Miss. Congressman questions unspent Katrina money

Published 12:59 am Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A key congressman is questioning why Mississippi has failed to spend more than $1 billion in federal public assistance funds to help it recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Rep. Bernie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, said that the state has spent just $1.6 billion of the $2.9 billion public assistance funds provided by the federal government. Thompson cited information provided to his committee by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“This is extremely troubling given the obvious need for recovery assistance along the Mississippi Gulf Coast,” he wrote in a letter to Nancy Ward, FEMA’s acting administrator.

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Public assistance funds are used for tasks such as removing disaster debris and restoring roads, bridges, sewers and harbors.

Also, Thompson wrote, through the end of last year, Mississippi has spent just $28 million of $142 million from FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which can be used for things such as elevating flood-prone homes and buildings.

“I am at a loss to understand a rationale that would explain why less than 20 percent of available funds have been expended well over three years later,” Thompson wrote.

He asked FEMA to provide a full report to the committee on Mississippi’s use of these two funds by Feb. 23.

In an e-mail, FEMA spokesman Terry Monrad said the agency received the letter Monday and that Ward would respond.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency said there were reasons for the slow pace of work since the 2005 storm.

“We do have some of the same concerns that the congressman has, that we would like to do everything possible to speed the recovery,” said the agency’s director, Mike Womack. “But I think the letter paints a more negative picture than is actually the case.”

Womack said that because of the devastation on the state’s Gulf Coast, things had to be done sequentially. In some hard-hit places, he said, debris had to be removed first, before water and sewer lines could be replaced (temporary lines were in place in the meantime).

“While it has been slow, when you totally destroy all the infrastructure of small cities, and you have massive debris to remove, it’s going to take a long time for recovery,” Womack said. Citing more recent figures, he said the state has spent $1.7 billion of the $2.9 billion in public assistance funds.

“We’re proud of the progress we’ve made,” Womack said, adding, “$1.7 billion worth of public assistance is a huge amount of money in Mississippi.”

As for the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, Womack said that many of the projects to be funded from that program are partnered with permanent reconstruction of buildings, many of which are still ongoing.