WHERE DID THE FEMA MONEY GO?
by Geoff Pender
Friday, Aug. 31, 2007 at 5:01 AM
No bid contracts and profiteering off of misery is what you get when you don't indict the entire Bush family for treason.
bushlooterbrighter8bu.jpg, image/jpeg, 317x503
WHERE DID THE MONEY GO?
By GEOFF PENDER
Charity, volunteers slowly reviving Mississippi Coast
It's hard for the average working stiff to contemplate a number as vast as the $23.5 billion the federal government has allocated to Mississippi for Katrina recovery.
Think of it this way:
It's enough money to buy two average-sized houses for each of the 65,000 families in Mississippi who lost their homes.
And, there would be enough left over to buy each family a brand-new Honda Accord to drive between their two $166,000 houses. That's the EX-L, V-6 four-door sedan Accord, with all the extras and navigation, not a base model.
It's enough to give each man, woman and child in the three southernmost counties $68,500 apiece. Or, to look at it another way, federal Katrina spending in Mississippi will cost each person in the United States about $94.
Just the $1 billion the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates FEMA lost to "fraud, waste and abuse" within a short time after the storm would be enough to cover the city of Waveland's budget for 143 years, or buy more than 6,000 new houses.
Today, the Sun Herald looks at Katrina spending in Mississippi.
GEOFF PENDER After "normal" U.S. disasters, the federal government, mainly through FEMA, has always brought resources to bear, but the spending was closely regulated and greatly limited by the federal Stafford Act.
Katrina wasn't a normal disaster.
It soon became clear that the Stafford Act, which governs federal assistance to states and local areas, didn't contemplate such massive, regional destruction.
If government had played by the pre-Katrina rules, Mississippi would have received about $6 billion to $7 billion in federal relief, instead of the $23.5 billion and counting that has been allocated.
No homeowners would have received recovery grants. Private property would still be covered with mountains of debris. Most federal aid, including temporary housing, would have ended within months of the storm. Other payments or programs would still be years away.
There would have been no reprieve from quadrupling wind pool insurance rates. While premiums remain exorbitant, they would have been far, far worse.
And state and local governments would be looking at bankruptcy, burdened with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt from "matching money" requirements for the federal aid.
As it has with so many things, Katrina has forever changed how federal tax dollars can be spent after disasters. And as with most things in the aftermath of the storm, the rules are in large part being made up as we go along.
"(The Stafford Act) really was way inadequate," said U.S. Sen. Trent Lott, part of the Mississippi delegation that convinced Congress to push aside the rules and allocate billions in unprecedented spending to Katrina relief. "That law was written in different times under different circumstances... We've been changing the Stafford Act in pieces, as we see what works and what doesn't, adding changes to other moving leg- islation."
Economists and other experts have predicted federal spending will jump-start the Coast, state and regional econ- omies.
For the state as a whole, that's already happening.
But on the Coast, housing, insurance and labor problems, while not crippling the economy, have thus far prevented a boom.
That, some say, could change as billions of dollars of public projects - schools, city halls, roads - are clearing red tape and about to begin. If the labor can be found - and that's a significant 'if' - the federally-funded projects should make the local economy take off over the next few years.
'Specific, reasonable request'
Mississippi has, to date, received much of the $34 billion it formally asked for in federal spending, thanks in large part to U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, the rest of the state congressional delegation and Gov. Haley Barbour.
"Not only has the administration and Congress given the Katrina states unprecedented amounts of money, they have also given unprecedented latitude to spend that money on Mississippi priorities rather than Washington priorities," said Barbour, who used his Washington connections as a former lobbyist to help secure the federal spending and waive rules.
For instance, Barbour managed to convince federal authorities to let the state use more than $600 million to expand water and sewerage into northward, rural areas where growth is expected as homeowners and businesses move inland. This is on top of the more than $400 million received to replace systems destroyed by the storm.
The Stafford Act would have allowed federal dollars to cover only rebuilding the water and sewerage that was destroyed. As an official once put it, "If you had a 1981 Chevette with a leaky radiator, FEMA will buy you a 1981 Chevette and poke a hole in the radiator."
Of Mississippi's federal spending requests, the largest remaining unfunded is for environmental restoration of marshland and the Barrier Islands, expected to cost from $7 billion to $10 billion over eight to 10 years.
If this is approved, Barbour said, Mississippi would have received about $30 billion of the $34 billion it requested. This does not include federal money spent repairing federal facilities on the Coast.
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