Company benefits as Katrina victims wait

ICF International has profited significantly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

;NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of miserable homeowners are still waiting for their government rebuilding checks, and many complain they can’t even get their calls returned. But the company that holds the big contract to distribute the aid is doing quite well for itself.

ICF International of Fairfax, Va., has posted strong profits, gone public, landed additional multimillion-dollar government contracts, and, it was learned this week, secured a potentially big raise recently from the state of Louisiana.

In the waning days of Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration, state officials increased the management contract ceiling from $756 million to $912 million – this, after the Legislature wanted to fire ICF over its handling of the homeowner recovery program, called Road Home.

“It is outrageous that ICF couldn’t do the job for more than $750 million and that they were given a pay raise after their history of disappointing service,” Blanco’s successor, Gov. Bobby Jindal said in an e-mail Thursday.

Some of those displaced from their homes were equally angered.

“I’m flabbergasted that this company could be so inefficient and could mess up so consistently and for so long,” said Bill Yurt, 57, who has been living in a FEMA trailer for 2½ years.

Yurt said ICF hasn’t sent an appraiser to determine the grant amount that will resurrect his gutted house in Gentilly. And his calls to an ICF caseworker have gone unreturned for a month.

Road Home was created in June 2006 as a state-run, federally funded plan to compensate homeowners for the breach of New Orleans’ government-run levees. Homeowners can apply for grants to repair their homes, or obtain buyouts if they don’t want to fix things up.

Yet, 56,000 applicants – nearly 40 percent of the qualified total – had yet to receive a cent as of last month. Plagued by cost overruns and delays, Road Home is expected to cost the taxpayers $10 billion in federal money and has become another glaring symbol of frustration and red tape in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“Supposedly they had the expertise, but what we’ve learned ever since is it’s been on-the-job training,” said Frank Silvestri, co-chairman of the Citizens Road Home Action Team, or CHAT, a community group that was formed in anger over ICF.

ICF spokeswoman Gentry Brann blamed the state’s ever-changing rules and political meddling by officials and community groups for many of Road Home’s difficulties.

She said that Road Home has come to be regarded as an entitlement program, and said the company must carefully evaluate 157,000 applications to guard against fraud.

“The state essentially redefined the goal of the program from rebuilding to relief in midstream,” Brann said.

She said the $912 million that the company could be paid is to cover the costs of the program and was approved by public officials.

“It’s very important to note this is not a ‘pay increase.’ It’s not actually even ‘pay’ to ICF. Rather it is an increase in the contract ceiling to cover the additional unit price costs incurred by our subcontractors,” Brann said.

Still, Paul Rainwater, the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, which oversees the Road Home, said Thursday he will ask the state legislative auditor to look into the ICF pay structure.

The state got tough with ICF last year, threatening to terminate its contract, and but ultimately set benchmarks to force it to “close,” or decide, cases more quickly.

However, ICF now stands accused of inflating its closing figures by deliberately using red tape, confusion and delays to get applicants to settle for low grant amounts.

“They have been pressured into signing closing documents,” said Melanie Ehrlich, the other chair of CHAT, who has documented nearly 1,000 such disputes. “We know that this includes applicants who had obvious mistakes in the calculation of the grant.”