Thursday, December 07, 2006

Nagin: Feds have abandoned New Orleans recovery

Nagin: Feds have abandoned New Orleans recovery
By Peter Eisler and Brad Heath, USA TODAY

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin accused the federal government Wednesday of abandoning its legal obligation to help his city recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

In an interview with USA TODAY's editorial board, Nagin insisted that even the city's most flood-prone areas should be rebuilt — albeit "smarter and safer." He said that can't happen unless promised federal aid begins to flow.

"I'm planning and building for a city that's as large, if not larger, than pre-Katrina levels," he said. "There is (federal) money out in cyberspace, there is money in the mail … but very little of that money has made it to our local governments and our citizens."

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Under federal law, he added, the government is obliged to help restore vital infrastructure decimated by the storm, which struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005. Nagin said the federal government has approved more than $900 million to rebuild New Orleans' infrastructure, but local officials have not been able to access most of it.

"We're here to say to the federal government: 'Honor the law,' " said Nagin, in Washington to see lawmakers and federal officials.

James Stark, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's recovery office in Louisiana, said most of the federal money already has been turned over to Louisiana. But he said FEMA has been working to speed up the funding process. "Given the breadth of this disaster I think it's understandable that some of this has moved slower than we'd all hoped," he said.

Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said FEMA was at first slow to approve infrastructure projects and has consistently underestimated the cost. Nevertheless, he said, $640 million worth of permanent infrastructure money has been approved for New Orleans projects. "Payments will be made as the projects are constructed," Kopplin said.

Nagin said local officials are caught in a bureaucratic Catch-22: They can't get the money until projects are underway, but they're unable to issue contracts until they have money in hand to pay for them. So the city hasn't been able to begin critical repairs to roads, public buildings, power systems or other damaged infrastructure.

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