FEMA Ignoring Small Town Ravaged by Tornadoes?

In April of 2011 tornadoes struck Cordova, Alabama killing 250 people while destroying thousands of homes and businesses. A year and a half later the town still looks like the disaster happened yesterday.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised the small town, which has a population of just over 2,000, that it would provide the monies needed to demolish the damaged buildings, but after waiting for a year and a half, city residents are growing increasingly frustrated with the broken glass littering the streets, roofless buildings barely still standing, and the downtown area sealed off by a chain-link fence because it is considered unsafe. The tornadoes left behind $1 billion in damages.

FEMA has made numerous requests for documentation of the damage, but has still not provided the necessary funds. Cordova officials are asking for an estimated $933,000 to demolish the structures.

It’s very frustrating,” Mayor Drew Gilbert told the Associated Press. “You would think it’s been touched and seen now by everyone who needs to touch and seen it.”

Elizabeth Brown, preservation officer for the Alabama Historical Commission, said FEMA has never provided information as to when they would begin the much-needed demolition process of the ruined buildings.

FEMA officials told the AP that they are still gathering details about the damage before providing the money, which is a time-consuming process.

“This project involves demolition of multiple historically significant structures and requires that FEMA consider all pertinent environmental and historic preservation laws before funding the project,” the agency said.

FEMA’s procrastination has taken a huge toll on the local economy and employment opportunities. The damage wiped out businesses, leaving few available jobs for residents. Only schools, one bank, a pharmacy and a health clinic are open for employment. The town’s only grocery store was destroyed by the twisters, but unless the skeleton buildings are demolished, no new structures can replace them.

FEMA recently told city officials that their review of the city will be finished by Jan. 4, according to Cordova Fire Chief Dean Harbison, but funding for the demolition likely won’t be granted until the two-year anniversary of the tornado strike passes.

Our entire economy is gone, and it’s like they’re just doing nothing,” Mayor Gilbert said.

Meanwhile, FEMA announced Monday that it has provided $500 million to disaster areas ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, 10 percent of which went to individuals and families in Staten Island. The death toll due to the Alabama tornadoes was more than twice the death toll due to Sandy, but residents in this small town said they felt forgotten just a few weeks after the disaster. Cordova officials have asked for less than $1 million, but it may take them many more months before FEMA hands it over.


FEMA Employee Pleads Guilty to Embezzling $143,000

Fifty-six-year-old Sheila Ann Howard entered a guilty plea to the charge of embezzling $143,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. She faces a maximum of 10 years in prison  and a fine of $250,000 at her sentencing scheduled to take place on Feb. 1.

Between December 2009 and March 2011, Howard used her position at the agency to process 28 fraudulent payment claims in the names of 18 former FEMA employees and one current employee, depositing the payments in four bank accounts she controlled.

According to prosecutors the former employees were not aware of the scheme or of Howard’s use of their personal information.

An investigation began after one of the employees was mailed a tax form indicating she had been paid more than $9,000 by FEMA in 2010 for leave compensation, even though she had left the agency in 2009.

Authorities looked into the payments and found that they had been processed by Howard and deposited into a bank account on which she was the primary account holder. The employee whose name the payments were made under was listed as a secondary account holder, but had no knowledge of the account, prosecutors said.