The federal Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s Office has recommended that $7.6 million in FEMA grant money set aside to rebuild the Katrina-damaged and still-shuttered Audubon Louisiana Nature Center in eastern New Orleans be rescinded. It said the money was improperly promised to the city-controlled Audubon Commission, and not the private, nonprofit Audubon Nature Institute, which operated the center before Katrina.

The center in Joe W. Brown Park included a science center, a planetarium and a 2-mile-long boardwalk, all of which were damaged or destroyed by flood waters in the aftermath of the hurricane.

The inspector general’s report also argues that of the 29 projects that would have been built with the money, 20 projects totaling $6.9 million still have not begun construction seven years after Katrina.

The projects not started include rebuilding of the center’s interpretive center, which would use $1.95 million in grant money; a science building, $886,367; the education building, $762,609; the astronomy center, $750,755; the contents of the interpretive center, $460,453; and a boardwalk trail through the center area, $709,182.

The report also questions the spending of $357,897 that was originally assigned to the Nature Center but was transferred by FEMA to the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas to built its post-Katrina Parakeet Aviary and Ghost of the Wetlands exhibits. Again, the project was the responsibility of the Audubon Nature Institute, and not the Audubon Commission, to which the money was granted.

The Audubon Commission administers various nature museums and parks in the city, including the Nature Center. But the commission leases the center location to the Audubon Nature Institute, and under the lease, it is the institute that is responsible for repairs to the facility, the inspector general said.

FEMA regulations require that grants be given to the entity that is responsible for repairs, and thus the grants were improperly made to the commission, the report said.

In a joint statement, the city of New Orleans and the Audubon Nature Institute said the ownership question concerning the Nature Center had just been brought to their attention and that they would work to correct the problem.

“As the city has done with other ownership issues with recovery projects that have been unclear, either the center’s property title will be transferred to Audubon or the FEMA project worksheets (on which the grants were based) will be transferred to the city,” the statement said.

The Audubon Nature Institute took over management of the then 14-year-old Nature Center and two affiliated museums in Kenner in 1994. They had been operated until then by the Society for Environmental Education, whose board voted to merge with the larger and richer Audubon.

After Katrina damaged all of Audubon’s facilities, institute officials put rebuilding of the Nature Center, which had always had limited attendance, on the back burner while they worked on rehabilitating the Audubon Zoo, Audubon Park, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas and other facilities. Contributing to that decision was the fact that eastern New Orleans lost much of its population after the storm. It was one of many decisions that led eastern New Orleans leaders to complain they were being ignored and forgotten as the city tried to rebuild.
The inspector general’s report criticized both the FEMA regional office in Denton, Texas, and the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness for failing to recognize that the grant was improperly awarded to the commission.

FEMA officials said they rely on on the word of the grant applicant to determine ownership of the property being rebuilt, and GOHSEP officials said they rely on FEMA to determine whether the grant recipient has legal responsibility for the repairs, the report said. But it said the state’s own rules require FEMA and GOHSEP to jointly determine whether applicants are qualified.

The report also criticized FEMA and GOHSEP for failing to require the work to be completed more quickly. “Quarterly progress reports for the past several years show that the commission repeatedly asked GOHSEP to provide project extensions on these 20 grants,” the report said. The files show GOHSEP forwarded the requests to FEMA, which approved them, with the most recent extension ending on Aug. 31, 2012.

“In their requests for project extensions, commission officials stated that they delayed the projects because the city mayor’s office placed a ‘hold’ on work at the center,” the report said. “However, in their requests, commission officials did not provide any documentation to support this assertion.”

Under FEMA rules, permanent repairs are required to be completed in 18 months, unless there are extenuating circumstances or unusual project requirements outside the control of the grant recipient. But even when that happens, the grant recipient can only be given another 30 months to complete the work, the report said.

Again, the report said, neither FEMA nor GOHSEP took steps to verify the reasons for the delays or to assist in alleviating the delays.

“Because seven years have passed since Hurricane Katrina, FEMA should not approve another extension request and should deny all funding for the 20 projects unless the commission and GOHSEP can provide an adequate, reasonable justification for the delays and an action plan to complete the projects within 18 months,” the report concluded.

When asked to explain the seven-year delay in completing the Nature Center projects, Ryan Berni, communications director for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, cited language in the joint statement explaining that the plans for rebuilding the center became part of a lengthy process to write a master plan for Joe W. Brown Park. “What I can tell you is that since we’ve taken office, we’ve completed a master plan for the park and begun extensive renovations,” Berni said.

“Audubon Nature Institute hired Billes Architects to work on refurbishment of the Nature Center in 2007,” the joint statement from the city and Audubon said. “As the concept was developed, Audubon worked with the elected officials representing New Orleans East including multiple council members in that time frame, the business community and civic organizations.”

Four different people have served as the council representative for eastern New Orleans, including Joe Brown Park, since Katrina.

The institute presented the public its most recent renovation plans for the center in November as part of the master plan process. “It was announced that phase 1 of the construction would include the restoration of the Nature Center, including the planetarium, the boardwalks and the learning center,” the statement said, with construction to begin this summer.

Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for GOHSEP, called the inspector general’s report “just the latest example of the federal government attempting to take rebuilding dollars away from an eligible project.” She said GOHSEP “maintains that the Audubon Commission was the appropriate applicant to receive the funding” and she is confident the state will be able to show that.

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