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Cleanup and repair cost the school system tens of millions of dollars, but federal payment has been slow. Reimbursement for small projects goes through five to 10 weeks of federal and state review, according to David Fernandez, the school system's financial manager. Any expenditure over $1 million is subject to another four to 12 weeks of review in Washington, he said.
This is the so-called "million-dollar queue." "Anything over a million dollars has to be reported to Congress," says Brown, the former FEMA director. "Why do you think that is? Congress wants to make an announcement." In other words, members of Congress want to be the first to boast of a federal project in their district.
"This is all political," Brown says. "It has nothing to do with good public policy."
In the parish council trailer, two engineers endeavor to explain why demolition is proceeding at a snail's pace. That day, in mid-July, more than 4,600 houses were on the demolition list [PDF]; as many as 8,000 more will be added starting in September, when the parish begins to condemn abandoned houses. After most storms, cleanup means collecting debris and then repairing houses. After Katrina in St. Bernard, however, the houses are the debris. Thousands and thousands of them are unsalvageable, eyesores at best, hazards at worst. Removing them is the prerequisite to recovery. But, as of mid-July, fewer than 1,000 had been demolished [PDF].
Logan Martin, a parish staff engineer, and Stephen Bourg of All South Consulting Engineers, a firm that oversees demolition, lay a stack of files on the table, samples of their paperwork. They explain that the parish submitted a demolition plan in December, but state and federal environmental regulators took months to agree on an asbestos-removal protocol [PDF]. That held up work until early spring.
Under the stringent protocol finally adopted, every house must be tested for asbestos, rather than just visually inspected. Visiting every house and sending samples to labs across the country takes time. The parish asked if it could speed things up by treating all properties as "hot," instead of testing each house, in developments where asbestos is known to be prevalent. The regulators said no.
FEMA's historic-preservation and archeological team had to inspect any property before local officials could clear it for demolition. This step, Martin and Bourg said, took anywhere from one to three months, even for recently built houses. One house, Martin said, had to go through historical and archeological review despite landing on its slab in the middle of an intersection. On private property, even debris—including, for example, 1,600 tree stumps—had to be reviewed for archaeological value before FEMA would pay for removal.
Before demolition, five different specialty crews visit each house (to disconnect gas, disconnect electricity, disconnect water and sewer, recover refrigerant, and remove appliances and toxic chemicals such as paint and bleach). If a house contains asbestos, a special demolition crew is called in.
Each procedure has its purpose, but with thousands and thousands of demolitions ahead of him, Martin closes a file folder and looks up with haggard eyes. "As soon as we get one hurdle cleared, there's another," he says. "Every day there's something staring you in the face and you say, 'I can't believe this. Another hoop I have to jump through.' "
Judy Hoffmeister remembers with particular anger the day FEMA took away the phones. After Katrina, cellphones and even satellite phones worked only sporadically, so FEMA brought in a mobile telephone system and connected it to a building (a refinery office) where the parish government was holed up. Then came word that Hurricane Rita was forging toward St. Bernard. FEMA's people evacuated, advising parish officials to do the same (they refused).
All of that, Hoffmeister understands. But she still recalls council members' dismay as they watched FEMA carry away the phones, leaving the parish's officials to weather Rita without communications. "I could not believe what I was witnessing," Hoffmeister says. "The feeling was, they didn't care." Told FEMA's rationale, she replies, "All I know is, we were already in distress, and it didn't help the situation any."
FEMA did have a rationale. Asked about the phone episode, Darryl Madden, a FEMA spokesman, said that the kind of vehicle-based relay system that the agency would have brought into St. Bernard—a communications trailer, basically—is not storm-hardened and requires a crew. FEMA couldn't leave its personnel in harm's way to operate the system, and the coming hurricane might have destroyed the vulnerable equipment. "If that's the only communications you have, you do normally pull back and reinsert after a storm," Madden said. "That's a call where you say, what if you leave it there and it's totally demolished?"
Asked about the parish's request to treat whole areas as asbestos-contaminated rather than inspecting every house, Barb Sturner, a FEMA public-affairs officer, said, "Asbestos debris removal is expensive. Asbestos demolition is expensive." It involves Tyvek suits, wetting procedures, and specially prepared dump trucks. To go through all of that unnecessarily would be irresponsible, she said.
In New Orleans, FEMA's cultural resources team confirmed that until July the agency conducted detailed historical and archeological reviews of every property to be demolished. House-by-house review was necessary because a parish-wide inventory of historic assets -- "a long process requiring lots of manpower" -- took time to complete. Now that the inventory is done, team members said, clearing most properties for demolition will take two weeks or less. "The process that's in place now is cutting-edge, streamlined compliance," said Fred Holycross, FEMA's group leader for cultural resources in the New Orleans area.
Even before the expedited process took effect, FEMA officials said, historical and archeological review was taking three to six weeks, not three months. "There is a time period needed to complete the historic-preservation review," said John Ketchum, FEMA's federal preservation officer. But, he said, "they haven't demolished anywhere near as many properties as have been reviewed for historic preservation." (True, said Bourg. But that is because historic preservation is only one of many bottlenecks—which is the whole problem.)