Napolitano takes helicopter tour of Miss. coast

Published 2:28 am Sunday, March 8, 2009

A helicopter tour Friday of Mississippi’s coast convinced Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that the area appears to be on a faster track to recovery from Hurricane Katrina than New Orleans is 3 1/2 years after the storm.

“At least initially, it looks like the recovery here has been much quicker,” she said, flanked by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. “There’s a lot going on. You see high-rises where before there were none. You see businesses being established, homes being rebuilt.”

Napolitano, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, took a bus tour of New Orleans on Thursday with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. Donovan said they were disturbed — “angry, even” — by the pace of rebuilding in the city slammed by the 2005 hurricane.

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“New Orleans is dealing with some different issues,” Napolitano said Friday at a Gulfport airport. “There, I think we can really do some things right now to speed up some projects that have been in the works for too long.”

Napolitano, on her first visit to hurricane-damaged areas since joining President Barack Obama’s cabinet, also saw room in Mississippi to “break through that bottleneck” holding up federal funds for local governments’ rebuilding projects.

Barbour said he hoped the helicopter tour showed Napolitano both signs of progress and evidence that “there’s a lot to do.”

“FEMA can be a very good partner for us, particularly for some things where we’re way down the road for the project but we can’t start construction because there’s this little hang-up or that little hang-up,” he said.

While in New Orleans, Napolitano and Donovan announced millions in new funding for post-Katrina housing initiatives. They also pledged to speed up the pace of that city’s recovery and help local officials cut through red tape that has slowed the flow of federal money.

Katrina laid waste to tens of thousands of homes and businesses in Mississippi, where 2,364 families are still living in trailers, mobile homes and hotel rooms, according to FEMA.

The promise of a booming construction industry lured commercial contractor Michael Gillespie to the Gulf Coast from Florida in early 2008.

He said he’s making good progress on a project in Pass Christian, Miss., that doesn’t use any government money, but another one in Slidell, La., has remained idle for nearly a year while he waits for FEMA to act on his application for a $150,000 grant.

“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “How long does it take to review a set of plans? It’s incredibly frustrating trying to get stuff done.”