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Bush FEMA cuts could add misery to hurricane recovery

Prepared? New Orleans’ poor, homeless (or those that just have no way of leaving) are crowding into the massive Louisiana Superdome. Officials expect the ground level of the building to flood. No one knows if the generators will work when the storm hits, leaving thousands inside a building with no A/C.

A September 2004 article in, “A Disaster Waiting to Happen,” predicted that Bush’s miserly ways — placing the priority on terrorism at the expense of disaster preparation resources — was going to bite storm-prone states in the butt when it came to a natural disaster such as Katrina.

…since 2001, key federal disaster mitigation programs, developed over many years, have been slashed and tossed aside. FEMA’s Project Impact, a model mitigation program created by the Clinton administration, has been canceled outright. Federal funding of post-disaster mitigation efforts designed to protect people and property from the next disaster has been cut in half. Communities across the country must now compete for pre-disaster mitigation dollars.

As a result, some state and local emergency managers say, it’s become more difficult to get the equipment and funds they need to most effectively deal with disasters. In Louisiana, requests for flood mitigation funds were rejected by FEMA this summer. (See sidebar.) In North Carolina, a state also regularly threatened by hurricanes and floods, FEMA recently refused the state’s request to buy backup generators for emergency support facilities. And the budget cuts have halved the funding for a mitigation program that saved an estimated $8.8 million in recovery costs in three eastern North Carolina communities alone after 1999’s Hurricane Floyd.

Now, with Katrina on the way, it looks like the slashing of funds is going to play itself out No one knows what is going to happen, but a Category 5 hurricane is an Andrew-level storm — and we know how badly that was handled by the government. With even less to work with, Bush chose to gamble and make states compete for funds. It’s not as if we don’t get annual reminders — in the form of hurricanes and tornadoes — that any of the vulnerable regions in the nation are one storm away from disaster. The sickest part of this story is that Chimp politics resulted in Texas getting more funding that Louisiana, which has more vulnerable structures. (

Last week’s cover story “A Disaster Waiting to Happen” focused on changes that have occurred under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after it was absorbed into the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. FEMA insiders and emergency-management officials nationwide say the move spelled disaster for FEMA and for victims of catastrophic events. From 1993 until 2002, FEMA built a reputation as an effective, independent federal agency that responded to emergencies efficiently and made disaster mitigation a priority. But some FEMA employees and many who work closely with the agency say that when it became a subdivision of the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA’s ability to handle natural disasters fell off significantly. Now, it must compete against anti-terrorism efforts for funding.

“Before FEMA was condensed into Homeland Security it responded much more quickly,” says Walter Maestri, director of Jefferson Parish’s Office of Emergency Management. Maestri has worked with FEMA for eight years. “Truthfully, you had access to the individuals who were the decision-makers. The FEMA administrator had Cabinet status. Now, you have another layer of bureaucracy. FEMA is headed by an assistant secretary who now has to compete with other assistant secretaries of Homeland Security for available funds. And elevating houses is not as sexy as providing gas masks.”

Maestri is still awaiting word from FEMA officials as to why Louisiana, despite being called the “floodplain of the nation” in a 2002 FEMA report, received no disaster mitigation grant money from FEMA in 2003 (“Homeland Insecurity,” Sept. 28). Maestri says the rejection left emergency officials around the state “flabbergasted.”

We’re equally flabbergasted. The main criterion of FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation Grant program is to repair “repetitive loss structures,” those that have been damaged repeatedly by floods. State officials say Louisiana has an abnormally high concentration of repetitive loss structures, with Jefferson Parish containing more than any other parish or county in the nation. “Repetitive loss structures were the number one priority, and we have more than anybody else in the country, and we got nothing,” Maestri says.

In June, Maestri fired off an angry letter to FEMA, asking why Louisiana was excluded from the nearly $60 million available in grant money. Noting that Texas has fewer repetitive loss structures than Louisiana but received the most money from the program (nearly $9 million), Maestri says, “Perhaps it has something to do with the president being from Texas. Fine, let the president take care of Texas. But let Louisiana have a little something.”

His office is still awaiting a response from FEMA, a delay that Maestri says has become typical. Poor communication, he says, is one sign of FEMA’s diminished performance. FEMA did not respond to Gambit Weekly’s request for information, either.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding