CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

December 4, 2012

REGIONAL: Miss. emergency head: Streamline disaster recovery

By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
Associated Press

JACKSON, Miss. — The federal government should trim overlapping layers of bureaucracy to help speed recovery from large-scale disasters, the director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency told a congressional panel Tuesday in Washington.

Robert Latham said after Hurricane Katrina in struck in 2005, Mississippi officials were frustrated that the federal government required separate environmental and historic preservation reviews for some projects.

“This requirement is time-consuming, redundant, and had significantly delayed rebuilding efforts,” Latham said, according to his prepared remarks provided by MEMA.

A single review would suffice for each project, even if different federal agencies are giving money to it, Latham told the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The panel is reviewing preparation, response and recovery surrounding Superstorm Sandy, which struck the East Coast in October.

Mississippi, so far, has sent more than 100 emergency managers, law enforcement officers and public works officials to help with Sandy recovery in Maryland and New Jersey, Latham said.

“There is no reason why they should have to learn independently the lessons of a complex recovery when they have already been learned by other communities such as those along the Mississippi Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina,” he said.

Latham said the Federal Emergency Management Agency should allow states to spend slightly more to manage recovery projects. He said doing so would allow the hiring of additional employees for recovery, freeing up regular government employees to focus on providing basic services.

FEMA currently caps the state management costs at 3.34 percent of what the federal government is spending to rebuild public buildings or infrastructure. Latham recommended an increase to 7 percent.

“Had a 3.34 percent management cost policy been in effect during Hurricane Katrina recovery, Mississippi would not have been able to implement an effective management program to support the costs of managing the recovery,” he said.

Mississippi received $3.2 billion in federal public assistance grants after Katrina. Latham said to manage the money, the state hired an engineering firm to track the scope of the recovery projects and an accounting firm to make sure finances were properly handled. Mississippi created a software system to track money at all stages, from the original cost estimate for a project until reimbursement is requested and money is spent. The state created a similar program to track disaster mitigation projects.

“These systems are best practices and FEMA should provide funding to states to create these kind of databases,” Latham said.

Latham was MEMA director from February 2000 until July 2006. He retired and worked as an emergency management consultant. He returned to MEMA this past January, when Gov. Phil Bryant took office.