- The Washington Times - Friday, March 6, 2009


President Obama deployed two Cabinet secretaries to the Gulf Coast region Thursday to signal that his administration will push stalled rebuilding efforts, and in a stark change to the backslapping that residents usually witness from federal officials, neither was shy about frustration with red tape.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan told residents that he is “personally disturbed” and even “angry” by the sluggish pace of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said the new administration has freed hundreds of millions of dollars for affordable housing, moving assistance and the rebuilding of schools, fire departments and police stations destroyed during the 2005 storm.

The ruined Gulf Coast became a symbol of President George W. Bush‘s time in office and his limited-government philosophy. Mr. Obama dispatched his top lieutenants early to try to prove that his approach to government can do better.

“We are getting a view of what has not yet happened and what needs to happen. We took these jobs to get something done and to move issues forward, and the Gulf Coast and this area is top on that agenda,” Ms. Napolitano said.

Although Mr. Donovan acknowledged the sight of the freshly painted homes surrounding him during a press conference in the once-leveled Upper 9th Ward, he said that “far too little progress” had been made on housing in New Orleans.

“To be honest, we have been disturbed by what we have seen and what we have not seen in terms of progress,” he said.

Recovery efforts also were a hot topic in Washington on Thursday, with actor Brad Pitt visiting Capitol Hill to tout his “Make It Right” sustainable green-homes project in the Lower 9th Ward.

Mr. Pitt scored a private meeting with the president and talked with energy czar Carol M. Browner, a White House source said.

Ms. Napolitano said that since she took the Homeland Security post, she is constantly asking why so much bureaucracy, wavering decisions and miscommunication are preventing people from returning to their homes.

She announced a senior-level review to “identify impediments to the decision-making process” so the government can move money quickly to the region.

“This will not be the last time we are here,” she said. “This will not be the last time I ask, ‘Why?’ … We’re going to get this done.”

Asked to identify some of the specific bottlenecks, Ms. Napolitano avoided mentioning Mr. Bush but said there has been “some confusion” about the legal requirements needed for Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to give out money.

Also, “there’s been a lot of turnover in personnel. So, oftentimes, people will be dealing with three, four, five different people at FEMA on the same issue and sometimes getting different advice,” she said.

The Cabinet secretaries received an earful throughout the day, with Southern University at New Orleans Chancellor Victor Ukpolo telling them that construction has been delayed in part because FEMA has required school officials to locate and use original decades-old elevator parts.

When asked for his “wish list,” he told Ms. Napolitano that the school was only 50 percent rebuilt and urged her to take the message to the president.

Later, the bus drove through the areas hit hardest by Katrina, passing flattened homes and overgrown weeds where neighborhoods once stood and a simple hand-painted sign: “Please help.”

The secretaries met a housing official who can’t afford to rebuild her own home because of skyrocketing rent, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal ticked off $1.4 billion worth of projects that he said are funded but stuck in a bureaucratic backlog.

“I’m encouraged they’ve come this early in the administration [and] they were able to see with their own eyes and hear for themselves from people that are frustrated by the pace of recovery because of federal bureaucracy and red tape,” the governor said. “They met agency heads, they met families who have been delayed from coming home because of ridiculous rulings.”

Mr. Jindal, a Republican, said he wanted to offer specific examples of the obstacles facing the region.

Some schools have been required to document “every piece of paper and equipment” that was destroyed during Katrina, he said, and “that’s just not practical.”

State Sen. Ann Duplessis, a Democrat representing the Lower 9th Ward, said that when Bush officials toured the region, they always spoke about recovery efforts working within the existing FEMA framework.

“What I heard today was they recognize this system doesn’t work and to have the impact they’ve also got to immediately revisit their current systems,” she said.

Ms. Duplessis said that there was a wide gap between Mr. Bush’s promises and actions and that it’s a “hopeful” sign that Mr. Obama “did not spend a whole lot of time transitioning.”

“The whole thing has happened in less than 90 days,” she said.

Mr. Donovan said he was most “disturbed” when he arrived on the job to learn that tens of thousands of families risked homelessness because of missed deadlines and bad communication about funding qualifications. He urged families to call the disaster housing line at 866/785-3239.

The New Orleans listening tour included Southern University, a home rebuilt by a nonprofit and affordable homes built over the leveled remains of the Upper 9th Ward.

Mr. Donovan and Ms. Napolitano announced that HUD approved $438 million for Louisiana’s long-term disaster recovery plan for affordable rental housing, business assistance and coastal restoration; money for permanent housing for more than 1,000 homeless families; and funding to help seniors and the disabled pay their rent.

Earlier, the secretaries heard the “heart-wrenching” story of Lawrence Scurich, an 84-year-old veteran 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 that the St. Bernard Project nonprofit 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.

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

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