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GOVERNMENT / THE ELITE -
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Want answers? Don't ask FEMA

Posted in the database on Monday, October 24th, 2005 @ 10:09:45 MST (1358 views)
by James Varney    The Times-Picayune  

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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 both.

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. (It won't.)

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 contractors."

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.



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