- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Spend the money.

That was the message delivered to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials by a House panel Tuesday that questioned the drawn-out spending pace of Gulf Coast recovery efforts from several hurricanes.

Louisiana was awarded $7.5 billion since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005 but $3.4 billion remains unspent. Mississippi still has $1.3 billion out of the $2.9 billion it was appropriated for the same storms, leaving nearly $5 billion total unspent.

“We are in a financial crisis, and we have money appropriated for a crisis that is not doing anything but lying there,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, Missouri Democrat.

Members of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on emergency communications, preparedness and response also questioned a contentious appeal process they say pits the government against disaster victims.

“I am concerned that the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana are going to develop a reputation for being poor stewards of taxpayer money,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, Mississippi Democrat and the full committee chairman.

“Let me be clear though, I don’t think it’s entirely a problem with the states,” he said. “FEMA’s inflexible funding structure and the lack of quick resolution during disputes is also delaying the speed of recovery.”

For example,Mr. Thompson cited a two-year dispute between FEMA and New Orleans as to whether damage to the sewer system was caused by Katrina, or poor maintenance. “That is the ‘us versus them’ mentality that has greatly hampered the recovery in the Gulf,” he said.

David Garratt, FEMA acting deputy administrator, explained the lengthy appeals process the agency must adhere to under the law, and said they are working with the states in the quickest manner possible but suggested there was not always follow-up on the local level.

“There are sometimes disagreements between FEMA and applicants about the extent of disaster-related damages to facilities that were not well-maintained prior to the disaster,” he said in his opening statement.

“The Stafford Act authorizes FEMA to reimburse applicants to repair disaster-related damages. Based on assessments by FEMA public assistance staff, some of the facilities damaged by Katrina and Rita also suffered from deferred maintenance. Although FEMA has prepared project worksheets to document what we believe to be the disaster-related damages, applicants have not initiated repairs to the facilities or submitted formal appeals,” he said.

Rebuilding will be challenging, and it will be lengthy, Mr. Garratt said in explaining why all of the money has not been spent.

Rep. Henry Cuellar, Texas Democrat and subcommittee chairman, said the agency needs “to eliminate the culture of ‘us versus them’ ” and stop “finger-pointing” blame.

Panel members did not specifically address the decision last week to remove the chief of staff of the New Orleans hurricane-recovery office pending an investigation of charges of sexual harassment, cronyism and nepotism.

“The people of the Gulf Coast region have been badly served,” Mr. Cuellar said. “We should not allow inefficiency, bureaucracy or scandals to further deprive the people of this region from a timely and an effective recovery process.

“The reality is that the impact of a terrorist attack or a major disaster is felt by all - regardless of one’s political party or whether you are a federal official versus a state or local official,” he said.

Lyda Ann Thomas, mayor of the City of Galveston, said FEMA officials acted swiftly to help her city after Hurricane Ike struck last year “but after 30 days the whole system slowed down.”

“FEMA’s rule is that after a catastrophic event, a school would be open as a Red Cross shelter. However, there were no schools we could open because all of Galveston went underwater,” Ms. Thomas said.

Instead, the Red Cross hired a vendor to erect tents and provide blankets for the storm six months ago. “FEMA is still quibbling whether it should pay the vendor, and it’s a $3 million price tag,” she said.

Mr. Thompson gave FEMA officials until Thursday to resolve who will pay for Galveston’s temporary shelter.

Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, ranking Republican on the subcommittee, focused his limited question period on a topic under consideration by the Obama administration, whether to separate FEMA from the Department of Homeland Security and remake it a stand-alone agency.

Asked whether such a move would have “adverse consequences,” Mr. Garratt said, “I believe that a reorganization is likely to have some disruptive impact to FEMA during that transition period. It is entirely possible there could be some adverse effects from separation.”

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