Part III of a series
WASHINGTON D.C. — Brian Fairburn, who supervised Livingston Parish’s debris removal after Hurricane Gustav, told arbitration judges in May that he expected one of FEMA’s contract employees to insure that the federal government would pick up the bills.
The FEMA contractor, Jeffrey Jones, testified that the parish paid monitoring firms to establish eligibility.
This clash of viewpoints was one of the arguments at the heart of the week of testimony to establish what portion of a $59.1 million hurricane debris removal claim Livingston Parish might recover. The judges ultimately decided that the parish would get none of it.
Fairburn, then the director of the parish Office of Emergency Preparedness, told three-judge panel at the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals that he was well acquainted with FEMA regulations and depended on Jones to make sure the monitoring firms were doing the right things.
Jones countered under questioning by FEMA attorney Linda Litke that he did not have the authority to manage debris work in Livingston Parish.
Litke asked Fairburn if he “allowed all of this work, up to $40 million in wet debris, based on the statements of Mr. Jeffrey Jones?”
“Absolutely. He was FEMA,” Fairburn answered.
Fairburn testified that he considered Jones to be at the top of the chain of command and that Jones’ advice was the basis for “guidance that we gave to our monitors to do the work.”
Fairburn described what he thought FEMA should do:
“We wanted them to see what we were looking at and show them how bad it was so you wouldn’t have to take a photograph. You could stand right there and look at it and then have a determination made right there on what they are seeing and let us go out and estimate the rest of it,” Fairburn said.
Jones said he did not make the eligibility decisions.
FEMA “contractors don’t make decisions,” Jones said.
At the wet debris kick-off meeting, Farai Quirindongo, state applicant liaison for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP), suggested that Fairburn and his monitors pick out about 20 “hot spots,” various waterways clogged with hurricane debris.
FEMA consultants could then visit the sites and give their observations.
To start with, you have to remove a blockage, Jones said, something that was not in the waterway before the hurricane, and is acting as a dam. Instead, they cleaned out streams from bank to bank.
Establishing the eligibility of debris removal along the course of a natural stream involves so much documentation that applicants usually apply just for debris piled up under bridges and clogging culverts, Jones said.
Jones said hurricane debris does not typically block the flow of a 34-foot wide stream.
The typical approach is to drive a truck and a long arm boom along a maintained channel, with homes in the vicinity. The boom lifts out pockets of fresh debris blocking the flow and threatening to flood the homes, Jones said.
Jones testified that he first found out about preparations for waterway debris removal from someone in his office in late November, 2008. Jones said his co-worker joked about “FEMA funded landing strips.”
Jones, his GOHSEP counterpart Freddie Gardner, and David Frances, an Army Corps of Engineers man on loan to FEMA for the Gustav recovery, went to West Colyell Creek the next day, Jones said.
They saw workers making an access road at least 30 feet wide, so two 20-yard trucks could pass one another. The monitor from Alvin Fairburn and Associates (AFA) asked them to get out of the way because they were slowing down the work, Jones testified.
After a mile and a half, workers with chainsaws were still cutting down trees and brush to make the access road. They saw several trees growing in the creek, a natural stream running through the woods, Jones said.
A few weeks later a FEMA contractor, Lou Giordano, called Jones to report similar work, cutting access roads and cleaning the water course from bank to bank.
“I told Lou that he should get out of there because I did not want him in the middle of the woods with five or six angry guys,” Jones said.
About 10 minutes later, Jones said he got a call from Ted York, a project manager for AFA.
“He said we had made them stop work. I told him we didn’t make them stop anything,” Jones said. “You guys can work all you want, but FEMA won’t fund the things you are doing.”
Fairburn said in testimony that Jones and others from FEMA kept close watch on the debris removal and praised the work.
Jones said that multiple work sites along long stretches made monitoring from his office impossible. The waterway program covered 424 miles in less than six months.
Jones testified that the project looked like “a contractor out of control.”
Litke asked Jones if he thought his role was misunderstood.
Jones said he did not think he was misunderstood.
“I just think they did something different,” Jones said.
The responsibility for documenting debris eligibility belonged to the parish monitors, and required evidence that debris fell as the result of Hurricane Gustav, and that the debris presented a flooding threat to improved property, according to FEMA regulations.
Jones said repeatedly at status meetings in Livingston that monitors should take pictures of the debris pile in place, blocking the stream, and then another picture of that debris on the bank.
Jones said he and Gardner never had any thought “in any way, shape or form that this would grow to the magnitude of $30 million, $40 million, $50 million, $60 million.”
Fairburn testified that he kept everyone informed of the growing costs. Litke asked if that included then parish president Mike Grimmer.
Fairburn said when he was hired (in January 2006), Grimmer told him, “Do not bother me unless it is an issue that I need to be aware of.”
Fairburn testified as to Grimmer’s accusation, that “we were just out there creating work for these contractors to do,” and were also taking kickbacks.
“We had too much work going on to even think about something like that,” Fairburn testified.
Soon afterwards, a project manager told Grimmer that all the planned work would cost about $92 million, meaning the parish would have to pay about $9 million as its cost share. Grimmer shut the program down in May 2009 when the parish obligation looked more like $5 million.
MONITORS & EXPERT TESTIMONY