Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

FEMA higher-ups delayed Katrina aid

A Louisiana-based official had set in motion fast help, but others ordered interagency reviews.

NEW ORLEANS - A week after Hurricane Katrina, a FEMA official in charge of streamlining the flow of aid issued a directive that would have cut through the red tape and expedited 1,029 rebuilding projects and $5.3 billion.

The official issued a memo that said that once local and regional FEMA officials approve a project, Washington must release the money within three days.

But in a decision critics say led to the loss of precious time in the recovery, FEMA higher-ups countermanded the order.

Instead, the rebuilding of schools, roads, hospitals, firehouses, and other desperately needed infrastructure was held up for months of interagency reviews that ended at the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Gil Jamieson, FEMA's head of Gulf Coast recovery and one of the officials who countermanded the directive of Nancy Ward, said her order would have given federal agencies too little time to review requests for funding.

"There's certainly a responsibility that we have, and I have, as a civil service official, to ensure those dollars are going to the purposes they were intended," he said.

Despite FEMA's contention that added layers of review would save taxpayer dollars, not a single rebuilding project was amended, declared ineligible, or kicked back for further scrutiny, federal officials acknowledge.

Ward, who later was promoted to FEMA's West Coast director and led its response to the recent California wildfires, stands by the policy she issued Sept. 6, 2005.

She was FEMA's Louisiana-based director of recovery command. "We knew given the enormity of Katrina that we needed to get the money out quickly," said Ward, who was contacted after the Associated Press found her memo on the Web site of the Louisiana legislative auditor.

The procedure Ward wanted to shorten involves FEMA's "million-dollar queue," a basket in its computer system. It was created in 2000, when FEMA was an independent cabinet-level agency, to handle projects of $1 million or more.

It was supposed to work like this: Once projects received the OK from local and regional officials, they were sent the queue as a way of notifying Congress. The money for the project was supposed to be released within three days after that.

A total of 1,029 hurricane rebuilding projects in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama with a combined value of $5.3 billion were put in the queue.

But when the Department of Homeland Security took over FEMA in 2003, the superagency decided to subject projects to additional layers of review - FEMA offices in Washington, then Homeland Security, then OMB.

The result of the added paper-pushing: After what should have been a momentum-building first year of recovery, a list of projects in the queue provided by Louisiana officials showed delays as long as 101 days, with an average of 34. As delays grew in 2006-07, frustrated state officials complained to FEMA. The longest waits dropped to 22 days.