First the Flood, Now the Fight
Wednesday, August 30, 2006
Someone had to pay to remove 3,000 dead trees in New Orleans. The trees, insisted the Federal Emergency Management Agency, couldn't have been killed by Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters because they weren't toppled to a certain angle. New Orleans would have to pay.
Nonsense, city administrators argued. Brackish water swamped the city for weeks, killing the trees where they stood. Only after months of delay did FEMA relent, adding the trees' removal to the toll of the catastrophe.
Through hundreds of such disputes large and small, the most costly disaster in U.S. history is fast becoming its most contentious, with appeals and disputes worth nearly a billion dollars bogging down repairs of critical public systems and delaying the return of residents.
Current and former officials at all levels blame FEMA workers' inexperience with eligibility rules, weaknesses in U.S. disaster laws and inconsistent treatment by Congress for much of the wrangling. The huge scale of the storm and honest disagreement over whether federal or local taxpayers should pay the tab add to the conflict.
"Disasters should be difficult to declare. . . . But once you get them, FEMA should not worry about cutting costs," said Daniel A. Craig, who stepped down in October as head of FEMA's recovery division and is now consulting for New Orleans. "Public entities are eligible for everything they have lost due to the disaster. It is not up to FEMA to cut corners or makes sure money is saved."
Gil H. Jamieson, FEMA's deputy director for Gulf Coast recovery, agreed that "we're in this to rebuild the city" and added: "We are not in it to delay for the sake of delay. Are there folks who sometimes hose it up? Absolutely. But I think we're doing a good job of helping it recover."
The disputes come as the costliest part of the recovery begins: restoring water, power, roads, bridges, schools and other public facilities along the Gulf Coast. Agency veterans said the spending will have more impact on the physical rebuilding of the Gulf area than anything else FEMA does over the next decade, possibly eclipsing its role in aiding individual victims of the storm.
The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, for instance, sustained $446 million in storm losses, said Executive Director Marcia St. Martin. But FEMA has committed just $113 million so far.
FEMA notes that New Orleans promised U.S. environmental regulators $640 million in repairs before Katrina, and that the antiquated system is too big for the Crescent City's reduced population.
"That's what makes a city -- if you don't have water, sewer and drainage, you don't have a city," lamented Robert Jackson, spokesman for the sewer board. "The money so far only scratches the surface of the devastation. In some cases you've got underground devastation that you haven't seen even in a year's time."
Jamieson acknowledged that "one of the toughest issues is: How do we not buy any city a completely new water and sewer system but in fact try to attribute how much it was damaged before the storm?"
"We want to give them what they deserve but . . . make sure they are not getting more than they deserve, at some other community's expense," Jamieson said.