NEW ORLEANS – A Democratic congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Monday began touring areas still struggling to recover from Hurricane Katrina nearly two years after the storm hit, looking to tout progress made and determine where more federal help is needed.
Katrina and its aftermath were a "challenge to the conscience of the country in a huge way," Pelosi said, adding that Congress had responded but was "determined to get the job done."
Scheduled stops Monday on the 13-member delegation's two-day tour included Pass Christian, Miss., for visits to a school and a family living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer, and Bay St. Louis, Miss., for a town hall-style meeting on insurance. Tuesday was to be spent in New Orleans, parts of which remains in shambles.
Congress has provided more than $116 billion in various forms of aid to the Gulf Coast since Katrina, but much of it hasn't been spent, and the money that has been distributed was largely for short-term and emergency needs.
Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., told a news conference that rebuilding the region is a "federal responsibility." Rep. Charles Melancon, D-La., agreed, telling The Associated Press the devastation in New Orleans was "a making of our own government" — a reference to the catastrophic levee failures in Katrina's wake.
When asked if his colleagues understood that, he said: "Some do, and some don't want to."
There are a number of needs, including a gaping hole in funding for the program meant to help homeowners rebuild.
House leaders did not commit to help fill in a projected $5 billion shortfall in the Road Home program — the state has already pledged at least $1 billion. But Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., said Congress would revisit the issue now that a July 31 deadline for homeowner applications had passed. He did not indicate when that might happen.
The tour began the same day New Orleans city councilman Oliver Thomas pleaded guilty to taking bribes and resigned, in the latest scandal to ensnare a Louisiana politician.
Jefferson faces federal corruption charges, and Sen. David Vitter, a Republican from a New Orleans suburb, recently acknowledged that his phone number appeared in records of a Washington-area business that prosecutors have said was a front for prostitution.
Pelosi declined to comment on Thomas' guilty plea, but Melancon said it shouldn't pose a problem in appropriating funds to Louisiana.
"One person does not stop a show," he said. "These are Americans that are in need, and we shouldn't be stopping anything because of one individual in any community or state."