The Federal Emergency Management Agency is closing its long-term recovery office in New Orleans, claiming local officials failed to meet their planning obligations after Hurricane Katrina.
The office is responsible for helping the city devise a blueprint to rebuild destroyed houses, schools and neighborhoods.
“FEMA cannot drive the planning — our mission is to support it. We can only do so much, and then we look to the city to embrace and begin planning and managing,” said FEMA’s national spokesman Aaron Walker. “Once they begin planning, we can re-engage with them.”
Of the 35 employees who initially worked in the long-term recovery office, only five remained Tuesday, and they were waiting to be reassigned. Those five may continue to work on long-term recovery in a different office, Walker said.
City officials were angered by the move, saying New Orleans is again being abandoned by the federal government. Deputy Mayor Greg Meffert said the FEMA office and the city worked in tandem initially but had a falling out over funding earlier this spring.
“We have a city that has an enormous planning need, and you need planners. To date, we haven’t gotten any monetary support to bring in planners,” Meffert said.
Relationship with city soured
Several employees of the disbanded office agreed with Meffert, saying that at the beginning the office worked closely with city officials, helping implement their plans. The relationship soured after the mayor’s rebuilding commission, a group of businessmen and community leaders asked to create plans for redevelopment, requested FEMA money this spring to help fund their planning effort.
Brad Gair, then-director of FEMA’s long-term recovery office, made an oral promise to city officials to fund the effort, Meffert said. Gair has since left the New Orleans office.
“It appears the mayor’s office misunderstood the commitment made: While FEMA is committed to the long-term recovery of the Gulf Coast region, providing funding for planning does not fall under the federal guidelines of public assistance,” Walker said.
Eight months after Katrina, rebuilding has barely begun. One major hold-up was the late release of FEMA’s flood elevation advisories, which offer guidelines on how high homeowners should raise their homes to qualify for flood insurance. Many residents also have faced delays settling claims with insurance companies, and city and state officials say they’ve received only a fraction of the public assistance needed to overhaul the blighted city.