Livingston reopens appeal to FEMA over Gustav

Advocate file photo by CASEY ANDERSON -- Workers remove a tree felled by Hurricane Gustav from a power line on Highway 16 in Denham Springs in September 2008. Show caption
Advocate file photo by CASEY ANDERSON -- Workers remove a tree felled by Hurricane Gustav from a power line on Highway 16 in Denham Springs in September 2008.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency used false information in denying an appeal by Livingston Parish for $13 million in costs for cleaning up of dangerous trees after Hurricane Gustav, the parish says in a request to reopen that appeal.

The parish also has an ongoing appeal of FEMA’s denial of $46 million in waterway cleanup costs in Livingston Parish.

FEMA’s failure to pay Livingston Parish for the post-storm costs “forms a pattern of wrongdoing that threatens to inflict economic ruin on my parish,” Parish President Layton Ricks wrote in a letter to FEMA.

The cleanup contractor, International Equipment Distributors, has sued the parish for nonpayment of $53 million in Gustav cleanup bills.

Parish appeals on payment for cleanup of hazardous trees were turned down twice by FEMA, but Ricks says in his letter that the last ruling was based “on demonstrably false information.” The letter says FEMA has left a paper trail proving its “decision is based on falsehoods.”

FEMA’s Louisiana Recovery Office prematurely determined what it intended to pay the parish and then tried to make documents fit the numbers, Ricks argues in a 19-page letter to FEMA Deputy Director Tod Wells.

“The evidence suggests the LRO simply decided what it wanted to pay, and then made up a story,” Ricks wrote.

When the LRO found in other parishes that it couldn’t just cut the prices paid for handling dangerous trees it decided not to pay Livingston Parish for any trees that weren’t documented with “before and after” photos, Ricks says in the letter. When the parish showed that the tactic violated FEMA policy, the LRO changed its method again and used inaccurate spreadsheets, according to the letter.

“The data entries in the Sept. 10, 2009 spreadsheet appear to be random insertions of made-up numbers designed to yield the percentages that the LRO had already predetermined to pay weeks earlier,” Ricks says. “FEMA simply entered fictitious data in order to make the numbers work.”

For every limb and tree, the parish provided FEMA two forms of documentation that are allowed by FEMA policy, the letter says.

“Livingston Parish provided FEMA with everything FEMA policy required to justify funding,” Ricks says in the letter. “FEMA had no legitimate reason to disregard this documentation.”

In an email response to the Advocate, FEMA said it is “unable to respond to any third party claims or allegations.”

“FEMA bases appeals determinations, primarily on information provided by a parish,” the FEMA email states.

FEMA may “bolster an appeal” using file information or may ask the applicant for more information, giving the applicant “every opportunity to support its appeal,” it continues.

“If denied, applicants have a second appeal opportunity, where additional information not included in the first appeal request can be provided to FEMA in Washington, D.C. for consideration,” the email says. “The agency uses this process to provide for an unbiased review of any appeal request.

“The second appeal review and determination by FEMA in Washington, D.C. is final,” the email from FEMA’s Region 6 office states.

Ricks said in an interview he is awaiting a response from FEMA headquarters and hopes the facts presented in the letter will prompt a r-opening of the appeal.

In January, FEMA headquarters in Washington denied Livingston Parish’s appeal saying review of photographs and records confirms the agency’s earlier finding that the work was ineligible for federal funding.

“Based on a comprehensive and independent review and analysis of the data submitted with the appeal, FEMA has determined that the applicant’s contractor completed ineligible debris removal work,” the denial report states.

The parish had submitted $16.6 million in bills to FEMA for work done on dangerous trees and limbs after Hurricane Gustav in 2008, but the agency paid for less than $4 million of that work.

In the separate $46 million waterway cleanup appeal, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy said last month in a letter to FEMA that it appears a detailed investigation into the activities of the Louisiana Recovery Office by FEMA itself, or perhaps another agency with oversight, is in order.

Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, said in that letter that evidence suggests the decision by FEMA’s Louisiana office to deny payment to the parish was made before the office had thoroughly examined the facts and that the office supported the denial using “questionable documentation.”

The Livingston Parish Council subsequently voted 5-4 to spend another $20,000 to continue that appeal.