More than seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans, federal grant funds marked for a nature center in the city have yet to be spent, leading federal watchdogs to recommend the revocation of some of those funds.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) awarded $12.3 million in disaster assistance funds to the Audubon Commission, a division of the city of New Orleans. The commission administers a number of nature-related attractions in the city, including a zoo, an aquarium, and the Audubon Nature Center.
About $7.6 million of FEMA’s award was marked for the Audubon Nature Center. That included money for a planetarium projector, a gift shop and its contents, an "interpretive center," and maintenance equipment.
About $6.8 million of the Audubon Center award, accounting for 20 of the 29 grant-funded projects, remains unspent seven years later.
It is not entirely clear why the city has yet to disburse the funds.
"Commission officials stated that they delayed the projects because the city mayor’s office placed a ‘hold’ on work at the Center," explained the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, which recently released a report detailing the city’s use of FEMA grant funds.
"Commission officials did not provide any documentation to support this assertion," the IG report said. "Rather, they stated in the extension letters that the city had verbally instructed them to delay work on the 20 projects."
The report’s author told the Washington Free Beacon that the IG’s office had received no additional information that would clarify that discrepancy.
Officials at the Audubon Commission and New Orleans mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
The IG report recommends that funds for any project that cannot be initiated in the next six months be revoked.
FEMA officials "generally agreed with our findings and recommendations," the IG report said. The agency did not respond to a request for elaboration.
The IG report comes in the wake of a heated debate over disaster aid for areas hit by Hurricane Sandy. Critics of a bloated congressional aid deal pointed out that much of the funding would not actually be spent for years, and hence that the portrayal of the legislation as an "emergency" measure missed the mark.
"Two thirds of this spending is not remotely ‘emergency,’" said Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) in a statement. "The Congressional Budget Office estimates that only 30 percent of the authorized funds would be spent in the next 20 months, and over a billion dollars will be spent as late as 2021."