30-Mile Debris Pile Becomes Symbol of FEMA Delays

Published on
by
The Associated Press

30-Mile Debris Pile Becomes Symbol of FEMA Delays

by
Michael Graczyk

Workers watch as a back hoe drop a scoop of hurricane debris, Tuesday, Nov. 25, 2008, in Smith Point, Texas. Spotters watch for bodies and hazardous debris as each scoop is lifted and moved. A concern for the a crew of a dozen or so men doing slow and tedious removal of debris left behind by Hurricane Ike 10 weeks ago is not piercing a buried oxygen or butane tank with their heavy equipment and risk a spark turning the rubble into a bomb. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

SMITH
POINT, Texas - A 30-mile scar of debris along the Texas coast stands as
a festering testament to what state and local officials say is FEMA's
sluggish response to the 2008 hurricane season.

Two and a half months after Hurricane Ike
blasted the shoreline, alligators and snakes crawl over vast piles of
shattered building materials, lawn furniture, trees, boats, tanks of
butane and other hazardous substances, thousands of animal carcasses,
perhaps even the corpses of people killed by the storm.

State
and local officials complain that the removal of the filth has gone
almost nowhere because FEMA red tape has held up both the cleanup work
and the release of the millions of dollars that Chambers County says it
needs to pay for the project.

Elsewhere along the coast, similar complaints are heard: The Federal Emergency Management Agency has been slow to reimburse local governments for what they have already spent, putting the rural counties on the brink of financial collapse.

"I don't know all the internal workings of FEMA.
But if they've had a lot of experience in hurricanes and disaster, it
looks like they could come up with some kind of process that would
work," said Chambers County Judge Jimmy Sylvia, the county's chief administrator.

Gov. Rick Perry
was so incensed at delays in sending cleanup crews to the rotting,
city-size pile of waste that he angrily told reporters two weeks ago
that he is going to have the state clean it up and then stick FEMA with
the bill.

FEMA, whose very name became a bitter joke after the agency's botched response to Hurricane Katrina
in 2005, said it is working as fast as it can considering the complex
regulations and the need to guard against fraud and waste in the use of
taxpayer dollars.

Moreover, "you can't
work too many people because it's just too dangerous," said Clay
Kennelly, hired by FEMA to oversee the cleanup of a section of the
debris pile. "And you can't just put Bubba or Skeeter out here on a
dozer."

The 2008 hurricane season ended this week after walloping the Texas and Louisiana Gulf coasts with three major storms: Dolly, near the Mexican border in July; Gustav, which slammed the Texas-Louisiana line on Labor Day; and Ike, the 600-mile-wide monster that barreled ashore at Galveston on Sept. 12.

Only
a hundred yards or so of the 30 miles of debris in Chambers County has
been cleaned up, because the project has been slowed by negotiations
over who is responsible for what.

Along the rest of the Gulf Coast,
thousands of homeless families are still living in tents, trailers and
motel rooms, and hundreds of businesses are lying in near-ruin.

The
federal government is responsible for public lands or hazardous waste,
while private landowners must handle their own cleanup but can apply
for assistance. Much of the debris has been left to rot while crews
determine whose land the junk is on and what's in it.

Galveston County Judge Jim Yarbrough tells the story of receiving word on Sept. 12, as Ike closed in on Galveston, that FEMA was sending him $1.8 million of his $3 million request for storm cleanup - from Hurricane Rita, three years ago.

"Good
Lord! The red tape and rules you have to go through to get anything
done," Yarbrough said. "On Hurricane Ike, when we're putting out tens
of millions, we can't afford a three-year reimbursement program. It
would bankrupt most entities in this area if it takes that long."

In Louisiana, hit by two storms this year, Gov. Bobby Jindal
complimented the agency on improvements made since Katrina but
criticized FEMA's focus on paperwork and an inability to make decisions
quickly.

"It has gotten better, but the
problem you've got with FEMA is that they're looking for reasons to say
`no,'" Jindal said. "While they've made progress since '05, there's
such an emphasis on filling out paperwork. They need to have a focus on
results."

In an e-mail statement, FEMA
said the recovery process "continues seamlessly," and it noted the many
rules and overlapping jurisdictions involved.

"The
steps in the process of recovery include many at the individual, local,
state and federal level," FEMA said. "In large measure they are
understandable safeguards."

FEMA pointed out that more than $1 billion in federal and state
aid already has gone to Texas in disaster assistance since Ike, with
about one-third of that in grants for temporary housing rent and
another third in low-interest loans for renters, homeowners and
businesses. The state has estimated the total pricetag at $11 billion.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett,
whose area includes Houston, complained that FEMA's bureaucracy is
unwieldy. He recalled a FEMA official showing up at his office after
Ike and declaring he was "going to be joined at the hip with you in
this whole process."

"Then the next week, somebody else would show up and tell me
the same thing," Emmett said. And then somebody else. "That was really
frustrating to me."

Near the Mexican border, thousands of families remain in homes damaged by Dolly, the storm that blew ashore on South Padre Island
on July 23. FEMA was helpful at first, but bureaucracy and the
distraction of the other hurricanes have slowed the recovery, local
officials said.

A farmworker rights organization and 14 poor South Texas residents sued FEMA last month, accusing the agency of refusing to help thousands of poor families repair their homes.

"I understand they have Hurricane Ike, but we had a Category 2 come through the Valley, too," Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas said.

Associated Press reporters Christopher Sherman in McAllen, Texas, and Doug Simpson in Baton Rouge, La., contributed to this story.

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