Inside Report for Jan. 23, 2013

More than four years after Hurricane Gustav hit Louisiana, the storm remains an issue in Livingston Parish.

It’s not just the memory of Gustav pummeling the parish particularly hard and downing a massive number of trees.

The lingering conversations have more to do with the cleanup, which has embedded itself into the parish’s politics.

When the storm hit, a wedge already existed between then-Parish President Mike Grimmer and most of the Parish Council. Gustav and its cleanup drove the wedge deeper.

During the cleanup of debris clogging parish waterways, Grimmer raised questions about the necessity of some of the work and eventually halted it. He refused to accept a $40 million check from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and asked the agency to conduct additional inspections of the work.

Some likened that to a guy asking the Internal Revenue Service to do an audit of his taxes.

Grimmer said he didn’t want to accept money from FEMA, use it to pay contractors and then find out the work wasn’t reimbursable and the federal money had to be repaid.

FEMA sent in a team to investigate and subsequently the agency ruled that none of the work done to remove debris from waterways was eligible. That left contractors, national and local, screaming that they weren’t getting paid for work they had done in good faith.

The cleanup became a major issue in the 2011 election in which Layton Ricks beat Grimmer, while several pro-Grimmer council candidates beat incumbents.

The cleanup also left the parish facing a $53 million suit from its main cleanup contractor, International Equipment Distributors.

In that suit, which has not been resolved, the company maintains its contract was with the parish and it did the work it was instructed to do by the parish and its agents.

What happens with that suit is up to the courts to decide, but Ricks, now the parish president, says Livingston Parish doesn’t have the money to pay the contractor unless FEMA supplies funds to pay for the cleanup.

Though the contractor couldn’t seize the governmental building, Ricks says he is concerned about the parish’s bond rating and general credit if IED obtains a $53 million judgment against Livingston Parish.

Ricks said he thinks FEMA’s denial of funds was political, though he said he won’t give details because he has no proof.

He also said it’s obvious that much of the work was necessary.

Ricks maintains that even if FEMA finds that some work did not meet its criteria, much of the removal of trees downed in drainage canals was needed to prevent flooding.

The parish has appealed FEMA’s denial of all $46 million in waterway cleanup costs.

The appeal alleges FEMA inspectors, who were called in to check the work, didn’t walk the cleaned waterways as FEMA says they did.

FEMA’s inspectors used the wrong geographic coordinates and couldn’t find the streams where work was done, but the inspectors still decided that the cleaned streams had posed no future flooding danger to inhabited property, the appeal states.

It claims the federal agency has failed to provide it with the records of inspectors who were on the job during the work and who initially praised that work to the parish.

What happened during the FEMA investigation and during the cleanup itself are questions that still beg for answers uncoated by the oil of politics.

Until then, Hurricane Gustav will remain a financial concern to the parish and a topic of conversation among its taxpayers.

Bob Anderson is The Advocate’s Florida Parishes bureau chief. He can be reached at banderson@theadvocate.com.