The front of a building on Elm Street in Lake Charles is nearly destroyed by Hurricane Laura. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator, Saturday Aug. 29, 2020.)
Restoration to schools in South Louisiana damaged after Hurricanes Laura, Delta and Ida struck has been halted due to slow disaster relief payouts from FEMA and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Louisiana Senate Education Committee Chair Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, told state emergency officials that it’s “unacceptable, unreasonable and unconscionable” that it’s taken more than eight months to approve Laura recovery projects for schools in Southwest Louisiana. The hurricane wrecked Southwest Louisiana over a year ago.
Superintendents from school systems affected by the recent hurricanes spoke to the Louisiana Senate Education Committee Tuesday morning to provide updates on recovery and restoration.
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State Superintendent Cade Brumley told the committee that 70,000 students remain out of school, though more than 300,000 students were out of school immediately following Ida. Brumley said he’s “impressed” with the speed in which Southeast Louisiana has gotten students back into schools.
“On a boots-on-the-ground trip [to Southeast Louisiana], you’d think ‘Oh, there’s no way that this could happen,” he said. “These system leaders have done an excellent job acting with urgency getting their students back into school.”
In Calcasieu Parish, schools have all reopened over a year after Hurricane Laura struck, but “one million square feet of temporary roof continues to leak every time it rains in our school system,”, Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus said.
“Every time it rains, we’re happy that we bought all the 55-gallon trash cans in Sam’s, because we have [leaks] all over our school district,” Bruchhaus said.
Calcasieu Parish schools are still waiting on about $126 million from FEMA for and about another $6 million to be released by state officials to fix damages. Bruchhaus said the school system has had to halt all of their current restoration projects because “we’re basically out of cash.”
Multiple committee members expressed their frustration about the slow payouts to Casey Tingle, deputy director and chief of staff at the Governor Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, told Tingle that it’s “very unreasonable” that his parish still hasn’t received disaster relief payouts from Laura.
“The state needs to do a better job at releasing the money,” Fields said. “I just can’t imagine how the state can hold money for eight months.”
Tingle said that the requests for payouts that Calcasieu Parish has been waiting for were only submitted two months ago, and the review process typically takes 60 days.
“We’re reviewing the actual documents that support the reimbursement requests to ensure the costs are allowable and that they’re reasonable,” he said.
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James Waskom, director of the governor’s emergency preparedness office, told the committee that after hearing Bruchhaus’ testimony, he’ll “cut (Bruchhaus) a check tomorrow” to pay for damaged roofs and school buses.
In St. Charles Parish, Superintendent Ken Oertling said damages from Ida could cost the school system $40 million to $50 million.
The school system has “already begun to take steps forward” to borrow money from the state bond commission, Oertling said. “But one of my major concerns is cash flow, and the ability to have the money necessary to repair and replace some of the buildings that have been damaged.“
The school system is also still waiting 16 years later on FEMA reimbursements from Hurricane Katrina, he said.
In Lafourche Parish, Superintendent Jarod Martin said his school system has over $70 million in “permanent rebuild costs,” not including the $20 million already spent to get schools reopened.
Some residents in Lafourche still don’t have power “and that is going to continue potentially for weeks,” but Martin said “almost all” of their school system’s challenges are financial.
Waskom told the committee that the state emergency operations office is working “as fast as we can.”
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