewn along public rights of way. A true success story," Mr. Riedman added. "To date, FEMA has deposited more than $115 million in debris removal monies - at 100 percent - in the state's account to reimburse local communities."

The agency had progress to report at November's end - with funds available for temporary housing and home repairs, loss of personal property, motel stays, unemployment assistance, low-interest business loans, debris removal and burial costs. About 3,500 families have been approved for manufactured housing, with about half that number already moved in.

"Surpassing the billion-dollar mark is a great stride in disaster recovery," said FEMA coordinating officer Stephen DeBlasio, adding that the agency intended to work "shoulder to shoulder" with the state of Texas.

"But many more steps are needed as state, private, voluntary and federal partners continue to put those in need on the way to recovery," Mr. DeBlasio said.

Mr. Perry, meanwhile, also has criticized the federal government's regulation of carbon emissions and the Wall Street bailout. It's an effort, some Texas political insiders say, to raise his profile when he makes his third bid for office in 2010.

"The governor is going to continue to help the residents bounce back. We can't sit around and wait for this to happen," Ms. Cesinger said.