Special Report: FEMA/TEMA Owe Tenn. Communities, Part Two

Sep 5, 2013

Tenn. communities spent millions repairing roads, bridges and other public infrastructure following the 2010 floods. FEMA and TEMA still owe local municipalities for many of those repairs.
Credit fema.gov

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (WMOT)  --  In the second part of WMOT’s follow up to the 2010 floods, we continue to look at why federal and state agencies owe counties, towns and cities all across Tennessee millions of dollars in recovery costs.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it’s already reimbursed municipalities about $175 million dollars for more than 5,000 recovery projects. But more than three years after flood waters receded, FEMA still owes Tennessee communities roughly one dollar out of every four spent on repairs.

Yesterday we met Edwin Hogan, the Cheatham County Emergency Management Director. He took WMOT News on a tour of the Chapmansboro Road area, a low-lying section of the county along the Cumberland River that was badly damaged in the 2010 floods.

“You see right here we have two houses (where) nothings been done three years later,” Hogan said, pointing out empty, badly damaged homes, now overgrown by weeds. “We begged FEMA to let us tear them down and haul off the debris, because that’s a fire trap. That could be a drug house. Kids could get hurt in it.”

Cheatham County borrowed money from its own school construction fund to pay for flood repairs - then waited months, sometimes years for FEMA to reimburse the expense. Worse still, Hogan recently learned that FEMA would not pay more than half-a-million dollars in costs he understood the agency had promised.

“It looks like we’re gonna’ be out right at about $550,000 in Public Assistance,” he explains. “Most of that in debris removal and home inspections. I guess next time we have to get FEMA to sign it in blood.”

Cheatham County isn’t alone. FEMA has denied about $33 million worth of flood repair costs submitted by Metro Nashville. The city is appealing those cases. Much of the money FEMA owes in Tennessee for the 2010 floods is now tied up somewhere in the agency’s appeals process.

“FEMA has confessed that its appeals process is virtually broken,” said Ernie Abbott, who served as FEMA’s lead attorney in the 1990s. “One of its top priorities is to try and resolve the backlog they have on appeals, because it’s certainly taking more than the 90 days the regulations say they have.”

Abbott, who now provides consulting services to disaster struck communities, notes that FEMA has expanded quickly in recent years, but said the number of people qualified to review appeals hasn’t kept pace, stalling the process.

“The number of policy level people, who would be the deciding officials for appeals. There are still a relatively small number who have that depth of experience and want to really focus attention on the appeals,” Abbott explains.

Mid-state residents examine a home pushed off its foundation by the 2010 floods.
Credit fema.gov

FEMA spokesperson Mary Hudak acknowledges that the agency is behind in reviewing appeals, but wouldn’t admit to staffing problems. She said, instead, that the agency simply wants to be thorough.

“We like to make sure we’re giving the applicant every consideration,” Hudak said. “So sometimes that takes longer than 90 days, to make sure we give a fair, complete review. Truthfully, we try to get to ‘Yes.’”

As Cheatham County learned, getting that “Yes” from the right person is critically important. County officials say they met with FEMA field staff in 2010 and were given verbal approval for expenses the agency later denied.

FEMA’s Mary Hudak says final funding decisions are made at the regional or national level and that Cheatham County officials misunderstood the role of the agency’s field staff.

“Generally those are information gatherers…people who go out and look at sites and take a kind of picture, both visually as well and analytically of the impact or what that site needs,” she said.

Tennessee officials say FEMA disallowed the Cheatham projects because the county paid disaster contractors more than federal regulations allow. County officials appealed twice and now say their only recourse is legal action.

The State of Tennessee also owes local municipalities for flood expenses. The state’s share of reimbursement costs are just a fraction of what’s owed by FEMA, but to-date Tennessee has only paid about 10 percent of what it agreed to cover following the 2010 floods.

“It helps us protect the local governments from having to give back money if a project has dis-allowed costs at the end. And that can happen on any project as it goes through the FEMA review process,” said Jeremy Heidt, a spokesman for the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency.  

Former FEMA attorney Ernie Abbott agrees that withholding the funds is probably a good idea.

“FEMA will, at closeout, or even after close out, decide that there was an issue on eligibility of the disaster grant that they were given and basically tell the state that ‘We’re taking this money away because we’ve decided it’s not eligible. Now you go and try to find it from the applicants,’” Abbott explained.

Many states handle disaster reimbursements the same way Tennessee does, but not all. Kentucky, for example, reimburses local governments for each disaster project as it’s completed.

The good news is that there are now less than 1000 of the roughly 6000 original recovery projects waiting for reimbursement. FEMA spokesperson Mary Hudak hinted strongly that the agency intends to clear the outstanding 2010 flood projects in the current fiscal year.