Free Minds & Free Markets

Struggling To Survive After Katrina

A hard year for the Big Easy

(Page 3 of 5)

And many residents are waiting for other residents. No one wants to live on an empty block, with rubble, weeds, and rats for neighbors. "There's nobody here; there isn't much to do," says Steve Kissee, an accountant who is moving away. "There was a tremendous sense of community here," he says, standing in front of his house, which is for sale. And now? "This isn't the kind of thing I'd come back to."

A further obstacle comes in for particularly frequent and angry blame: bureaucracy. Everyone, it seems, has war stories.

The parish is short of trailers equipped for people with disabilities. Bryan Bertucci has an extra one sitting in his front yard. FEMA brought it in January, but it was too small for Bertucci's family, so he never used it. He has been trying to have it moved, he says, for five months. "I had handicapped people in the clinic begging for it." They're out of luck: Whenever the trailer is finally taken away, he says, FEMA will send it to Arkansas for cleaning—never mind that no one has set foot in it since it was delivered. Bertucci never even collected the key.

Since October, the doctor has been trying to get a Small Business Administration loan to rebuild his medical office. He was rejected in January, reapplied in May, was rejected again but told to formally dissolve his business partnership and reapply once more. Setting up the parish's temporary medical clinic cost $5 million and was delayed by FEMA's refusal to pay for any of three proposed architects. After several months, Bertucci says, the government finally agreed to pay the architect whom it had first rejected. Until recently, federal rules against re-equipping private hospitals (St. Bernard had no public one) stranded the parish without an X-ray machine, among other necessities. "To have a community not have an X-ray machine for nine months, not have laboratory equipment for nine months, is inexcusable," he says.

"Don't think I'm mad at anyone," he continues. "I'm frustrated—and there's a difference. I understand why the rules are the way they are, but there's no common sense to them, and there's nobody in authority to appeal to. In the end, I still think common sense wins out, but it takes a hell of a long time, and it takes a lot of persistence."

Doris Voitier, the St. Bernard school superintendent, was determined to have a school open for the first child who returned after Katrina. Without a school, she believed, the community would stall. Some notion of what lay ahead dawned on her in September, when she met with FEMA and found herself confronting 27 people: an education team, an engineering team, an environmental team, an insurance team, an archeological and historic-preservation team, a Section 404 mitigation team, a Section 406 mitigation team, and more.

When the Corps of Engineers said it couldn't build a school until March, school officials resolved to do the job themselves. "This was a time of emergency," she says. "So I just did it. And we began to fight with FEMA about 'What procedures did you follow?' It was a constant fight for reimbursement. You've got to understand that when you go into this, you don't know the process." The school system had lost all but six of its 70 buses; when officials set out to buy new ones, they were told they first had to show that used buses of the same vintage were unobtainable.

Voitier says, "I'm trying to open a school. I needed buses right then and there, not two months from now, after this formal bid process." She and Wayne Warner, the principal, vividly remember standing around a ruined air-conditioning chiller with a contractor and a FEMA representative who told them that because it was a 1994 unit, they would need to replace it with another 1994 chiller.

Ultimately, Voitier says, they got a new chiller, but the matter took weeks to resolve; and, she says, virtually everything has been a fight. When the school came up two classroom trailers short, FEMA obliged, but the agency delivered double-wides. Unable to fit both on school grounds, and aware that school personnel living in a trailer park across the street had nowhere to wash their clothes, Voitier asked a FEMA official for permission to convert one unit into a Laundromat. "He was fine with that," she says, "but he rotated out two or three weeks later." FEMA subsequently notified her that she was under investigation for misappropriating federal property. (The investigation seems to have fizzled out, she says, though she has received no formal notification.)

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.' "

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