Seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, some rebuilding is still incomplete partly because of torturous Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) paperwork. “To say the process for delivering assistance delays catastrophic recovery is an understatement,” says Kevin Davis, director of the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

He was testifying in December before the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which had reported legislation that could make debris cleanup reimbursement rules from a 2007–2008 FEMA pilot program standard operating procedure. The legislation passed overwhelmingly before Superstorm Sandy became the second-costliest storm after Katrina.

H.R. 2903 would reinstate the pilot program rules allowing grants to cover pay for both straight time and overtime for debris clearing and recycling. Cities and counties could get up to $500,000 in grants based on cost estimates instead of having to wait for applications to clear the long, tedious approval process. The agency resurrected the rules in October as an emergency measure approved by President Obama, but — ever-alert to potential fraud and abuse — hesitates to make it permanent.

Straight time would be reimbursed within 30 days of an emergency declaration. That, says Suffolk County (N.Y.) Office of Emergency Management Recovery Coordinator Tom O’Hara, would allow communities to pay for everyday activities that public works may have been doing before disaster struck. Straight-time reimbursement is only available for employees devoting 100% of their time to debris clearing. The program would thus increase the amount of funding that departments in duress receive.

At the House hearings, Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chairman of the Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management Subcommittee, noted that New York and New Jersey were still “haggling with FEMA over every light switch.”

FEMA’s proposed compromise

After the House passed its proposal in September, the Senate was out of town for much of the time during the run up to the November election. But FEMA reform is a priority. Leslie Phillips, spokeswoman for Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), didn’t return messages asking about the committee’s plans for the House bill.

In the meantime, it appears that the House will develop some “technical amendments” based on December’s testimony about experiences with Sandy as well as lingering problems from Katrina.

One suggestion from FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate: a two-step design-build-like procedure for reconciling the agency’s fiduciary duty with a community’s financial needs. By providing discrete “design” funds upfront, the agency would be assured that the “estimate” for the lion’s share of the funds is close to what would be needed. That compares to the current situation where localities can request funds based on an estimate, and then live with the fact that those funds may be insufficient.

Stephen Barlas is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who covers regulatory issues, with a special emphasis on EPA.