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Measuring Progress Five Years After Hurricane Katrina

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana - On the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the most destructive storms in U.S. history, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and members of the Cabinet will travel Sunday to New Orleans.

Homeowners in St. Bernard Parish had to gut their houses to remove the mold that resulted from Hurricane Katrina's flooding. Every home in the parish was affected. (Photo by Win Henderson courtesy FEMA) The President will speak at Xavier University to commemorate the more than 1,836 lives lost and the sacrifices that the Gulf Coast has made to recover after Katrina.

The hurricane wrought some $110 billion in damages, making it the costliest hurricane in U.S. history. Seven states and more than 15 million people were affected. President Obama is expected to celebrate the resiliency of the people of the Gulf and the progress that has been made to rebuild stronger than before.

Since taking office, the Obama administration has cut bureaucratic red tape to provide residents of the Gulf coast with the tools that they need to recover, including obligating nearly $2.42 billion in Public Assistance funds for Louisiana and Mississippi that had been stalled for years, the White House said in a statement.

The White House says President Obama will "recommit the nation" to the Gulf region and to all those still working to rebuild lives and communities.

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit southeast Louisiana as a Category 3 storm. The most severe loss of life occurred in New Orleans, which flooded as the levee system failed hours after the storm had moved inland. Eventually 80 percent of the city and large tracts of neighboring parishes became flooded, and the floodwaters lingered for weeks.

The worst property damage occurred in coastal areas, as Mississippi beachfront towns were flooded with waters reaching inland 12 miles from the beach.

President Obama is speaking at Xavier University because its successful recovery is a good example of the efforts throughout New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, the White House said.

Floodwaters covered the entire campus with several feet of water for two weeks. Katrina scattered Xavier students, staff and faculty across the nation, and its aftermath cast the survival of the university into serious doubt.

Yet, due to the determination of the students, faculty, staff, and the community, Xavier cleaned up, rebuilt and reopened after just five months. Nearly 80 percent of its students returned to campus in January 2006. Today, enrollment is very close to what it was before the hurricane.

"What happened to New Orleans represents the greatest disaster this country has ever had," said University President Norman Francis. "That we were able to come back in such a short period of time is a credit to the faith, commitment, and passion of our staff and faculty, who put aside their personal losses and problems to make this miracle happen."

But while enormous progress has been made, some of New Orleans is still in ruins. Still living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, are 176 displaced households in Mississippi and 707 households in Louisiana.

U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery, held a hearing in Chalmette Wednesday highlighting the progress, setbacks and continuing challenges facing Louisiana as the state continues to recover and rebuild.

"Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing flood claimed the lives of 1,577 Louisianans and hundreds more across the Gulf Coast," said Senator Landrieu. "More than 800,000 citizens were displaced - the largest diaspora since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. More than 200,000 homes in New Orleans were damaged or destroyed."

"Here in St. Bernard Parish, 81 percent of the housing units were damaged; 80 percent of the housing in Plaquemines Parish was damaged, and in St. Tammany Parish, the figure was 70 percent," she said.

"The levees, marshes, and barrier islands that should have protected Louisiana's coast from Hurricane Katrina had been weakened over time, and were ultimately insufficient in large measure due to decades of underinvestment and gross mismanagement by the federal government," the senator said. "In addition, the federal response to this unprecedented tragedy was slow, planning was insufficient, and personnel and funding came up short."

Senator Landrieu also detailed the progress that has been made over the past five years.

"The Corps of Engineers has committed $14 billion to provide 100-year flood protection to southern Louisiana, by constructing higher and stronger floodwalls, re-designed levees, and new pump stations. They have also constructed a surge barrier near the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, which is the largest flood protection structure in the United States."

"We have closed the Mississippi River to the Gulf Outlet, which funneled storm surge into this parish in 1965 during Hurricane Betsy and again with Katrina in 2005," she said.

The state of Louisiana is winding down the largest housing program in U.S. history, having disbursed $10.4 billion to 127,000 homeowners and thousands more to renters and small landlords. "However," said Landrieu, "it took nearly two years to secure federal funding for Louisiana that was proportionate to its share of the overall damage."

Things are slowly improving for Katrina survivors in New Orleans.

The Housing and Urban Development Department is on track to complete four major developments in New Orleans that will provide affordable housing to the city's workforce and mixed-income communities with a higher quality of life due to better infrastructure, land use planning, and a full range of services.

Congress has changed the law to provide case management services for storm survivors to find housing and employment and access services such as financial or mental health counseling.

FEMA's reliance on trailers has been reduced as Congress authorized the repair of rental units after disasters and secured $400 million for alternative solutions like Katrina Cottages, which are housing storm survivors in Lake Charles, Baton Rouge, Treme, and at Jackson Barracks in St. Bernard Parish.

"FEMA's Public Assistance Program had been a source of significant delay in the recovery," Landrieu said. "FEMA staff delayed the rebuilding of St. Bernard Parish's wastewater facility for years after the storm, opting instead to pay contract trucking companies millions of dollars to ferry sewage out of the parish on a weekly basis while people were forced to endure not months, but years without this most basic of services," she said.

"Disputes like this one, which have sometimes persisted for several years, prompted me to establish an arbitration panel which has issued $545 million in awards to Gulf Coast communities since its inception," the senator said. At least $474 million of those awards will go into the replacement of Charity Hospital with a new medical center and adjacent biomedical corridor.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told the hearing the progress made by the agency since Katrina is the result of "legislative enactments, broad administrative action and an overall change of attitude within FEMA."

"An example of this shift," he said, "is the establishment of two Public Assistance review panels, which help expedite decisions on pending Public Assistance projects, and give us the opportunity to work closely with applicants to review long-standing disputes." Created by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in 2009, the panels "can help stalled projects move forward," Fugate said.

Senator Landrieu's brother, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, told the hearing, "After five painful years, our working relationship with FEMA has improved.

"Just yesterday," he said, "the agency confirmed that the city will receive a $1.8 billion lump-sum settlement to rebuild the schools destroyed by Katrina. We will finally be able to get our children out of temporary buildings. This settlement will fund the next phase of our school facilities master plan, which will make schools the centers of neighborhood renewal."

In the chaotic days after Hurricane Katrina, desperate citizens and overstressed police officers clashed in the flooded city. Questions have been raised about how some police officers acted after the storm, especially in the case of two unarmed men who were shot on a New Orleans bridge on September 4, 2005.

Mayor Landrieu said Thursday that the city now is working in partnership with the Department of Justice to reform the New Orleans Police Department, "selecting the country's best police chief, reorganizing the management structure of the NOPD, creating greater transparency, beefing up the homicide unit, and putting more police on the streets instead of behind desks."

Nonprofit groups have been key to the rebuilding and recovery of New Orleans.

At the hearing in Chalmette, Lauren Anderson, Chief Executive Officer Neighborhood Housing Services of New Orleans, Inc., said, "We did not just lose buildings when the levees broke, we lost communities. The fabric of life was torn apart. While all communities are important, New Orleans because it is the embodiment of a rich cultural tradition; the potential loss was all the more significant."

"What we have experienced in the intervening five years is that as determined as residents were to rebuild their homes; they were equally determined to rebuild their communities," Anderson said. They reached out to owners of vacant and destroyed properties, helping them to rebuild or to sell to someone who would rebuild.

This week, the group Rebuilding Together will celebrate the spirit of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans as another 50 homes are rehabilitated, and Rebuilding Together comes closer to the pledge of 1,000 homes completed in the Gulf.

Community block parties, local music and entertainment, more than 1,000 volunteers, and celebrities will be present at project sites all week; creating one of the biggest impact projects New Orleans has experienced since the hurricane in 2005.

Anderson said, "One of the thoughts that sustained me in the aftermath of Katrina was a Chinese saying that within every crisis is an opportunity and Katrina has presented each of us with many opportunities to learn and to grow as individuals and as a body politic."

But Mayor Landrieu put his finger on one problem that still plagues New Orleans - the urgent need for better protection from future hurricanes.

"We must have category 5 flood protection, and we must rebuild our coast," the mayor said. "South Louisiana's coastal wetlands not only provide a staging and processing platform for 25 percent of our domestic energy supply. They provide the most important barrier to catastrophic storms that our coastal communities have. And as Katrina has surely taught us, New Orleans is now a coastal city. The Mississippi River delta is the fastest-disappearing land mass on Earth. We must do all we can to stop the damage and restore our wetlands."

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