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Published in Print: October 12, 2005, as Schools Welcome FEMA Aid, But Not Without Frustration

Schools Welcome FEMA Aid, But Not Without Frustration

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After Hurricane Katrina flattened schools along the Gulf Coast and floodwaters swirled into classrooms, the Federal Emergency Management Agency did something it had never done before: It created strike teams of education experts to help schools in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The FEMA team of school construction experts, building planners, and engineers that is helping Louisiana and Mississippi districts negotiate the complex tributaries of federal assistance is receiving only a mixed grade from federal and state education officials.

But in Mississippi, state and local officials are sorting through conflicting information and unmet promises. Last week, coastal Mississippi was awaiting the delivery of hundreds of portable classrooms the state superintendent had requested through FEMA weeks earlier.

The slow flow of portables to the region may stem in part from the controversy surrounding several government contracts for trailers that were awarded with little or no competition.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., and other federal lawmakers have criticized no-bid contracts to buy the portables that may be resulting in higher-than-normal prices. FEMA’s acting director, R. David Paulison, told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week that his agency would take bids on all no-bid contracts to help prevent aid money from being squandered.

On the Ground

Though many district officials have voiced frustration with FEMA, a formerly independent agency that is now part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, federal officials say that some bumps are to be expected when dealing with the aftermath of such a massive natural disaster.

Katrina, which struck some six weeks ago, destroyed or heavily damaged about 170 schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Most schools in three Louisiana districts, including New Orleans, will be closed until January, but most coastal Mississippi districts planned to reopen this month. On Sept. 24, Hurricane Rita damaged dozens more schools in Texas and Louisiana.

FEMA officials say they are working hard to to educate districts about the kind of help their agency provides and tamping down unrealistic expectations.

“Their impression is always that when they have a disaster, here comes FEMA to help,” Bill Quade, the co-leader of FEMA’s strike team, or education public-assistance program, in Louisiana, said last week. “That’s true, but not in the way you might think in the beginning.”

When it comes to school disasters, FEMA helps with emergency aid right after a storm hits. Debris removal, personnel overtime, tarps, and portable generators are all covered. Then, after private insurance kicks in, FEMA will cover 75 percent of the remaining costs, with the state contributing 25 percent. The agency pays for anything damaged by the storm, from textbooks to desks to buses.

For schools that haven’t been damaged by the two hurricanes but have opened their doors to students fleeing storm-damaged areas, FEMA will pay for temporary classrooms and trailers and their furnishings, such as desks or computers, though not for textbooks or teachers for those classes, Mr. Quade said.

But as many districts are just learning, nearly all of FEMA’s financial help to districts arrives through reimbursements, often months later. For cash-strapped districts, that process could have serious consequences. Although Congress has approved more than $62 billion in general hurricane aid since Katrina struck, none of that provides any direct cash infusions to schools.

President Bush and members of Congress have their own proposals specifically for aid to schools, but nothing had been passed as of late last week. The Senate approved a bill in late September to allow FEMA to transfer emergency-relief money to the U.S. secretary of education to cover expenses for teaching displaced students. That bill had not been taken up by the House as of last week.

For some school officials, meanwhile, dissatisfaction with FEMA is verging on despair.

“Our dealings with FEMA have been very, very frustrating,” said Doris Voitier, the superintendent of the 8,800-student St. Bernard Parish, La., district, which was nearly wiped out by Katrina. “Eventually, we should be getting some FEMA money,” she said last week, “but we need help now.”

As of last week, there was no water or sewer system and no electricity in the parish east of New Orleans. Ms. Voitier, who is working out of temporary offices at the Louisiana education department in Baton Rouge, still doesn’t know when St. Bernard Parish schools might be able to reopen, and the district is running short of money.

To her, some of FEMA’s requirements seem unrealistic. For example, although FEMA would pay emergency overtime for district workers still involved in the cleanup process, Ms. Voitier said, her district is unable to pay its employees for the normal 40-hour workweek.

Mr. Quade said he is sympathetic. He acknowledged that many districts need cash, but said FEMA isn’t the right federal agency to provide that type of aid.

A Need for Portables

FEMA has an education public-assistance team working on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but the team wasn’t calling itself an education strike force like the one in Louisiana. The team was formed after what local and state officials have described as a slow start by the agency.

“If I had one bit of advice to [FEMA],” said Steve Williams, an executive assistant at the Mississippi Department of Education, “they ought to have a section established that deals directly with school districts that’s ready to hit the ground running” when a disaster happens.

Jim Calacal, the FEMA director of public assistance on the Mississippi coast, said his team is working with state and local officials on the process of replacing schools and their contents. The agency has helped Mississippi districts order about 425 portable classrooms.

About 140 portables had been delivered by Oct. 6, said Alicia Embrey, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is working with FEMA to provide the classrooms.

Henry A. Arledge, the superintendent of the 13,000-student Harrison County, Miss., district, which surrounds the cities of Gulfport and Biloxi, has suggested he will resort to finding his own portables if federal officials do not deliver them faster. Mr. Arledge has said he will run double sessions in at least one middle school until the 36 portables he has ordered arrive.

“There’s just frustration out there because of school districts trying to get their students back in school,” Mr. Williams said.

Still, some schools on the Mississippi coast are open again, thanks in part to the federal agencies.

Glen East, the superintendent of the Gulfport district, said FEMA has helped place recreational trailers as temporary housing for five educators and their families on the grounds of Gulfport High School.

Another 12 to 15 educators’ families were expected to join them soon. Mr. East’s district had 6,300 students before Katrina, and had enrolled 4,800 students by Oct. 4.

Waiting for Aid

In Louisiana, the FEMA strike team provides school districts with the option of using the team’s engineers and architects to draft rebuilding plans. Normally, districts would have to find their own experts, and FEMA would approve their work, Mr. Quade of the federal emergency agency said.

Hudson La Force, the U.S. Department of Education’s deputy assistant secretary for planning, who spent two weeks working with the 24-person strike team to coordinate school-rebuilding efforts, called the team “unique” and “powerful.”

“You get leverage statewide, but more importantly, you get experts on education,” he said.

Grover C. Austin, a certified public accountant under contract to the Louisiana education department who is working closely with the FEMA team, said the team improved the lines of communication with district officials and allowed FEMA officials to increase their knowledge of education issues.

Despite the strike team’s work, frustration levels and confusion remain in some places in Louisiana.

Many education officials still are confused about how FEMA can help them. In the small Avoyelles Parish district, roughly 200 miles northwest of New Orleans, Finance Director Mary L. Bonnette said her district added 563 evacuees to its enrollment of 6,600.

She said the district is hoping that FEMA will pay for displaced students’ textbooks and supplies, something the federal agency doesn’t cover for schools that are receiving such students.

Districts shouldn’t count on getting FEMA money any time soon, said Harold W. Dodge, the superintendent of the 67,000-student Mobile County, Ala., district.

He has five FEMA staff members working full time in his district, including two who are still there working on the damage sustained from Hurricane Ivan on Sept. 16, 2004. Another is helping the district coordinate cleanup from Hurricane Dennis last June. And two more arrived after Katrina, Mr. Dodge said. With the three storms, he said, the district has suffered a total of more than $35 million in damages.

Mr. Dodge and his staff have become so adept at negotiating with FEMA that they recently provided a training session for Mississippi school officials on how to deal with the agency.

He warned them that FEMA money might be a long time coming. Mr. Dodge said he expected his final FEMA payment of $1.2 million—which followed the first of $1.1 million in September—to arrive this week for damage from Hurricane Ivan more than a year ago.

Vol. 25, Issue 07, Page 11

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