A year after Gustav: Final debris being cleared; construction continues

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter
The gas canopy at a local gas station rests on the ground following Hurricane Gustav.

Removing the debris from shattered trees and homes Hurricane Gustav left in its wake on September 1 of last year required a massive effort and more than $6 million in taxpayers' money.

Contractors continue to work to clear storm-felled trees from Bayou Grosse Tete and from the banks of Bayou Plaquemine.

The Iberville Parish Council handled the debris collection and monitoring for the parish, except for the City of St. Gabriel, which arranged for separate service.

Parish President J. Mitchell Ourso Jr. has reported that the collection of vegetation amounted to 284,571 cubic yards of waste, and construction debris to 45,859 cubic yards, for a total of 329,859.

That is enough to fill 32 football fields with a six-foot layer of waste material, Ourso said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has paid  $4.5 million for debris removal and monitoring so far, 95 percent of the cost, Parish Finance Director Randall Dunn said. The parish was out of pocket for $289,000 for the work. Dunn is about to submit another $680,000 in invoices for debris removal.

Iberville Parish and Morgan City were the only two areas of the state to qualify for a “right of entry” program that allowed government contractors to go onto private property to remove hazardous storm-damaged trees.

The parish president said the right of entry program, concluded in August, included the removal of 654 leaning trees, the removal of hazardous hanging branches on 2,234 trees and the removal of 22 tree stumps on 630 parcels of land parish wide.

The personal property program cost another $600,000, the finance director said. FEMA is in the process of preparing a worksheet for the federal government to provide the money to pay the contractor.

FEMA will not help pay for some $1.4 million damage to some 30-parish government buildings that sustained damage until the parish has exhausted all its insurance claims, Dunn said.

Parish President Ourso said dealing with the parish's insurance company has been the most frustrating part of the entire process.

“I can only imagine what the people of the parish went through with their insurance companies because I am going through the same thing with the parish – back and forth, back and forth,” he said.

Ourso said Dunn is still trying to negotiate a settlement on the badly damaged Department of Public Works facility on Bayou Road, but that the insurance settlement figure is still “off around $200,000 to $300,000.”

He said if Dunn is unable to reach a settlement by next week, he wants to see the adjustor. If an agreement still isn't forthcoming, Ourso said the parish could take the insurer to court.

The Parish Council last month let a contract to rebuild the facility, the base for all parish drainage and road maintenance. Ourso said he has a pre-construction meeting with the contractor today (Thursday).

The City of Plaquemine, meanwhile, has received FEMA payments of only $366,000, a fraction of the $3 million the city expects to collect for storm damages, Business Manager Laurie Berthelot said.

“Most of the money is being held up at the state level,” Mayor Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta said. “After all is said and done, we're going to be on the hook for about $1 million.”

The city's electrical system sustained heavy damages in the storm, requiring both contract workers and overtime for city line and public works crews.

The expected payments cover only what FEMA considers as “qualified” expenses, the mayor said.

“We could buy the linemen a lunch, but not the street crew,” Gulotta noted.

Dunn said he was praying for quiet hurricane season this year and for all the federal money to come in before the next season.

“It's hard when you have disaster stacked on top of disaster,” he said.

The parish experienced the problem four years ago when hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck within two weeks. FEMA required the parish to sort the hurricane debris by storm.

FEMA announce last week, the fourth anniversary of Katrina, a new “Fourth and Forward” recovery program organized by FEMA, the Louisiana Recovery Authority and the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Statewide, FEMA has provided $14.6 billion in public assistance, individual assistance and hazard mitigation grants over the past four years. The combined effects of Katrina and Rita are considered the largest disaster in U. S. history.

“Iberville's own 'Fourth and Forward” story, enabled by $7,458,175 in federal recovery dollars, features significant accomplishments and an ever-increasing recovery momentum,” a news release from FEMA's Transitional Recovery Office in New Orleans said.

FEMA provided $5.23 million to individuals and families, including $4.1 million in housing assistance for rent, repairs and replacement housing, and $1.12 million for other assistance, such as furniture, clothing and replacement vehicles.

The agency provided another $2.02 million in public assistance grants, including  $208,854 for permanent repair or reconstruction of public facilities and $1.8 million for debris removal and emergency protection measures. FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Program, aimed at preventing future losses of life and property, has awarded the parish $200,000 in planning grants.

Gustav proved to be a much worse storm for Iberville Parish, however.

The federal government is expected to provide at least another $44 million for recovery and preparation programs. The Iberville Parish Council has hired a company, Pan American, to administer the funds for the entire parish, municipalities included. The Parish Council has scheduled a hearing on proposals for using the money for Tuesday, September 15.

Getting state and federal approval for the projects is expected to take at least until next spring. Some officials say that is optimistic.