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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 19, 2010

Official questions cost of replacement housing in American Samoa

Associated Press

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa The U.S. Homeland Security Department's inspector general is concerned about the cost of a pilot project to build housing in American Samoa in the aftermath of the deadly and destructive September tsunami.

DHS Inspector General Richard L. Skinner noted in a March 30 memo to Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate that FEMA hired Partnership for Temporary Housing to build as many as eight homes for up to $3.9 million an average of $487,500 each.

The amount is much higher than other calculations on the price of housing in the U.S. territory, Skinner said.

"According to a FEMA disaster housing strategy document developed in late 2009, the Development Bank of American Samoa loans applicants approximately $40,000 to build a two-bedroom home and approximately $60,000 for a three-bedroom home," Skinner wrote.

He added that according to a response for data received on March 5, 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' independent government cost estimate is $139,801 for a 920-square-feet, two-bedroom model and $166,316 for the 1,262-square-feet, three-bedroom model.

FEMA Deputy Administrator Richard Serino said in Pago Pago that the FEMA figure is only an estimate.

"This is an initial estimate of the cost per home and it's something that we will continue to monitor," Serino said Sunday during an interview with The Associated Press. "As part of an assessment, you look to assess all recovery efforts including this pilot program and its costs. There are a lot of things to be realized before the final fix figures are made."

The assessment includes talking to affected residents, survivors, local government officials, members of the private sector and others "to get a real ground assessment of recovery efforts with our federal and local partners," Serino said.

"It was very important for me to come here to see for myself the challenges faced by American Samoa," he said. "The territory is pretty remote, and one of the big challenges is getting materials and suppliers here, which is quite difficult."

Skinner said the federal government offered residents whose homes were destroyed two options financial assistance of up to $30,300, or a two- or three-bedroom home, depending on family size.

As of Feb. 16, 179 American Samoans had chosen the money, while 56 had selected a home, he said.

U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, is also concerned with the FEMA contract let out under the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act.

"This contract represents FEMA's precedent-setting decision to use its construction authority under the Stafford Act," Thompson said in Washington. "The use of that authority along the Gulf Coast after Katrina would have been helpful.

"But while I am glad that FEMA has decided to set precedent, I am troubled that the contract terms and the price offered appear to set such a bad precedent. I urge the administrator to reconsider this excessively priced construction contract," he said.

In American Samoa, extended families normally live in one home, and it's not unusual to have six to 10 relatives living in a three-bedroom home. Many families frown on the practice of immediate relatives going out to live on their own instead of staying within the "aiga," or family.

Last year's tsunami killed 34 people and destroyed or damaged more than 200 homes.