FEMA vs. Louisiana

Originally Posted By: jbushart
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Businesses lash out at FEMA

New Orleans owners say outsiders getting recovery contracts

08:57 PM CDT on Thursday, October 6, 2005

By KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News

NEW ORLEANS ? Walter Coleman's towing and body shop business idled uselessly as he waited, and waited, for federal officials to assess his damaged business, loan him money and clear him to open again after Hurricane Katrina.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of vehicles destroyed in the storm were carted off the streets by someone else ? mainly out-of-state competitors.

"I'm out of work, and they're telling me to be patient?" a frustrated Mr. Coleman said. His shop is still waiting for the green light.

He and hundreds of New Orleans business owners got their chance to vent Thursday, telling state and federal authorities that their livelihoods are being washed away while out-of-towners are earning billions from recovery contracts.

The occasion was supposed to be more hopeful in tone, an ambitious attempt to move on. The mass meeting, billed as a "back to business" workshop, brought together local entrepreneurs and state and national heavy-hitters, including Vice Adm. Thad Allen, who is heading the federal response to Katrina. It was the first such event in what will be a monumental effort to restore a wrecked local economy.

But it quickly devolved into a morass of angry questions that showed how hard, and how contentious, it will be to bring this city back to life.

Business owners complained that a reduction of National Guard forces had left the city unsafe. They criticized plans to reopen toll booths, citing fears of discouraging business. They said business loans have come too slowly. They expressed anger at lagging trash collection by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They asked why there's no timeline for electricity to be restored throughout the city.

Not being used

The biggest gripe came from local officials and business owners who complained that sinking Louisiana enterprises aren't being used in the massive cleanup job as they wait for a lumbering bureaucracy to kick into gear.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials responded that local businesses were unavailable just after the storm, when the work was being doled out. But they vowed to work harder to see that Louisiana get more recovery dollars ? two-thirds of which are going to companies outside the state.

"Now the business are coming back, so we can tap you, and we do intend to do so," said Ashley Lewis, a FEMA director for contracting.

Officials have estimated that as many as 80,000 businesses were destroyed or seriously damaged by Katrina. Of those in New Orleans, one state official said, 97 percent are small businesses.

Housing obstacle

Lack of housing for workers also was cited as a major obstacle. Claude Beudot, who owns 87 houses he rents or leases to lower-income families, said he fields calls every day from people who ask him when he'll repair the homes so they can come back and work.

Shaking with emotion, tears of frustration in his eyes, Mr. Beudot said he was "completely ruined" because he was refinancing the houses when the storm hit, so he had no insurance coverage. Applications for disaster-relief loans have gotten him nowhere, he said.

"I'm clueless," he told officials. "Are you?"

Those who were lucky enough to reopen fairly quickly complained that they were overlooked for contracts in favor of out-of-towners. They pleaded with state officials to press prime contractors and federal agencies until they start hiring more locals.

"My competition increased three-, four-, fivefold overnight," said Darrin Blystad, who owns House Call, a home-inspection and pest-control company. "I appreciate them coming in to help, but now it's time for this community to start rebuilding. We need you guys to start getting louder."

Federal promises

Louisiana's secretary of economic development, Mike Olivier, and Eugene Cornelius, Louisiana's district director for the small-business administration, promised to do that.

"It's not all doom and gloom. Washington hears us," said Mr. Cornelius. "I assure you that those numbers will increase rapidly, exponentially."

Mr. Olivier blasted the U.S. Small Business Administration for being slow to award business loans, having approved only six loans in the six weeks since the storm. Administration officials said it has taken this long to process the loans for many reasons, including a lack of documentation from some flooded businesses. They said loans should pick up soon.

Meanwhile, Mr. Olivier said, opportunities are being missed every day, such as the chance for local restaurants to cater for cleanup crews. Instead, he said, out-of-town services offer "second-rate food," while the region's "world-class chefs" are dangerously close to losing their jobs.

Fed-up owners

"We're sick of it, damn it," Mr. Olivier said in front of the nearly 1,500 business owners at the workshop. "Now we are on the ground in this city. Give our people a chance to earn a living. ... If we're allowed to just flounder, we are going to go under."

In a passionate speech that brought the crowd to a standing ovation, the mayor criticized the no-bid contracts awarded by FEMA in the days after the hurricane and demanded that the nation's big recovery contractors hire local workers at decent wages.

"I can tell that you are ready to go, and you don't want to necessarily hear a political speech," Mr. Nagin told business owners.

He added that businesses are probably wondering how the city can "make sure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers."

He apparently was referring to the hiring of immigrant workers at low wages. Calls to Mr. Nagin's spokeswoman, Sally Foreman, to clarify the remark were not returned Thursday.

The outrage at the meeting was so palpable that large contractors, such as Shaw and KBR Halliburton, who were there to meet with the entrepreneurs about contract opportunities, threatened to leave unless news reporters were shut out of their sessions with the business owners.

Closed workshops

FEMA complied with the request and closed those workshops, which were originally open to all.

"They've been getting beat up and they don't want the attention," said Joshua Barnes, a FEMA public affairs officer. "They were stating that if that was going to happen, they considered leaving because they could do without the flak."

E-mail kmbrooks@dallasnews.com

Home Inspection Services of Missouri

"We're NACHI. Get over it."