Livingston Parish school officials frustrated with slow response from FEMA

Livingston Parish school officials frustrated with slow response from FEMA
The crumbled marquee sign outside Southside Elementary is one of many campus features that remain untouched after the initial cleanup of the school following the August 2016 flood (Source: Livingston Parish Public Schools)
The gutted interior of Denham Springs Elementary remains untouched for months as Livingston Parish School administrators await a response from FEMA (Source: Livingston Parish Public Schools)
The gutted interior of Denham Springs Elementary remains untouched for months as Livingston Parish School administrators await a response from FEMA (Source: Livingston Parish Public Schools)
The storm fence surrounding the campus of Denham Springs Elementary remains locked and the school shuttered as Livingston Parish school administrators await a response from FEMA (Source: Livingston Parish Public Schools)
The storm fence surrounding the campus of Denham Springs Elementary remains locked and the school shuttered as Livingston Parish school administrators await a response from FEMA (Source: Livingston Parish Public Schools)

LIVINGSTON PARISH, LA (WAFB) - It's been 18 months since the historic flooding in August of 2016, and there are still three closed schools in Livingston Parish that administrators say are no closer to being reopened.

Superintendent Rick Wentzel has expressed "extreme frustration and even anger" with the delay and unresponsiveness from FEMA in its reported handling of the school system's request for financial assistance to repair damaged schools.

"It's frustrating to have your hands tied by so much red tape. This school system has endured the worst natural disaster in its history. The event of 2016 has had a profound financial and emotional impact on our entire community. It's time to heal and reclaim normalcy for our people, but bureaucratic obstacles continue to delay that recovery and threaten our ability to provide a quality education for many," said Wentzel.

To date, the school system says it has spent more than $54 million to restore 16 schools that were damaged and to build temporary campuses for three schools in Denham Springs that were substantially damaged and remain closed. The school system says FEMA has only reimbursed them for about $21.6 million.

"We were fortunate that our district was financially stable at the time of the flood. We had significant funds in our general fund account and we had the credit capacity to bond out one of our revenue streams to get the money up front. But if those funds are not reimbursed by the government, and the district suffers another disaster, we will not be able to financially manage it," said Wentzel.

School leaders say they're also concerned about how FEMA will impose a National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) penalty that could cost the district as much as $20 million. Currently, the policy calls for a $500,000 penalty for every school building that was not insured.

This penalty was relaxed after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita to relieve school systems, but similar relief has not yet been granted for schools affected by the 2016 flooding.

RELATED VIDEO: Bill introduced to help reduce penalties against schools with uninsured buildings that flooded

"In many cases, we have been asked to submit the exact same information to FEMA that we've already given to them in the past. For example, we have cooperated with FEMA inspectors on numerous visits to each of the three campuses that remain closed. Each time, we've gone through the same process and documented the same information, but still to date, we have no answers on these properties," said Wentzel. "The response we are getting is an injustice to our people, and frankly, is unacceptable. This neglect, if it continues, will certainly begin to have an effect on the quality of education in our schools, the property values in our communities, and the everyday lives of the people who have struggled so hard to recover."

Wentzel has sent a letter to Congress about the issue.

"We need our parents, our community leaders, and all our residents to call our senators and congressional leaders and ask for their help. We can't continue to just tolerate the unresponsiveness from FEMA," said Wentzel.

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