Faster Katrina effort pledged

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 6, 2009

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Disturbed by what they saw on a bus ride through a city still bearing Hurricane Katrina’s scars, two members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet pledged Thursday to speed the pace of the Gulf Coast recovery operation they inherited from the Bush administration.

On their first visit to New Orleans since Obama took office, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan announced millions in new funding for post-Katrina housing initiatives and vowed to cut red tape that has kept money out of local governments’ hands.

‘‘This will not be the last time we are here,’’ said Napolitano, who is scheduled to take a helicopter tour of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast on Friday. ‘‘We’re going to get this done.’’

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The federal government’s response to the 2005 storm that devastated New Orleans was a defining moment for the Bush administration and continued to trouble critics who considered the emergency response too little too late.

Obama promised a stepped-up commitment to the region several weeks ago, saying Gulf Coast residents struggling to rebuild have not always received the support they deserve. Katrina was blamed for more than 1,600 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.

Napolitano and Donovan got a firsthand look at the juxtaposition of hard-fought progress and frustrating inertia in neighborhoods devastated by the August 2005 storm.

They were joined by Craig Fugate, Obama’s pick to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a target of many New Orleans residents’ frustration since the early aftermath of the storm.

They started with a visit to a lakefront university in New Orleans where students still take classes in trailers, then met with a property owner on the outskirts of the city whose home was rebuilt by volunteers. The bus tour ended at a 9th Ward public housing development rebuilt since the storm’s catastrophic levee breaches.

Along the route, they stopped to peer at homes being built as part of actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project, but a sign that pleaded ‘‘Please Help Our Community’’ adorned a different house in the same neighborhood.

‘‘What we have seen today makes us disturbed, angry even, to see some of the families living the way that they have,’’ Donovan said at the last stop. ‘‘We pledge to you our partnership for a new beginning in New Orleans and across the Gulf.’’

Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal said he heard some encouraging words Thursday, but action will be critical now.

At the housing complex, a homeowner disgusted by the pace of his own personal rebuilding project waited to hear what the officials had to say. Malcolm Russell, 56, said a $130,000 federal grant wasn’t enough to totally rebuild his home and rental property in New Orleans.

‘‘They’re sending all this money from Washington, and the little people are not getting a dime of it,’’ he said. ‘‘Three years later, I’m still begging (Louisiana’s homeowner grant program) for money.’’

Walter Leger, vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said he almost wished officials had seen how devastated things were before, to realize how far people have come.

‘‘What I hope they take away is how much government assistance helps, but also how much work needs to be done,’’ he said.

A consistent complaint from the city and others in Louisiana is that they’re not getting all they’re due for rebuilding work from FEMA and that the decision-making process for approving funding should be more transparent.

FEMA has contended that many buildings across Louisiana suffered from years of deferred maintenance and that it’s charged only with helping bring infrastructure back to its condition before the storm.

Napolitano blamed delays on FEMA staffing turnovers and confusion over FEMA’s legal obligations in disbursing money. She said a new team of state and federal officials has been formed to settle disputes over funding of local rebuilding projects.

‘‘Their sole purpose in life is to identify impediments in the decision-making process,’’ she said, ‘‘and to provide a more effective mechanism for resolving those disputes fairly and quickly.’’

St. Bernard Project co-founder Zack Rosenburg, whose nonprofit group helped rebuild the St. Bernard Parish home that the officials visited, said the area’s rebuilding efforts were stymied by the Bush administration’s focus on ‘‘preventing fraud’’ rather than ‘‘delivering services.’’

‘‘Residents were treated as the enemy rather than the taxpaying American citizens that they are,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m confident that this administration will focus on progress over process.’’