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School buses are surrounded by water at the EBR School System transportation headquarters off Choctaw Drive during severe flooding in East Baton Rouge Parish on Sunday August 14, 2016.

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG

In the immediate wake of the August 2016 flood, East Baton Rouge and Livingston school districts spent millions of dollars to replace flood-damaged school buses so they could quickly reopen shuttered schools.

More than 14 months later, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is finally reimbursing these two large public school districts for most of their added transportation costs from those hectic days.

The federal agency announced Wednesday it has agreed to pay the East Baton Rouge Parish school system $5.6 million and Livingston $1.1 million. FEMA is reimbursing 90 percent of the damage and repairs from the August 2016 floods, minus proceeds from private insurance.

The infusion of money is expected to arrive in the next few weeks.

The two school systems sustained by far the most flood damage to their school buses. Ascension Parish, by contrast, saw only one of its buses flood, even though several of its school buildings flooded; 40 of their buses potentially in harm's way in Sorrento were moved at the height of the flooding. Central had about 10 buses flood but they are all owned by First Student Inc., a private bus company based in Cincinnati, which quickly replaced them.

For East Baton Rouge Parish, the $5.6 million is the last significant money the school district is expecting to receive from FEMA when it comes to school buses. The money covers the damage to 114 buses, or about a fifth of the district’s nearly 600-bus feet.

That fleet is not back to where it was. The school system bought 68 buses right after the flood and recently purchased 11 more, which arrived just two weeks ago and quickly went on the road. That still leaves East Baton Rouge 35 buses short of pre-flood fleet levels.

Superintendent Warren Drake said he will likely use at least some of that money to buy new buses, but is not sure how many.

“We need to order another 10, 12, 15 (buses), something like that,” he said.

Livingston Parish Superintendent Rick Wentzel, however, said thanks to a misunderstanding by FEMA, his school district is getting only half of the $2.2 million it was expecting. The money is to reimburse Livingston for the 54 buses Livingston purchased after the flood, seven fewer than the total that flooded in August 2016.

Wentzel said he learned of the snafu a few days before FEMA formally announced the $1.1 million award. He said school officials are reapplying to get the remaining $1.1 million he said the federal agency owes the district, but Wentzel said he has no idea how soon FEMA will agree to pay that money, noting they are all working on “FEMA time.”

He said FEMA deducted the proceeds from private insurance that applied only to some of the buses but did so for all 54 flooded buses.

Wentzel was able to reduce the size of its fleet a bit due to declining student population. The school district lost about 600 of its 26,000 students after the flood, allowing it to combine routes.

"When population continues to increase," he said, referring to a rise in student population this year, "you need to reevaluate that."

Wentzel said he has no immediate spending plans for the $1.1 million that FEMA has awarded as well as the additional $1.1 million he expects to receive in the future.

"It goes back to replenish the kitty where we took it from,” he said. “We've taken it from an account and spent it, so now we're replenishing that account."

East Baton Rouge Parish, however, won’t be sitting on its $5.6 million. It is still straining to cover all the routes it runs, plus even more new routes the school system adds as it launches new magnet and other school choice programs.

Gary Reese,?the chief of Student Support Services, said he needs more buses as soon as he can get them.

“I’ll take whatever Mr. Drake is willing to buy,” Reese said.

Any new buses, though, are months away from joining the fleet since the FEMA money is not yet in hand, and the buses will need to be ordered.

Reese said he has several issues he’s juggling when it comes to buying new buses.

For instance, the school district a year ago won an energy grant that would allow the school system to buy eco-friendly propane-powered buses. Reese said the grant will cover part of the cost of up to 20 more buses, but how many he can afford depends on how much matching money East Baton Rouge can find, he said.

Also, on Reese’s agenda is figuring out how long he wants to continue with a post-flood lease of six additional special education buses. He said FEMA won’t pay for that lease after the end of the current 2017-18 school year. So he’s considering buying new special education buses instead.

Another factor in how many new buses the school system can acquire is the growing cost of those buses, he said. The school system, per Drake’s directive, is buying only buses that have air-conditioning. He said he’s also buying new buses where the doors lock, which is atypical of the buses the school system currently uses.

Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.

Follow Caroline Grueskin on Twitter,?@cgrueskin.