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FEMA: La. lags behind Miss. in forwarding federal aid to locals

Louisiana lags behind Mississippi in forwarding federal aid to cash-strapped communities after Hurricane Katrina, lending support to complaints by local officials in the New Orleans area that the state is holding up money they need for repairs and rebuilding.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid Louisiana roughly $5.1 billion to reimburse local officials for infrastructure projects following Katrina, but only 38 percent of that money has reached communities nearly 16 months after the storm, FEMA spokesman Aaron Walker said Tuesday.

A greater percentage of federal dollars has flowed to communities in Mississippi, where the state has distributed “just under” half of around $2.2 billion that FEMA has paid for repairs to roads and public buildings, debris removal and other projects, according to Walker.

Walker said he can’t compare how quickly and efficiently the two states are doling out FEMA “public assistance” money because Hurricane Rita also struck Louisiana about a month after Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005.

“Because the scale of Katrina and Rita are so large, it’s difficult to quantify the appropriate pace money should be handed down to the local communities,” Walker said in a written statement.

Mark Smith, a spokesman for the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the state shares FEMA’s responsibility to ensure that federal funds are properly spent. He dismissed comparisons to Mississippi as “apples to oranges.”

“We cannot, dealing with this kind of money, simply take people at their word,” he said. “We need documentation to back it up.”

Local officials in Louisiana have complained that bureaucratic red tape at the state level is hampering the region’s recovery from last year’s storms.

At a meeting of the Louisiana Recovery Authority last week, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and St. Bernard Parish President Henry “Junior” Rodriguez pleaded with state and federal authorities to front them millions of dollars while they wait for the rest of FEMA’s funds to arrive.

Rodriguez said he faults state officials for holding up money that the federal government already has sent to the region. “It gets obligated in Washington, it gets back to the state and then it gets held up,” he said last Thursday. “It’s a state problem.”

Nagin said Orleans Parish only has received around $100 million of the $900 million that FEMA has approved for projects. The mayor, who stopped short of blaming the state for the delays, said the city can’t afford to start work on many projects without advance payments.

“We’re in dire straits,” Nagin said last week. “We’re out of money right now.”

Smith said local officials must provide the state with all necessary paperwork before they can be fully reimbursed. “Nothing would make us happier than to have the money flowing,” he added.

FEMA’s “public assistance” program reimburses local governments for thousands of storm-related projects. Local officials apply for reimbursement from FEMA, which reviews the costs of each project before forwarding the money to state officials. The states are responsible for making payments.

Smith said the state doesn’t collect interest payments on the federal money, so it gains “zero benefit” from holding onto the funds.

Mike Womack, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said much of the FEMA money that the state is holding onto is for construction projects that haven’t broken ground yet.

“You’ve got to remember that very little permanent reconstruction work has started on the coast,” he said. “You don’t start awarding the money until the bids are done and the work begins.”

Womack said some projects may have started later in Louisiana because it took weeks to pump out Katrina’s flood waters from parts of New Orleans. “They did have some challenges we didn’t have,” he added.

Billy Skellie, mayor of Long Beach, Miss., said he is pleased with how quickly the state and federal governments are reimbursing his city for Katrina-related work, including a $13 million water and sewer project.

“We’re not really waiting on anything that’s got us in a crunch,” he said.

FEMA’s public assistance funding is awarded separately from a multibillion federal grant program that provides Louisiana and Mississippi homeowners with up to $150,000 to either rebuild, repair or relocate their homes.

Homeowners in both states also have complained about delays in the grant program. As of last Thursday, Louisiana had mailed checks to fewer than 100 of the 88,000 homeowners who applied for “Road Home” grant money. As of Dec. 1, Mississippi had paid 6,000 of the more than 17,000 homeowners who applied for grants.