by Keith Burton - GulfCoastNews.com 5/13/08
Gulfport is the state's second largest city, population 72,464 (2005 estimate). Biloxi trails at 50,209 (2005 estimate), but the two cities, which both saw major destruction from hurricane Katrina in 2005, are a study in contrast when it comes to rebuilding and their receipt of Federal Emergency Management Agency re-imbursement funds.
GCN contacted FEMA regarding the total amount of re-imbursement funds the two Coast cities are to receive. The response, from FEMA's Information Specialist Eugene Brezany was revealing.
FEMA has obligated over $190 million for repairs in Gulfport. This includes many project such as City Hall, Jones Park and Gulfport Harbor. Brezany told GCN that FEMA could not release the detailed monies going to individual projects, but Gulfport and the other cities could if they wish.
"When funds are obligated on a project worksheet, those funds are made available in an electronic account for the State to disburse as Grantee. The State has a system for the disbursement of funds to the sub-grantees. Funds have been obligated for the projects mentioned as early as February 2006," said Brezany. Brezany made his comments following a GCN email request for information. GCN's focus for this report was between Gulfport and Biloxi.
Biloxi, however, is a different story. Brezany told GCN that Biloxi will receive some $490 million in FEMA re-imbursement money, nearly a half billion dollars for repairs and rebuilding city services and infrastructure. This money includes such projects as the Biloxi Point Cadet and Biloxi Harbor, and a substantial amount of infrastructure repairs for water and sewer systems throughout the city.
One of the major issues that developed after Katrina, one that has slowed progress, is that all cities must provide some form of partial funding and then FEMA would reimburse the community. For Katrina cities, however, the government last summer waived the local contribution fees, typically 5 to 10 percent of the total project costs. That helped, but didn't solve another problem.
The FEMA reimbursement program is just that, a reimbursement process. Local governments often have to spend their own money for the repairs and work, then, FEMA will repay them. If a city doesn't have the money, that could make the rebuilding drag on until it does. Brezany explained the process to GCN.
"An applicant identifies storm damage and FEMA writes a Project Worksheet for the repair. When that Project Worksheet is approved it is then obligated and the funds become available to the Grantee (State) in an electronic account. After that point, the Grantee is in charge of disbursing and accounting for funds. When the repairs are completed, the sub-grantee requests that FEMA do a final inspection and closeout. At that point FEMA and the Grantee audit the repairs and charges and write a final inspection report indicating what was done and which of the costs are actually reimbursable. Then a closeout is performed to adjust the actual funds in the electronic account to reflect the actual amount of reimbursement that is eligible and the Grantee (State) makes final payments."
"There are times during emergency response that the applicant will be obligating and spending their own money, however once a project worksheet is obligated for eligible work, the funds become available under the Grantee’s rules for disbursement. Occasionally, an applicant may have a need for advancement of funds in order to do emergency work and that can be handled on a case by case basis through their request to the State," said Brezany.
Biloxi went into the disaster with more money on hand then any Coast city. The mayor, with great foresight, had also purchased a "loss of income" insurance policy that covered the city's initial losses from taxes when the casinos had to shut down and rebuild immediately after the hurricane. (GCN Photo left: Biloxi City Hall)
Other communities have received waivers and out-right grants for many repairs, but not for everything. That has left them with little funds for the work, or they have to borrow or wait until they have the money to be reimbursed.
The critical factor is also getting the damage assessment done and filing work orders with FEMA. That process also takes time and has been difficult for many communities and counties affected by Katrina. The process is not unfamiliar to the communities, but Katrina's severe damages and even the loss of some employees, have made the paperwork process slow.
Gulfport's Mayor Brent Warr has yet to outline when its City Hall will be repaired, this is nearly three years after Katrina hit on September 29, 2005. But he has gotten the street lights up on U.S. 90 this past month and some other repairs are underway though dates for completion of such things as the harbor, fire stations, even the controversial rebuilding of Grass Lawn, have not been announced.
Biloxi recently notified citizens that a massive infrastructure program will soon be initiated through the shoreline areas of the city, both along the front beach, and around areas surrounding Biloxi's Back Bay. The administration says that work will take years to complete. (GCN photo right: Gulfport City Hall)
Many residents throughout the Coast, including those in Pearlington, Waveland, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian, Long Beach, Gulfport, Biloxi and D'Iberville, are making progress, but as GCN reported weeks after the hurricane, the recovery won't be measured in days or months, but years.