Over $222 mil­lion in Ka­t­rina funds miss­ing in Hous­ton

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - By Au­drey Hud­son

Home­land Se­cu­rity’s in­spec­tor gen­eral says it can­not ac­count for more than $222 mil­lion of $252 mil­lion in fed­eral dis­as­ter aid that Hous­ton re­ceived last year to house Gulf Coast evac­uees af­ter Hur­ri­canes Ka­t­rina and Rita hit.

“Rental pay­ments we re­viewed con­tained er­rors, and the city paid some charges twice,” ac­cord­ing to the au­dit, which was re­leased on Oct. 31.

Aid­fromtheFed­er­alEmer­gency Man­age­men­tA­gency(FEMA)also in­cluded rental furniture, but the city“did­not­main­tainad­e­quate­doc­u­men­ta­tion for ap­prox­i­mately $10 mil­lion in furniture de­liv­er­ies,” the re­port said.

“This­prob­le­moc­curred­be­cause the city did not main­tain records show­ing which apart­ment units re­ceived furniture. To fa­cil­i­tate mov­ing evac­uees into apart­ments, the city some­times de­liv­ered furniture be­fore apart­ment units were in­spectedan­de­vac­ueesmovedin,”the re­port said.

The Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity and the Se­nate Home­land Se­cu­rity and Gov­ern­men­tal Af­fairs Com­mit­tee­have­doc­u­ment­ed­more than $1 bil­lion in waste and fraud­u­lent spend­ing in the whole Ka­t­rina-re­lief ef­fort be­cause of poor in­ter­nal con­trols, in­suf­fi­cient ver­i­fi­ca­tion stan­dards, non­com­pet­i­tive con­tracts and other waste­ful prac­tices.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Repub­li­can and chair­man of the Se­nate home­land se­cu­rity com­mit­tee, said the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port will “un­doubt­edly help Hous­ton or any other ju­ris­dic­tion in the U.S. be bet­ter pre­pared to deal with ad­di­tional funds that will be spent to as­sist Ka­t­rina vic­tims, as well as funds that will be spent af­ter fu­ture dis­as­ters.”

Miss Collins did not say whether she would or­der new hear­ings or more in­ves­ti­ga­tions but said her FEMAre­form­leg­is­la­tion­thatPres­i­dent Bush re­cently signed will “en­sure that lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties work more closely with FEMA and DHS to be bet­ter pre­pared fol­low­ing a dis­as­ter.”

“The na­tion was ill-pre­pared to man­age the con­se­quences of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. When cities such as Hous­ton agreed to pro­vide shel­ter to thou­sands of Ka­t­rina vic­tims, the fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments had in­ad­e­quate con­trols in place to mon­i­tor how re­lief funds were spent,” Miss Collins said.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port said the city prop­erly ac­counted for shel­ters and man­age­ment costs — anes­ti­mated400,000evac­ueesfilled pub­lic build­ings, con­ven­tion cen­ters, ho­tels and sta­di­ums through­out Texas af­ter Ka­t­rina, and thou­sandsmore­sought­shel­ter­afterRita hit three weeks later.

“How­ever, the city did not prop­erly ac­count for its in­terim hous­ing costs, rep­re­sent­ing $222.3 mil­lion of the $252.6 mil­lion in FEMA fund- ing, in the months fol­low­ing the ar­rival of hur­ri­cane evac­uees,” the in­spec­tor gen­eral’s re­port said.

“As a re­sult, FEMA has no as­sur­ances­thatthecity­made­hous­ing pay­ments for only qual­i­fied evac­uees or that the amounts paid were ac­cu­rate,” the re­port said.

Aaron Walker, FEMA spokesman, said city of­fi­cials “gen­er­ally agreed with our find­ings and rec­om­men­da­tions” and be­gan ac­count­ing for furniture de­liv­er­ies within the ”ini­tial months” af­ter the dis­as­ter, the re­port said.

City of­fi­cials at­tempted to cor­rect the prob­lem by hir­ing con­trac­tors to em­bark on a mas­sive, 24-hour doc­u­ment re­cov­ery and to ver­ify pay­ments, yet it con­trib­uted to an in­creased cost in man­age­ment es­ti­mated at $30 mil­lion, or nearly $1,000 per evac­uee fam­ily, the re­port said.

Frank Michel, spokesman for Hous­ton Mayor Bill White, said the city could ac­count for the money, just not by the au­dit­ing stan­dards the in­spec­tor gen­eral re­quires.

“At one point, they wanted us to change how we were doc­u­ment­ing costs, and then came back and said the way we were do­ing it was too costly and so they told us to stop it,” Mr. Michel said.

FEMAover­sawan­dap­provedall of the spend­ing, he said.

“Re­mem­ber the sit­u­a­tion. Es­sen­tially overnight the flood­gates opened, no pun in­tended, and the buses ar­rived overnight — al­most anen­tirecity­waspickedu­pand­put down in an­other city,” Mr. Michel said. “Some­body had to house th­ese peo­ple. FEMA did not have the where­withal, and no­body else stepped for­ward.”

“No­good­deed­goe­sun­pun­ished,” Mr. Michel said of the au­dit.

AP

In this file photo, more than two weeks af­ter Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina hit the Gulf Coast, par­tially sub­merged ve­hi­cles line a res­i­den­tial street in New Or­leans, on Sept. 14, 2005.

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