Dealing With FEMA Is Schools’ Latest Trial

By Michelle R. Davis — April 25, 2006 8 min read
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For three months after Hurricane Katrina devastated Mississippi’s Bay St. Louis-Waveland school district, school officials met weekly with architects, construction firms, and their local FEMA representative to map out and implement plans for rebuilding.

But after hundreds of hours of meetings, the Federal Emergency Management Agency removed the official who had been working with the district and sent in someone new, who told the district to start from scratch.

In fact, said Garland T. Cuevas, the business manager of the 1,440-student Bay St. Louis-Waveland schools, FEMA officials told him the district hadn’t followed proper procedures from the start.

Kim Stasny, seated, the superintendent of the Bay St. Louis-Waveland, Miss., district, speaks with a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official at a January meeting that included officials of FEMA.

“They told us we should have gone online [after the storm] to download federal disaster rules,” said Mr. Cuevas, adding that after the hurricane, school officials had little access to food or gas, let alone a computer.

“The red tape and the accusations of what we did wrong from day one from FEMA are almost unbearable,” he said in an interview last month.

Mr. Cuevas is not alone in his sentiments about the embattled disaster agency, which has been a major target of the fierce criticism leveled at the federal government over its handling of the Katrina crisis. Gulf Coast school administrators say they have received little or no posthurricane reconstruction money from FEMA so far. In the meantime, they say, they have filled out mountains of paperwork, scrambled as personnel they had formed relationships with were moved elsewhere, and struggled to break through federal procedures to reach decisions that make sense for their students.

The situation is made even more confusing by the various programs districts must tap into if they want help. Congress has set aside two separate pots of money to help schools: “impact” aid for schools that took in students displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and “restart” aid aimed at helping damaged school systems get up and running, including paying for staff salaries. (“Gulf Coast Districts Get Restart Aid, But Ask Whether It Will Be Enough,” March 29, 2006)

Then there’s FEMA money, which reimburses schools for repair and rebuilding costs not covered by insurance, and other expenses such as some transportation services and portable classrooms.

But even critics acknowledge that the destruction left behind by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29 and Sept. 24, respectively, was overwhelming. FEMA officials say they’re doing their best—within the limits set for them by federal law and regulations.

“This is a very complicated process,” said James McIntyre, a FEMA spokesman in Washington. “Sometimes the applicants don’t understand that.”

Making Sense for Students

Local school officials, though, complain that FEMA’s regulations often defy common sense.

Henry Arledge, the superintendent of Mississippi’s Harrison County district in Gulfport, said he’s battling with the federal agency over reimbursement for rebuilding a middle school flooded by 8 feet of seawater during Hurricane Katrina. The school is in a flood plain, and Mr. Arledge said he wants to rebuild it outside the flood zone, “to get over this problem once and for all.”

But unless FEMA determines that the cost of repairing a structure is more than 50 percent of the cost to rebuild elsewhere, the agency will not help repay construction costs, said Mr. Arledge. So far, he said, three FEMA teams have inspected the school, the first saying the site met the 50 percent threshold, the second saying it did not, and late last month, a third FEMA team concluding that the school could be rebuilt in a new location and the district would receive FEMA funds.

Mr. Arledge said he still hasn’t received the necessary paperwork from the third team and remains unsure that the latest decision will stick.

“I’m fixing to go forward with it anyway,” Mr. Arledge said of building the school in a new location.

In Louisiana, where New Orleans and nearby districts sustained crippling damage from Katrina, Superintendent Doris Voitier of the St. Bernard Parish public schools began wrangling with FEMA officials just after the hurricane destroyed 14 of her district’s 15 school buildings.

When the district reopened Nov. 14, Ms. Voitier planned to have a natural-gas line run to the school board office and set up a makeshift cafeteria there, she said. However, she recounted recently, that plan was delayed and for seven days she had to find an alternative way to feed her district’s 2,200 students. Though a restaurant would cook hot meals, the district had to transport them to schools.

At first, Ms. Voitier said, a local FEMA official told her the district would not be reimbursed for the transportation cost. She went higher up the FEMA chain, and was told the cost would be covered.

“When I went and applied for reimbursement, they told me no,” said Ms. Voitier, who is appealing FEMA’s decision. “It seems to me unconscionable that they would deny feeding our kids hot meals for seven days, when these were the only hot meals these children would get.”

Agency’s Constraints

Mr. McIntyre, the FEMA spokesman, said agency officials’ hands are tied when it comes to requirements enacted by Congress, such as the 50 percent-plus rule on rebuilding elsewhere, or by rules regarding what FEMA can or can not pay for.

The FEMA officials who are sent to live in each county to help coordinate rebuilding efforts are often volunteers who have families and jobs elsewhere and can’t remain on site indefinitely, he said.

If a new FEMA official is more experienced, he or she may spot problems in paperwork that his predecessor did not, Mr. McIntyre said. And while it may seem inconvenient to redo paperwork, the effort will ultimately benefit schools by speeding up the arrival of federal payments, he said.

District officials interviewed in recent weeks said those payments, for the most part, hadn’t reached them yet.

In the 260-student Sabine Pass district in southeastern Texas, where Hurricane Rita sent mobile homes floating through the street and washed an ocean barge three blocks inland, only about $50,000 in FEMA money has trickled into the district, and only in recent weeks.

Zack Byrd, the interim superintendent, called that amount “a drop in the bucket” compared to what the cash-strapped district expected to ultimately receive.

Mr. McIntyre said some of the holdups are out of FEMA’s hands. Districts’ requests for FEMA reimbursements must pass through the state bureaucracy, where they may undergo additional audits. When FEMA does issue checks, that money also flows through the state, which may slow its path to the local level.

Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, who led a delegation of congressional Democrats in a visit to Louisiana schools late last month, says FEMA appears to be working out of an “outdated playbook.”

If FEMA feels hamstrung by federal regulations, “they should be telling Congress that, and they’re not,” Rep. Miller said in an interview. “They’re saying they’ve got it all under control, but if you go down there what you see is a bureaucratic sinkhole.”

Mr. Miller plans to release a report on Gulf Coast schools and rebuilding this week.

Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-La., led a group of congressional Republicans to his home state the same week the Democrats visited. He said Louisiana schools are grateful for the help they’re getting, but feel FEMA must be more flexible.

“People are amazed at how few of the dollars intended for them have actually reached them,” Rep. Jindal said in an interview. “They’ve filled out the paperwork months ago and say, ‘We know the money’s coming, but it’s been too long, and we’ve got bills to pay now.’ ”

But some districts say they are succeeding in their dealings with FEMA. The key is dedicating employees solely to that task, said Michael Thompson, a senior director with Alvarez & Marsal, the New York City-based crisis-management firm that is running the operations of the New Orleans school district, which currently has about 13,200 students. The flood-ravaged district, which had 63,000 students before Katrina, lost at least 80 of its 126 public schools to the storm.

Keys to Success

Alvarez & Marsal has 16 people on the ground in New Orleans just dealing with real estate issues and FEMA, Mr. Thompson said. FEMA currently has 40 people in Orleans Parish handling school hurricane claims, but Mr. Thompson said he has been told that number will soon swell to more than 80. When that happens, Alvarez & Marsal will ramp up its own numbers to 30 employees dedicated to dealing with the federal agency, he said.

Mr. Thompson said his company’s employees have successful relationships with local FEMA representatives. However, they are still struggling to get through the bureaucracy in Washington. As of last week, the district had only received about $12,000 from FEMA for reimbursement costs, but more appears to be in the pipeline, Mr. Thompson said.

“FEMA locally has been very helpful,” he said. “Nationally, and from a policy standpoint, they have not been.”

Jules A. Gaudin, the deputy superintendent of Louisiana’s Lafayette Parish schools, said his 30,000-student district has already received $1.3 million from FEMA for authorized expenses related to students the district took in after the hurricanes.

“They’ve had changes in personnel and procedures frequently, but we’ve adapted to that,” said Mr. Gaudin, whose district has three full-time employees dedicated to dealing with the federal disaster agency. “We embraced the changes and, lo and behold, our money came when we needed it.”

Mr. McIntyre acknowledged that small districts, or those unable to devote full-time employees to dealing with FEMA, may suffer.

“Unfortunately, that is an issue,” he said. “For someone to work this program properly, they have to understand it. It’s not something someone can do as a side duty.”


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