Written and Reported by Matthew Blake
Gulf Coast residents who’ve witnessed the incompetence of FEMA might find dark humor in the federal agency’s unifying effect. Democratic and Republican Senators, Louisiana and New Orleans government leaders, and even former FEMA officials say the agency remains a major obstacle to Hurricane Katrina disaster recovery.
Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska upped the ante at a Senate Homeland Security subcommittee hearing Tuesday, decrying FEMA as fundamentally incapable of correctly spending and allocating the $110 billion dollars it was given by Congress to assist the Gulf. (In reality, only $26 billion was appropriated to rebuild Louisiana.) The Republican Senator compared the damage from Katrina to France and Germany after World War Two concluding, "You need a new Marshall Plan for this area, not just FEMA."
That comparison struck a chord with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu, who convened the hearing. "You really hit the nail on the head comparing it to parts of Europe after World War Two," she said. The city’s population is 60 percent of what it was before Katrina, murder rates have climbed to the deadliest in America and areas like the Lower Ninth Ward remain blighted and barren.
Stevens, one of the oldest and most conservative members of the Senate, would seem an unlikely champion of aggrieved New Orleans citizens. But he effectively conveyed both the magnitude of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita’s devastation and the structural problems FEMA has encountered under the Bush Administration and the four year-old Department of Homeland Security.
Additional voices in the anti-FEMA chorus Tuesday included Mark Merritt, an assistant director at FEMA under Bill Clinton; Jeff Smith, the Louisiana governor’s office executive director for homeland security and emergency preparedness, and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Nagin told the committee that, "There needs to be some consistency. Every two months we deal with a different FEMA representative. It’s like we’re always starting from scratch."
Example after example was given to illustrate how FEMA has not delivered promised funds. Witnesses were sharply critical of the agency’s "project worksheets," the excessively bureaucratic and inefficient reimbursement program through which federal Katrina recovery money is rewarded to state and local government–and often delayed, if it arrives at all. "If we used project worksheets after World War Two, we’d still be rebuilding Germany today," Landrieu remarked.
For example, Kevin Davis, President of St. Tammany Parish in New Orleans, said one FEMA official gave the green light to a plan to clean up his devastated neighborhood, but then a new official was reassigned to the area and concluded that the worksheet’s wording disqualified his Parish for funding.
"FEMA officials arbitrarily decided what they could and could not get done," he said. St. Tammany Parish is now suing the agency in federal court.
Such criticisms come a day after a House Homeland Security Committee report noting that about one-third of all top-level FEMA positions are currently unfilled. Landrieu conceded that ultimately "it’s the private sector that will rebuild New Orleans." Yet "without basic government infrastructure" she said, the city will remain in rubble.