Friday, February 29, 2008

Corps' levee projects on the hot seat

Residents of Jefferson and St. Charles parishes questioned Army Corps of Engineers officials Thursday about a $1 billion plan to raise hurricane protection levees in both parishes.

At the public hearing at the East Bank Regional Library in Metairie, residents questioned the corps' plans, which involve building a new floodwall on the Jefferson-St. Charles Parish line, and raising the levees along the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline to heights ranging from 15 feet to 17.5 feet and armoring the front of the levee with a low floodwall.

The purpose of the hearing was to get public input on the environmental effects of the proposed projects, though residents in attendance were primarily concerned about the levees' effectiveness.

Ryan Crais of Kenner asked why the corps chose the floodwall along the parish line canal, also known as the West Return Canal.

"I thought the waves against that wall were going to shake my house apart," he said, referring to the storm surge during Hurricane Katrina. "Let the waves break on the other side, not right against the wall."

He wanted the corps to instead build an earthen levee along the canal, an alternative corps officials said was considered.

But Stuart Waits, the corps project manager for that job, said the soil in the marshy area is not stable enough to hold a levee. Instead, a new floodwall will be built about 35 feet west of the existing floodwall, which was constructed in a less stable I configuration. The new wall will be built in the shape of an upside down T for extra stability, he said.

On the 10-mile stretch of lakefront levee between the canal and the Orleans Parish line, corps officials say a 6-foot-high breakwater at the shoreline is needed because when the original lakefront levees were built in the 1960s, the shoreline was about 200 feet farther away. The breakwater would help keep the shoreline from encroaching on the levee.

Fran Campbell, executive director of the East Jefferson Levee District, said she had lobbied the corps to move the breakwater farther north to reclaim some of that land lost to the lake, but was turned down.

A major part of the East Jefferson project will be to build 17-foot-high floodwalls around the outflows of the parish's four major lakefront pump stations to prevent them from becoming the Achilles' heels of the protection system.

Under the design being considered, the pumps would continue to operate during a storm, pumping rainwater into the lake through openings in the walls or over the walls. But should the power fail, the discharge pipes would be mechanically sealed.

Metairie resident Don Neubeck complained that the shutoff systems would have to be operated manually and that automatic shutoffs should be used to prevent the surge from moving backward through the pumps after a power failure.

"That's the weak link in the system," he said.

Senior Project Manager Carl Anderson said that point would be considered before the design was completed.

In St. Charles Parish, the levees would be raised to between 13 feet and 15 feet. The corps has decided its best bet is to widen the base of the levee by about 300 feet to handle the extra height. The corps had considered placing an extra layer of geotextile fabric on the levee, which would have allowed it to build up the elevation on its existing base.

The public review period for the St. Charles levee, known as IER1, will run from April 1 through May 1. The west return canal floodwall comment period will run from April 8 to May 8. That project is called IER2. The comment period for the Lake Pontchartrain levee plan, known as IER3, will run from April 21 through May 21.

A final decision date for the three projects are tentatively set for May 19, 22 and 28, respectively.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Some survivors listed on Katrina memorial

Uriel Little jokes that he had to pinch himself when he saw his name etched on a granite monument listing the names of more than 130 people killed by Hurricane Katrina in St. Bernard Parish.

"Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," quipped Little, 76, a former St. Bernard street department worker who evacuated before Katrina.

Parish officials have fielded complaints about misspelled names after the hastily erected monument was unveiled on Katrina's first anniversary in 2006. But this is the first reported case of mistaken identity among the 132 people listed as having died during the storm and its aftermath.

"They can leave my name on there if they want," said Little, who lives at St. Margaret's Daughters Nursing Home in the Bywater. "It doesn't bother me. I know that I'm still alive, and that's what counts."

But parish officials say they intend to correct the error, especially after learning that as many as five other people listed on the monument might still be alive.

"Misspelled names are one thing, but if we have a living person listed as dead, that's something else," said Karen Turni Bazile, executive assistant for Parish President Craig Taffaro. "It's not right to leave it like that."

Parish officials said the mistakes on the memorial, which sits near a 13-foot-tall steel crucifix pounded into the shallows of the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet at Shell Beach, reflect the monumental task of trying to identify Katrina's dead after their relatives were scattered across the country.

"It's not as simple as people might think," said Bryan Bertucci, the parish's coroner. "I spent months researching this and never could come up with a list that was 100 percent complete and accurate."

Compounding the problem, Bertucci said the list he compiled was apparently not even used in creating the memorial.

He said the monument names six people, including Little, who are not on his master list of deaths, raising the possibility that as many as five other Katrina survivors were mistakenly listed among the dead.

Bertucci also said 13 people he confirmed as Katrina victims are not on the monument, which was erected by the administration of former Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez.

"I don't know what list they used, but it couldn't have been mine," Bertucci said.

Charlie Reppel, Rodriguez's former chief of staff, said parish officials did their best to verify the names of the dead as they worked quickly to complete the monument in time for the storm's first anniversary.

"We did as much due diligence as we could," he said, adding that he believed Bertucci's list was used to create the monument. "We adjusted it about four months after it was dedicated to add a few names of people who were left off."

Bazile said anyone seeking to report an incorrect spelling or other error can call her at (504) 874-0980 or e-mail her at

It's unclear how Little's name came to be added to the monument. His sister, Sylvia Costanza, said her brother's name appeared on lists of Katrina's dead printed in local newspapers.

"I called the parish to tell them that he was alive, but his name kept popping up on these lists," she said.

Little, who was living in the Hannan Manor elderly living center in Meraux, evacuated to Texas with relatives before Katrina. He lived at an assisted living center in Marrero until he moved to St. Margaret's about a month ago, Costanza said.

News of Little's prematurely documented demise was first reported by the Clarion Herald, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, which runs St. Margaret's.

"He's getting a kick out of his 15 minutes of fame," said Jason Hemel, St. Margaret's chief operating officer. "I was joking with him about being a celebrity with his picture on the front page of the Clarion Herald, and he said, 'I'm today's Clark Gable. Don't you think I look like him?'¤"

Ora Price, a receptionist at St. Margaret's, said Little took pleasure in autographing copies of the newspaper for the staff and other residents.

"He came in with two pens and said, 'I'm going to run out of ink,'¤" she said.

But Little is quick to temper his wisecracks with somber reflections about the long list of names on the monument.

"I just wish the rest could have gotten out," he said. "A lot of people didn't make it, and I knew a good many of them."

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Mayor Rips Plan to Empty FEMA Trailers

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- A plan to move people living in trailers to apartments and hotels because of concerns about formaldehyde fumes will not work and will lead to a ''second great displacement'' of New Orleans residents, the city's mayor said.

There simply isn't enough other housing available in the hurricane-distressed region, Mayor Ray Nagin said in a letter to President Bush released Tuesday.

''Because of the scope of damage to New Orleans' housing stock, much of which is still not recovered, there is insufficient housing here to place all New Orleans citizens needing to be relocated from trailers,'' Nagin wrote.

R. David Paulison, the administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said earlier this month that the agency hopes to get everyone out and into hotels, motels, apartments and other temporary housing by the summer, when the heat and stuffy air could worsen dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes found in the trailers.

James McIntyre, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday that the mayor's letter was addressed to the president and that his agency had not received an official copy. He said FEMA would work with Nagin's office to address his concerns ''within our legal authorities.''

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month said that formaldehyde fumes from 519 trailers and mobile homes tested in Mississippi and Louisiana were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes.

Formaldehyde is a preservative commonly used in construction materials; it can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer.

FEMA, which has provided trailers and rental assistance to hundreds of thousands of victims since the 2005 storms, has been offering lists of rental options to those living in trailers; months ago, the agency announced plans to close group sites in the state by June 1.

Nagin wrote that while he agrees the situation is urgent, moving families to apartments or hotels isn't an appropriate solution. The plan, he said, ''will lead only to a second great displacement, as current trailer residents will be moved from New Orleans to apartments and hotels elsewhere in the Gulf Coast region.''

Programs meant to bring back housing haven't gained traction yet, Nagin said.

There are 8,515 travel trailers in the city, most in front of storm-damaged houses, he said, citing FEMA figures. Another 2,366 house former residents outside of the city, he said, estimating that based on the city's average home occupancy rate, that 25,000 New Orleanians currently live in trailers and could be relocated.

Nagin said FEMA must do a better job of providing health information to those in trailers, telling the president he wants free checkups for current and former trailer residents; free treatment of any medical conditions ''generated or exacerbated'' by exposure to formaldehyde; and ''guaranteed access to comprehensive, state-of-the-art medical care for any future formaldehyde-related medical conditions.''

He said he also wants the government to make available ''gap financing'' to help homeowners living in trailers make outstanding repairs to their houses

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Barnes & Noble chairman plans to build houses for storm victims

Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes & Noble, announced Tuesday that his family's charitable foundation plans to build 20 houses in Gentilly for homeowners who have not managed to rebuild since Katrina, the first phase of what will ultimately be a $20 million effort to bring ailing residents back home.

The 20 houses, which will incorporate environmentally sustainable features, will be built on an empty lot on St. Bernard Avenue between Mandolin Street and Owens Boulevard.

"Despite the enormity of Katrina's fury, a point was proved once again that no storm or floor or disaster can destroy this city because its people are too be washed away," Riggio said in a morning news conference.

The Riggio Foundation will provide a new house at no cost to owners who are willing to swap out their flooded, uninhabitable home. The foundation will select residents to participate in its program, called Project Home Again, through a lottery.

Homeowners must apply for the lottery by April 15. Applications are available at Project Home Again's offices at 4299 St. Bernard Ave. Residents can also call (866) 550-4742 for an application or download the forms at

Monday, February 25, 2008

Creole Craftsman Helps Rebuild N.O.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Smiling with satisfaction, Earl Barthe pushes back his wide-brimmed hat and runs his eyes over the intricate plaster trim of the Luling Mansion.

He's sure his family helped form the room's original decorations, elaborate patterns on the ceilings and even likenesses of the first owner's daughter, who died of yellow fever.

Today, Barthe (pronounced bar-THAY) is busy restoring the 165-year-old building.

''You look at this kind of work and you're looking at the pride people took in what they did,'' said Barthe, a fifth-generation master plasterer whose family's work can be found in New Orleans' historic homes and churches and even the Louisiana Superdome.

But in a city known for its arts traditions, Barthe is one of the few remaining craftsmen in what once was a flourishing trade.

His face lined from days in the sun, Barthe, who won't say how old he is but acknowledges working the family business for 70 years, wears the white shirt and pants traditional to the trade. He insists his workers carry on the custom, too.

The Barthe family settled in New Orleans in the early 1800s. The business was established by his great-great-grandfather, a master plasterer from Nice, France, who married a woman from Haiti.

The family was known in the term of the time as ''free people of color.'' These days Barthe refers to his family as Creoles, but most of all, he calls them plasterers.

''My father was a plasterer, his father was a plasterer, his uncles and everybody else were plasterers,'' he said. ''The Barthe children knew they had to be plasterers. Daddy didn't want me to be a doctor, a lawyer or an Indian chief.''

In fine hotels, the old stores along Canal Street, the St. Charles Avenue mansions and the cemeteries' tombs, you'll likely see the work of Barthe and his family.

''Every job is a hard job because of the time and care you have to take with it, the attention you have to pay,'' Barthe said. ''And it's hard work climbing that scaffolding, hauling around the plaster. It's the kind of work that makes you know you've done a full day when you stop.''

Barthe said about a dozen families were engaged in the business in its heyday.

''It was all men, and the one who had the most sons got the most respect,'' Barthe said. ''And those boys knew they better live up to what their fathers expected. If you did something wrong it reflected on the family. Nobody wanted that.''

To become a plasterer requires a three- to four-year apprenticeship, learning the tools, and how to mix plaster and prepare walls. The task can be daunting in old New Orleans homes; often walls reach up to 14-foot ceilings.

Patience and attention to detail are the keys to turning out the ornate medallions and trim a master plasterer can produce, or even a smooth wall of plaster. A worker will go over the surface repeatedly, blending the plaster, polishing and blending until the surface is seamless.

It's not a job that young people now flock to. The last official apprenticeship class was in 1980, according to Terry Barthe, Earl's daughter, who now runs the business.

''Americans don't want to work hard,'' Terry Barthe said. ''We don't want to sweat anymore. We don't want to 'earn' a living, and that's why it's a dying art.''

Part of that is due to the use of drywall, which is cheaper than plaster and easier to learn to install.

''Don't even say that word to me, it's a dirty word,'' Earl Barthe said. ''Just look at what happened with Hurricane Katrina. If you had sheet rock you had to rip it out and throw it away. If you had plaster you just washed down and were ready to go.''

In his own house, Barthe said, floodwaters were more than 3 feet deep, and although he had to replace floors, roofs and windows, his plaster walls stood strong.

''When you have plaster you have a building that will be there for a while,'' he said. ''You can count on your grandchildren living there after you.''

Terry Barthe, 50, decided to get into the family business to pay off college loans, then got hooked.

''To take nothing and make something, the greatest analogy is God forming the earth out of a clump of clay,'' she said. ''When I look at a handful of lime and plaster, it's nothing, it's just dust; but I can make anything out of it.''

Will Anderson, 26, started working for Barthe while still in school. ''I love to do the work, the craftsmanship of it,'' he said.

Earl Barthe's skills were featured in a New Orleans Museum of Art exhibition titled ''Raised to the Trade: Creole Building Arts in New Orleans'' and in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival's ''Masters of the Building Arts'' program in 2001.

He has been inducted into the Louisiana AFL-CIO Labor Hall of Fame, and in 2005 received the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.

Passing that heritage along by training apprentices is his goal now.

''I'd like to see another generation do the kind of work their grandchildren and great-grandchildren will one day appreciate,'' Barthe said.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

FEMA Trailers to Be Tested by Request

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Occupants of FEMA trailers placed in disaster areas may now get their units tested for formaldehyde contamination if they file a request.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says that for the first time it will open up the testing program to hurricane evacuees living in thousands of federally supplied trailers and mobile homes along the Gulf Coast, and to anyone using similar FEMA-supplied trailers in other states that have been affected by floods, tornadoes and other disasters.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this month that tests on a sample of 519 trailers and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi detected formaldehyde at levels that averaged about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes.

Formaldehyde is a preservative also commonly used in construction materials; it can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer. Critics had argued that FEMA should have reacted sooner to concerns that formaldehyde is to blame for ailments reported by trailer occupants.

In a news release issued Friday, FEMA said testing could begin as early as next week and would begin with residents of the Gulf Coast who have already requested tests.

About 200 trailers and mobile homes would be tested each week, FEMA said. The contract to do the testing went to Bureau Veritas, which also did the recent testing of the 519 units, according to FEMA.

Bureau Veritas, with operations in 140 countries, specializes in quality assurance, health, safety, and environmental services. The company says it helps clients ''comply with standards and regulations relating to quality, health and safety, environment and social responsibility.''

Friday, February 22, 2008

Time runs short for Jeff trailer dwellers

After next week, Jefferson Parish will turn its caseload of residents who still have FEMA trailers over to attorneys who will start filing lawsuits to extract people from their emergency housing units.

The move marks perhaps the final major push in the parish's yearlong effort to eradicate trailers from front lawns and driveways. Calling for a post-hurricane return to normalcy, parish officials last year reactivated codes that prohibit trailers as permanent housing in residential neighborhoods. The restrictions include trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, privately owned trailers and storage units.

March 1 is the deadline for residents to remove trailers from unincorporated areas of Jefferson before parish attorneys begin filing suits in 24th Judicial District Court. The parish will ask judges for orders compelling homeowners who are still trailer dwellers to comply with the zoning rules. Judges also could consider the arguments from residents that their houses remain unlivable with storm damage as they wait on contractors, insurance or money from the state's Road Home program.

Previously, residents had been able to win extensions from parish-hired inspectors and parish hearing officers as long as they could demonstrate that the people living in a trailer were the same residents of the household as before Hurricane Katrina and that they faced legitimate hardships in fixing their houses.

"This will allow a judge to make that determination," said Matthew Friedman, an assistant parish attorney handling trailer cases, about the new parish strategy of filing lawsuits. "It takes it away from the parish attorneys, the Parish Council."

Homeowners who have asked FEMA to take their trailers can avoid a parish lawsuit by filing an affidavit with parish attorneys indicating they have contacted the federal agency but are waiting for a crew to arrive. The affidavit also authorizes parish officials to call FEMA on behalf of homeowners and press for trailers to be hauled away.

"The affidavit is probably the new twist on this," said Bert Smith, deputy chief administrative officer for Parish President Aaron Broussard. "It puts the brakes on the lawsuit the parish attorneys would be filing."

Jefferson officials estimate about 1,500 trailers remain in residential neighborhoods in unincorporated parts of the parish, a count that has steadily dropped from more than 17,000 in the months after the 2005 hurricanes.

Officials have been urging people who still need housing assistance to contact FEMA about a rental assistance program now being run in conjunction with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The FEMA telephone number is (888) 294-2822.

To get a copy of the affidavit indicating that a homeowner has asked FEMA to remove a trailer, residents can visit and click on the news release about the March 1 deadline. Residents also can pick up copies of the affidavit at the Joseph S. Yenni Building, 1221 Elmwood Park Blvd. in Elmwood, or the General Government Building, Suite 5200, at 200 Derbigny St. in Gretna.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

9 / 11 Victims' Kids Help in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS-- Sixteen-year-old Caitlin Leavey remembers people she didn't even know coming to her family's aid with food and comfort after she lost her firefighter father in the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11.

On Wednesday, she and more than a dozen other young people who lost parents in the terrorist attacks were hanging siding on a house in New Orleans -- their way of helping a city and its residents recover from the loss inflicted by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

''It feels so good to be able to give back,'' Leavey said as she hammered away. ''I know what they went through. I know what we went through, and I wanted to give back.''

This week, Leavey and the others are working with Habitat for Humanity in the Musicians' Village, a housing initiative launched by New Orleans natives Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis in the Upper 9th Ward to help displaced musicians.

More than 40 candy-colored homes have already been built, and 23 more are under construction, project spokeswoman Aleis Tusa said.

The youth, ranging from 9th- to 12th-graders, arrived in New Orleans on Sunday with the help of Tuesday's Children, an organization that provides support to family's affected by the Sept. 11 attacks.

Besides manual labor, the teens took a tour of flood-damaged neighborhoods and learned about the city's levee system. They also visited the Aquarium of the Americas and French Quarter.

''It helps so much to be here because we're working with people who have been through what we've been through and care just as much as we do,'' said Thea Trinidad, 17, of Pawcatuck, Conn.
Adult chaperones say the visit goes beyond helping storm victims.

''Helping heals,'' said Candy Cucharo, program director for Tuesday's Children. ''Doing for others, you're no longer viewed as the one needing help. Helping others builds resistance and helps strengthen your mental and emotional well-being.''

Leavey was 10 when she lost her father, Joseph G. Leavey, a New York City fire lieutenant who led firefighters from Ladder 15 as high as the 78th floor of the south tower before it collapsed on Sept. 11. She said the New Orleans visit was a rewarding way to honor his memory.
'My dad was always helping people, painting and fixing the firehouse, just doing whatever he could do,'' Leavey said. He even helped a woman get her cat down from a tree.

''He was great,'' she said, smiling.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Report: FEMA Spent Millions Fraudulently

The Federal Emergency Management Agency misspent millions of dollars it received from selling used travel trailers, government investigators have found.

Instead of buying more trailers - as allowed under the law - FEMA used more than $13 million toward fully loaded sport utility vehicles, travel expenses and purchase card accounts, according to a draft report by the Homeland Security Department's inspector general obtained by The Associated Press. The report is to be released Friday.

During its three-month review last summer, the inspector general found that FEMA used some of the proceeds from trailer sales for tree-removal services, agency decals and banners and global positioning systems. FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said the agency discovered these problems on its own and has taken steps to fix them.

After Hurricane Katrina, FEMA purchased 200,000 travel trailers and mobile homes. When displaced hurricane victims leave these housing units, FEMA may sell the units to the general public. The law states that FEMA must use proceeds from these sales to buy more trailers or return the money to the U.S. Treasury.

"Once again, FEMA has proven to be a poor steward of taxpayer money. In order to regain the public's trust, FEMA must ensure that this type of wasteful spending never occurs again," said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the House committee that oversees the Homeland Security Department.

In its comments on the report, FEMA said it spent all the money received from the sales to help disaster victims, but the agency agrees with investigators that there needs to be better oversight and control in the future.

"The funds received from the sale of used travel trailers and mobile homes were used specifically for what they were originally obligated for - that is, the proceeds were used for disaster relief and emergency assistance," according to the agency's comments to the draft report. In its comments, FEMA said it will establish a system to track the sale proceeds so that the proper amount of money is returned to the U.S. Treasury.

Since the 2005 hurricanes, Congress and the government have investigated FEMA's spending practices and determined the agency was defrauded, purchased trailers that pose potential health risks and misspent taxpayer dollars. In 2006, a congressional investigation found that purchase cards were used improperly and the Homeland Security Department - FEMA's parent agency - wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars on items like iPods, beer-making equipment and designer jackets.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Supreme Court declines to hear flood insurance plea

The U.S. Supreme Court won't hear a federal lawsuit brought by Hurricane Katrina victims against private insurance companies, but a similar case at the state level will go to Louisiana's highest court next week.

The federal high court rejected appeals by Xavier University and 68 other individuals and businesses who claimed their hazard insurance policies should have covered flooding caused by the failure of man-made levees.

Last August, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a district court ruling that said the policies' flood exceptions were vague. The appeals court panel, comprised of three Texas judges, said that the waters that covered 80 percent of the city after Hurricane Katrina constituted a "flood," even though the policies didn't specifically include man-made failures in its definition of the word.

In the federal case, federal judges were interpreting Louisiana insurance law. But another hurricane victim, Joseph Sher of Uptown New Orleans, made nearly the same argument in state court to challenge his insurer's decision not to cover his flood damages. So far, the district and appeals courts have ruled in his favor. The state Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for next Tuesday.

Attorneys on both sides of the Sher case have said the ruling could determine the future of millions of dollars worth of insurance claims from the 2005 hurricanes.
To read the story on the federal 5th Circuit's ruling in the Xavier case last August, click here.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

FEMA not providing promised mobile homes

RAMONA, Calif. (AP) — Patty Reedy is still waiting for someone at the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send her the mobile home she was promised before Christmas.

In December, agency inspectors said she wouldn't get a government house because it would be too difficult to haul the 60-foot, three-bedroom prefabricated home up a winding road to her remote mountaintop property.

Reedy isn't alone. FEMA brought dozens of mobile homes to Southern California after the fires, only to find their own guidelines prevented them from putting them on many properties in rough terrain. San Diego County officials say dozens of applicants were denied homes because trucks couldn't reach their properties, didn't have connections into the electrical grid, or were on hillsides deemed at mudslide risk.

They don't have any familiarity with these areas so they can't conceive of the needs being different," said Deena Raver, a contractor who was hired by San Diego County to help fire victims. "You're talking about one area with sewage and water and other places that are very rural."

The mobile home delay is another blemish on a beleaguered agency.

When the fires broke out in five Southern California counties, forcing half a million people to flee, many thought FEMA — still bruised from its performance after Hurricane Katrina — had a golden opportunity to repair its image.

But the fires blackened about 800 square miles and destroyed nearly 2,200 homes, a fraction of the 90,000 square miles and roughly 500,000 homes ravaged by the hurricane, and left roads, power lines and sewage systems largely intact.

"FEMA wasn't really tested here," said Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University. "It really wasn't a dry run for sustained response and recovery."

FEMA spokesman James McIntyre said the agency applied lessons it learned in Katrina to streamline its operations in Southern California — like the need to respond quickly. Two days before President Bush declared a federal disaster, FEMA crews were moving into fire-stricken zones and setting up at San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium.

Within a week, the agency had begun disbursing grants up to $28,800, short-circuiting detailed accounting requirements that slowed relief after the 2003 fires. So far, FEMA has paid more than $13.1 million to 1,973 people, mostly in San Diego County.

But the agency has only distributed 33 mobile homes in the county, including 14 on American Indian reservation land.

In 2003, the agency sent short, adaptable "travel trailers" to house people living in the mountains, but they are being avoided now amid concerns about toxic chemicals; this week the agency said it would move hurricane victims out of more than 35,000 trailers because tests indicate some of the temporary homes contain high levels of formaldehyde.

Instead, FEMA only dispatched three-bedroom modular homes to Southern California — luxurious compared to the 15-foot travel trailers, but, at 60 feet, too long to fit on many properties or be moved up steep roads full of switchbacks. They also require too much electricity to run off generators or solar panels and have to be hooked into the power grid. They have to be on flat land, away from any hills that might be at risk for mudslides.

Grace Yim, a FEMA branch manager in Pasadena, said she didn't know how many eligible fire victims were denied homes.

"We met a lot of challenges with the kind of unit that was available to us — there are canyon areas, mountainous areas so we had a lot of sites that came back infeasible, and then there's just nothing we can do," Yim said.

People who were unable to put the large trailers on their properties were referred to other agencies, mainly Housing and Urban Development, for subsidized apartments, Yim said.

But living far away from isolated lots can slow reconstruction for people who are cash-strapped to begin with, said Bonnie Frede, director of a nonprofit-funded fire recovery center in the mountain town of Ramona, about 35 miles northeast of San Diego.

"These people want to be on their land," Frede said.

Reedy, a lithe 51-year-old, said she already put more than 7,000 miles on her pickup truck driving up and down the mountain, costing her $2,000 in gas out of her $28,800 grant. She had hoped to get the mobile home on her land and eventually use the grant money to buy it.

She said she will keep trying to get the promised FEMA home on her property.

"I ran into my first FEMA inspector at the grocery store, and he said, 'You pay your taxes, so don't let them tell you no,'" she said. "As long as I know what I'm working towards, I can start to plan, but right now it's just sitting in the bank while I waste gas."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Scientists Closely Examine FEMA Trailers

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- While the Federal Emergency Management Agency rushes to move thousands of Gulf Coast storm victims out of government-issued trailers, scientists are tearing the units apart to learn why many have exposed occupants to dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is studying materials used by several companies that provided FEMA with tens of thousands of travel trailers after hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Test results reported this week by the CDC showed formaldehyde levels in hundreds of FEMA trailers and mobile homes were, on average, about five times higher than what people are exposed to in most modern homes. Formaldehyde, a preservative commonly used in construction materials, can cause breathing problems and also is believed to cause cancer.

CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding said scientists need time to determine how -- and why -- formaldehyde levels varied among different models of FEMA trailers. Scientists from the CDC and the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory also are looking at ways to reduce formaldehyde emissions in the trailers.

The study was limited to materials in unoccupied government trailers. Gerberding said other studies indicate formaldehyde levels in manufactured homes are steadily decreasing ''in a fairly significant manner.''

''Mainly because the manufacturers don't want this problem,'' she said, ''so they're learning how to use new materials and changing their processing.''

Kevin Broom, spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, said Friday the industry would adjust its manufacturing techniques if the government adopts stricter formaldehyde standards than those already set by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

''We in the RV industry are committed to following the science and making sure our products are safe,'' Broom said in a statement.

FEMA said its New Orleans office received nearly 70 phone calls from concerned residents after Thursday's announcement.

Sherry Gremillion, 45, a waitress still living in a St. Bernard Parish trailer park, said she can't afford an apartment large enough to accommodate her family or close enough to her job. FEMA expects to close the trailer park by March 15.

''I fell asleep crying last night,'' she said Friday. ''I don't think I'm going to make it.''
Hundreds of Gulf Coast trailer dwellers are suing manufacturers in federal court, accusing the companies of furnishing FEMA with shoddily constructed units that jeopardized their health. By law, FEMA can't be named as a defendant in the consolidated litigation until next month at the earliest, according to plaintiffs lawyers.

Critics claim FEMA should have reacted sooner to concerns that formaldehyde is to blame for a host of ailments reported by trailer occupants.

''They knew full well something was wrong. They were just hoping nothing would happen,'' said attorney Daniel Becnel Jr., who says he represents about 5,000 trailer occupants.
Another plaintiffs lawyer said trailer makers are the ''real culprits.''

''Obviously FEMA made lots of mistakes, but FEMA didn't manufacture these trailers,'' said Tony Buzbee, a lawyer for hundreds of current and former trailer occupants.
A lawyer for the companies sued in U.S. District Court in New Orleans didn't return a telephone call for comment Friday.

FEMA administrator R. David Paulison said Thursday the agency hoped to move all of the roughly 35,000 families out of trailers by summer, when hot weather increases formaldehyde emissions.

Louisiana has 25,162 occupied FEMA trailers and mobile homes, while Mississippi has 10,362, according to FEMA. The number of occupied FEMA trailers and mobile homes peaked at 144,000 following the hurricanes.
Paulison called the relocations a ''stopgap measure.''

''We're not booting people out. What we're doing to putting them into hotels and motels until we can find an apartment for them,'' he said. ''It's just transition, to get them out of the travel trailer and into someplace where it's safer.''

Many residents still in FEMA trailer parks are elderly or have disabilities, meaning they are on fixed incomes and can't easily find affordable housing, said Tracie Washington, president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group for the poor.

''These are people that rented $200, $300 apartments before Hurricane Katrina, and those aren't available anymore,'' Washington said. ''They're afraid that if they're moved into hotels they'll wind up homeless in a few months.''

Friday, February 15, 2008

FEMA Slammed for Using Toxic Trailers

FEMA, already a dirty word along the Gulf Coast, has taken another hit to its reputation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency came under new withering criticism Thursday after tests found dangerous levels of formaldehyde fumes in many of the trailers the agency used to house hurricane victims in Louisiana and Mississippi.

''This is such gross incompetence. I really have not in my 10 years seen anything like this on the domestic front,'' said U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said Thursday the agency would rush to find temporary housing for roughly 35,000 families now in its trailers. ''We're moving as fast as we can,'' he said.

The agency was forced to act after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that formaldehyde fumes from hundreds of trailers and mobile homes were, on average, about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes.

Formaldehyde, a preservative commonly used in construction materials, can lead to breathing problems and is also believed to cause cancer.

Critics, already angered at FEMA for its performance after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005, faulted the agency for not responding sooner to concerns from storm victims that its trailers could be jeopardizing the health of occupants.

''It is simply inexcusable for FEMA to have a one to two year delay in addressing the serious health issues of these men and women along the Gulf Coast who have already suffered from the devastation of the 2005 hurricanes,'' said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican.

''When the health of our people and our children and our families is at stake we cannot afford to wait, we cannot decide that we have to do more studies and conduct further analysis,'' he said.

Paulison said he hoped to have everyone out of trailers and into hotels, motels, apartments and other temporary housing by the summer, when the heat and stuffy air could worsen the problem inside the trailers.

Louisiana has 25,162 occupied FEMA trailers and mobile homes, while Mississippi has 10,362, according to FEMA. Other states also have hundreds of trailers. At one point, FEMA had placed victims of the 2005 hurricanes in more than 144,000 trailers and mobile homes.

In an interview with The Associated Press after Thursday's briefing, Paulison acknowledged he could have done a better job of expressing sympathy for storm victims.

''I didn't want to get sappy out there in front of the cameras,'' he said, ''but the truth is that we really do care and we really are working hard to take care of the people's needs and get them out of these travel trailers and mobile homes.''

CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding said the center's tests could not draw a direct link between formaldehyde levels and the wide range of ailments reported by trailer occupants. But the CDC urged people to move out as quickly as possible.

Lynette Hooks, a trailer resident, was outraged at FEMA. Since she began living in her trailer outside her damaged New Orleans home in October 2006, she said she has suffered headaches and sinus problems, in addition to the asthma she had before.

''Am I angry at FEMA? Of course I am. They should have started moving people out of these trailers once they first started finding problems,'' said Hooks, 48.

The CDC findings could also have disturbing implications for the safety of other trailers and mobile homes across the country, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said Thursday on Capitol Hill. But the CDC study did not look beyond the FEMA housing.

Paulison vowed that the agency would never again use the flimsy, cramped travel trailers to shelter victims of disasters. Mobile homes are generally roomier than trailers and considered less susceptible to buildups of fumes.

FEMA will press ahead with plans to supply leftover, never-used mobile homes from the twin disasters to victims of last week's tornadoes in the South, Paulison said. But the mobile homes will be opened up, aired out and tested first, he said.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

CDC: Gulf Coast Trailers Have Toxic Air

U.S. health officials are urging that Gulf Coast hurricane victims be moved out of their government-issued trailers as quickly as possible after tests found toxic levels of formaldehyde fumes.

Fumes from 519 trailer and mobile homes in Louisiana and Mississippi were -- on average -- about five times what people are exposed to in most modern homes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In some trailers, the levels were nearly 40 times customary exposure levels, raising fears that residents could contract respiratory problems.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency -- which supplied the trailers -- should move people out quickly, with priority given to families with children, elderly people or anyone with asthma or other chronic conditions, said Mike McGeehin, director of a CDC division that focuses on environmental hazards.

''We do not want people exposed to this for very much longer,'' McGeehin said.
In New Orleans, Jim Herring, 63, who recently moved back into his partially renovated house in the badly flooded Lakeview neighborhood, said he wasn't surprised about the finding.

''The workmanship is pathetic,'' said Herring, a retiree who worked for 25 years in a chemical plant.

Herrings and his wife Susan decided not to stay in their trailer, which they received in April 2007. Both Herrings are smokers, but Jim said he did not have a cough until they moved into it.

''Let's face it, these things were not meant to be lived in for a year,'' Jim Herring said.

While there are no federal safety standard for formaldehyde fumes in homes, the levels found in the trailers are high enough to cause burning eyes and breathing problems for people who have asthma or sensitivity to air pollutants, said McGeehin.

CDC officials said the study did not prove people became sick from the fumes, but merely took a snapshot reading of fume levels. Only formaldehyde was tested, they added.

FEMA provided about 120,000 travel trailers to victims of the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In 2006, some occupants began reporting headaches and nosebleeds.

The complaints were linked to formaldehyde, a colorless gas with a pungent smell used in the production of plywood and resins.

Commonly used in manufactured homes, formaldehyde can cause respiratory problems and has been classified as a carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and as a probable carcinogen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Last May, FEMA officials dismissed findings by environmentalists that the trailers posed serious health risks. They said the trailers conformed to industry standards.

By August, about 1,000 families in Louisiana asked FEMA to move them to other quarters. In November, lawyers for a group of hurricane victims asked a federal judge to order FEMA to test for hazardous fumes.

The CDC, working with FEMA, hired a contractor. The firm -- Bureau Veritas North America -- tested air samples from 358 travel trailers, 82 park model and 79 mobile homes.

Analysis of the samples, taken from Dec. 21 through Jan. 23, came back last week, McGeehin said.

They found average levels of 77 parts formaldehyde per billion parts of air, significantly higher than the 10 to 17 parts per billion concentration seen in newer homes. Levels were as high as 590 parts per billion.

The highest concentrations were in travel trailers, which are smaller and more poorly ventilated, McGeehin said.

Indoor air temperature was a significant factor in raising formaldehyde levels, independent of trailer make or model, CDC officials said. McGeehin said that's why the CDC would like residents out before summer.

A broader-based children's health study is also in the works, McGeehin said.

Last week, congressional Democrats accused FEMA of manipulating scientific research in order to play down the danger posed by formaldehyde in the trailers.

In its initial round of testing, FEMA took samples from unoccupied trailers that had been aired out for days and compared them with federal standards for short-term exposure, according to the lawmakers.

Legislators also said the CDC ignored research from -- and then demoted -- one of its own experts, who concluded any level of exposure to formaldehyde may pose a cancer risk. A CDC spokesman has denied the allegations.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

State finds glitches on Road Home buyout list

BATON ROUGE -- The state agency that handles Road Home buyouts has made surprising discoveries during recent visits to more than 5,000 hurricane-damaged properties -- chief among them a smattering of dismayed homeowners who insisted they never sold their houses to the recovery program.

Contractors for the Louisiana Land Trust, which is responsible for landscaping and otherwise maintaining properties under the Road Home's control, also have stumbled upon lots still harboring occupied FEMA trailers, as well as some commercial buildings at the addresses provided in spreadsheets by the state's Office of Community Development, land trust Executive Director Nadine Jarmon said Tuesday. Commercial buildings aren't eligible for Road Home grants.

Glitches have arisen in about 5 percent of the 5,000 cases, and Jarmon traced the root of the problem to a more fundamental issue: Despite having to maintain buyout properties, the land trust has not received a single complete set of closing documents for any of the 5,161 properties that the state says it owns. Other problems could arise soon if the system is not streamlined, Jarmon told the Louisiana Recovery Authority board during its monthly meeting at Baton Rouge Community College.

Right now, we're basically taking their word that we own them," she said in an interview. "From here, the problem just kind of escalates, it dominoes."

The uncertainty about ownership status holds up various initiatives, Jarmon said. For instance, she said she has been working with federal officials to figure out whether the land trust can secure subsidies, either through FEMA's Public Assistance program or the Increased Cost of Compliance option of former owners' flood insurance policies, to cover some of the cost of demolishing buyout properties. Tapping either source would require proof of ownership, she said.

"For me, the big picture is you've got to be able to show ownership if you're going to advocate for any action on behalf of those properties," she said.

Documents in doubt

More important, without title documents, the land trust cannot turn over buyout properties to parish redevelopment authorities that are expected to return them to commerce, Jarmon said. Current estimates peg the eventual number of Road Home buyout properties in the range of 11,000 to 15,000, with at least 6,000 expected to end up in the hands of the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority.

"If we don't have our ownership documents, then there's something fundamentally wrong here," she said. "At some point, we just got to get it together."

A spokeswoman for the state Office of Community Development said that all sale and covenant documents for the transfer of Road Home buyouts are recorded at the parish level, while subcontractors handling closings for ICF, the state vendor running the grant program, are responsible for pulling together closing documents.

Spokeswoman GeGe Roulaine said that for the past several months, her department and ICF have been working with the land trust to put in place a computer system that will allow subcontractors to upload scanned images of all closing documents to a shared drive accessible by all parties. The process cannot be implemented fully, however, until the land trust finishes installing its own new computer system at its Baton Rouge offices, she said.

The land trust "did not want any paper documents. They wanted everything given to them only in digital," Roulaine said. "Until they're done developing their (computer management information system), we have to go with this temporary system of spreadsheets."

But in an interview, land trust consultant Terrie Walton responded: "Our computer systems are ready and our server is in place. We just need closing documents."
Rechecking information

Jarmon said the land trust is ready to accept the documents, adding that she has been lobbying quietly for access to complete closing records for the past three months. She is expected to make her case today at 10 a.m. during a hearing of the state Senate's Local and Municipal Affairs Committee.

In the meantime, Jarmon said she wants spreadsheets compiled by the state community development office to be scrubbed -- with a new check on the accuracy of the property status information.

"The issue has been (in) the accuracy of the information that we get from OCD," she said. "Right now we have properties (on our list) that have FEMA trailers on them. We have people who are still living on the property who say they were told at the closing that they can stay."

The land trust said it found 156 properties with FEMA trailers, some of which were occupied. It said it could find no lot to correspond with more than 40 addresses on the state spreadsheet.

Another OCD spokeswoman, Laura Robertson, said simple typographical mistakes likely are to blame for erroneous addresses on spreadsheets that led land trust contractors to properties that were not sold to the state through the Road Home. As for several residents who, according to Jarmon, told land trust contractors that Road Home officials said they could continue living at their properties after agreeing to a buyout, "that has never been our policy," Robertson said. "They have to vacate immediately."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

FEMA Looks at Trains for Evacautions

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The Federal Emergency Management Agency may expand the use of passenger trains to evacuate the sick and elderly in advance of hurricanes across the Gulf Coast, a FEMA official said.

Glenn Cannon, a FEMA assistant administrator, told a congressional subcommittee meeting in New Orleans on Monday that his agency is looking at passenger trains as a method of getting people out of harm's way.

After Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, Amtrak was hired to be on hand to evacuate people with special needs if another disaster hit. Cannon said FEMA is now devising disaster plans for other Gulf Coast cities based on the New Orleans model.

''We're changing our whole planning focus now from Louisiana-centric to Gulf Coast-centric,'' Cannon told the subcommittee.

But, he said, turning railways into evacuation routes won't be easy.

Rights of way for most railroads are privately owned by freight companies, and there is no congressional mandate to use railroads for evacuations. Also, the existing stock of passenger cars cannot accommodate evacuees unable to walk, he said.

Monday, February 11, 2008

City may move homeless from underpass to shelter

Mayor Ray Nagin's administration appears to be preparing to move the city's biggest homeless colony, a highly visible collection of people and bedrolls just off Canal Street, to a Central City emergency shelter.

Some City Council members and leading advocates for the homeless say they are not aware of the plan, although the director of the New Orleans Mission confirmed that the city accepted his proposal on Friday.

Nagin alluded to a plan for the homeless last week during an appearance on WWL-TV. He said he had recently seen a man in the encampment on Claiborne Avenue beneath Interstate 10 "drinking beer and just flipping the bird to citizens."

Calling the scene "a mess," Nagin said that before the end of February, the city will begin enforcing its "habitation laws."

"We've got more mental cases out there," the mayor said. "It's unsanitary under the bridge. And we have beds for these folks and they just don't want to take them. . . . So we're going to try to push the issue, if you will."

While Nagin did not specify which local habitation law he was referring to, the most often-used ordinance was found unconstitutional by the courts more than two decades ago and stricken from the municipal code six years ago. But in past years it still has been seen as a tool by local officials who wring their hands at the homeless people who linger in public spaces.

The fast-growing colony on Claiborne Avenue, now drawing more than 200 people a night, was repeatedly cited at a recent City Council meeting that featured testimony from social service officials.

"We cannot accept this any longer," Councilwoman Stacy Head said. "We've got to fix the problem and we've got to fix it in short order."

Martha Kegel, head of Unity of Greater New Orleans, a coalition that is working to house 250 people who previously camped out in Duncan Plaza, across from City Hall, told the council that homeless people are suffering at Claiborne Avenue. "We still have a humanitarian crisis," she said.

When asked about the mayor's plan to clear people out of the Claiborne site, neither Kegel, Head nor council President Arnie Fielkow knew anything about it this week.

Better or worse?

News of the mayor's televised comments traveled quickly to the hodgepodge of tents, sofas, blankets and mattresses now stretching across five blocks on a cement neutral ground beneath I-10.

People sleeping there said they feel targeted. Shouting to be heard over the din of cars passing overhead, they said they have little choice but to sleep at the site.
We're already on the streets, where else are we supposed to go?" asked Sara Brown, 40, who before Hurricane Katrina rented an apartment Uptown and worked as a dishwasher in the French Quarter. Like many others interviewed beneath the expressway, Brown is a native New Orleanian who was displaced by the storm and returned to the city to find rents sharply raised.

During a news conference called Wednesday to react to Nagin's comments, Mike Howells of the activist group C3/Hands Off Iberville said, "We're going to make the situation worse by arresting people for things we failed to do."

Sgt. Joe Narcisse, a spokesman for the New Orleans Police Department, said there are no orders to crack down on the homeless. "No plans have been shared with us," he said.

Law was struck down

According to mayoral spokeswoman Ceeon Quiett, the city planned to work with the NOPD Homeless Assistance Collaborative, a unit begun several years ago that uses social service methods, rather than arrests, in moving homeless individuals off the streets. But Quiett also said: "The habitation laws, as all city laws and ordinances, are enforceable and all citizens are expected to comply."

However, New Orleans' "unlawful public habitation" ordinance was thrown out by the courts more than 20 years ago, said Judson Mitchell, a Loyola University law clinic attorney.

Even if the mayor asked police to enforce public-habitation laws, the charges are sure to be thrown out in Municipal Court, he said.

Homeless people sleeping in public once were routinely charged with "unlawful public habitation," but the ordinance was successfully challenged in federal court in 1986 by the New Orleans Legal Assistance Corp. and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But such arrests continued until recently. In 2000, for instance, N.O. police booked 657 people on the charge, according to police records at the time. In September 2001, the ordinance was wiped off the books. Still, during a French Quarter cleanup in 2002, five people were arrested under provisions of the defunct ordinance, records show.

Mitchell hasn't seen anyone charged with it lately. "The police seem to know that the ordinance doesn't exist anymore," he said. Municipal Court judges Paul Sens and Sean Early both labeled the once-common public habitation charge as "rare."

Mission to offer beds

People at the Claiborne encampment recalled seeing the mayor's sport utility vehicle pass. Referring to the mayor's comments about an obscene gesture, Brown said, "That man, he was flipping off the mayor . . . because we're out here and he's doing nothing for us."

In fact, the mayor is trying to find relief for the Claiborne assembly, Quiett said. What the mayor was speaking about on television was his work "with the religious community to make available additional bed space," she said. This month, the city plans "to transition many, if not all, of the homeless citizens inhabiting the areas under the Claiborne bridge to locations where they can receive shelter and social service care," she said.

More than 100 beds, Quiett said, will be provided in a tent behind the New Orleans Mission on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City. The mission's director, Ron Gonzales, confirmed that the mayor's office on Friday accepted his plan to provide shelter for the homeless on Claiborne Avenue. A timetable hasn't yet been set, he said.

Late last year, the city awarded the mission $100,000 to buy a tent with air-conditioning and heating that can sleep 130 men, he said. A facility for women run by the mission currently has openings for about a dozen people, he said.

In exchange for housing people, Gonzales has proposed that the city pay $200 a night to pay for a fire marshal who would stand guard at New Orleans Mission, a measure made necessary by fire hazards caused by storm damage. He also is asking the city to pay for some storm-related repairs to eliminate his code violations for good, he said.

Gonzales plans to keep people in his shelter while they grapple with addiction, mental illness and other challenges, he said.

"They'll be better able to deal with those issues because they'll be there with us," he said.

He conceded, however, that the mission isn't set up to deal with intensive mental illness. He said he has a case worker but no licensed social worker on staff.

The mission plan faces other hurdles. Brown said she would not go to the mission because she would have to be separated from her boyfriend. Others said they wouldn't sleep there because there's nowhere to stay during the day, forcing them to tote their possessions around town from morning until evening.

Gonzales said the new plan for housing the homeless is not yet final. But he talked optimistically about approaching the Claiborne crowd with a team of outreach workers, accompanied by police.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

FEMA trailers deadline looming

Only three weeks remain for people living in FEMA trailers to get out for good under Jefferson Parish's continuing crackdown on the emergency housing units.

March 1 is the no-exceptions date when residents in about 1,500 remaining trailers will no longer be able to ask inspectors for more time. All cases will instead switch from inspectors to parish attorneys and be decided by parish hearing officers or in the courts.

Zoning laws against using the trailers as permanent housing in residential areas will return to full force, said D.J. Mumphrey, an executive assistant to Parish President Aaron Broussard who supervises the crackdown. He said residents' arguments that they still need the units as they rebuild from the 2005 hurricanes will be closely scrutinized.

It's going to be under a microscope," Mumphrey said, suggesting the parish will turn to judges in the 24th Judicial District Court or other venues to force residents out of their trailers. "It's our intent to go to the courts with this."

Mumphrey estimated that about 1,500 trailers remain in front of houses in the unincorporated parts of Jefferson that fall under the trailer removal campaign. Including cities and one remaining trailer group site operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a total of 2,168 units still dotted the parish at the end of January.

The big white boxes that symbolized the early phases of Hurricane Katrina recovery peaked in Jefferson Parish in 2006, when FEMA counted more than 19,000 of them in the parish.
Arguing for the need to restore normalcy in neighborhoods, the parish last year launched its effort to remove them, reestablishing the codes that prohibit them and sending teams of inspectors to post violation notices on trailer doors.

Inspectors granted extensions to residents who demonstrated their houses remained unlivable with storm damage, while other cases went to hearing officers who listened to residents' cases and allowed extensions or imposed fines.

The remaining cases involve disagreements between residents and the parish that inspectors and code officials cannot resolve, so parish attorneys will now take over the effort, said Louis Savoye, code enforcement director.

"There's a vast majority that probably, in our eyes, aren't justified," Savoye said. "In the owners' eyes, they are."

We feel like these decisions are too critical for us bureaucrats to make," he said.
Because FEMA must honor local laws, Savoye said the parish might refer some cases to the federal agency, giving federal officials notice that trailers are in violation of codes and must be removed.

"We have been as cooperative and as helpful as we can to the vast majority of the citizens," Savoye said. "You have to be compassionate, but if you sit around, people will take advantage of you. You have to be compassionate, but aggressive."

Trailer dwellers who still need housing help as they recover from Katrina can seek rental assistance through FEMA, parish officials said.

Gina Cortez, a spokeswoman for the agency, said case workers can help people locate apartments and qualify for rental aid in a program that has been operated jointly by FEMA and the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development since December.

That program is also slated to phase out. Beginning in March, people receiving disaster rental help will have to pay $50 toward the cost of their rent, a number that will rise by $50 each month until residents are covering their entire housing bills or the assistance program ends entirely in March 2009.

The program, however, also refers people to social services and job training, Cortez said. "What we want is to work with them step by step to help them get back on their feet," she said.
Cortez said FEMA is cooperating with Jefferson to move residents from trailers and into the rental assistance program.

Partly under pressure from the parish, the agency has closed all but one of the 13 trailer enclaves that it once operated in Jefferson for storm victims who did not have another place to put a trailer. The remaining site, near Louis Armstrong International Airport, is scheduled to close in April.

Savoye said a handful of trailers remain installed outside businesses, but they occupy a low priority in the parish's trailer removal push because officials have not received any complaints about trailers in commercial areas.

The Jefferson trailer drawdown is a piece of a broader, post-Katrina code enforcement campaign in Jefferson that has also targeted rental storage units, blighted buildings, overgrown lots and abandoned swimming pools.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Katrina Nursing Home Case Costly for La.

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) -- Louisiana taxpayers paid more than $360,000 for the failed prosecution of the owners of a nursing home where 35 people died during Hurricane Katrina, according to documents obtained Friday by The Associated Press.

The money spent by former state Attorney General Charles Foti include nearly $82,000 for lessons in jury selection and advice on running the trial, the documents show.

Sal and Mabel Mangano owned St. Rita's Nursing Home in St. Bernard Parish, which was flooded by the hurricane that hit Aug. 29, 2005. Prosecutors said they should have evacuated the home, and they charged the couple with 35 counts of negligent homicide and 24 counts of cruelty to the elderly or infirm.

A jury took less than four hours to find the couple not guilty after the 2 1/2-week trial.
''This is a colossal waste of taxpayers' money on a case that should never have come to trial,'' said James Cobb, one of the lawyers who represented the Manganos.
Foti, now in private practice with a New Orleans law firm, did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.

Foti's office drew heavy criticism for prosecuting the Manganos and, in a separate case, prosecuting a doctor and two nurses for the post-hurricane deaths of nine patients at a New Orleans hospital. An accounting of the expenses from that case is not yet available.

Foti has repeatedly denied accusations that he used the trials to grandstand for his re-election bid. He lost last fall's Republican primary, and Democrat Buddy Caldwell became the new attorney general in a runoff election.

The initial expense figures in the Mangano case, provided by Caldwell's office, include $81,533 to Courtroom Sciences Inc., the company that instructed the assistant district attorneys who conducted the trial on jury selection, opening statements and trial tactics.

Other expenses include $58,401 for hurricane expert Brian Jarvinen, $72,018.82 to psychiatry professor Robert Stall and $52,607 to Dr. Stanford Finkel, a gerontologist.
It was not clear from the documents how Jarvinen, Stall and Finkel aided the prosecution.

In the hospital case, Foti led investigations that resulted in the arrests of cancer specialist Dr. Anna Pou and nurses Lori Budo and Cheri Landry, who worked at the flooded Memorial Medical Center after the storm.

A grand jury last year refused to indict Pou. Landry and Budo testified before the panel under immunity and were not indicted.

Friday, February 8, 2008

New Orleans residents accuse corps of racism

Angry residents of eastern New Orleans, the lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish resumed their criticism of the speed at which the Army Corps of Engineers has moved to protect their areas from hurricanes during a public hearing Thursday night.

"You people are involved in blatant racism regarding the black community all over this city," said Vanessa Gueringer, a member of the ACORN activist group representing the Lower 9th Ward.

The complaints focused on concerns raised last summer when the corps published maps showing that early repairs to the levee system in the area, especially the construction of gates on three canals in western New Orleans, dramatically reduced the risk of flooding in predominantly white neighborhoods, while the risk of flooding of largely African-American neighborhoods remained nearly the same as before Katrina.

Corps officials attempted to explain that the solutions for flooding on the city's eastern edge are taking longer because of the difficulties involved in determining how best to rebuild that part of the protection system.

Gib Owen, a civilian corps employee in charge of the environmental studies required for the projects, said the agency short-circuited the normal construction process by conducting environmental studies at the same time that preliminary studies were done on individual projects. But some projects, such as protection of the Industrial Canal, have taken longer to design because of the complicated engineering issues involved in building navigable gates, compared with earthen levees, he said.

Still, the corps has moved to speed up that process as well, requiring the company that will be chosen to design and build the Industrial Canal protection project to take interim steps to block surge by the beginning of the 2009 hurricane season.

Maj. Jeremy Chapman, who oversees the Industrial Canal project, said that contract, expected to cost at least $500 million, will be awarded in March.

August Martin, a branch chief with the corps' local Hurricane Protection Office, attempted to head off the charges of racism earlier in the meeting by answering many of the same questions that were raised at a similar meeting in eastern New Orleans two months ago.

"The entire area west of the (Industrial Canal) does not have a complete 100-year level of protection," Martin said, referring to areas with larger white population. "There is still major work to be done to protect that basin."

But residents attending the meeting at the Church at New Orleans on Chef Menteur Highway were not convinced, especially when corps officials said the decision to protect Lakeview soon after Katrina was directed by congressional authorizations.

"When the corps goes to Congress with maps and data, politicians are not engineers," Gueringer said. "They're depending on you to explain what they should do.

"When you went up there, why didn't you say these are the areas in critical need of attention?" she asked. "If you're a black person living in these areas, what happened? Who spoke for us before Congress?"

Dan Arceneaux, a member of the St. Bernard Coastal Zone Management Advisory Commission, also was critical of the corps' plan to close the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet near Hopedale.

He said that in deciding to close the Gulf outlet with a rock dike that would stick out of the water by only 5 feet at high tide, the corps ignored congressional orders to listen to St. Bernard officials, who have argued that the dike should be higher to help block surge.

Chapman said the dike was designed that way because its purpose is to reduce the erosion damage being caused by the open MR-GO, and not to serve as a flood-protection project.

Thursday's meeting is one of 41 held throughout the area since March to discuss the various hurricane protection construction projects.

The agency is accepting questions or comments on IER 11, the environmental report on the Industrial Canal project, through Feb. 29 at its Web site, .

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Philadelphia Sues HUD, Citing Threat of Losing Aid

The director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority has accused the federal housing secretary of ordering the city to turn over a $2 million property to a politically connected developer, then threatening to withhold millions of dollars in federal aid after his directive was refused, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the city.

But officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development denied those charges Monday, saying that the secretary, Alphonso R. Jackson, had no personal, political or business relationship with the developer who was seeking the $2 million parcel of vacant land, Kenny Gamble, the soul songwriter and producer. A spokesman for Mr. Jackson, Jerry Brown, also said that Philadelphia’s financing was in jeopardy because the city had failed to meet the requirements of a decade-old housing plan.

The accusations against Mr. Jackson by Philadelphia officials, first reported Monday in The Washington Post, come as the housing department’s inspector general and the Justice Department are reportedly investigating whether he improperly steered government contracts to friends in New Orleans and the Virgin Islands. Department officials did not address those accusations, but they were vehement in disputing the charges in the Philadelphia lawsuit.

“There was no retaliation,” Mr. Brown said in an interview Monday. “These two things had nothing whatsoever to do with each other.”

Neither Carl R. Greene, the executive director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority, nor Abbe Fletman, a lawyer representing the authority, returned calls requesting comment.

The lawsuit, filed by Philadelphia housing officials in December, involves a long struggle over the city’s efforts to overhaul the blighted Martin Luther King Jr. projects. Mr. Gamble’s company, Universal Community Homes, was part of a partnership selected to build the first phase of the project in 1999, in a deal that promised to reward the developers with a parcel of vacant land in return for building 236 low-income units and providing counseling services to incoming residents.

Only 80 units were built when Universal’s partner withdrew from the project, forcing the authority to help with the rest of the construction. And Mr. Greene said Universal never fulfilled its obligation to provide counseling so he turned down its request for the $2 million parcel of land, where the company intended to build 19 homes at full market rates.

The dispute continued in 2006, when Mr. Jackson called John F. Street, who was the mayor of Philadelphia at the time, to urge that the land be turned over and the project advanced. In an affidavit, Mr. Greene said federal housing officials had continued to exert pressure on behalf of Mr. Gamble, whom it described as having political connections. Housing officials said Mr. Jackson’s call was an effort to move the project forward, not to bestow a favor on Mr. Gamble.

“The call wasn’t motivated by any desire to help Kenny Gamble,” said Mr. Brown, the HUD spokesman. “The secretary is closer to Carl Greene than he is to Kenny Gamble.”

As the city housing authority rebuffed Mr. Gamble’s effort to get control of the property, it was also in a dispute with housing officials in Washington about whether Philadelphia had failed to meet a federal requirement that 5 percent of its public housing be made accessible for the disabled.

In the lawsuit, Philadelphia officials said that they had exceeded that by 1 percent and provided detailed studies by experts who contend that federal housing inspectors had undercounted the city’s efforts. Mr. Greene’s affidavit stated that he and other Philadelphia housing officials had repeatedly urged federal officials to reconsider, even traveling to Washington last summer to make the case in person. But in his affidavit, Mr. Greene said that Mr. Jackson’s deputies told him that Philadelphia would get credit for its efforts to provide housing for the disabled — and qualify for millions of dollars in federal aid — only if the city agreed to transfer the property to Mr. Gamble.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Recovery schools get help with cash flow

Shortly before unveiling its first complete budget in almost two years, the Recovery School District has received a $15 million infusion to temporarily ease a cash crunch. The district also anticipates getting another $58.4 million for school construction through new legislation in Congress.

Officials however, still have to craft a long-term solution to deal with the cash shortage. The state-run district faces cash-flow issues partially because it lacks a reserve and spent millions on costly academic interventions early on. The district also had to front millions in flood-related construction expenses while it negotiated the amount of reimbursements available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The $15 million in Community Block Development Grants will help the district dig out of the hole, paying off about half of its about $30 million in overdue -- mostly construction-related -- bills, Superintendent Paul Vallas said.

One vendor awaiting payment is Arrighi Simoneaux LLC, a Baton Rouge commercial construction company. The firm did site work for nine modular campuses and renovated 400 bathrooms in 25 schools last summer in the rush before the start of the 2007-08 school year.

The company was paid $37 million, but $2 million is still owed, operations manager Shane Kirkpatrick said.

"We jumped through hurdles to get the kids in schools, to get the project finished. And three months after, we cannot get paid," said Kirkpatrick, who met with state Superintendent Paul Pastorek last week to discuss the outstanding invoices.

Pastorek said this week that state officials will settle the balance with Arrighi Simoneaux. The Recovery District expects to eventually receive $90 million in grants through the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Vallas said he will tackle the balance of outstanding invoices this month.

Penalties change

More relief will come from FEMA. The agency is now obligated to pay the recovery district at least $58.4 million because of legislation that Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., inserted into the 2008 federal omnibus appropriations bill, amending the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, the oft-criticized law governing federal disaster assistance.

Pastorek said it could take up to 180 days for the $58.4 million to arrive. Meanwhile, the system will try to secure short-term and long-term cash to ease the budget crunch. Pastorek said state education officials are working with Gov. Bobby Jindal's office and Louisiana Recovery Authority executive director Paul Rainwater to develop a framework to ease cash-flow issues. Officials may reveal the strategy this week before they present a roughly $250 million budget to the state board of education in February, Pastorek said. Landrieu's legislation, which Congress passed in December, altered the way FEMA assesses penalties for Katrina- and Rita-affected school districts not fully covered by the National Flood Insurance Program, a subsidized insurance for policy holders in hazardous regions.

Government facilities, such as public school districts, may be insured by the National Flood Insurance Program if the building is located in the 100-year flood plain. Before the 2005 storm season, many of the more than 100 New Orleans campuses taken over by the state were not covered by the National Flood Insurance Program.

After the 2005 storm season, FEMA established a policy penalizing applicants not covered by the program up to $1 million per building. The agency levied a penalty of up to $500,000 for the desks, chairs, pencils and other contents, and another penalty of up to $500,000 against the damage estimates of each building on a campus.

Under the new system, schools under the control of the Recovery District would get up to a $500,000 penalty per campus, regardless of how many buildings it has. Many campuses in New Orleans had several buildings, even small one-room structures.

The new model applies to Gulf Coast school districts impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and could mean millions for public and private schools in St. Bernard, St. Tammany, Plaquemines and other parishes.

Cutting red tape

Landrieu said many of the public projects in Louisiana are mired in red tape and "stuck in the muck." Initially, she wanted FEMA to ultimately streamline grant procedures for all storm-related projects, but FEMA resisted some of her proposals.

"So I basically asked, begged and then forced them to change the process relative to schools," Landrieu said. "It literally took an act of Congress to get this done."

The Recovery District initially faced more than $88 million in National Flood Insurance Program penalties under the old policy. Now the district will pay only about $30 million in deductions. For example, the district would recoup $6 million more for buildings on the Carver Elementary and Carver High campuses, $2.8 million more out of Alfred Lawless High and millions more for other schools. The $58.4 million, however, will pay for construction districtwide.

The $58.4 million would mostly be put into a capital budget, said budget director Ramsey Green. Some of the money could be used to finance a school-facilities master plan, Green said. Officials concede that financing the 10-year rebuilding plan, expected to be presented in May, will be a challenge.

More for repairs

Officials said about $50 million of the more than $150 million spent on renovations in the last two school years came out of the district's operating budget.

"We had to pay everything out of one pot. Now we're not going to be straining the operating budget trying to pay for capital expenditures," Vallas said. "We now have money up front."

Landrieu's legislation also enables FEMA to cut one check for all the money that a school district is slated to receive. It also eliminates a 25 percent penalty for schools wanting to relocate, change the use or add protective measures that the Stafford Act would not pay for. Rainwater helped write the law when he worked as Landrieu's legislative director and chief of operations.

"We can do $58 million more of repairs than before," Pastorek said. "That could mean three brand new schools or as many as 15 or 20 rehabilitations."

Sunday, February 3, 2008

It Happened in...New Orleans

pssssst...Do Something!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Study: Sediment Makes New Orleans Sink

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Heavy sediment deposited in the Mississippi River delta in the last ice age has caused New Orleans to sink and will continue to drag down coastal Louisiana bit by bit for hundreds of years, according to a new study by NASA and Louisiana State University scientists.

The study, published recently in Geophysical Research Letters, adds an important perspective to the puzzle of natural and human factors complicating the effort to save New Orleans.

The weight of glacial period sediments has caused coastal Louisiana to sink between .04 inches and 0.3 inches a year and will continue to do so for hundreds of years, the study said. New Orleans, it said, will sink about 0.17 inches a year, or nearly three feet over the next 200 years.

Parts of the city are 5-10 feet below sea level now.

''It's sort of one of these processes that you can't stop,'' said Erik Ivins, a scientist with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and the study's lead researcher.

The study was done by comparing a 60-year-old catalog of elevation measurements in coastal Louisiana to a model of the Earth's crust over the past 750,000 years that calculated the rate of sinking by both the weight of sea level rise and the flow of sediments into the Gulf of Mexico. The mathematical study corroborates a theory that the Mississippi's sediment load has contributed to sinking in coastal Louisiana.

The heavy load of ancient sediment is found here because coastal Louisiana was the drainage point for the entire North American ice sheet during much of the last glacial period, about 22,000 years ago, Ivins said.

The massive sediment slug was pushed downriver by advancing glaciers and it is still working its way down the Mississippi each year, researchers said.

Scientists have known for a long time that New Orleans is sinking, but recent advances using Global Positioning System technology and updated geodetic data have deepened the understanding of the geophysical forces at play.

The challenge will be to take what science has to offer to help save New Orleans, said Roy Dokka, executive director of LSU's Center for GeoInformatics and one of the study's researchers.

''We have to build smart. We also have to make sure that we understand what's happening exactly,'' Dokka said. ''If we get the science and engineering right, we can save New Orleans for hundreds of years.''

Measuring how much the land may sink is critical for the Army Corps of Engineers. It is embarking on a massive effort to build up levees and flood defenses around New Orleans and the surrounding region of swamps and marshes that are home to fishermen, Cajun culture and such critical infrastructure as ports and oil refineries.

Factors clouding New Orleans' future are formidable: The sea may rise by 3 feet over the next century because of global warming; hurricanes have destroyed important bulwark-like wetlands and barrier islands; ongoing human activities such as oil extraction are causing land loss; and the building of levees actually speed up subsidence.

Scientists are busy trying to evaluate the risks. That work was helped by Hurricane Katrina, which acted as a catalyst for scientific inquiries.

''I wouldn't say anybody was wandering through the dark before, but there is a better body of knowledge, both big picture and detailed,'' said Ed Link, a University of Maryland engineer who's led corps' efforts to study and improve levee building in the storm's wake.

Friday, February 1, 2008

In Court Ruling on Floods, More Pain for New Orleans

There is disappointment but little surprise here at a federal judge’s grudgingly absolving the Army Corps of Engineers of liability in the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Although the decision, issued Wednesday, was sharply critical of the corps, the judge’s finding has if anything only hardened the ill feelings against the government that have hung over this city since the storm.

The plaintiffs in the class-action suit dismissed by the judge were many of the hundreds of thousands of people who filed claims here against the corps last year because of the levee breaches that flooded the city. They lined up in cars and on foot and jammed the streets around the agency’s district headquarters, acting out what has been a loudly spoken article of faith since the days in 2005 when water covered 80 percent of New Orleans and ruined the homes of thousands: the corps — not nature, not a record-breaking storm surge and not local politics or local negligence — was to blame.

The judge, Stanwood R. Duval Jr. of the Federal District Court here, a son of South Louisiana, heartily seconded that notion on Wednesday, suggesting that the corps was guilty of “gross incompetence.” But Judge Duval said he was powerless to rule favorably on the lawsuit because the Flood Control Act of 1928 granted legal immunity to the government in the event of failure of flood control projects like levees.

Kathy Gibbs, a corps spokeswoman, said the agency agreed with the dismissal, but declined further comment because other suits over Hurricane Katrina damage are pending, The Associated Press reported.

Local reaction to the ruling was muted. In part because the judge said last year that he would probably have to find the corps immune from damages, expectations appear to have been low, even as bitterness over the losses festered along with a desire to fix blame on the agency.

“There was almost a general understanding that — guess what? — they’re exempt from prosecution,” said Bari Landry, president of the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association, in a neighborhood devastated by the failure of the flood walls.

“We knew there was a very good chance this would not go forward,” Ms. Landry said. “I’m not at all surprised.”

Ms. Landry was one of some 350,000 people who filed claims. The lawyers who brought the suit dismissed Wednesday represented about 65,000 of those claimants. They said Thursday that they would appeal, arguing that the corps was not protected by the 1928 law’s immunity clause, largely because a change it had made to its flood protection plan for New Orleans had not been authorized by Congress.

If Judge Duval’s conclusion provided no comfort, his language did, echoing in legal terminology what has been strong criticism of the corps by activists, politicians and the local media.

“While the United States government is immune for legal liability for the defalcations alleged herein, it is not free, nor should it be, from posterity’s judgment concerning its failure to accomplish what was its task,” the judge wrote. “This story — 50 years in the making — is heart-wrenching. Millions of dollars were squandered in building a levee system with respect to these outfall canals which was known to be inadequate by the corps’s own calculations.”

Though the ruling spotlighted many missteps by the corps over the years, it made little of other possible factors, including culpability of former local officials overseeing levees and drainage, and particularly their rejection of the corps’s original plan for floodgates on the drainage canals that so devastated the city.

Supporters of the claimants applauded Judge Duval’s language, suggesting that it might yet fuel their cause. “What we’ve had so far is just a suspicion,” said Joseph Bruno, a lawyer in the case. “You now have a U.S. federal district judge who’s had a chance to evaluate the facts and draw legal conclusions. Now you’ve got a determination where a guy says, ‘Look, but for the nuances of the statute, these people will be called on to pay.’ ”

Sandy Rosenthal of the activist group said: “Clearly Judge Duval is frustrated by what he had to do. It’s outrageous these levees were fragile. He and I agree the corps was responsible for the failure of the levees. It’s a positive thing that Judge Duval outlined all those things in his statements.”