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Stream of politicians to visit to commemorate Katrina anniversary

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced Thursday international donations of about $60 million for Gulf Coast schools and universities damaged by last summer’s hurricanes.

About half of the money collected from foreign countries will target colleges and universities in Louisiana and Mississippi, with the remainder allocated to elementary and high schools in Louisiana, according to her department.

Additional education funding, including $50 million for higher education, also will be available through a special congressional appropriation, her agency said.

Spellings, who with White House hurricane recovery chief Donald Powell met with area higher education officials on the University of New Orleans campus, said the money “doesn’t make everything fine and dandy and over with.”

She commended education leaders for progress that’s been made, from surpassing enrollment targets to, in some cases, offering classes on campuses once flooded by several feet of water. Both she and Powell referred to the progress as bright spots in the region’s recovery.

Their stop is one of many planned along the Gulf Coast by public officials, including President Bush, to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The storm struck Aug. 29, 2005.

Also Thursday, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., visited a couple who are rebuilding their storm-destroyed home in St. Bernard Parish, just southeast of New Orleans, and were to tour a nearby elementary school and businesses.

Of St. Bernard’s pre-Katrina population of about 70,000, only an estimated 20,000 have returned. Virtually all buildings in the parish flooded during the hurricane, and 129 people died.

In the middle class community of Chalmette, Landrieu and Reid met with Nick and Greer Cuccia. Like others in the neighborhood, the couple’s house is gutted and a federally issued trailer sits in the driveway. The exterior of their home is covered with black tar paper, and stacks of shingles are scattered across the roof.

The Cuccia home had been a two-story. After 15 feet of storm-driven water, it is being rebuilt as a one-story raised four feet off the ground.

“It’s important to raise your house, but you have to remember, they got 15 feet of water here,” Landrieu, at the site of the Cuccia home. “FEMA keeps saying raise your house. People are saying, what do they want me to do, raise it 15 feet? No, we want the levees fixed.”

The Cuccias said they hoped that raising the house would get them a break on flood insurance rates. They paid $300 before the storm. Now they pay $1,500.

Landrieu said insurance rates, now four to five times higher than they were before last summer’s hurricanes, have become a major financial challenge for many people.

“Insurance companies are holding this country hostage,” Landrieu said.

Bush will spend two days on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in New Orleans next week.

The president will be in Mississippi on Monday to meet with community leaders, walk through a storm-affected neighborhood and deliver a speech on the rebuilding effort before traveling to New Orleans, where he’s scheduled to have dine with state and local officials and spend the night.

On Tuesday, Bush is scheduled to attend a prayer service in New Orleans and take part in a round-table discussion of an effort headed by first lady Laura Bush to restock Gulf Coast libraries.

Spellings said Thursday that the federal government has made $2 billion available for education — K-12 and higher — in hurricane-hit Gulf Coast states.

Higher education leaders praised the government for help that’s been provided, but said their needs are great and asked to not be forgotten. Challenges in the year ahead, besides continuing to rebuild buildings or other infrastructure, include attracting new students and recruiting and holding onto faculty, they said.

“We always worry about being left behind,” Victor Ukpolo, the chancellor of Southern University at New Orleans, said. Classes there still aren’t being held on the campus, he said. “We continue to let our case be heard by the federal government and the state, and hope they can continue to do what they can for us.”

Powell said the government has demonstrated a committment to rebuilding — $110 billion has been committed — and said a “tremendous amount of effort” also has been invested in preparing for possible future evacuations because of a hurricane.

Progress made in the last year has been obvious “when you reflect on the devastation,” he said.