By William Patrick | The Center Square
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley told lawmakers Tuesday more than 70,000 Louisiana students remain out of school because of Hurricane Ida, which made landfall Aug. 29.
That figure, he said, is down from 300,000 students whose school districts were affected by the category 4 hurricane.
When asked by Senate Education Committee members about the delay in getting children back to school, Brumley said he was “impressed” with how fast the process was going.
“Some people believe it’s just a matter of restoring power and having water running and you can send everyone back to school, but that’s not the case,” Brumley said. “It’s much more complicated than that.”
Brumley said damaged school buildings must meet environmental and physical safety standards, including remediating water and tearing out damaged walls, floors, ceilings and carpets. Cafeterias must have food, school buses need to function to transport students and teachers and staff need to return, all before schools can reopen, he said.
One of the biggest obstacles is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Brumley said.
Brumley estimated Hurricane Ida caused hundreds of millions of dollars in school damages and said school districts in southwest Louisiana still are waiting for FEMA assistance dating back to Hurricane Laura last year.
Sen. Mark Abraham, R-Lake Charles, asked how state lawmakers could learn from Hurricane Laura and help school districts in Ida-affected southeast Louisiana.
“How can we speed up the process so we can get our schools ready for our children?” Abraham asked.
“Senator, I really don’t think that the issue lies with Calcasieu Parish School Board or Cameron Parish or the state of Louisiana,” Brumley said. “I think that’s a FEMA issue. We need to work with our congressional delegation and other federal leaders to make sure that FEMA is also acting with urgency.”
Calcasieu Parish School Board Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus testified that only a small portion of FEMA funding has arrived in his long suffering school district that was hard hit by Hurricane Laura and several ensuing natural disasters.
“Every time it rains, roofs leak,” he said.
Bruchhaus said the district submitted $12 million in eligible claims to FEMA in March for school roof repairs, but months later only $6 million arrived. Another $120 million for other repairs is still pending, he said, adding that the district has borrowed $100 million from the Louisiana Bond Commission and is in the process of borrowing another $50 million.
“It’s very expensive to reopen,” Bruchhaus said. “We estimate our current cost will be $260 million.”
Bruchhaus said the process starts with submitting eligible claims to FEMA. When the claims are approved, FEMA sends them to the Office of Management and Budget in Washington. OMB then sends them back to the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOHSEP) in Louisiana, which then remits payment to the original parish school district.
In the eight months since Calcasieu Parish submitted its initial FEMA claims, it still hasn’t received funding to fix damaged school buses, much less larger items that continue to affect the school system, Bruchhaus said.
Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, said the delays were outrageous.
“It takes eight months to get him an answer or a check?” Fields said. “That’s unacceptable, unreasonable and unconscionable.”
Superintendents from St. Bernard, Lafourche and St. Charles parishes also testified.
“First and foremost, Hurricane Ida was by far the most tragic and impactful event St. Charles Parish has ever experienced,” said Dr. Ken Oertling, superintendent St. Charles Parish Public School System. “We were 35 miles west of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and we opened schools within 11 days. We’re still fighting FEMA and GOHSEP for reimbursement from that event.”
Sen. Mack White, R-Baton Rouge, who chaired the Select Committee on Homeland Security after Hurricane Katrina and sits on the board of the Louisiana Emergency Response Network, said, “It’s going to take patience.”
“FEMA is going to be very, very slow, but I don’t know what we would do without them,” White said. “If we’re able to get federal dollars and cobble together state dollars and do everything we can to rebuild these school districts, I would just hope that we would hold the education standards and still produce a quality product.”