Investigative Group

New Orleans Was Falling Apart Before Katrina But FEMA Paid $2 Billion To Fix It Anyway

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

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Ethan Barton Managing Editor

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials spent $2 billion fixing New Orleans’ infrastructure after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, even though the city’s old systems were already failing and damages pre-dated the storms, a government watchdog reported Thursday.

FEMA awarded the funds to New Orleans and a utilities company after witnessing additional water leaks and water pressure loss following the two storms, but the agency presented little evidence that the disasters actually caused the problems, according to the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General (IG).

“This massive investment – representing almost $5,200 for every man, woman, and child in New Orleans – while perhaps sorely needed, is not eligible for a FEMA disaster grant because there is no evidence that the damage was caused as a direct result of the storms,” the IG report said.

The “damages were not eligible for federal disaster assistance funding” and “FEMA did not have sufficient documentation to support its decision,” the report continued. “In fact, evidence shows that the infrastructure was old and in poor condition even before the hurricanes.”

Some of the federally-funded repairs were appropriate, but those had “already been repaired, and paid for by FEMA.” A 2006 report had estimated that FEMA-eligible repairs would cost $272 million.

“Nevertheless, the broad scope of work covered by the FEMA award, which we question, functionally replaces the infrastructure of an aging and poorly maintained system of sewer, water, and roads,” the IG report said.

One-third of New Orleans’ water mains were more than 100 years old, and another third were more than 40 years old at the time of the storm. The “water system was leaking badly prior to Katrina,” according to the IG.

Utilities officials didn’t give the IG infrastructure repair records, claiming Katrina destroyed them. FEMA officials said they reviewed electronic records, but the IG couldn’t find any evidence supporting that claim.

Consequently, “there is no documentation available to establish the pre­ disaster condition of the water distribution systems,” the report said. “We are additionally troubled by the [utility company’s] representations that the records were destroyed in the storm, which is contradicted by FEMA personnel recounting their access to an electronic work order system.”

Federal policy prohibits FEMA from funding repairs that result from deferred repairs, and the agency has previously denied claims that lacked maintenance records, according to the IG.

Additionally, FEMA claimed Katrina, rather than Rita, damaged the water system, but the agency never conducted a study to find specifics and a FEMA auditor told the IG it was impossible to know which storm was the culprit.

FEMA also had very little evidence showing that Katrina caused the leaking and the decreased water pressure.

“We believe FEMA used circular logic to conclude that Katrina directly caused damages to the water distribution system,” the report said. FEMA officials couldn’t identify specific damages attributable to Katrina.

FEMA disagreed with the IG’s findings, telling The Daily Caller News Foundation’s Investigative Group that “the law authorizes FEMA to make factual determinations that support the scope of work in this instance.  Throughout the audit process, agency staff provided detailed documentation to the OIG demonstrating that Hurricane Katrina significantly damaged the City of New Orleans infrastructure, and the scope of work to repair this damage was eligible under FEMA’s Public Assistance program.

“FEMA’s review of the New Orleans infrastructure damage included consultation with highly qualified technical experts who specialize in engineering, utilities, pavements, soils, and construction. The assessment included site visits and documentation from numerous site inspections performed by roadway engineers and other technical experts; pre- and post-Katrina aerial imagery; pre- and post-Katrina closed-circuit television inspections of sanitary sewer lines; pre- and post-Katrina water loss and repair records; debris collection data; flood inundation maps; and consultation with roadway design specialists.”

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