WASHINGTON – State officials in Louisiana are still struggling to ensure that money to rebuild houses hit by Hurricane Katrina is fairly distributed, the Bush administration's Gulf Coast coordinator said Tuesday.
Nearly a year after Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, only $44 billion (euro34 billion) has been spent to get the battered region back on its feet, coordinator Don Powell said. More than $110 billion (euro85.86 billion) has been designated for the massive rebuilding project — $17 billion (euro13.27 billion) of which is to help rebuild an estimated 204,000 homes in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Money has begun to reach Mississippi homeowners, Powell said. But in Louisiana, state plans for distributing the dollars were delayed, in turn holding up the funding flow.
"There is always a balance and tension between getting the money out fast and getting the money out responsibly fast," Powell told reporters at a White House briefing.
"I have a sense of frustration, I have a sense of urgency all the time," said Powell, who stopped short of criticizing Louisiana's delay in distributing the funds. "That money needs to get out because you'll see a lot of activity. But it doesn't serve anyone for them to be sloppy and haphazard in the administration of those moneys."
On Monday, President George W. Bush said the most important for the federal government was to "eliminate any bureaucratic obstacles, when we find something that's not moving quick enough."
In all, Washington has released $77 billion (euro60 billion) in hurricane aid to the states, but $33 billion (euro25.76 billion) has not yet been spent. The rest of the $110 billion (euro86 billion) is being reserved for future needs.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development approved in one day Mississippi's plans for rebuilding housing, and gave the nod to Louisiana's blueprint in 10 days, Powell said. Louisiana officials "didn't get their plan into HUD until later, after Mississippi, thus the plan was not approved until later," he said.
Powell, flanked by the directors of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, sought to spotlight successes in the Gulf Coast as the Aug. 29 anniversary of Katrina nears.
An estimated 100 million cubic yards (76 million cubic meters) of debris has been removed from the region so far — more than all the combined wreckage caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and from the World Trade Center in 2001, which took two years to clean up, Powell said. The Port of New Orleans "is back," he said, with incoming tonnage equaling levels from before Katrina hit.
FEMA Director R. David Paulison spoke bluntly about his agency's failures last year to track supplies, register storm victims for benefits and help emergency responders communicate with each other. "We need to make sure that we are going to be ready to respond to this next storm and not waste those opportunities, not waste those lessons learned," he said.
Earlier Tuesday, the Corps' chief engineer, Don Basham, said New Orleans-area levees might be overtopped by up to four feet of water in a future hurricane of Katrina's size.
"Even if you had another Katrina event today, we do not believe we'd have any levees fail, as far as collapsing," Basham said. "But you're definitely still going to have water that's going over the top of the levees. And people are going to be inundated and need to evacuate, get out of the area."
A Corps investigation of the city's levees after Katrina revealed that levees were breached — meaning that they collapsed, causing the water to flow from behind them much faster — in only four spots along 160 miles (257 kilometers) of floodwalls that were damaged during the storm. The walls were overtopped in 46 places, Basham said.
The White House, meanwhile, announced Tuesday night that Bush has extended an Oval Office invitation to a New Orleans-area man who lost his home in the storm. Rockey Vaccarella, 41, has been traveling the Gulf Coast region to mark the Katrina anniversary and has been asking to meet with the president. The White House said the two would chat Wednesday morning.