- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 5, 2009

NEW ORLEANS — Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan on Thursday told residents he is “personally disturbed” and even “angry” by the sluggish pace of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, while Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano promised the new administration would make the Gulf Coast region a priority.

The Cabinet secretaries, sent by President Obama to assess the rebuilding efforts, said the federal government has freed hundreds of millions of dollars for affordable housing, moving assistance and rebuilding fire and police stations destroyed during the 2005 storm.

“To be honest, we have been disturbed by what we have seen and what we have not seen in terms of progress,” Mr. Donovan said at a press conference with Ms. Napolitano, who said she has been asking “why” the red tape has been so thick.

“This will not be the last time we are here,” Ms. Napolitano said. “This will not be the last time I ask, ‘Why?’”

They announced the funding news at the conclusion of their New Orleans listening tour, drawing cheers from local officials gathered at the site of a key redevelopment project.

The tour began Thursday as both Ms. Napolitano and Mr. Donovan spent a few hours at a university that remains only 50 percent usable, a home rebuilt by a nonprofit and a crop of freshly painted affordable homes built over the leveled remains of the upper Ninth Ward.

While Mr. Donovan acknowledged the innovation of the New Desire Redevelopment project, built at the site of a construction project leveled during Katrina, but said he was frustrated that “far too little progress” has been made on housing in New Orleans.

Mr. Donovan said the rebuilding work had been “too often about programs and rules” instead of about places and people.

“We have much much more work to do and we’ve got to get to it today,” he said.

The secretaries announced that HUD had accepted Louisiana’s $438 million long-term disaster recovery plan, built around the 2008 hurricanes Gustav and Ike — which will produce affordable rental housing, business assistance and coastal restoration.

Mr. Donovan announced a new five-year, $50 million program for permanent housing for more than 1,000 homeless families and people living with substance abuse issues or mental illness.

HUD also announced $23 million in rental assistance vouchers that would help an estimated 2,000 elderly and disabled disaster victims.

Ms. Napolitano said Benjamin Franklin High School could be reopened with FEMA providing the last $2.9 million of its needed funding.

“They’ve waited far too long, so let’s get with it and let’s get with it now,” she said.

She said she has cleared public assistance FEMA funding to replace two police stations and one fire station and $12 million toward repairs for a water treatment plan. She also said she would extend the department’s relocation assistance program — up to $4,000 in reimbursement for moving expenses — so anyone who incurred expenses from Katrina until May 1 this year could receive the money.

Earlier, the secretaries heard the “heart-wrenching” story of Lawrence Scurich, a veteran in his 80s who waited three years before he could return to a rebuilt version of the home he loved. He wiped away tears as he showed them his home, one of a series the St. Bernard Project nonprofit has helped to rebuild.

“What we have seen today makes us disturbed, angry even, to see some of the families living the way that they have and we pledge to you our partnership to a new beginning here in New Orleans and across the Gulf,” Mr. Donovan said.

He announced a program to help people who missed a key housing deadline because of poor communication, urging the city’s residents to call 866/785-3239 to see whether they qualify for assistance.

Also attending the press conference was newly designated FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, the leader of Florida’s emergency team, whom Mr. Obama nominated on Wednesday to lead the agency.

Mr. Donovan was to head to Texas while Ms. Napolitano was scheduled to tour the coast in Mississippi.

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