Thursday, November 17, 2011
Feds going whole hog on building binge
I was reading the McComb Enterprise-Journal when I noticed a photo of a nice new building under construction. That’s great, I thought. I wonder what new business is expanding?
As I read the cutline, my optimism turned to incredulity. The cutline stated that FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Administration) and MEMA (the Mississippi Emergency Management Administration) were building a 10,000-square-foot, $3.6 million building to provide hurricane shelter for 900 people for up to 36 hours.
Pike County agreed to chip in an extra $600,000 for air conditioning.
Turns out FEMA and MEMA are building 60 of these buildings, mostly in south Mississippi. When completed, these buildings will hold 41,572 people for a maximum of 36 hours.
Wow! No recession for the federal government, is there? Taxpayers are scrimping and scraping, but the feds are going whole hog on a building binge. Therein lies the problem with government. Therein lies the reason for the Tea Party movement.
I e-mailed one of the MEMA public relations specialists (there are three of them) several days ago for some more info. What are these facilities supposed to do in between our 30-year hurricanes? Was there a cost benefit analysis done? How much state money is involved? No data by my deadline.
Presuming the McComb building is representative of the others, the total cost would be $240 million to house displaced hurricane victims for a maximum of 36 hours.
Hurricane Camille occurred in 1969. Mississippi did not have another serious hurricane until Katrina 36 years later.
So let’s do the math. We spend $240 million so every 36 years we can house 41,572 hurricane victims for 36 hours. That comes to $5,773 a night per guest.
That’s just construction cost. No doubt the feds will want to hire a staff to maintain these 60 new buildings. I foresee each building having a director, a maintenance supervisor and several full-time maintenance employees - per building. Maybe each building will have its own public relations specialist!
For the sake of argument, let’s assume each building has a staff of five full-time federal employees at federal wage and benefits levels.
According to FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, the average federal employee makes $81,258 compared to the average private sector annual pay of $50,462. In addition, the federal government paid $41,791 in benefits for every federal worker. That’s around $120,000 in total compensation per federal worker.
Staffing each of these new 60 buildings with five federal employees at the average federal compensation would cost $36 million per year or $1.3 billion by the time the next bad hurricane rolls around in 36 years.
That brings the per night cost of staying at one of these shelters to a mere $36,947. What a bargain!
Oh, I forgot to mention the fact that south Mississippi has several thousand churches that would be happy to house hurricane victims for free for a week or so. These churches would be delighted for a chance to help others in need. Such acts of generosity build the church and build harmony and goodwill for both the givers and the receivers. And it wouldn’t cost a dime!
There are also several thousand school gyms across our regions that would be happy to house the hurricane homeless for a week or so. True, the school kids might have to play outside instead of the gym for a week, but they could probably survive such a disruption.
Don’t forget the 20,000 or so hotel rooms in Mississippi alone. New Orleans has about the same number. In a worst-case scenario, hurricane victims could stay in a hotel, which would certainly help the hotel owners make a small profit and help pay their federal taxes.
Then there are one million homes in Mississippi. Folks on the coast have friends and family in Hattiesburg, Jackson, New Orleans and many other inland places. Mississippians are generous and rarely would turn away a stranger in need much less their own friends and family.
So let’s see: We have churches, schools, hotel rooms and a million homes. I do believe we can handle housing 41,000 hurricane victims every half century or two when something like Katrina occurs. Given that the federal government is broke, do we really need to spend $240 million in new buildings?
Minutes before my deadline, some FEMA officials called me by telephone. They pointed out these facilities will be used routinely throughout the year by citizens fearing tornados and tropical storms. However, no studies were done to project such utilization.
Tornados happen suddenly and unpredictably. They last about 20 seconds. If you have time, the only thing you need to escape a tornado is a car. If you can get in a car to drive to one of these shelters, all you have to do is drive in the opposite direction of the tornado and you won’t need the shelter. But such logic escapes the feds, which spent $360 a square foot to tornado-proof these buildings.
I doubt many people will be spending the night in these centers every time a bad storm passes through.
The FEMA officials promised me a cost-benefit study on the Pike County facility. I look forward to writing about it.
I will make my own promise. I will revisit this issue next year and find out exactly how many people have spent the night in the new $3.6 million McComb safe building.
By the way, this kind of spending is not limited to the feds. Look no further than the Jackson City Council, which will spend $100,000 to change the name of our airport from the Jackson-Evers International Airport to the Medgar Evers International Airport. Nothing like watching the pennies during tough times.
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