NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - High-level Obama administration officials visited New Orleans for the first time on Thursday and pledged to cut bureaucratic red tape that has hindered efforts to rebuild after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
“There are still areas where progress has stalled, bureaucracy has set in, and people continue to struggle,” said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, speaking at a press conference at Abundance Square, a residential development in the Upper Ninth Ward where the demolished public housing project known as Desire once stood.
U.S. President Barack Obama on February 20 vowed to prevent a repeat of the “failures” of the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and promised a stepped-up commitment to Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts.
Former President George W. Bush was widely seen as out of touch with the situation when Katrina struck, flooding 80 percent of the city, killing 1,500 people and causing more than $80 billion in damage.
Bush’s oft-ridiculed remark to then-disaster chief Michael Brown, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” came to symbolize his administration’s botched response. Brown was later relieved of his job.
There are signs that the city is recovering. The metal exterior of the Superdome — the covered sports arena where desperate residents sought shelter during Katrina — is being replaced and the Mahalia Jackson Theater reopened in January.
Pop singer Britney Spears, kicked off her first tour in five years at the New Orleans Arena on Tuesday.
But state officials say billions of dollars in recovery funds promised by the federal government after Katrina have yet to arrive, and local FEMA officials are accused of corruption.
Doug Whitmer, chief of staff of FEMA’s Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office, has been reassigned and FEMA has sent a team to investigate claims of racial discrimination, sexual harassment, nepotism and cronyism. Napolitano said Washington will “make whatever changes are necessary” to “speed up the work and get the money out.”
Napolitano took a bus tour of New Orleans, along with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and other state and local officials.
Craig Fugate, Obama’s nominee to head FEMA, appeared at the press conference but did not speak.
On the bus, Obama officials drove past a sign in the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward that reads “Please help our community.” New, energy-efficient homes built by actor Brad Pitt’s “Make It Right” project stood in stark contrast to many gutted houses and empty lots.
Donovan unveiled a new five-year, $50 million program to offer permanent supportive housing to about 1,000 homeless individuals and families living with disabilities, and $23 million in rental assistance vouchers for storm victims.
About $3 billion in previously allocated Katrina recovery funds have yet to be handed out, said Republican U.S. Representative Joseph Cao.
FEMA spent $15 billion to buy thousands of portable trailers to house Katrina victims and still doesn’t have a housing plan “that has a decent chance of actually working,” Senator Mary Landrieu, Louisiana Democrat, told Reuters in an interview last week.
Writing by Chris Baltimore, editing by Jackie Frank