FEMA Changes Appeals Process for Hurricane Rebuilding Projects

March 19, 2008

State and federal officials touted changes to the process for Louisiana communities to appeal decisions by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on funding to rebuild schools, roads, hospitals and other infrastructure damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The FEMA recovery office in New Orleans will be cut out of the process, so it won’t be reviewing its own decisions on funding for public projects.

Instead, appeals initially lodged by local governments will be heard at FEMA’s regional headquarters in Denton, Texas.

Jim Stark, acting associate deputy administrator for FEMA’s Gulf Coast Recovery Office, said the procedural change is designed to give each appeal a “fresh look.”

“What we hope it does is remove that perception of undue influence” stemming from having appeals heard in New Orleans, he said.

Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said the change should speed the appeals process and give communities quicker “yes or no answers” on requests for federal reimbursement for recovery spending.

“We feel very good about this process,” he said. “It not only helps from a perception perspective, but it also does some real things.”

If a government’s initial appeal is denied by officials in Denton, a second appeal can be heard at FEMA’s national headquarters in Washington. Second appeals could be made orally instead of in writing, as currently required.

FEMA has approved more than $6.2 billion in funding for public assistance projects in Louisiana since Katrina and Rita struck in 2005. Local governments have filed appeals for more than 1,000 projects.

Gwen Bolotte, Jefferson Parish’s finance director, said many local government officials were requesting the change.

“We hope this is a positive sign,” she said.

None of the more than 20 appeals filed by Jefferson Parish have been approved by FEMA’s New Orleans office, Bolotte said. She expressed hope that the parish will have more luck petitioning FEMA officials in Texas.

“I wish it was somebody more independent,” she added. “They’re all sort of reading the same play book.”

Ed Blakely, New Orleans’ recovery director, said, he was “delighted and surprised and thankful,” for the new appeals process.

“These are people who come with fresh hands,” he said.

The city has filed 36 appeals, “most of which we’ve won,” he said.

Blakely said he had pushed for a completely independent review, possibly by arbitrators but said such a move apparently would have been unprecedented. “I understand their position. I don’t like it, but I understand it.”

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