Hard information is in short supply
Local companies may be getting their share of work on contracts let
by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Or maybe they're not. Only FEMA
knows for sure, and FEMA won't say.
In fact, getting FEMA to release any information has proven a maddening process,
according to public officials at every level. Louisiana's political class has
been united and outspoken on the topic, insisting that the inclusion of in-state
companies on reconstruction projects is a top priority. Such involvement would
mark a significant early catalyst for the economic recovery of the New Orleans
area, officials say, returning residents and cash to an area hard-strapped for
Yet from Mayor Ray Nagin's office to Gov. Kathleen Blanco's mansion to the
corridors of Congress, the quest for information is routinely met with silence.
"We've had to pry information out of them," Blanco said this week.
Her secretary of economic development, Michael Olivier, also bemoaned the unwillingness,
or inability, of FEMA to answer simple questions or provide basic data.
"I have been unable to get the breakdown on FEMA funds, and I have a staff
person on it who is a CPA," he wrote in an e-mail Wednesday afternoon.
It's not as if FEMA doesn't have a bevy of public affairs officers charged
with getting out the news. Each day, media members who have signed up receive
e-mailed news releases. The pace of these notices has slowed, but since Hurricane
Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast, FEMA spokespeople have sent out scores of
releases touching on topics such as disaster aid deadlines, shelters and even
concerns among seniors about how aid might affect their Social Security status.
Yet none of the news releases to date has provided a breakdown on which companies
have landed contracts and what the contracts are worth.
By contrast, the Army Corps of Engineers has provided some information. At
a Woldenberg Park news conference last month, the corps announced the names
of major contractors and about 20 subcontractors who would handle $2 billion
in debris removal contracts. This week, a corps news release included specific
companies and dollar amounts tied to new contracts.
FEMA spokespeople in Baton Rouge and Washington identify the agency's "point
on contracting" as one Larry Orluskie. For the past nine days, however,
Orluskie's voice mailbox has been full and will not accept messages. Another
FEMA spokeswoman responded to written questions Oct. 19, saying she would forward
them to Orluskie, but neither responded to phone calls and e-mails Friday.
FEMA's inclination to remain incommunicado has left some officials in the dark
about where the contract money is going.
"As far as debris and the other stuff the corps and FEMA is doing, that's
been a little more difficult to push," Nagin said. "We push for it,
we made them aware of it. But we just got these huge multi-national companies
that are using the shield of 'we got to work quick' versus trying to find local
Blanco said her staff is striving to make FEMA "more accountable."
U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-Kenner, said he also hopes to establish better communications
with the agency. Meanwhile, he said that at a meeting with President Bush last
week, Bush vowed to prod FEMA to include more local firms on contracts.