Gulf Coast Recovery Chief Steps Down

March 3, 2008

The federal official in charge of rebuilding the Gulf Coast after the 2005 hurricanes said he has submitted his resignation because he wants to return to Texas to get back into banking.

Donald Powell, former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., acknowledged that work remains to help the region recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But he said he thinks the foundation for recovery has been set. He pointed to federal money set aside for rebuilding levees in the New Orleans area and the federal government’s commitment to rebuilding public housing in the city as examples.

“I feel good about leaving because of that,” he told The Associated Press.

President George W. Bush said Powell’s chief of staff, Paul Conway, would take over as recovery chief “in the interim.” He didn’t say whether he would appoint a permanent replacement or whether he planned to extend the term of the post past November, when it was to have expired.

Bush appointed Powell as Gulf Coast recovery chief in November 2005, three months after Katrina hit, and after his administration was roundly criticized for its response to the hurricane and the levee breaches that left most of New Orleans under water for a time. The office was set to run three years.

Long after the waters had gone, frustration with Washington remained, as communities tried to navigate a bureaucracy laden with red tape that, state and local officials complained, had slowed rebuilding efforts.

Powell was charged with helping ease that process, which he said was frustrating at times. He said one of his biggest struggles was dealing with so-called project worksheets, which are documents that spell out the scope of work for recovery projects that are often revised, stalling projects.

Political constraints and government bureaucracy proved challenging, and rules and regulations didn’t always account for the scope of the disaster, he said. And at some point, he said, “commonsense has to come to the fore.”

But Powell said he senses a “new awakening” in New Orleans with strong citizen involvement and local government reforms.

Former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who was in office when Katrina and Rita hit, said it would have been more difficult for Louisiana to get the help it received, including billions of dollars for a program meant to buyout or help hurricane-affected homeowners rebuild, had Powell not been there as a link to the White House.

“He really played probably the most key role, especially in the early days of the recovery attempts, in helping us get more money from Congress, with the president’s approval,” she said. “And I think if he hadn’t been there, we’d still be sitting on zero.”

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