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Red tape hinders efforts to rebuild New Orleans

Two years after Katrina, New Orleans buildings still lie in ruins as bureaucratic processes drastically slow efforts to rebuild.
Virgil Tiller
Former Alfred Lawless High School music teacher Virgil Tiller gives a tour of his old class room in New Orleans in September. Bill Haber / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nearly 2,000 pages spell out in excruciating detail something that is plain to Virgil Tiller but not the Federal Emergency Management Agency: His school was destroyed and needs to be rebuilt.

The pages are a piece-by-piece inventory of everything wrecked by Hurricane Katrina — from the roof right down to the bathroom fixtures — at Alfred Lawless High School in New Orleans’ devastated Lower Ninth Ward.

But FEMA has yet to find the school is 51 percent destroyed — the clerical benchmark that must be reached before the agency will pay to completely rebuild something. And so, two years after Katrina, while the state and federal government haggle over the extent of the damage, the school lies empty, a ruin of toppled bricks, sagging roofs and missing window panes.

“The kids here were used to disappointment. Leaving this school like this is another form of disappointment, not just for them, but for the entire community,” said Tiller, a 30-year-old former music teacher at what was the only public high school in the Lower Ninth. “How can anyone look at this and say it is not 51 percent destroyed?”

The answer to Tiller’s question lies in “project worksheets,” forms that are used to inventory damage to a facility down to the smallest pieces, and often go through multiple versions as they wend their way through the bureaucracy.

The PWs — which measure the rebuilding needs of thousands of Gulf Coast schools, roads, hospitals, firehouses and other public projects — are the red tape that politicians and policy makers bemoan when they speak of the slow rebuilding from Katrina.

“People look at Louisiana and say, ‘Where is all the rebuilding? How come all the money hasn’t been spent?’ And the money’s been spent building mountains of paper,” said Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

$469 million tied up
About 20,000 project worksheet reports, commonly over 1,000 pages each, have been written since the storm. According to the LRA, 83 percent of the state’s 13,200 general construction projects have been haggled over at least once, tying up $469 million in rebuilding funds.

Kopplin has looked at cases like Alfred Lawless and called for an overhaul, arguing that the system was ill-equipped to handle a disaster on Katrina’s scale.

“There could be a catastrophic earthquake in California. There could be other unforeseen disasters, and terrorists attacks,” he said. “And the focus should be on providing the money to get public services restored. But what we’ve got is a system where we have thousands of federal, state, local and contract employees exchanging paperwork before the first nail can be hammered.”

Gil Jamieson, FEMA’s No. 2 administrator for Gulf Coast recovery, does not agree. He maintains that while the project worksheet system was slowed by early problems, such as a high rate of turnover among the FEMA workers who fill them out, they ensure money is not overspent.

“The story could be written that the federal government is nitpicking,” Jamieson said. “The other side is that we’re trying to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar.”

Even minute damages recorded
The worksheets are designed to comply with the federal Stafford Act, which has governed disaster rebuilding since 1988. That law says that federal money can be used only to replace what was damaged, not improve a facility, or even alter it cosmetically in many cases.

So for Alfred Lawless, reams of project worksheet pages take stock of items as minute as “five 4-foot two-tube fluorescent ceiling light fixtures, three vitreous wall hung urinals, four plastic laminate partition stalls with four wall hung vitreous toilets.”

All the damaged items accounted for at the school add up to $28 million in federal funding that the school district can count on toward rebuilding, Jamieson said. All but two of the buildings on campus have reached the 51 percent benchmark, he said.

A 51 percent determination would mean an extra $2 million in FEMA aid — money the cash-strapped district is not willing to surrender.

Bureaucratic process slows rebuilding
Paul Pastorek, state superintendent of education, said he will appeal FEMA’s findings — a Kafkaesque bureaucratic process that will leave Alfred Lawless untouched for at least four more months.

While the agencies wage their paper battle, parents who desperately want a high school reopened in the Lower Ninth have been forced to wait more than two years, and could be waiting longer still before construction begins.

“It’s just ridiculous. There’s already been so much time wasted,” said Patricia Jones, executive director of the Lower Ninth Ward’s Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association. “If you bring a school back, the people will come back. If you can get a quality education in your neighborhood, the houses will be filled.”

In a frustrating cycle, the empty neighborhood could further reduce funding for the rebuilding of Alfred Lawless. If not enough residents return to the section of the Lower Ninth that it serves, the district may move the school to a more populated area.

Under the Stafford Act, that move could automatically cost the district 25 percent of the funding for the school, because it would no longer be a true replacement of what stood before.

Kopplin believes a solution to the problem can be found in the federal government’s approach to reconstructing its own buildings damaged by Katrina.

Funds slow to come in
In 2005, Congress committed $550 million to replace a Katrina-damaged veterans hospital in New Orleans, arriving at the projected cost through an estimate of what it would take to build a facility of the desired size, instead of counting each item damaged in the storm. Design bids were awarded last month.

By contrast, another hospital next door, the state’s Charity Hospital, has so far received only $28 million for restoration through the project worksheet process, though projections are that it will cost $226 million to re-establish the facility. Its future remains in doubt.

Tiller, who lost his house in the Lower Ninth, now commutes 90 minutes from Baton Rouge to teach music at St. Augustine High, a Catholic school in New Orleans. But he still wanders back to Alfred Lawless, where he took his first teaching job, and has established a band program with a few students who had never picked up an instrument.

“How can you say this school is not completely destroyed?” he said. “It was a strong school, and a good school. It had a family-type atmosphere, everybody came from the same neighborhood. And for two years there’s been nothing here.”