Audubon Commission in jeopardy of losing millions in FEMA funds - FOX 8 WVUE New Orleans News, Weather, Sports

Audubon Commission in jeopardy of losing millions in FEMA funds

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Gates are locked at the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center in New Orleans East. Gates are locked at the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center in New Orleans East.

New Orleans, La. -- The Audubon Commission could be in jeopardy of losing nearly $8 million in federal funds designated for Katrina repairs at the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center.

Inside the sprawling Joe Brown Park in the eastern part of the city, the Audubon Nature Center remains closed and gates are locked to keep the public out. The park and the community in which it is located were swamped by floodwaters after Katrina overwhelmed levees in August 2005.

More than seven years after the flooding, some in the federal government want to know why the  Nature Center remains shuttered, despite a hefty allocation from FEMA.

"We're all very frustrated with the fact that the Nature Center hasn't returned yet, but we are hopeful that it will," said Tangee Wall of the group Friends of Joe Brown Memorial Park and the  Nature Center.

"It was a big educational opportunity for a lot of students to come to," stated Rep. Austin Badon (D-New Orleans).

Badon is taken aback by the latest developments.  "I was told as the elected official who represents this area that phase one was signed, sealed and delivered, the $7 million was done, phase one was going to happen, don't worry about it, that they were working on phase two and phase three.  Unfortunately we're going on eight years and it has not happened. So the question is, where is the money?" asked Badon.

The Office of the Inspector General within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is also concerned. FEMA falls under its purview.

In a ten-page audit report sent to FEMA's Administrator for Region VI, George Robinson, the IG's office says FEMA should disallow $7.6 million in public assistance grant money awarded to the Audubon Commission.  The commission, whose members are appointed by the mayor, operates and maintains facilities like Audubon Park, the Aquarium of the Americas, and the Louisiana Nature Center.

The audit points to two problem areas. First, it says the Audubon Commission does not have legal responsibility to repair storm damages to the center under federal regulations,  because the city leased the land to the Audubon Nature Institute, not the Audubon Commission.

Secondly, the audit questions the ongoing need for 20 of the 29 projects the FEMA funds would pay for, because the commission has not initiated work on them yet.

"Start work and rebuild this facility," Badon said.

The IG audit also recommends that all funds paid to the commission be recovered if FEMA and the Governor's Office of Homeland Security cannot establish within six months which entity -- the commission or the institute -- has legal responsibility for repairing the Katrina damage at the Nature center.

"It would be very, very disheartening to lose the money that has been allocated for the restoration of the Nature Center," Wall said.

"We can't allow this money to go back because of any lack of construction," Badon further stated.

And in response to the audit the city and Audubon Institute issued a joint statement Wednesday afternoon which reads:

The City and Audubon are eager to complete this project. It is part of a more than $25 million master plan for Joe W. Brown Memorial Park. Issues of ownership have only recently been brought to our attention through this audit. 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 (PWs) will be transferred to the City. Audubon and the City will be working cooperatively with FEMA to clarify issues with this important project. At the end of the day, Joe W. Brown Memorial Park and the Audubon Nature Center in it will be completely revitalized for the residents and children of New Orleans East to enjoy.

The Audubon Commission is a public body, whose members are appointed by the Mayor and approved by the City Council. The Commission administers, operates, and maintains facilities including Audubon Park, the Aquarium of the Americas, Woldenberg Riverfront Park, the Species Survival Center, the Louisiana Nature Center and other educational, cultural and recreational facilities, and performs such other duties as are provided by applicable law, subject to the provisions of the City's Master Plan, its land use regulations, and its permitting authority. The Audubon Nature Institute is a private, not-for-profit corporation that has been contracted by the Audubon Commission to operate the Audubon facilities, for which they receive both public and private funds.

During the Master Plan process for Joe W. Brown Park, Audubon Nature Institute was a full partner at the table with the City of New Orleans and FEMA Louisiana Recovery Office. After listening to the New Orleans East community, it was determined that it was their desire that the Nature Center be rebuilt. The Nature Center was coordinated with the Joe W. Brown Park Master Plan to establish the Center's scope and program, as well as to determine how the Nature Center would resume to function as an integral part of the park and community. Audubon Nature Institute hired Billes Architects to work on the refurbishment of the Nature Center in 2007. As the concept was developed, Audubon worked with the elected officials representing New Orleans East including multiple councilmembers in that time frame, the business community and the civic organizations. With the evolution of the Master Plan in Joe W. Brown Park, a consensus on the Nature Center emerged. In November 2012, Audubon Nature Institute participated in a public meeting in New Orleans East to inform residents of the renovation plans. It was announced that Phase I of the construction would include the restoration of the Nature Center, including the Planetarium, the boardwalks and the learning center. Billes Architects is currently completing the schematic design phase for the Nature Center complex. Construction is slated to begin in Summer 2013.

The Governor's Office of Homeland Security also responded to the audit which said neither FEMA nor GOHSEP fulfilled their responsibilities in managing funds awarded to the commission. Christina Stephens of the Governor's Office of Homeland Security sent this email  to FOX 8 News:

This DHS Inspector General report is just the latest example of the federal government attempting to take rebuilding dollars away from an eligible project. GOHSEP maintains that the Audubon Commission was the appropriate applicant to receive the funding and to do the work under Louisiana law, which FEMA initially agreed with before any money was ever paid on the project.

In these instances, GOHSEP and the applicant will sit down with FEMA and explain how the project came to be and why the funding is appropriate. Often after the DHS Office of Inspector General has recommended that FEMA should take funding away from a project, FEMA and the State have ultimately provided sufficient justification to support continued funding. We have no doubt that this will ultimately be the case with the Audubon Commission.

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