Feds slow paying for hurricane help

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PORTLAND (AP) – Reimbursements from the federal government are slow in coming to some Maine agencies for expenses incurred sending people to help with the cleanup of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

The Cumberland County Sheriff’s Department, which sent three deputies to Louisiana in the aftermath of the hurricanes, has been told it might be two years before its gets reimbursed for $15,000 in expenses – if it gets paid back at all.

Some Maine officials say they’ve been told that the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn’t have enough money to cover the reimbursements. Some reconstruction officials in Louisiana say the delay can be blamed on a heavy volume of claims and paperwork.

Whatever the case, the failure to pay could determine how willing agencies might be in the future to step forward and help, said Cumberland County Sheriff Mark Dion.

After last year’s hurricanes, Maine sent about 275 people to the Gulf of Mexico region to help in the cleanup, said Lynette Miller, spokeswoman for the Maine Emergency Management Agency. Maine agencies incurred about $2 million in costs; about 75 percent of that was military expense that is reimbursed through different channels.

Some firefighting personnel were dispatched through another mechanism that reimburses separately, she said.

The remainder, several hundred thousand dollars, is being sought through the Emergency Management Agency Compact, an interstate network that coordinates assistance for disaster relief, Miller said.

While the federal government ultimately may pay the bill, the multistate compact means that reimbursement requests are sent to the state where the aid was provided, Miller said. Bills incurred for hurricane relief are not sent directly to FEMA, but in this case to Louisiana or Mississippi.

“They’re looking at hundreds of claims and I’m sure millions of dollars, on top of the fact that the two states we’re talking about were just devastated and are dealing with a very long recovery process,” she said. “When looked at from that perspective, (the delay) gets a little more understandable.”

More than 10,000 work orders have been issued FEMA reimbursement numbers, and at least 5,000 more are expected, said Erroll Savoie, spokesman for the Louisiana governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. The work orders include police agencies that sent officers, hospitals that sent nurses and contractors who helped rebuild.

Every work order must be verified by state and federal personnel to avoid fraud, he said.

“That’s just a mammoth amount of work,” Savoie said. “We had tons of military and police from all over the world. I imagine everybody is probably in the same boat.”

It’s unclear exactly how many Maine agencies are awaiting payment, but among those affected are fire departments, hospitals and the state, which sent wardens and forest rangers.

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