Relief efforts losing steam, La. fears

November 22, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BATON ROUGE, LA. -- Less than three months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, relief legislation remains dormant in Washington and despair is growing among state and local officials here, who fear that Congress and the Bush administration are losing interest in their plight.

The officials pointed to stalled bills and policy changes that they say are crucial to rebuilding the city and persuading some of its hundreds of thousands of evacuated residents to return, including measures to finance long-term hurricane protection, revive small businesses and compensate the uninsured.

`Real concern'

"There is a real concern that we will lose the nation's attention the longer this takes," said Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Republican from Metairie, just west of New Orleans. "People are making decisions now about whether to come back. And every day that passes, it will be a little harder to get things done."

Officials of both parties say the bottlenecks have occurred in large part because of a leadership vacuum in Washington, where President Bush and Congress have been preoccupied for weeks with the war in Iraq, deficit reduction, the CIA leak investigation and the Supreme Court nominations.

Congressional leaders have been scrambling to rein in spending, and many in Washington have grumbled that Louisiana's leaders have asked for too much while failing to guarantee that the money would be spent efficiently and honestly.

Many say that Washington's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks seemed more focused and sustained.

With Thanksgiving days away and the 2006 midterm elections approaching, many Louisiana officials say they fear that the sense of urgency that spurred action in September is swiftly draining away.

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, said recently on CNN, "We feel like we are citizens of the United States who are nearly forgotten."

Walter Isaacson, vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, drew a parallel between the slow government response in the immediate aftermath of the storm and the current situation, saying a lack of action now would be devastating to New Orleans' economy.

"It's like when FEMA wasn't really that creative, and the water was rising and people were stranded," Isaacson said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Once again, people are being stranded and businesses are starting to die."

Donald Powell, who began work this week as President Bush's liaison for the reconstruction effort, said the sense of urgency about Hurricane Katrina might have faded but that "the president is committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast."

"He is engaged," Powell said. "He receives daily briefings about the current status of projects."

Questions

Few people in Congress are openly threatening to block money for reconstruction. More typical are questions about whether federal money will be squandered through incompetence or graft by Louisiana officials. And some lawmakers have wondered whether each neighborhood in New Orleans needs to be rebuilt and protected with expensive floodwalls.

Sen. Ted Stevens, a powerful Republican from Alaska, raised concerns about the congressional commitment to New Orleans when he said during a recent tour of the city that Alaskan towns damaged by storms were often relocated. Stevens also warned that the spate of recent natural disasters means Louisiana might not receive money as swiftly as it would like.

He said later that his words had been misunderstood, and colleagues said he had spoken movingly to Republican senators about the devastation he had witnessed. Still, such comments prompted The Times-Picayune of New Orleans to publish an editorial on Nov. 13 titled "Forgotten Already."

Louisiana officials from both parties have also complained about opposition from the Bush administration to proposals to dedicate money to restore coastal wetlands and construct levees capable of withstanding Category 5 hurricanes.

Though that work will take years to complete, a federal commitment to provide more than $20 billion is needed soon to encourage insurance companies, businesses and homeowners to invest in the region, state officials say.

The Bush administration has objected to a bipartisan proposal that would give the state as much as 40 percent of the more than $5 billion in annual federal revenue generated by Louisiana's offshore oil and gas industries. The state now receives a small portion of those royalties.

"The political will is there in Congress to do this," said Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who strongly supports the oil-revenue plan. "We have to get leadership from the White House. Their tightfisted policies are cutting off their nose to spite their face."

Powell said the administration is committed to flood protection and that a compromise on the royalties issue is possible. "It's very important that people feel like the region is safe when they move back," he said.

Many Louisiana officials acknowledge that some of the problems in Washington stem from the widespread perception that their state and local governments are rife with inefficiency and corruption.

Blanco has tried to counter that image by pushing measures in the legislature that would allow the state to take over failing schools in New Orleans, oversee levee construction, which is now handled by patronage-filled levee boards, and cut state spending by nearly $600 million.

The state has hired the accounting firm Deloitte & Touche to oversee the spending of federal relief money and has promised to crack down on any corruption. Another accounting group, UHY, has been hired to monitor Deloitte.

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