- The Washington Times - Monday, February 25, 2008


Each time I visit New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast I am struck by how much has improved since the 2005 hurricanes. The people of the Gulf Coast have shown tremendous determination and fortitude to get their communities and their lives back on track, and I am amazed at their progress. One cannot describe the destruction Gulf Coast residents experienced — for this country never has seen such devastation. Of course, much, much more remains to be done. But how do we know what’s getting done and what work remains?

These are questions many people in the Gulf Coast region ask on a regular basis. When I meet with citizens along the Gulf Coast I get the same questions over and over. People want to know when the school down the street and the police and fire stations in their neighborhood will reopen. When they hear about all of the money given to the region by the American taxpayers, they want to know where that money is going. These are excellent questions that deserve answers.

When I accepted the role of federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding, the president gave me two guiding principles to direct me in my efforts: The first was to be a good steward of the taxpayers’ money, and the second was to let local people drive the recovery. These two principles have guided me in every decision I have made during the recovery process and they continue to guide me as the rebuilding goes on.

To that end, my office, working through a partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Gulf Coast states, developed an easy-to-use Web-based mapping tool that provides the public with accurate, up-to-date information on the status of public infrastructure projects in their neighborhoods.

The first phase of the recently unveiled Transparency Initiative focuses on a subject of great concern to Gulf Coast residents: schools.As the initiative develops, future phases will include public infrastructure projects in other key recovery sectors.

This initiative, driven by feedback from the local community as well as the Government Accountability Office, the Office of Management and Budget and George Mason and Tulane universities, enables Gulf Coast citizens to see exactly where federal investments are being made. These people need to know what schools, fire departments and police stations in their neighborhoods are open. They need to know when the ones that are closed will be reopening. And they deserve to know what is being done to rebuild their communities. They cannot rebuild their lives completely until they feel safe and secure in their own neighborhoods and are confident that surrounding support services will be available.

The path to where we are now has not been an easy one. It has taken a lot of hard work among federal, state and local leaders and stakeholders to get the Transparency Initiative up and running.

FEMA mapped and summarized the geographic location of all public assistance grants for permanent infrastructure throughout the entire Gulf Coast. Local school districts identified the operational and financial status of individual facilities for all public schools in New Orleans. In this initial phase of the initiative, information for all Recovery School District schools and New Orleans Public School Board schools is now available online, providing information that parents need to be informed about the schools in their neighborhoods.

Nothing is more important to the success of Gulf Coast recovery than providing its citizens with the tools they need to rebuild. I believe in empowerment because only the citizens of the Gulf Coast know what’s best for their communities and their families. And although the Transparency Initiative is no silver bullet, it provides the information Gulf Coast residents need as they continue rebuilding their lives. I am pleased with the team effort to get this tool into the hands of those who need it most, and I look forward to continuing to take part in the recovery of the Gulf Coast.

Donald E. Powell is federal coordinator for the Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding.

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