David Hammer / Eyewitness News
NEW ORLEANS -- Under orders to bring the troubled Hazard Mitigation elevation program to a close by July 17, Louisiana officials selected 40 families this week to receive the final grants under its troubled $750 million post-Katrina aid effort.
The program has been haunted by fraud and abuse by contractors and program officials, creating massive waste that led the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cut off funding.
Craig Taffaro, who took over the program in December 2011, said about 10,000 qualified homeowners would be left out.
But the program was allowed to finish its pool of about 10,500 projects. And a small number of those who thought hope was lost got a sudden and unexpected piece of good news this week. The state Hazard Mitigation Grant Program called 47 Road Home recipients and invited them to a special information session at the University of New Orleans on Monday.
That's where they learned that they would be divvying up the last grants. And unlike many who participated in the program in 2010 and 2011 and suffered through months of waiting for their projects to be completed, this last group was promised swift service.
'You won't have the lag time some of the old projects had,' Taffaro told the invitees. That's because FEMA is giving the state until July 17 to use the last $4 million dedicated to the elevation program, and Taffaro said the state would fine contractors $300 a day or more if it takes them more than 45 days to finish an open-foundation lift job or more than 60-days for a slab.
Nine preferred shoring contractors were also invited to Monday's meeting. Taffaro said they were the ones that had shown the best ability to complete projects. He said fly-by-night contractors who plagued the program with shoddy or unfinished work have been eliminated from the program.
He said some of them have also moved on to New Jersey to look for work after Superstorm Sandy.
Taffaro also warned the homeowners that they would still be responsible for the $30,000 elevation grants they received as a part of the Road Home. He said if they used that money on anything but elevation costs, they would have to come up with that portion of the house-lifting project on their own.
He said it was still possible to sign promissory notes with the contractors, as long as homeowners agree to pay off the $30,000 within 25 years.
Getting to meet with contractors at Monday's meeting paid immediate dividends for Debra Campbell, an Upper 9th Ward resident who had three different companies visit her home to give quotes.
'I'm glad to get in just under the wire,' said Campbell, who since getting her Road Home grant in 2008 believed she was not going to be able to elevate her restored two-story home. 'It was something that was needed.'
Campbell said she was slow to decide whether to elevate, and when she did see the value in it she was told she was too late. Still, she heard there could be a Round 2.
'I guess this is that Round 2,' she said.
Actually, the program has hung on longer than expected, with a few rounds of new grants in the last several months.
The state set a construction deadline last Sept. 30, an ultimatum to grant recipients and contractors to speed things along for the last 800 projects. But when that was over, there was still enough money for another 180 grants in January. Those jobs are done now, and $4 million was still left, making this final round of 40 grants possible, Taffaro said.