Homeland Chief Orders Gulf Coast Hurricane Recovery Review

February 26, 2009

In one of her first moves as Homeland Security secretary, Janet Napolitano has ordered a fresh review of hurricane recovery efforts in the gulf coast 31/2 years after two killer hurricanes swept ashore. In testimony prepared for a congressional hearing, Napolitano said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will assign a new team of senior staff members to look at ways to improve hurricane recovery operations that have been under way since hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005. The Associated Press obtained an advance copy of her testimony.

Napolitano’s announcement comes on the heels of her boss’ decision to extend the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding, a position created by former President George W. Bush in 2005 that was set to expire at the end of this month.

President Barack Obama extended it through September, the end of the government budget year. Acting coordinator Paul Conway, a holdover from the Bush administration, will remain in the position until Obama chooses a replacement to head the office.

The Homeland Security Department would not give more details about the new FEMA team.

In the prepared testimony, Napolitano said this team would help clarify the federal government’s role in long-term recovery and work to resolve disputes.

Paul Rainwater, the executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said he did not know about this new senior FEMA team, but if it will help resolve the $1.4 billion for recovery that the state feels the federal government underestimated, it’s a welcome addition. Gulf coast officials and contractors have ongoing disagreements with FEMA officials over the cost of damages and rebuilding.

“And that has gotten extremely frustrating,” Rainwater said Monday. “If (Napolitano) can send down a team of senior folks to work through our issues, we welcome that.”

Katrina was blamed for more than 1,600 deaths and $41 billion in property damage.

The federal government has devoted more than $175 billion to the region since Katrina. It’s unclear how much more money will be needed to fix the leftover damage. But nearly everyone agrees the federal government should continue investing heavily to strengthen the region’s levees and make other flood control improvements to prevent a repeat of Katrina’s devastation.

Bush contended that additional reconstruction money wasn’t necessary, because billions of those federal dollars remain unspent — bogged down in bureaucracy or tied up in long-range planning.

The same reasons were given for not including Katrina money in the recent economic stimulus package.

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