BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. -- The storm that left this region drowning in debt and need also inundated it with some infamous examples of government spending.
From oak-lined Waveland Avenue to the quaint cottages of St. Charles Street in Bay St. Louis, the Katrina-wrought equivalents of the proverbial $600 toilet seat, courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are everywhere to be seen. Behold:
--Rooftop after rooftop covered with blue plastic sheeting at an average cost to taxpayers somewhere north of $2,500 a pop.
--Dozens of temporary classrooms provided for nearly $90,000 apiece by an out-of-state contractor in a deal that a Mississippi firm says it offered to match for just over half that price. Tack on tens of thousands of dollars more in additional costs for each unit.
--Thousands of shiny new travel trailers provided at an average cost of nearly $14,000, but often requiring thousands of more dollars each in site preparation and being delivered through programs castigated repeatedly by lawmakers as inefficient and wasteful.
-- And unseen, to the east, floats the most infamous example of all, a cruise ship whose occupants at latest count included 23 Hancock County families, housed in a deal where the tab is currently running as high as $1,000 a day for a family of four.
In a Spartan office atop Bay St. Louis’ makeshift City Hall, Mayor Eddie Favre can only roll his eyes at how some of Uncle Sam’s money has been spent while his town desperately pleads for state and federal help to meet an operating budget left staggeringly short of revenue after the Aug. 29 hurricane.
“The cost of it is unbelievable,” Favre says of the trailers, tarps and cruise ships. “The alternative to that, I don’t know, but that’s quite a bit of money.”
A number of lawmakers and watchdog groups have called for probes of some of the FEMA spending. Final cost won’t be known for a while, but information from FEMA itself and other sources reveal some of the particulars.
No blues over this paycheck
The tarps covering Hancock County homes are part of FEMA’s Operation Blue Roof, 99 percent complete in Mississippi, according to a recent release from the agency, with 48,000 of the temporary roofs installed. Nationwide, according to news accounts, the government paid contractors $2,500 on average for the labor to cover each roof, often no more than a 90-minute job, generally 10 times or more what a homeowner would be charged by a private contractor. The government provided the plastic sheeting and the FEMA contractors were allowed to charge the government millions of dollars more for administrative fees and additional materials.
A textbook case of big profits?
The 60-plus temporary classrooms came to Waveland and Bay St. Louis schools as part of a controversial no-bid FEMA contract for hundreds of such buildings throughout Mississippi. The federal government paid an Alaskan firm $40 million, or nearly $90,000 per unit, to provide what are essentially commercial-grade double-wide mobile homes in a deal that is now the subject of a lawsuit and government probes.
Critics charge that the Alaskan firm’s political connections are what really won it the contract at the expense of a Mississippi company, Adams Hardware and Home Center, which offered to provide the same buildings for $24 million, or about $53,000 each.
“The amount of dollars that was charged by that Alaska corporation was outrageous,” Adams Hardware owner Kent Adams told MSNBC.com. Adams said his Yazoo City firm is now suing the contract winner for unfair business practices.
The cost of the classrooms doesn’t end with the contract to supply and deliver them. FEMA says site preparation and utility hookups push the price to $117,000 for each trailer.
A North Bay Elementary School student runs among portable classrooms paid for by FEMA.
Housing with a costly hitch
It's not yet possible to say what the final bill will be for FEMA’s travel trailer program. Nearly 30,000 trailers have been placed in Mississippi, about 8,000 of those in Hancock County. While FEMA has said it’s spending about $14,000 per trailer, and many are placed on individual private lots, some news media accounts have detailed cases where the cost to prepare large park sites has approached $40,000 per trailer. And an angry Bay St. Louis Rep. Gene Taylor recently brought to light a single trailer “bone yard” where hundreds of unused trailers were awaiting repairs or being scavenged for spare parts.
Those factors -– and what it will ultimately cost to dismantle the temporary parks, repossess the trailers and dispose of them -– will add significantly to the bottom line for the program.
No carnival for taxpayers
But it’s unlikely to compare with the crown jewel of Katrina spending: a contract with Carnival Cruise Lines to provide housing aboard three cruise ships at a cost of up to $236 million. Figures provided to MSNBC.com on Wednesday peg the current per-person cost for the lodging at $244 a day. At that rate, it would cost more than $175,000 for a family of four to stay on one of the ships for the full six months of the contract, far above the price of the average home in the area.
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