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Archive for Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Contractor blamed for slow pace of recovery

January 31, 2007

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— Nearly eight months after it was hired by the state, a consulting company in charge of dispensing billions in federal aid to people whose homes were damaged by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has received 103,000 applications but handed out fewer than 400 grants.

And now the company is getting much of the blame for the overall slow recovery of New Orleans and the rest of the Louisiana Gulf Coast.

Frustrated homeowners are bitterly criticizing Fairfax, Va.-based ICF International Inc., and state lawmakers are demanding Gov. Kathleen Blanco fire the company. But ICF is defending its handling of the aid program, saying it is a task of unprecedented proportions.

ICF was awarded a contract valued at up to $756 million in June to run the Road Home program, a $7.5 billion federally funded, state-administered program to compensate property owners whose houses were damaged or destroyed by the 2005 hurricanes. For ICF, the contract amounts to a potential 10 percent commission.

"ICF should be ashamed of themselves. They should never have even attempted to take on a project like this. They were obviously not equipped to do it," said New Orleans homeowner Mark Samuels, who lives with his three children upstairs while he rebuilds his gutted home.

He is haggling with Road Home over how much aid he should receive 17 months after Katrina breached a floodwall and swamped the house with foul water. Samuels said he is contesting ICF's first offer, made Jan. 4, because it was one-third of what he expected and based on inaccurate damage figures.

Mark Samuels, who runs his business from his home, points to his inventory on temporary shelves in his office in New Orleans in this file photo. Samuels, president and founder of New Orleans-based Basin Street Records, is haggling with ICF's Road Home aid program over the amount of compensation he is due.

Mark Samuels, who runs his business from his home, points to his inventory on temporary shelves in his office in New Orleans in this file photo. Samuels, president and founder of New Orleans-based Basin Street Records, is haggling with ICF's Road Home aid program over the amount of compensation he is due.

Other homeowners have complained about incorrect paperwork, a labyrinthine bureaucracy, unreturned phone calls, low-ball assessments of their homes' value and the damage done, stingy grant offers and a slow-moving process overall. ICF has taken final action on only 391 applications.

ICF maintains it is ahead of the schedule specified in its contract to run Road Home. ICF officials also say the program is unparalleled in size and complexity.

"There's never been a project like it in the United States. The comparables or things that you would have to search are in other countries that are mostly involved in wars," said Anita Rechler, an ICF senior executive who is working on Road Home.

Earlier this month, state lawmakers ordered an audit of the program after ICF refused to provide an itemized breakdown of $19 million in employee travel expenses billed to the taxpayers. The company denied any wrongdoing, and said the state's public records law does not require it to turn over such information.

Blanco, a Democrat who is running for re-election, said she is displeased with the pace at which applications are being processed but is not considering firing the company.

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