Nearly $79 million of federal money intended to help protect Louisiana’s ports from terrorist attacks went unused since 2008 and is no longer available because deadlines for tapping the funds expired.
As a result, “Major Lower Mississippi River ports may be less prepared in the event of a terrorist attack,” the Inspector General’s Office for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security said in a recent report.
It also voiced concerns about how $9.2 million of the federal Port Security Grant Program money was spent. The money was intended for security-related expenses, such as training, exercises and surveillance; in one proposal, it could have been used for an estimated $15 million network of surveillance cameras from the mouth of the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge.
The unused $79 million represented about 73 percent of the nearly $108 million the federal program offered to five south Louisiana ports, according to the report, which blamed the ports as well as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the program’s administrator, for the failure to use the funds and some lapses in the money that was spent.
The report found that grant recipients “did not always follow federal laws, regulations or grant guidance; and FEMA failed to provide proper oversight.”
The five ports included in the grant award were the Port of Greater Baton Rouge; the Port of South Louisiana; the Port of New Orleans; the St. Bernard Port, Harbor and Terminal District; and the Plaquemines Port, Harbor and Terminal District. There also were more than two dozen subgrantees involved, mostly law enforcement agencies, fire departments or large industries along the Mississippi River.
The five ports are important to waterborne commerce in the United States, with waterways access to 33 states.
Port officials in Baton Rouge and New Orleans disputed the notion that the facilities were left vulnerable to an attack. They blamed several factors for the money going unused, noting that some projects were approved but grant recipients couldn’t come up with required matching funds. Others couldn’t be completed under FEMA’s deadlines because of the lengthy process involved with permitting and coordinating with the facilities.
“Those are the rules that we had to play within, and we played within them,” said Jay Hardman, executive director of the Port of Greater Baton Rouge. “For them to turn around and say, ‘You left a bunch of money on the table and we’re not as safe,’ I don’t take that as a really fair assessment of what was accomplished.”
One proposed initiative would have set up video surveillance along the lower Mississippi River so port officials could track a vessel as it moved through the waterway. Hardman said the project involved too many moving parts — like determining camera tower locations and finishing the engineering and permitting processes — to get it done within the mandated time frame.
“It was a fairly large undertaking, and time just ran out on it,” he said.
Paul Zimmermann, the operations director at the Port of New Orleans, said the facility received more than $2.6 million in grant funding, which was used to install and operate a surveillance camera system that’s used by security personnel.
“The surveillance system is now fully functioning and is utilized daily by the Harbor Police Department to monitor activities throughout the port as part of its ongoing anti-terrorism program,” he said. “All Department of Homeland Security funding received by the Port of New Orleans for this project has been spent and is fully accounted for.”
In 2007, the five ports formed a coalition called the Lower Mississippi River Port-wide Strategic Council to plan and coordinate security initiatives.
Responding to the Inspector General’s Office report, council President Paul Aucoin said the port facilities are safer than before the program. He blamed FEMA for any issues with the $9.2 million in spending that was flagged.
“The various projects undertaken by the council, through its various port members and sub-grantees, have contributed significantly to the safety and security of the Lower Mississippi River,” said Aucoin, who also is executive director of the Port of South Louisiana in LaPlace.
In his response, Aucoin said the council’s work tied to the $9.2 million was above-board and the projects were finished as planned.
The inspector general’s report said issues with how the $9.2 million was spent included expenses that were not eligible for reimbursement, spending beyond the program’s eligibility period and expenses that did not include necessary documentation or follow regulations.
In a response letter, FEMA said it would review the nearly $9.2 million in questioned spending to recover any money that was improperly used.
For four years beginning in 2008, the council applied for the funding and administered it on behalf of its five member ports and subgrantees. In 2012 and 2013, the council applied only on behalf of the ports.
FEMA guidelines largely required the money to be spent within two to three years. By early 2015, the deadline for nearly $71 million had expired and the money had to be returned to FEMA, although the agency granted extensions for about $8.3 million of it.
The report blamed the coalition of port facilities for the fact that most of the money was not used. “Grant funds expired largely because the council did not announce the availability of funding to potential subgrantees or notify subgrantees of approved awards in a timely manner,” the report said.
The report said the council did not announce the availability of 2009’s funds to potential applicants for 655 workdays after FEMA made the award. It said the council waited nearly a year before notifying a subgrantee that FEMA had approved its project and, in some cases, never notified recipients about project approvals.
It added: “Many of the subgrantees we interviewed said they frequently tried to contact the council about their projects to no avail.”
Among its problems, the report said, the council didn’t have documented policies and procedures for administering grants, “which likely contributed to its poor performance of fundamental grant administrative activities.”
The inspector general’s report also criticized FEMA’s “insufficient” oversight of how the council administered grants.
“FEMA did not fully inform the council of the results of its monitoring efforts; its budget reviews were not always timely; and it sometimes released grant funds in the incorrect amount,” the report said.
In its response, FEMA said it has taken steps to improve how it oversees management of grants it administers.
In a follow-up letter March 18, Aucoin said the ports are ready and willing to cooperate with FEMA once the agency completes its review. So far, he hasn’t heard from FEMA, he said.
Still, Hardman acknowledged that the process could have been handled differently.
“If you could get a do-over, I think we could do a much better job,” he said.
Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.