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Livingston Parish News - FEMA Debris Goofs


Location: Washington, DC

By Representative Cassidy

The Federal Emergency Management Agency often looked in the wrong places when investigating Livingston Parish drainage work after Hurricane Gustav, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy said Thursday.

Cassidy conducted his own investigation into the Hurricane Gustav debris reimbursement denials that have been under appeal by the parish for two years.

FEMA contractors made mistakes with location coordinates in rural areas, Cassidy said.

"FEMA has an over 90 percent inaccuracy rate outside drainage districts," compared with an over 90 percent accuracy rate with coordinates inside drainage districts, Cassidy said.

The Congressman said he ordered an independent investigation after hearing allegations of wrongdoing from attorney Shelby Easterly, who made parish government's appeal for $46 million to pay contractor's bills.

Parish officials spent about $500,000 on appeals and are still waiting to hear FEMA's final decision on the bills for debris removal from canals.

Cassidy does not accuse FEMA of deliberately misrepresenting facts, whereas Easterly says "FEMA's actions appear to involve a calculated and cynical plan to deny funding for work that really was eligible," according to the 71- page supplement to the second appeal.

Cassidy is asking FEMA to review the information his staff produced on coordinates pinpointing the locations of debris clearing work, and to correct its data and surveys.

"It's important to make sure that the same mistakes aren't repeated," Cassidy said.

The Congressman said he wants FEMA to review its procedures for collecting and assessing data in the aftermath of any natural disaster.

Cassidy said his goal is to improve the work of federal agencies so taxpayers everywhere in the country are getting their money's worth.

Environmental consultant Corey Delahoussaye, who helped former parish president Mike Grimmer with conflicting claims, said nearly everyone made mistakes in documenting work locations. FEMA made mistakes, and so did monitors hired by the parish to make sure debris removal met eligibility requirements.

"We were trying to check one work site and the coordinates put us in Hammond," Delahoussaye said.

Different companies documented locations different ways. Monitors outside drainage districts used a location system using degrees, minutes and seconds, whereas FEMA referenced degrees and decimal minutes, Delahoussaye said. Monitors working inside drainage districts used FEMA's location system, Delahoussaye said.

The parish hired Alvin Fairburn and Associates to oversee ("monitor") debris removal operations from canals in Gravity Drainage Districts 1 (Denham Springs area), 2 (Watson), and 5 (Walker area).

Professional Engineering Consultants (PEC) monitored debris removal outside the drainage districts.

About 168,400 cubic yards of vegetative debris was removed along 190 miles of waterways just inside the three drainage districts combined, according to FEMA.

Cassidy cautioned that the parish may still lose its appeal for funds, even if FEMA agrees that mis-translation of co-ordinates put its investigators in the wrong locations.

FEMA's denial at the regional level also refers to procedural errors.

FEMA requires maintenance logs to show that streams were reasonably clear before the hurricane hit. The parish Department of Public Works could not produce enough documentation of regular canal clearing work to back up claims that wind and rain associated with Gustav in 2008 produced the canal debris.

Cost and "procurement" (contractor selection) procedures are also part of the denial.

According to a 2005 estimate by Drainage District 2 Board Chairman Charles Kemp, clearing and mitigation costs combined for all of Reinninger Lateral (about 5.8 miles) would amount to $101,560.

Actual billing for clearing 4.82 miles on Reinninger Lateral amounted to $808,090, according to combined invoices from the monitor and from IED (International Equipment Distributors), the debris removal contractor.

IED alone billed $387,320 for removing 5,301 cubic yards of debris from Beaver Creek ($73.07 per cubic yard), and $218,334 for removing 1,401 cubic yards from Moler Bayou ($155.84 per cubic yard), according to FEMA's denial of payment.

Outside the drainage districts, IED charged $199,032 for clearing 26 cubic yards out of Little Colyell Creek ($7,655 per cubic yard).

Changes (in Addendum 2) to the original IED contract raised prices for work in wetlands, and IED charged for wetlands in nearly every invoice outside drainage districts.

The parish did not seek competitive bids; the contract did not cap total costs; and Addendum 2 was signed by one councilmen without full Council approval.

The parish also broke FEMA's rules by failing to get permits for work in wetlands.

During a discussion of waterway debris removal plans, an environmental consultant told parish officials about the need for permits, if debris removal was done "legally," according to a digital recording. Easterly referenced other parts of this meeting in his appeal, and the complete recording was released later.

The parish faced several problems related to debris removal from streams running through rural areas, including access.

IED cut trails through private property in rural areas so heavy equipment could be moved from roads to the canal banks. Cutting access trails would not have been necessary, if the waterways were regularly maintained, according to FEMA's denial.

A further complication arose when the vegetation cut down to make trails was mixed with vegetation from streams.

FEMA does not pay for access debris. FEMA denied payment for all loads that mixed eligible types of debris with ineligible types, because the amounts of eligible debris were unknown.

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