WASHINGTON – New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Thursday urged the Bush administration to speed aid to Hurricane Katrina victims, suggesting the government was not meeting its legal obligations to help the city recover.
At a news briefing, Nagin bemoaned the procedures to get money for housing and to rebuild roads and power systems. "A bureaucratic maze," he branded them.
While Congress last year appropriated billions of dollars for Katrina relief, the city has seen a tiny fraction of that amount.
"Our citizens are positioned and ready to come back," Nagin said. He said New Orleans has done everything it was asked to do to minimize the risk for fraud and waste, such as filing extensive paperwork, setting up an inspector general's office and creating an ethics review board.
"We are ready to go, let the dollars flow," he said. "I don't want to hear the check is in the mail anymore."
The Federal Emergency Management Agency had no immediate response to Nagin's comments.
The mayor declined direct comment on the government's legal obligations, joking, "If I said we were considering a lawsuit, that would be the story."
He made clear his dissatisfaction with what he called FEMA's varying interpretations of the Stafford Act, which requires an orderly means of providing aid.
"The FEMA process is very frustrating because of the interpretation of the Stafford Act, which, in my opinion, is not updated for a major disaster," Nagin said.
More than 15 months after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, large areas of the city remain virtually uninhabitable, with piles of debris and wrecked cars. According to Nagin, New Orleans is only about half its pre-Katrina population level of 455,000, mostly because of logjams with federal housing aid.
Last week, a federal judge in Washington ordered the administration to resume housing payments for thousands of people displaced by Katrina. The ruling, which FEMA is appealing, cited a convoluted process for applying for help.
On Thursday, Nagin criticized a bureaucratic "Catch-22," explaining that officials cannot get federal money until projects are under way, but under state law they cannot issue contracts to rebuild the city until they have money in hand.
"So we're fighting with the calculators to make sure we're reimbursed at appropriate levels," he said.
Nagin, who joined several city council members in their first appearance in Washington since the November elections, expressed optimism that a Democratic-controlled Congress would be more responsive to the city's needs.