The 37-foot storm surge and pounding winds that obliterated all but about 40 homes in Waveland were soon followed by another flood -- hundreds of millions of federal disaster-recovery dollars flowing from the nation’s capital.
It was part of a geyser of billions of dollars to rebuild South Mississippi after the worst natural disaster in American history, an outpouring that also sent auditors and FBI agents scattering across the Coast to trace how the money was spent and who might have tried to steal it.
A McClatchy review of criminal prosecutions and of scores of audits by the Inspector General’s Office for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security suggests although most of the money served its purposes, hundreds of crooks and connivers succeeded in snagging some of it. In the scramble to recover, federal requirements often were ignored or went unnoticed.
Federal auditors recommended Mississippi recipients of 68 grants from FEMA return or surrender their claims on $131.4 million because the money was mishandled, mainly due to lack of compliance with regulations. Many of those accusations were later erased in successful appeals to FEMA, though some are still unsettled.
State officials said they minimized problems with billions of dollars in grant money by having a Jackson accounting firm scour project worksheets in the early stages.
The FBI found trouble almost immediately, pursuing criminals who set up fake charity websites around the country to pocket donations from those wanting to help storm victims. Then in 2008, a federal grand jury charged 14 current and former Mississippi state prison convicts with making false claims in attempts to obtain federal disaster money.
In the rush to clear debris and rebuild, some recipients of FEMA money committed widespread violations of federal contracting rules.
In 2011, Earnest Holder, a district supervisor in Greene County, showed the allure of all that money could tempt those in trusted positions of government. He steered Katrina-cleanup contracts to a firm in return for kickbacks, a scheme for which he was sentenced to 6½ years in prison.
All told, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Mississippi brought 336 Katrina-related cases, and the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office prosecuted 95 people.
In Waveland, federal auditors unnerved local officials by finding a contractor hired to build a temporary sewer system double-billed the city $811,000 for 379 pumps already covered by the contract and improperly charged $608,000 more for 290 more sewage-storage tanks that weren’t part of the agreement.
Now, 10 years after Katrina, the rebuilt town has fewer inhabitants and a shrunken tax base, but it still could be on the hook to reimburse FEMA for $1.4 million to cover the alleged overcharges.
McClatchy reviewed 41 reports in which auditors for the Inspector General’s Office charged FEMA-grant recipients mishandled at least $95 million, billing even for work on vacant lots when no development was imminent. In the rush to clear debris and rebuild, they also committed widespread violations of federal contracting rules that require competitive bidding in most circumstances and preferences to minority- and women-owned firms, as well as barring cost-plus contracts that pay vendors a percentage of the overall price with no cap on the amount, the examiners reported.
Among other audit findings:
The Henderson Point Water and Sewer District spent $1.5 million in federal tax dollars for installation of 388 sewage grinder-station pumps, only 72 of which were on inhabited properties. Many were on vacant lots with little indication they’d soon be developed.
The University of Southern Mississippi, which got a $41.1 million FEMA grant, failed to reimburse the agency for more than $2 million covered by another federal agency and $358,000 recouped from an insurance policy.
Pass Christian billed taxpayers for $256,000 in overtime for police officers and firefighters and failed to reimburse FEMA for $202,000 that wasn’t needed.
Waveland’s predicament, however, underscores a central reality for watchdogs who have sought to ensure the fair and efficient expenditures of tax dollars: In Mississippi, one of the nation’s poorest states, most jurisdictions lack the money to repay questioned costs.
“There’s no way, practically, for (the city) to repay that money,” said Gary Yarborough, Waveland’s city attorney. The city’s population has dropped from 8,000 to about 6,000, and its fiscal year budget is $4.2 million, he said.
City officials told federal examiners they’d alerted state auditors years ago that the firm contracted to build the sewage system, Hemphill Construction Co. of Florence, had overcharged for the project. But FEMA has so far chosen to pursue the city rather than the company, Yarborough said.
Waveland’s appeal for relief from FEMA is pending. Hemphill’s president, Richard Rula, did not respond to a phone message.
“The office of inspector general will scare you to death,” said Henry Arledge, who is retiring in December with 36 years as Harrison County’s school superintendent. He survived auditors’ call for an $8 million reimbursement from the district.
“We’re in the business of educating children,” he said. “We’re not in the business of being a crook.”
Some 22 other recovery-grant recipients submitted to arbitration to resolve FEMA’s claims that they must surrender improperly spent money. A number of the arbitrations have been settled for undisclosed sums, including one involving St. Stanislaus College, which auditors said should return $8 million of a $26.6 million grant because it failed to offer non-emergency contracts to women- and minority-owned firms.
School officials did not respond to phone messages.
Just 1 percent
The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, which has administered all of the $3.2 billion in FEMA-recovery grants to Mississippi, expects when the final figures are tallied the state will have to reimburse the federal government only about $30 million – just 1 percent of the total disbursed, agency spokesman Greg Flynn said. The figures won’t be finalized until the biggest project work, totaling more than $350 million to replace Biloxi’s sewer, water and natural gas lines, is completed.
However, MEMA presents a rosy picture, because federal auditors didn’t go over all of the books, reviewing spending on about one-sixth of the total grant dollars. Just on those projects, the auditors alleged Mississippi grantees owed the feds triple what the state agency says will be forfeited.
However, many of the audits found city and county officials agreed to hurried, sole-source contracts and never conducted analyses to see how much the work should have cost, auditors reported.
Flynn said in the aftermath of the hurricane, then-Gov. Haley Barbour directed that the Horne CPA Group in Jackson review each project to reduce the chances FEMA would swoop in at the end of the process and demand hundreds of millions of dollars in reimbursements. The state’s willingness to float its own money to speed up projects and its collaboration with FEMA officials also drew praise from auditors for the U.S. Government Accounting Office in 2008.
Some examinations, such as an audit of a grant to the Harrison County Library System, led to testy exchanges.
Donations of books and furniture had poured in from around the country after the hurricane devastated all four county libraries, including a 40,000-square-foot library with two walls of glass overlooking the beach in Gulfport that county library Director Robert Lipscomb said was “the pride of Mississippi.”
Auditors declared the library system should return $4.5 million out of a $6 million public-assistance grant, valuing the donated books at $1.4 million because most were in “excellent to new condition.”
Lipscomb called that “baloney.”
They also quarreled over the library’s purchase of new copies of books that had been destroyed.
I got a little miffed. He meant well, but he didn’t really understand how libraries operate.
Robert Lipscomb, Harrison County, Miss., library director
One auditor “was a little zealous,” Lipscomb recalled. “He said, ‘We don’t replace Volkswagens with Cadillacs.’”
“I said, ‘It’s a library. We purge books all the time.’ I got a little miffed. He meant well, but he didn’t really understand how libraries operate. Let’s say you lost a copy of ‘Moby-Dick.’ To go and find an exact used copy of that particular copyright, you’d have to go to used book stores. That’d be ridiculously expensive.”
Ultimately, Lipscomb said, the library’s valuations were accepted.
The auditors, however, also found the Harrison County School District failed to comply with the federal requirement to give hiring preference to minority- and women-owned contractors. In March 2014, they issued a report saying $8.2 million of a $14.2 million grant covering 137 school-restoration projects should be returned to FEMA because there was no urgency to that work, and the rules should have been observed.
“My heartbeat went out of sight,” Superintendent Arledge said. “We knew we hadn’t done anything that would intentionally be illegal. We showed FEMA that we had advertised and bid everything. We took the low bid.”
Arledge recalled the chaos in the aftermath of Katrina, people living for two months or more without running water and how his office, equipped with a new generator, became a hub for police and state troopers whose quarters had been devastated.
“They’re reading the rules three, four, five years later than when it happened, and they have no clue or concept of what you tried to do and to be as honest as you can.”
Besides, Arledge said, reconstruction of two new county high schools served a dual purpose.
Before the storm, he said, the county had few hurricane shelters and people converged on county schools, which always opened their doors although the structures were no sturdier than a house.
In constructing the new high schools for $10 million each, Arledge said, he and other district officials persuaded FEMA to agree they should be designed to withstand 200-mph winds.
Then they could be used as “a hurricane shelter in the future.”