Saturday, August 26, 2006

it's the incompetence.....

"Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people." –President Bush, Sept. 6, 2005

KATRINA | ONE YEAR LATER: A city in ruins, then and today

August 26, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- This is New Orleans a year later:

Fewer than half the city's hospitals are open.

More than 85 million gallons of drinking water are leaking into the ground each day.

Mangled cars, mounds of debris and broken traffic lights mar a city with half the population that lived there Aug. 29, 2005 -- the day Hurricane Katrina struck.

Thousands of homes stand deserted.

"Everybody that goes down there says the same thing: 'My God, it's just so empty, so devastating,' " Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, said recently. "The most important thing the federal government could have done is to just come to terms with how bad it was, to come to terms more quickly with the magnitude of it, and respond appropriately."

Less than half of the $110 billion in federal money that President George W. Bush pledged to rebuild the gulf coast after Hurricane Katrina has been spent. Much of that money went to immediate relief efforts. The rest has been subject to bureaucratic delays, political wrangling and, in some cases, mismanagement and fraud.

Manufactured homes bought by the government last year can't be sent into the worst-hit areas of Louisiana and Mississippi because of rules that don't allow their use in floodplains.

The first major U.S. grants for the most basic need -- rebuilding houses -- won't trickle down to New Orleans residents until late September at the earliest. Congress didn't approve the funds until June, and Louisiana then hired a contractor.

A long way to go

In New Orleans' Lower 9th Ward there are few signs of life. The streets serve as a graveyard for crumpled cars tossed around by floodwaters after a nearby levee broke. Signs offering house-gutting services dot the main road through the ward. Off the avenue are abandoned houses, which Landrieu said are increasingly being taken over by gangs and drug dealers.

Recovery has been painstaking.

Mail service is spotty, garbage pickup uncertain. A curfew is in effect in certain areas, and the National Guard patrols the streets.

Each month, the mayor's office releases a situation report on services that residents in other cities take for granted: whether 911 calls will be answered, whether water is drinkable, whether traffic lights are working.

In the Lakeview and New Orleans East neighborhoods, and in nearby St. Bernard Parish, a few people are living in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers.

While some have rebuilt, public services are sporadic; debris remains in the streets and inside the windowless houses still covered with flood grime. On one, the now-departed residents have written a message to neighbors left behind: "Best of Luck."

"What recovery?" asked Derek Guth, 46, a city native who's living in a FEMA trailer parked outside his home in New Orleans East. "The streets speak for themselves. It's a year later. They don't even have the traffic lights fixed."

Donald Powell, the federal government's person in charge of reconstruction, countered: "Hindsight is always very beneficial. The recovery is progressing. The port is open. Energy is back. Schools are opening as we speak. Taking into consideration the amount of devastation, I think it's pretty remarkable where we find ourselves today. I wish it would go much faster, but some of this just takes time."

Seventy percent of the debris has been picked up since Katrina, Powell said.

Nothing but uncertainty

The United States has paid out national flood-insurance claims of $17.6 billion for hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. In June, Congress approved $19.8 billion more for home rebuilding and other needs, including $4.2 billion in grants for Louisiana. Everyone agrees the home-building funds will be critical for the recovery.

Even so, many people in New Orleans are fighting with private insurers and are uncertain about future coverage. And homeowners don't know whether their neighbors will come back, utilities will work consistently or even what types of buildings will be allowed in their area. After his re-election in May, Mayor Ray Nagin said decisions about individual neighborhoods would be "the community's call."

The water and sewage system is in desperate shape. With more than two-thirds of the water pumped into the pipes leaking into the ground, sinkholes are becoming more common.

"Katrina tore back the facade of the Mardi Gras-look of the city and exposed the fact that we had been allowing the city to deteriorate for years," said C.B. Forgotston, 61, a government critic and consultant who moved to Hammond, La., after selling his ruined Lakeview home.

Crime, always a problem in New Orleans, has gotten worse in recent months, and the city is reeling from a reduced police force and legal facilities. Nagin has called in National Guard troops and asked for help from neighboring communities. Landrieu asked the U.S. Justice Department to step in after a rash of murders.

A disaster like no other

Norman Francis, chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, says the magnitude of the Katrina floods was unlike anything ever handled in the United States.

"When you say we're behind, compared to what?" asked Francis, who lost his home. "When else did this happen?"

Of the $110 billion allocated by Congress and the administration to help victims of last year's three hurricanes, $86 billion has been obligated in signed contracts or sent to the states, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget. At least $44 billion has been spent.

The money that has been spent was mainly split between flood-insurance payments and the FEMA disaster-relief fund, which has doled out more than $21 billion.

FEMA faced the toughest early challenge in the disaster in providing housing and money for thousands of displaced people. The results were riddled with mismanagement, the Government Accountability Office said in a June report.

The agency's accomplishments are underappreciated, spokesman Aaron Walker said. "Many of the people don't realize or recognize the amount of work that FEMA has poured into New Orleans," he said. "We have debris crews working seven days a week, 12- to 16-hour days on debris removal from the Lower 9th Ward alone."

"I have no doubt that New Orleans will recover as a better city than it was pre-Katrina," said Tulane University President Scott Cowen, 60, who helped draft a plan to rebuild the city's public schools. "I just think the process is probably going to take longer and be more painful than it probably should have been."

McClatchy News Service contributed to this report.

Didn't Bush put Rove in charge of the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast?


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