By Michael Graczyk
Sunday, December 7, 2008
SMITH POINT, Tex. -- A 30-mile scar of debris along the Texas coast stands as a festering testament to what state and local officials say is FEMA's sluggish response to the 2008 hurricane season.
Two and a half months after Hurricane Ike blasted the shoreline, alligators and snakes crawl over vast piles of shattered building materials, lawn furniture, trees, boats, tanks of butane and other hazardous substances, thousands of animal carcasses, perhaps even the corpses of people killed by the storm.
State and local officials complain that the removal of the filth has gone almost nowhere because FEMA red tape has held up both the cleanup work and the release of the millions of dollars that Chambers County says it needs to pay for the project.
Elsewhere along the coast, similar complaints are heard: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been slow to reimburse local governments for what they have already spent, putting the rural counties on the brink of financial collapse.
"I don't know all the internal workings of FEMA. But if they've had a lot of experience in hurricanes and disaster, it looks like they could come up with some kind of process that would work," said Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia, the county's chief administrator.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was so incensed at delays in sending cleanup crews to the rotting, city-size pile of waste that he angrily told reporters two weeks ago that he is going to have the state clean it up and then stick FEMA with the bill.
FEMA, whose very name became a bitter joke after the agency's botched response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said it is working as fast as it can considering the complex regulations and the need to guard against fraud and waste in the use of taxpayer dollars.
Moreover, "you can't work too many people because it's just too dangerous," said Clay Kennelly, hired by FEMA to oversee the cleanup of a section of the debris pile. "And you can't just put Bubba or Skeeter out here on a dozer."
The 2008 hurricane season ended after walloping the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coasts with three major storms: Dolly, near the Mexican border in July; Gustav, which slammed the Texas-Louisiana line on Labor Day; and Ike, the 600-mile-wide monster that barreled ashore at Galveston on Sept. 12.
Only a hundred yards or so of the 30 miles of debris in Chambers County has been cleaned up, because the project has been slowed by negotiations over who is responsible for what.
Along the rest of the Gulf Coast, thousands of homeless families are still living in tents, trailers and motel rooms, and hundreds of businesses are lying in near-ruin.
The federal government is responsible for public lands or hazardous waste, while private landowners must handle their own cleanup but can apply for assistance. Much of the debris has been left to rot while crews determine whose land the junk is on and what is in it.
Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough tells the story of receiving word on Sept. 12, as Ike closed in on Galveston, that FEMA was sending him $1.8 million of his $3 million request for storm cleanup -- from Hurricane Rita, three years ago.
"Good Lord! The red tape and rules you have to go through to get anything done," Yarbrough said. "On Hurricane Ike, when we're putting out tens of millions, we can't afford a three-year reimbursement program. It would bankrupt most entities in this area if it takes that long."
In Louisiana, hit by two storms this year, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) complimented the agency on improvements made since Katrina but criticized FEMA's focus on paperwork and an inability to make decisions quickly.
"It has gotten better, but the problem you've got with FEMA is that they're looking for reasons to say 'no,' " Jindal said. "While they've made progress since '05, there's such an emphasis on filling out paperwork. They need to have a focus on results."
In an e-mailed statement, FEMA said the recovery process "continues seamlessly," and it noted the many rules and overlapping jurisdictions involved.
"The steps in the process of recovery include many at the individual, local, state and federal level," FEMA said. "In large measure they are understandable safeguards."
FEMA pointed out that more than $1 billion in federal and state aid already has gone to Texas in disaster assistance since Ike, with about one-third of that in grants for temporary housing rent and another third in low-interest loans for renters, homeowners and businesses. The state has estimated the total price tag at $11 billion.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, whose area includes Houston, complained that FEMA's bureaucracy is unwieldy. He recalled a FEMA official showing up at his office after Ike and declaring he was "going to be joined at the hip with you in this whole process."
"Then the next week, somebody else would show up and tell me the same thing," Emmett said. And then somebody else. "That was really frustrating to me."
Near the Mexican border, thousands of families remain in homes damaged by Dolly, the storm that blew ashore on South Padre Island on July 23. FEMA was helpful at first, but bureaucracy and the distraction of the other hurricanes have slowed the recovery, local officials said.
A farmworker rights organization and 14 South Texas residents have sued FEMA, accusing the agency of refusing to help thousands of poor families repair their homes.
"I understand they have Hurricane Ike, but we had a Category 2 come through the Valley, too," Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas said.