- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

NEW ORLEANS.

I’m home again visiting my family down in the bayou, lending a helping hand to ensure they get back on their feet some 18 months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita knocked them down.

Coincidentally, President Bush, who has been missing in action for the last six months, returned to the Gulf Coast region to see what progress has been made and what is left to do. And there is so much left to do.

It has becoming abundantly clear that the president’s visit is just another photo op meant to convey he’s still with us — without making a significant commitment to help with recovery. In fact, while attending an event in Mississippi, the president said: “The federal government’s role has been to write checks. The governor’s role and the mayor’s role is to help expedite the federal money to the local folks.”

Well, he got the first part right, but the federal role is also to provide leadership, to push when things stall and to right any mistakes made along the way.

Soon after the storm, I vowed to do what I could to assist the president and others helping people get back on their feet. While the president and Congress did allocate more than $110 billion in federal money for communities affected by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, nearly half of the funds appropriated have been dedicated to emergency and longer-term housing.

Just recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, asked that the administration amend the Stafford Act to waive the 10 percent match of federal funds the state is required to repay, thereby freeing up $1 billion for construction projects like police stations, fire stations, schools, water and sewage systems.

In the correspondence, Mr. Reid reminded the president that, “Since 1985, FEMA has granted waivers of state match for public assistance in 32 different disasters.” Despite having suffered two of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history, Louisiana is still asked to meet the match requirement. So why not grant us the waiver and free some of the funds that would otherwise go to Iraq contractors like Halliburton?

The president should also embrace a bill Sen. Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, is sponsoring to eliminate counterproductive restrictions in the Road Home program. Mrs. Landrieu says, “Federal red tape holds hostage $1.2 billion of Hazard Mitigation Grant Program funding needed to return people to their homes.” Congress should waive these unnecessarily restrictive regulations so the funds can be used, as Mrs. Landrieu proposes, to acquire “structures on sites that local governments wish to return to open space” and provide “grants to homeowners of up to $7,500 to fund individual mitigation measures,” or, in other words, make their houses nontoxic.

The president should also learn the difference between a “loan” and a “grant.” Right now, federal requirements demand that Road Home grants be used to repay Small Business Administration loans, so the money granted to individuals devastated by Katrina to help them re-establish their homes and lives is, instead, redirected to repay small-business loans.

Mrs. Landrieu says: “Our homeowners need capital to rebuild their homes. Forcing them to repay loans with grant proceeds does not give them capital; it forces them to go elsewhere.” It forces an already victimized population to drop further into debt seeking out loans offered at predatory lending rates.

At the rate things are moving, Katrina survivors will not have their homes rebuilt until 2012 or later. But there are signs of hope — mainly from the people themselves, who are unwavering in their commitment to come back and start the revival one paintbrush at a time. The president could have seen it firsthand just across the street from Samuel Green Charter School, where he stopped to look at the progress. There’s an old white wooden house that belonged to my grandparents. It’s the house in which my mother, Jean, and her six siblings grew up. Today, my Uncle Nat, a retired member of the New York Police Department, calls it home. While the president was across the street, Uncle Nat was at home cleaning up and making repairs.

Like many others who have returned, my Uncle Nat, brother Johnny and other relatives have all been hard at work preparing to tear down the molded ceilings and replace the roof. They decided to rebuild — with or without federal assistance. After all, it’s their home. Soon, my Uncle Douglas and brother Floyd will come back from Georgia, and at least half of my family will be reunited and sitting on the porch with something cold to drink.

But much of my city remains frozen in time. It still waits for signs of hope to remove the watermarks — erasing the memories of a storm that took so many neighbors and friends to far-away places.

Before leaving the Gulf Coast, the president said: “This is a hopeful day. There’s obviously a lot more work to be done. You can see vacant lots where there’s going to be new building. There’s still work to be done here. … But times are changing for the better, and people’s lives are improving, and there is hope. And I congratulate the good folks in this part of the country for their resiliency, their courage and the fact that they never abandoned hope.” He’s right about not abandoning hope.

Congress and the president must waive the 10 percent match requirement, eliminate the red tape keeping grants from getting to those who need them and deliver the resources to rebuild the levees. It is just that simple. Another year and a half is too long to wait on hope alone. We need a helping hand and some leadership, too.

Donna Brazile is a political commentator on CNN, ABC and National Public Radio and a former campaign manager for Al Gore.


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