Measuring Progress Five Years After Hurricane Katrina

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Environment News Service

Measuring Progress Five Years After Hurricane Katrina

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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)

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.

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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