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GAO finds flaws with FEMA’s Katrina pilot housing program

The Federal Emergency Management Agency strayed from good practices when it gave Mississippi the majority of a $400 million pilot program to house Hurricane Katrina victims in cottages rather than travel trailers, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The findings by Congress’ investigative arm give weight to vehement complaints by Louisiana politicians that the Bush administration and the previous GOP-run Congress unfairly gave Mississippi more help than Louisiana as the two states struggled to recover from Katrina.

After Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005, and displaced hundreds of thousands of families, Congress gave FEMA $400 million to come up with new kinds of homes that could be used in future disasters. The program’s intent is to replace the cramped travel trailers now used in disasters with more comfortable dwellings.

In December 2006, FEMA awarded Mississippi about $281 million for two projects and Louisiana got $75 million for one project even though Louisiana saw much more extensive damage. Texas and Alabama got the remaining funds, about $17 million each.

With the money, Mississippi hopes to build more than 3,000 housing units. By comparison, Louisiana expects to construct about 500 units. Louisiana still has not erected its first cottage. In Mississippi, more than 200 units are being lived in.

The GAO, however, said FEMA’s selection process was flawed because it gave the states too little time to come up with proposals. The GAO also said the agency should have set caps on award amounts to “lead to funding a greater number of innovative proposals” and done more to clarify how it was rating projects.

Because of those shortcomings, the GAO said FEMA’s selection process strayed from the guidelines government agencies typically adopt for competitive grant programs.

The GAO said it concurred with an earlier review by the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general who criticized FEMA for awarding “the vast majority of the available funds (about 71 percent) to one project in one state.”

Despite the flaws, the GAO said FEMA would “likely meet” the goal of coming up with ideas for housing victims “in better ways in future disasters.”

According to the GAO report, FEMA agreed with recommendations to not handle grant money in the same fashion in the future. FEMA officials did not immediately comment Wednesday.

The report, requested by the Louisiana congressional delegation, was released Monday.

FEMA’s announcement of how it was splitting up the money last December was a breaking point for Louisiana officials. Gov. Kathleen Blanco immediately denounced the Republican Congress and President Bush for allegedly shortchanging Louisiana.

In the days that followed, Blanco called for an investigation into the imbalance in funding and cited statements by former FEMA Director Michael Brown who had begun accusing his former bosses in the Bush administration of playing politics after Katrina. Donald Powell, Bush’s recovery czar, dismissed those suggestions.

On Wednesday, Louisiana officials said their complaints were vindicated.

“The gist of it is that the GAO produced a devastating critique,” said Andy Kopplin, the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Blanco set up the LRA to lead the state’s recovery from the catastrophic 2005 hurricane season.

Adam Sharp, Sen. Mary Landrieu’s spokesman, said that while there was no evidence of impropriety in the way FEMA handled the grant program, the GAO’s report shows that FEMA enacted “poor management, a seeming laziness about getting it right.”

Pete Smith, a spokesman for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, said in a statement Wednesday, that the report showed that the selection process was proper and that it rightly rewarded Mississippi based on the state’s proposals.

“The study confirms that Mississippi’s alternative housing pilot proposals were the highest rated projects in a competitive evaluation process that fully complied with federal law and regulations. It also confirms our expectation that the alternative housing program pioneered here in Mississippi will result in much safer and secure housing for victims of future natural disasters nationwide.”