Obama administration names hurricane chief

Published 10:45 pm Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Obama administration named political veteran Janet Woodka as its Gulf Coast rebuilding chief Tuesday, saying she would have a direct link to the White House in trying to coordinate the still-massive recovery from the 2005 hurricanes.

Woodka also will be allowed to structure her office as she sees fit, a U.S. Homeland Security spokeswoman, Sara Kuban, said.

The shape the office takes could determine its longevity. While the job of federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding is set to expire in September, Louisiana’s senators have been among those seeking a two-year extension. They also want to give the office more authority, including an ability to effectively coordinate the actions and policies of federal agencies involved in the rebuilding effort.

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Louisiana’s recovery chief, Paul Rainwater, said previous federal coordinators acted as advocates for the state but weren’t always listened to in Washington. He said when the state successfully makes an argument for funding or other aid, it needs someone to “take our case and run for us.”

The Department of Homeland Security said Woodka will report directly to Secretary Janet Napolitano. But Rainwater said her access to other Cabinet secretaries will be key to the region making continued progress.

Woodka will lead an office President Bush first established by executive order after hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005. And she’ll bring a different perspective: Her resume includes acting as legislative affairs director in the federal recovery office; working on energy projects; and serving as a legislative director for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who called Woodka a “smart choice” for the job.

Woodka’s predecessors are a former Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chairman, Donald Powell, and a retired Marine Corps general, Doug O’Dell.

O’Dell, who left office with the Bush administration in January, considered it a “personal defeat” that he hadn’t been able to help end the finger pointing and find a solution to long-standing funding disputes between the city of New Orleans and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

He convened sit-downs with local, state and federal officials aimed at trying to uncover and overcome obstacles. And he maintained that the federal resources to rebuild had been made available, and that it was just a matter of putting them to use.

Rainwater said he hopes those types of meetings continue. He also sees potential for the coordinator to reach out to the nonprofit and business communities to try to help bridge funding gaps.