Resolving Katrina overpayments could take a year

PEARL — The director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) says all entities that may have been overpaid Hurricane Katrina grant money have been contacted, but he says it could take up to a year to resolve the issue.

A March audit from the Inspector General’s Office of the Department of Homeland Security said that MEMA overpaid $18 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency money to nine entities. That figure included eight in southern Mississippi that had 10 projects totaling $9.5 million.

The bill covers money spent to manage grants and overpayments to local governments, mainly for removing debris.

The audit report alleged that MEMA paid $87 to $109 per hour for workers to electronically scan and code grant paperwork, adding up to $7.7 million of the alleged misspending.

Federal officials expect to issue a decision on the audit April 20.

At press time, MEMA director Mike Womack had told the Mississippi Press his agency is preparing a written response to submit to federal officials by April 10.

After reviewing the response, FEMA’s regional administrator, Phil May, and his staff will decide whether the money should be taken back from the state, Womack said.

Womack said when it’s all sorted out MEMA could actually owe some money. He expects that process to take several months, and the state agency has the right to appeal if FEMA concurs with the report.

According to a report from the Inspector General’s office of the Department of Homeland Security, MEMA overpaid the entities anywhere from $126,000 to $7 million.

MEMA disagrees with the audit, pointing out that its system of checks and balances won praise from a December 2008 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the watchdog arm of Congress.

MEMA updates a state public assistance portal daily, downloading detailed information from the national emergency management database, Womack said. That information includes “everything about a project,” such as scope of the work and how much money was authorized for it.

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