It's been almost two years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, but local politicians said they continued to face day-to-day obstacles with the emergency management agency meant to help them.
"Although funds have been obligated by the federal government for our recovery, municipalities are often unable to access the cash needed to begin critical projects," New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told a Senate subcommittee hearing on disaster relief Tuesday.
"As a result, the slow pace and awkward method of funds reaching the local level remains a principal issue hampering the recovery effort," he said.
Congress has designated the Federal Emergency Management Agency as the agency that has sole responsibility for the coordination of government relief efforts in response to major disasters.
NOLA Officials Say Cut the Red Tape
At the Senate hearing, Mayor Nagin proposed creating a new classification of "catastrophic disaster" for situations similar to Hurricane Katrina that would set in motion timetables for sending aid to an affected region faster.
Frustrated with the lackluster progress in his community, St. Bernard Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez described to senators one example of how he believes FEMA is mishandling federal disaster funds.
Rodriquez said FEMA has been reimbursing his community for pumping trucks that are contracted to transport sewage out of the parish instead of simply giving the community money to repair the entire damaged sewage system itself.
"There is something wrong with this process," Rodriguez said. "We have spent, so far, $60 million dollars on vacuum trucks that suck the sewage out of the manholes. That $60 million could have been spent rebuilding our processing plants."
A FEMA official who testified before the subcommittee said the government agency is committed to rebuilding Gulf Coast despite the continued problems and mounting complaints.
FEMA rules mandate, however, that before the agency can fund a project, it must first determine whether the damage was caused by the disaster rather than pre-existing damage.
"In a few cases, there are differences in professional opinion as to what is disaster-related damage and the appropriate repair," said James Walke, director of FEMA's public assistance division, who also testified before the subcommittee.
"What we don't understand and what we're frustrated about is we continue to have to prove that we were devastated … that we were damaged," Rodriguez said.
Senate Pledges Help
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who chairs the subcommittee, made it clear she would continue to hold FEMA accountable for its work in her state of Louisiana and across the Gulf Coast.
She asked Walke to submit the number of project work sheets completed by FEMA and how many were argued over between state and local officials before they were resolved.
The project work sheets were a source of controversy at Tuesday's hearing, with local officials arguing FEMA often underestimates the cost of rebuilding projects, such as the cost of a new fire station.
Responding to a question posed by Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, asking if the local government's arguments with FEMA were all about money, Rodriguez said, "If we had the money, we wouldn't be sitting here."