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Homeland Insecurity 

Louisiana should have been high on the list for FEMA's biggest disaster mitigation grant program -- so why did the state get nothing?

The Federal Emergency Management Agency shook up its way of distributing disaster preparedness money when it introduced its Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) grant program in 2002. Given the program's criteria, Louisiana appeared to have been a shoo-in for federal dollars for 2003, the first year the program began awarding money. Instead, Louisiana got nothing.

Tom Rodrigue, flood zone manager for the Jefferson Parish Office of Emergency Management, says that office had submitted three grant applications and expected to receive some money. "One of the number one priorities for that PDM grant program is repetitive loss structures; Jefferson Parish, unfortunately, has more repetitive loss structures than any parish [or county] in the country," he says. "We felt sure we would get some funding out of that grant program, and we didn't."

The PDM program largely replaced FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, an older system of awarding grant money to local governments. (That program still exists, though now it mainly distributes money only to declared disaster areas.) In a September 2002 letter to FEMA's Office of the General Counsel, the national Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM) outlined several differences between the old and the new programs, and voiced its concerns about the changes.

One of the ASFPM's main issues was the program's emphasis on structural flood projects: for instance, shoring up levees and dams or raising buildings located in flood plains. The association fretted that by focusing on such projects, FEMA would ignore other sound flood-prevention tactics.

But the emphasis remained -- and that seemed to be good news to places such as Jefferson Parish, which has a disproportionate number of "repetitive loss structures." Those are structures that have suffered flood damage two or more times over a 10-year period and the cost to repair the structure equals or exceeds 25 percent of its market value.

Many of Jefferson Parish's homes were built before the mid-1970s, when flood insurance rate maps gave builders guidelines to elevate homes in flood-prone areas. "They just basically built houses on the ground," Rodrigue explains. PDM grants, he says, are designed to pay the costs of elevating these houses and other structures to avoid further damage.

"Jefferson Parish, in total, has right now 5,700-plus repetitive loss structures; of that 5,700, we have approximately 1,300 that are on FEMA's target list," Rodrigue says. "When I say target list, those are structures that the claims have either equaled or exceeded the fair market value ... those are the ones FEMA wants to see mitigated," he says.

"Nationwide, there are about 11,000 target repetitive loss structures, and Jefferson Parish has 1,300, so we've got roughly one-tenth of the entire national total for repetitive loss structures," Rodrigue says. "In Louisiana, there's roughly 3,000 (target structures) ...

"If that was the number one priority -- repetitive loss structures -- and we've got the most in the country, how could we not get any money?"

In 2002, Louisiana did receive a $250,000 PDM planning grant, the only PDM money it has received. Fifteen parishes applied for 2003 grants, a FEMA spokesman said. But last year, the nearly $60 million pot of federal PDM money went to 31 other states and Puerto Rico. Texas received the biggest share, more than $8.8 million, followed by California ($6.1 million) and Florida ($5.3 million).

After Jefferson Parish emergency management officials received notice in June that they, and everyone else in Louisiana, had been rejected for PDM money, emergency management director Walter Maestri wrote to the state Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the conduit for FEMA dollars in Louisiana.

After complaining about the lack of direction his office received from DHS and the FEMA regional office that covers Louisiana -- Region VI, based in Texas -- Maestri outlined the lengths to which Jefferson Parish had gone to provide information to FEMA.

"It is therefore difficult for me to understand how this parish, as well as any other parish in the State of Louisiana, was not approved for any PDM funding for (fiscal year) 03," he wrote, adding that FEMA's stated reasons for declining funds to Louisiana were vague.

"I can only simply state that FEMA has missed a golden opportunity to assist in furthering the process for resolving one of the most costly problems facing the National Flood Insurance Program, ŒRepetitive Loss,'" Maestri concluded, "and would hope that you forward the contents of this letter to FEMA Region VI with a request that they be conveyed to FEMA Headquarters." He copied the letter to both of Louisiana's senators and three congressmen. A state DHS official wrote back, saying FEMA's headquarters would review Maestri's complaints.

Maestri was unavailable for comment for this article, and Gambit Weekly calls to FEMA's national headquarters seeking comment about Louisiana's exclusion were not returned. Rodrigue says that emergency management officials speculated as to why Louisiana may have been declined, but they also haven't yet heard back from FEMA's national headquarters.

One possible reason for the non-selection, Rodrigue hypothesizes, was that early in 2004, FEMA auditors discovered that a private consultant hired by the state to administer FEMA money had misallocated funds in Slidell, Mandeville and other places in St. Tammany Parish. "I think it was connected to the fact that there was an ongoing investigation," Rodrigue says, although he noted that other parishes, including Jefferson, were audited by both FEMA and the state during the investigation and came out clean.

Rodrigue also said FEMA's method of distributing PDM money was flawed, and may have contributed to Louisiana getting nothing. In the new system, grants are decided by FEMA regional offices that do not govern the grant applicants; in other words, "the team from Region VI could not review Region VI's grants -- they could only review Region IV's grants, and vice versa. From (FEMA's) standpoint, that was to assure that everything was on the up-and-up, and one region wouldn't favor certain parishes," he says.

"But our logic is ... a team in another FEMA region has no idea of the problems we have here. So their unfamiliarity might be the reason why we didn't get any grants," he says. "They don't deal with tropical storms and hurricanes as often as we do." It looks like Jefferson Parish, and possibly other Louisiana parishes, likely won't get a chance for any PDM money for 2004 either, Rodrigue says. "We haven't heard anything about PDM in fiscal year 2004. We haven't been notified that we can even compete for PDM money, and fiscal year 2004 is over at the end of this month."

click to enlarge In Jefferson Parish, a homeowner boards windows in advance of Hurricane Ivan. The parish has more "repetitive loss structures" than any other parish or county in the nation -- but received no mitigation money from FEMA. - DAVID RAE MORRIS
  • David Rae Morris
  • In Jefferson Parish, a homeowner boards windows in advance of Hurricane Ivan. The parish has more "repetitive loss structures" than any other parish or county in the nation -- but received no mitigation money from FEMA.


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