Katrina Recovery Officials Unsure What's Been Spent

By Renae Merle and Griff Witte
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 3, 2005

Officials responsible for doling out billions in Hurricane Katrina relief contracts told lawmakers yesterday that they still don't have answers to central questions about why certain recovery efforts have stalled, whether money is being wasted and what's keeping Gulf Coast firms from getting a bigger share of the work.

In nearly three hours of questioning by the House committee investigating the government's sluggish response to one of the worst natural disasters in the nation's history, top procurement officials with the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers repeatedly said they would need to do more research into exactly how government money is being spent.

Lawmakers made it clear they didn't like that answer.

Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) peppered officials with questions about news reports that the government was paying a contractor more than $2,500 for two hours of work installing a tarp on a damaged roof. "Doesn't it just ring a bell with someone that this is an excessive amount of money?" she asked. "Yeah, it's hard work. But it's not $2,500 hard."

The Army Corps of Engineers' top procurement official, Col. Norbert Doyle, said he would look into the figure and get back to her. That prompted Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) to sputter: "You're in charge, aren't you? And you don't know the answer to a question like that?"

Lawmakers from Mississippi, meanwhile, said thousands of hurricane victims are still living in two-person tents without running water or adequate heat because government contractors haven't finished mobile home parks.

"It's getting cold," said Republican Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr., who asked the government to provide contractors with more incentives to finish their work quickly.

"At today's rate, we're going to have people in Mississippi [waiting for trailers] until January 1st," said Democratic Rep. Gene Taylor.

Patricia English, FEMA's senior procurement executive, said the agency would look into speeding up the process.

With the vast majority of the prime contracts having gone to firms from outside the Gulf Coast, members of Congress also wanted to know whether small, local companies were being deliberately shunned in favor of large, national firms.

Pickering complained that only 5.6 percent of Army Corps contracts for work in Mississippi had gone to local companies and that two Mississippi firms had competed for a $500 million debris-removal contract, but neither won. The work is being done by a Florida firm.

Pickering and others on the committee said local leaders in the gulf have been told by federal officials that unless they use the Corps' contractor, they won't be fully reimbursed and risk a government audit.


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