AJC Watchdog: Keep a close eye on Irma disaster aid

7:09 a.m. Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017 Local
Hurricane Irma caused millions in damage as it blew across the state last week. This week, state and federal officials are touring 30 counties assessing the need for disaster assistance. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Disasters assistance experts have fanned out across Georgia to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Irma, the next step in freeing up millions of dollars in federal aid.

Some of the heaviest damage is in Glynn County , where last week Irma flooded the streets of Brunswick and St. Simons Island, leaving a huge mess in its wake. County spokeswoman Kathryn Downs was in a meeting with local, state and federal officials Tuesday as an initial assessment got under way and was optimistic.

“We went through a lot of this last year with (Hurricane) Matthew, and we have the same team in place,” she said.

Cooperation across different levels of government is crucial in responding to a disaster, and that’s why President Donald Trump’s declaration last week naming the entire state a disaster area was so important. It freed the federal government to help the local and state governments pay the astronomical bill for hauling away debris, offsetting personnel costs and repairing public buildings and infrastructure.

But that kind of help doesn’t come without risks — and a warning.

In the fall of 2005, I tagged along as local government officials crowded into one of the larger trailers in a temporary compound outside of Gulfport, Miss., to hear about how to get their hands on the government aid they needed to rebuild their communities after Hurricane Katrina. One of the first things they heard from their federal liaison was to keep a close eye on the books, because otherwise they could be left holding the bag if any money went missing or was later determined to be misspent.

Sure enough, in 2012 a former county road manager on the Mississippi Gulf Coast pleaded guilty to taking bribes and kickbacks when awarding debris-hauling contracts and was sentenced to five years in prison. In 2015, the Office of the Inspector General for the Department of Homeland Security advised the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recover $21.7 million from the city of Biloxi, Miss., because it determined the city failed to comply with federal requirements on an infrastructure repair contract.

And earlier this summer the Inspector General’s Office recommended FEMA attempt to recoup $2 billion in Katrina-related disaster assistance from the city of New Orleans because it determined that flooding there was caused by infrastructure that was “old and in poor condition.” The feds only cover damage from natural disasters.

FEMA will send at least tens of millions of dollars in aid over the next year to Georgia. If the past is any predictor, some of it will be stolen, diverted and misspent. As a public service announcement to our local elected officials, I offer this warning: The accountants are coming, and while their work may take years, they never stop.

DeKalb County knows this already. In 2015, the DHS Inspector General recommended FEMA claw back $505,459 it claimed the county spend on ineligible or “unsupported costs” during the cleanup from flooding in 2009.

It’s hard to compare the size and scope of Hurricane Katrina with the damage caused by Irma in Georgia, but hours of sustained tropical storm-force winds made an impact on the state. Here’s a fact to put it in perspective: By the end of last week, the DeKalb County landfill had taken in between 400 and 500 tons of storm debris. That’s the approximate weight of about 30 MARTA buses. And that’s only the very beginning of the cleanup in just one county.

In Glynn County, debris removal from Hurricane Matthew last year totalled $9.5 million, along with another $1.3 million to pay overtime for emergency personnel and other expenses and $500,000 to repair public buildings and facilities.

And Matthew was a mostly “wind event,” said Downs, the county spokeswoman. Irma brought widespread flooding in the county along with wind damage, meaning it likely will far surpass last year’s storm in total damage.

Unless local taxpayers want to pay the whole tab, it will take federal help to repair the damage.

It’s really early in the process, but federal disaster teams already are moving around the state getting initial damage assessments. According to FEMA, nine teams are gathering information in 30 Georgia counties this week.

Gov. Nathan Deal told officials in Glynn County last week that the state would pick up its share of the debris removal tab, but both state and local officials will look to FEMA to pay 75 percent of the total cost.

Across the county, recreation centers, schools and other public facilities were damaged by Irma, all of which are eligible for federal public assistance.

“We had a school that had its roof ripped off and that’s going to be a good chunk of that,” Downs said.

Other costs include paying for bridge and road repairs, debris hauling and disposal, and overtime pay for public officials who worked non-stop during and after the storm.

The priority for local governments right now is to get debris cleared and award contracts for needed repairs. But a word to the wise: Keep the receipts.

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