The Louisiana Recovery Authority’s board ended its multibillion dollar rebuilding work on June 24, nearly five years after Hurricane Katrina roared ashore.
The LRA board of directors – a volunteer board largely chosen by the governor – devised the plans for spending billions in federal recovery aid after the August 2005 storm and three other hurricanes. With the programs in place and the dollars all allocated, the recovery authority’s existence in law disappears next week.
“I hope when history writes the story of the LRA, it writes first that, in a very real and meaningful way, we touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of Louisiana citizens,” said Sean Reilly, a Baton Rouge businessman who has served on the authority’s board since its work began.
As LRA board members praised the work of the staff, New Orleans Sen. Ed Murray, who sat on the panel, reminded them that the need to rebuild remains throughout south Louisiana. Murray said people still are seeking homeowner recovery aid, a replacement for New Orleans’ flooded charity hospital is still on the drawing board and city infrastructure hasn’t been repaired.
“While this board goes away, there are still a lot of people who still have a long way to go to put their lives back together,” Murray said. He noted that while he sat in the Thursday meeting he received an e-mail from a neighborhood group seeking aid to deal with blighted housing caused by Katrina.
The LRA has charted more than $14.4 billion in spending plans to recover from four devastating storms since it was formed by then-Gov. Kathleen Blanco in October 2005.
What started as a policy planning board to cope with Katrina and the follow-up blow of Hurricane Rita also picked up recovery efforts from hurricanes Gustav and Ike three years later.
About $10.4 billion of the federal block grant aid they’ve allocated has been spent so far, including more than $8.5 billion in the Road Home homeowner recovery program that has given grants to 127,500 people.
Although the board and the name are disappearing, much of the LRA staff is being folded into the Gov. Bobby Jindal’s Disaster Recovery Unit, which has been working with the recovery authority on rebuilding efforts. The 21 employees remaining with the LRA will move to the Disaster Recovery Unit, bringing its staff to 154, according to an LRA spokeswoman.
LRA board member Walter Leger remembered that in the days after the storms, residents of the New Orleans area regularly asked each other, “How’d you do?” – a question meant to ask how badly a person’s home was flooded and wrecked by Katrina.
He used that common question to describe how he saw the LRA’s work.
“How’d you do? We did OK. We might have had 14 feet of water, but we’ve recovered and we’re rebuilding,” said Leger, who lost his St. Bernard Parish home in Katrina.
The recovery board’s mantra was to rebuild “safer, stronger and smarter.”
LRA leaders successfully pushed for a new statewide building code and home elevation programs, for a state takeover of most of the public schools in New Orleans and for regional planning efforts to coordinate rebuilding.
While many of those efforts received widespread praise, other LRA-conceived programs and the slow pace of spending attracted significant criticism, particularly in the Road Home program that doles out grants to people whose homes had severe damage from Katrina or Rita.
The contractor selected by the Blanco administration – but not by the LRA – to run the Road Home was lambasted as moving too slowly to help homeowners. While the LRA wasn’t responsible for the contractor, it was criticized for creating an overly complex program that made it difficult to hand out grants.
LRA board members said they were hampered by the initial structure set up for rebuilding efforts, a fractured system without a clear recovery chief in which the LRA devised the recovery plans and another Blanco administration agency signed the contracts to pay for them.
“That was just an organizational mistake we made,” Reilly said.
When Jindal took office in 2008, he put one recovery chief in charge of both creating the programs and running them, eliminating many of the bottlenecks.
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