Image: Officials talk about Katrina recovery
Skip Bolen  /  EPA file
Officials led by the secretaries of housing and homeland security gathered Monday in New Orleans to comment on post-Katrina progress.
updated 3/6/2009 4:42:06 PM ET 2009-03-06T21:42:06

A helicopter tour Friday of Mississippi's coast convinced Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that the area appears to be on a faster track to recovery from Hurricane Katrina than New Orleans is 3 1/2 years after the storm.

"At least initially, it looks like the recovery here has been much quicker," she said, flanked by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. "There's a lot going on. You see high-rises where before there were none. You see businesses being established, homes being rebuilt."

Napolitano, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency, took a bus tour of New Orleans on Thursday with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. Donovan said they were disturbed — "angry, even" — by the pace of rebuilding in the city slammed by the 2005 hurricane.

"New Orleans is dealing with some different issues," Napolitano said Friday at a Gulfport airport. "There, I think we can really do some things right now to speed up some projects that have been in the works for too long."

Napolitano, on her first visit to hurricane-damaged areas since joining President Barack Obama's cabinet, also saw room in Mississippi to "break through that bottleneck" holding up federal funds for local governments' rebuilding projects.

'A lot to do' in Mississippi
Barbour said he hoped the helicopter tour showed Napolitano both signs of progress and evidence that "there's a lot to do."

"FEMA can be a very good partner for us, particularly for some things where we're way down the road for the project but we can't start construction because there's this little hang-up or that little hang-up," he said.

While in New Orleans, Napolitano and Donovan announced millions in new funding for post-Katrina housing initiatives. They also pledged to speed up the pace of that city's recovery and help local officials cut through red tape that has slowed the flow of federal money.

Katrina laid waste to tens of thousands of homes and businesses in Mississippi, where 2,364 families are still living in trailers, mobile homes and hotel rooms, according to FEMA.

The promise of a booming construction industry lured commercial contractor Michael Gillespie to the Gulf Coast from Florida in early 2008.

He said he's making good progress on a project in Pass Christian, Miss., that doesn't use any government money, but another one in Slidell, La., has remained idle for nearly a year while he waits for FEMA to act on his application for a $150,000 grant.

"It's ridiculous," he said. "How long does it take to review a set of plans? It's incredibly frustrating trying to get stuff done."

FEMA nominee there as well
Napolitano and Donovan were joined by Craig Fugate, Obama's pick to lead the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a target of many New Orleans residents' frustration since the early aftermath of the storm.

In New Orleans Thursday, they started with a visit to a lakefront university in New Orleans where students still take classes in trailers, then met with a property owner on the outskirts of the city whose home was rebuilt by volunteers. The bus tour ended at a 9th Ward public housing development rebuilt since the storm's catastrophic levee breaches.

Along the route, they stopped to peer at homes being built as part of actor Brad Pitt's Make It Right project, but a sign that pleaded "Please Help Our Community" adorned a different house in the same neighborhood.

"What we have seen today makes us disturbed, angry even, to see some of the families living the way that they have," Donovan said at the last stop. "We pledge to you our partnership for a new beginning in New Orleans and across the Gulf."

Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal said he heard some encouraging words Thursday, but action will be critical now.

A consistent complaint from the city and others in Louisiana is that they're not getting all they're due for rebuilding work from FEMA and that the decision-making process for approving funding should be more transparent.

FEMA has contended that many buildings across Louisiana suffered from years of deferred maintenance and that it's charged only with helping bring infrastructure back to its condition before the storm.

Napolitano blamed delays on FEMA staffing turnovers and confusion over FEMA's legal obligations in disbursing money. She said a new team of state and federal officials has been formed to settle disputes over funding of local rebuilding projects.

"Their sole purpose in life is to identify impediments in the decision-making process," she said, "and to provide a more effective mechanism for resolving those disputes fairly and quickly."

St. Bernard Project co-founder Zack Rosenburg, whose nonprofit group helped rebuild the St. Bernard Parish home that the officials visited, said the area's rebuilding efforts were stymied by the Bush administration's focus on "preventing fraud" rather than "delivering services."

"Residents were treated as the enemy rather than the taxpaying American citizens that they are," he said. "I'm confident that this administration will focus on progress over process."

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