Obama cabinet members check Gulf Coast recovery

Published 11:25 pm Thursday, March 5, 2009

Two members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet said Thursday they are disturbed by the extent of damage that remains 3 1/2 years after Hurricane Katrina and pledged to speed the pace of rebuilding across the Gulf Coast.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan announced creation of new federal-state review teams to resolve funding disputes and a five-year, $50 million housing program.

“What we have seen today makes us disturbed, angry even, to see some of the families living the way that they have,” Donovan said from a 9th Ward housing development rebuilt since the storm and catastrophic levee breaches. “We pledge to you our partnership for a new beginning in New Orleans and across the Gulf.”

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State and local officials, who have complained that bureaucracy and funding disputes are slowing the rebuilding work, said they were encouraged by the visit. Napolitano is scheduled to take a helicopter tour of Mississippi’s Gulf Coast on Friday.

The two were joined by Craig Fugate, Obama’s pick to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’ve heard some encouraging words today,” Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal said. “Action will be critical now.”

Napolitano and Donovan did not make direct reference to the Bush administration, which was widely criticized for its response to Katrina and, by many in the region, for red tape that tied up rebuilding dollars. The Obama administration has pledged a fresh look at the recovery work.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin welcomed what he sees as “more of a willingness to do a fix” of FEMA.

In the past, “it was just like, blame the locals; they’re the problem and we don’t have to spend as much money as we should,” he told WVUE TV before state, local and federal officials took a bus tour of the area.

Among the stops: Southern University of New Orleans, the Lower 9th Ward homes being built as part of actor Brad Pitt’s Make It Right project, and suburban St. Bernard Parish, which was virtually wiped out by the storm and which, by one estimate, has recovered just over half its pre-Katrina population.

They saw neighborhoods like Bill Gross’ in Chalmette, where the 79-year-old’s house is among a few that were rebuilt and others that were seemingly abandoned. They passed empty strip malls, an amusement park silent since Katrina, homes rebuilt with the help of volunteers, businesses that came back with their neighbors.

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 the condition in which it existed before the storm. President Bush’s former hurricane recovery chief, retired Maj. Gen. Doug O’Dell, has long maintained that the resources to rebuild are there — and that it’s a matter of putting them to use.

The work that remains was obvious; a hand-painted sign on a house in New Orleans’ hard hit, and still sparsely repopulated, Lower Ninth Ward read: “Please help our community.”

“This will not be the last time we are here,” Napolitano said. “ … We’re going to get this done.”