Since its founding in September 2004, nonprofit organization Rebuild Northwest Florida has performed structural retrofits on nearly 7,000 houses in the panhandle counties of Escambia and Santa Rosa. For most of that work, grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) paid 75% of the cost; homeowners only had to pay 25%.

But now, a Department of Homeland Security Inspector General's audit of the non-profit's practices says that Rebuild Northwest Florida paid a hand-picked contractor too much to manage the work — and that some of the bracing added to roofs may be inadequate to resist the 130-mph design winds specified in the FEMA grants.

Assistant Inspector General Matt Jadacki's audit report is posted on the DHS website ("FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Funds Awarded to Rebuild Northwest Florida, Pensacola, Florida"). The audit says Rebuild Northwest Florida didn't put the retrofit work out to bid using FEMA-required procedures, but merely listed the job for two weeks in a single online business magazine. The non-profit only got one bid on the job, and awarded the work to that contractor for a fixed-price management fee of $280 per house. Later, the non-profit approved the contractor's request to raise the fee to $620 per house, without documenting or justifying the increase.

And the Inspector General says that a third-party engineering consultant's review of the bracing installed in some of the houses raised questions about the structural adequacy of the retrofits. "During our fieldwork," the report says, "we noted that hazard mitigation representatives within the FEMA Florida Recovery Office continued to have concerns that the design specifications for gable end bracing for homes over one story in height, or with a gable end wall width of more than 20 feet, were deficient and would not withstand wind loads certified by the engineer."

The auditor's recommendation: the FEMA administrator should disallow $878,200 of the contract expenses as excessive and ineligible; and the state should conduct an independent engineering review of the bracing in homes over one story in height or with gable ends wider than 20 feet, and order a re-work of the job if deficiencies are identified.

For its part, Rebuild Northwest Florida disputes the audit's findings, and the group's officials say they have no plans to re-do any of their work. In an interview with the Pensacola News Journal, Rebuild's chief executive officer, Garrett Walton, said he had put the report "in his rear-view mirror," saying, "Frankly, I'm not worried about it. I haven't done anything wrong, so what can they do but holler and fuss? We're moving on and trying to focus on getting houses done." (The June 23 News Journal story, "Raising the roof: Rebuild Northwest Florida denies audit claims of faulty work" by Carlton Proctor is now behind the paper's archive paywall.)

And Rebuild has an ally at the level of state government, the News Journal reported: the non-profit's former executive director is now the mitigation bureau chief at the Florida Division of Emergency Management. "[Miles E.] Anderson was hired as Rebuild's executive director in May 2006," the paper reported. "He returned to the Division of Emergency Management, where he previously worked, in the fall of 2007. On Feb. 17, Anderson wrote FEMA that the state division ‘does not concur in any of the findings.'"