Monday, February 22, 2010
By Mike Fitzgerald
Metro-east leaders are considering whether to file a federal lawsuit to force the Federal Emergency Management Agency to disclose the evidence that has led it to declare that local flood protection levees are worthless.
And FEMA’s failure so far to show its evidence for de-accrediting metro-east flood levees has led some local leaders say that FEMA is trying to replenish coffers drained by enormous insurance claims paid out in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
FEMA is executing this plan through its efforts to decertify levees and drastically raise flood insurance premiums all across the nation, according to Alan Dunstan, the Madison County Board chairman.
“FEMA lost a lot of money when Katrina hit,” Dunstan said. “I’ll be honest with you. It’s a money grab.”
Cat Langel, a FEMA spokeswoman, and other FEMA officials have declined to answer questions about this theory, referring questions about levee certification to the corps. The corps has already revealed it has provided little information regarding metro-east levees to FEMA.
The Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council, in Collinsville, met behind closed doors last week to discuss its legal options, including a possible lawsuit, to force FEMA to show its proof for determining the levees are functionally useless — a finding many local leaders dispute because these levees have withstood every Mississippi River flood for the past 30 years.
Nonetheless, FEMA has used this finding to justify plans to raise flood insurance rates by several multiples early next year for 150,000 American Bottoms property owners in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties.
Metro-east leaders, however, have decried these plans, arguing the higher flood insurance premiums will wreak economic havoc for businesses in the American Bottoms and force homeowners, especially those in low-income neighborhoods, to flee.
The council met just a few weeks after FEMA officials in Washington, D.C., rejected requests by Madison and St. Clair county leaders to provide “expedited” processing of Freedom of Information Act requests filed by the flood district council in early November for agency data on local levees.
Les Sterman, the council’s chief engineer, expressed frustration at FEMA’s rapid denial of the requests to speed up its response to the November FOIA petitions, as well as the agency’s four-month delay in responding to the original information request.
“I think it’s frankly reprehensible on their part that a decision that is so costly, historic to this region — they cannot even explain why they did it,” said Sterman, who is also leading the region’s efforts to upgrade metro-east levees to meet Army Corps of Engineers standards.
Meeting those new, more exacting standards could cost more than $500 million, with local taxpayers being expected to pay most of that cost.
Langel acknowledged that her agency received on Nov. 4 the flood district FOIA request for information regarding the levees in Madison, Monroe, and St. Clair counties.
Langel declined to answer questions on why it is taking so long for the agency to comply with the council’s.
But Langel noted in an e-mail to the News-Democrat that the length of time to comply to a FOIA request depends “entirely on the request itself,” as well as the number of agency components required to contribute to the response.
“Any and all information related to the FOIA request will be released to the requester as soon as all the information is complete,” Langel wrote.
Robert Haida, the St. Clair County state’s attorney, who handled the county request for a speeded-up FOIA response, said he is questioning the “validity” of FEMA’s position regarding the levees based on its failure to respond to the request.
“Any time in my professional life when I deal with someone who takes a position, but they won’t tell me why, I question the validity of their position,” Haida said.
FEMA isn’t giving the cold shoulder simply to metro-east leaders. It is still ignoring a demand by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Springfield, early last month to release data on metro-east levees, as well as to brief local leaders and residents.
Charles N. Davis, the executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, in Columbia, Mo., said he was not surprised at FEMA’s refusal to respond to information requests for levee data.
Davis recalled how, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA had failed to respond to repeated media FOIA requests about the toxicity of flood waters around New Orleans and chemicals contained in trailers provided to evacuees.
“It took Congressional intervention to get anything out of FEMA at least twice,” said Davis, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
In addition, FEMA’s track record of refusing to comply with FOIA requests is a “perfect reflection” of the two of the biggest problems with the law governing the FOIA, Davis said.
“That is the lack of any responsiveness mechanism between requester and the agency, and the lack of any sort of penalty,” said Davis.
As a result, he said, the FEMA bureaucracy “will sort of yawn and blink while the entire region is begging for some information about something that’s this important to that region’s economy.”