The Old Man and the Storm
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The Federal Government's Performance

Opinions on the what went wrong and what lessons can be learned.

Jed Horne
Former metro editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune; author, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City

Jed Horne

What is taking so long for the city to come back?

I think you have at minimum two fundamental factors at play. One is the sheer magnitude of the devastation has only begun to register in the agencies of federal and state and local government that are responsive to it.

The other problem -- this is perhaps my own particular point of view, [which] is more and more clearly borne out in the daily developments -- is that the role the federal government has assigned itself in this monumental task has really been to moderate, to slow down, to qualify the levels of assistance that the city demands, rather than rushing assistance, until [every] last little voucher and government bureaucratic form has been checked. And it has been hugely retarding of any kind of effort; some people would say it's a deliberate sabotaging of a Democratic city's and Democratic state's effort to stand itself back up.

Does it seem like that to you?

Sure does. You can't look at the particular little clashes that have occurred, the unexpected, oh-my-goodness second thoughts on the part of HUD [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] and FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] over things like the Road Home program -- all of a sudden we're going to decide, a year and a half into it, that it's a rebuilding plan, not a compensation plan. Therefore, we have to go to EPA standards of evaluation of individual projects. You know, this kind of stuff is crazy. You don't do this in Baghdad; why are you doing it in New Orleans? ...

Is the problem with the federal government -- the administration -- or with Congress, or with both?

I think it's a bit of both. But let's be honest: Aggressive leadership from the White House would have been pivotal.

Bush can come down here, turn on a TV camera, and say that no cost is too great; we'll get everything done. But if he's not willing to spend political capital -- as evidently he was not in Washington -- Congress is going to shilly-shally around and do its own partisan games and fall into disorder, as it did.

The Katrina debacle for the Bush administration coincided and spurred the Democratic takeover of Congress in part. But that Democratic takeover also had a confusing and retarding effect on the smooth and orderly flow of federal assets to a part of the country that desperately needed that, because it is in the nature of a disaster, which certainly we have lived through, to overwhelm local resources.

And if Baton Rouge could do it, fine, we would be screaming at Baton Rouge, and FEMA would have had no business coming here in the first place. If the city of New Orleans could do it, fine. Neither one of them can.

This is a federal job. It was a federal levee system that failed. It was built by the federal government, and it collapsed, and I think the federal government is ultimately responsible for the rebuilding of it.

Stacy Head
New Orleans city councilwoman

Stacy Head

The most difficult lesson that I've learned is that it really isn't us. I thought if I could get city government to come in with a can-do attitude, a lot of problems would work themselves out, because I didn't know how bad the federal government was. It's unbelievable how difficult communication is and how there's this mentality that's pervasive in city government, state government and federal government of reasons to not do things.

One example: There's a park in my district that millions of dollars had been spent on before the storm. It's in front of St. Michael Special School, a school for learning-challenged and disabled children. It's their only park to play in; it's the only park in a large area of what is called the Irish Channel. FEMA came in, bulldozed everything, put these rocks down to make it a trailer park. Then somebody decided -- it was before me -- it wasn't going to be a trailer park. So the rocks just stayed there.

So when I came into office, I said, "I'm going to figure something out." So I contacted the company who put the rocks down and said: "If you take your rocks back, for free, we'll give you those rocks. Will you re-sod it and bring it back to the standard that [it] was at before the storm?" We also got another vendor to come in and say they'd put in new playground equipment. I had this agreement. ...

I couldn't get the federal government and the local government to make this happen. And now I got word ... that FEMA has decided to go in and do the rock removal itself. ... And then I feel like an idiot because I've been telling St. Michael Special School and the neighborhood we've got this great solution worked out. That's frustrating.

David Walker
U.S. comptroller general, 1998-2008; headed the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)

David Walker

What is it about FEMA that seems to be so problematic?

Oh, it's sad, because FEMA, in a relatively short period of time, went from probably one of the most respected and effective agencies in government to one that is a challenged entity. And there are lot of reasons that contributed to that. In fairness to FEMA, as I mentioned before, the scale of the Katrina disaster was unprecedented. And I think candidly, no matter what you would have been dealing with, FEMA would have been overwhelmed.

But it faces serious human capital challenges. It did not nearly have enough people through the full-time workforce; it didn't have a contingency force that it calls upon for a major disaster. It had not done pre-contracting work. Recognizing that disasters happen -- they've happened and will happen throughout history -- therefore, you need to engage in a number of not only pre-exercises but pre-contracting activities, such that when one of the big [ones come], you've already negotiated everything, and it's just a matter of issuing task orders for what you need, when you need it and where you need it, to make sure that you can respond quickly but in a cost-effective manner for the taxpayers.

How much did that failure to bid competitively beforehand cost the American taxpayers?

Nobody knows. It's clearly well over $100 million now; how much more over we don't know yet. But the sad thing is that many of the recommendations GAO [Government Accountability Office] has made on Katrina were essentially the same as the ones that we made in the early 1990s with Hurricane Andrew. What's frustrating is, everybody makes mistakes, but you shouldn't make the same mistakes over and over again. So hopefully this time, they'll get it right.

David Voelker
Chairman, Louisiana Recovery Authority

David Voelker

I'm very disappointed in the FEMA response, and there are all sorts of excuses that have been given by FEMA. But the truth is the Stafford Act and FEMA, there's not a line in the thing that can't be waived by the president. If you want to get in a ditch and get the problem solved, you can do it. And I'm not saying that they did this [out of] ill will or anything of that nature, but you can make things happen fast if you want to. I don't think we did a good enough job with that. I don't think we got started in New Orleans fast enough in [terms of] the overall plan. ...

... In hindsight, do you feel that was a mistake [for the Louisiana congressional delegation to ask for $256 billion for reconstruction]?

To ask [for it] was a total mistake, sure. It is a reflex action, and to not be unkind to anyone up there, these people, too, were desperate to help our state and try to get things done.

But if you don't go with the well-thought-out structure, you just ask for a lot of money. Well, my answer would have been no, ... because the taxpayer has the right to be protected. And that was how [former Federal Coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding] Don Powell and all of them viewed their job as.

My argument with them has always been: You've underestimated the taxpayer; you've underestimated the American heart; you're not giving them credit for the nobility of being who they are and the country that we are. You're saying, I'm going to protect every last nickel I can protect. They don't want that. They want fairness, they want honor, they want dignity, and they do not want to rob the state of Louisiana and its citizens of their dignity.

So the constant hammering on the governance of the state [for being corrupt] and all that, that's all smoke and mirrors. Don't swing that by me, because that isn't going to work.

What are the smoke and mirrors hiding?

Well, if you don't like what's being said, you change the subject. ... I think we need to deal with where we are, you know, because throughout our history, if we don't learn from our mistakes, we'll repeat them. ...

If you read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and those documents that are so dear to us, ... they're about serious things. And if you're for [strict] constructionism, then you've missed the point. You have to have flexibility in your government, in your process and everything, to take care of those people who desperately need you and are citizens of your country. And if you leave them hanging, you've made a terrible mistake. ...

I think that either side, Democratic or Republican, that doesn't recognize what is an issue of statesmanship over an issue of politics and policy is making a terrible mistake. ... It should be about immediately going to the rescue of the citizens of your country who need you.

Sean Reilly
Board member, Louisiana Recovery Authority

Sean Reilly

How many different federal agencies is the Louisiana Recovery Authority having [to work with] as it goes through the process of rebuilding?

The LRA, Louisiana Recovery Authority, is part of an alphabet soup. We interact with the Army Corps of Engineers talking about levees. We interact with HUD. We interact with the office of the Gulf Coast coordinator; that would be Chairman Powell. We interact with Secretary [of Commerce Carlos] Gutierrez and the Office of Economic Development.

We interact with, of course, FEMA. And FEMA is the alphabet soup of all the alphabet soups. One thing you need to do is to get the FEMA acronym book. It's as big as a telephone book. That says all you need to know about how FEMA operates. ...

... Do all these agencies have different regulations?

Absolutely. One of the biggest fights we have is the difference between the way HUD looks at spending Community Development Block Grant [CDBG] monies and the way FEMA looks at the Stafford Act. Because we're having to use both types of monies in our rebuilding, there is a continual disconnect. And it is probably the most frustrating thing that any one of us had dealt with. ...

What would it take to smooth out all of that interagency friction?

I think the Stafford Act clearly needs to be rewritten. ... It will take an act of Congress. Other than that, in the next disaster, just as there were lessons learned on how we set up the LRA, and some things were set up correctly and some things weren't, I think there are lessons learned on how you set up the federal office.

I think the next president may want to think about what power ... should reside in the [executive] office for the job to get done. And historians should look at the LRA and say, was it put together right or wrong? They should look at the office of Gulf Coast coordinator and say, was it constituted correctly or incorrectly? Again, not a slight of Chairman Powell and his staff. Within the parameters of their mandate, they're doing what they are supposed to do. But the question is, what should that mandate be?

Do they really have authority, or are they still having to listen to what someone in the White House says?

I think at the end of the day, they have to negotiate with other secretaries. ... And I think with the White House, it's a give-and-take, and it's, "Go down and seek permission." And I'm not saying that's not as it should be. The buck stops with the White House. That's how it should be.

And the White House isn't moving the buck.

There are some things that I think need to be done differently. I think the White House should look at a far more robust role in the city of New Orleans in particular, ... specially designed federal programs for the city of New Orleans. And I think there are aspects of what the city is going through that almost need to be federalized.

And I'll throw out a couple of examples: The crime problem, I think, needs a more robust federal intervention. The issue of neighborhood rebuilding can be dramatically affected for the better. If the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority [NORA] -- which is the superauthority that the mayor [Ray Nagin] put together but has no funding -- if that was adopted by the federal government and used as a lever of actually rebuilding, those are two examples where ... the focus now needs to be.

Donald Powell
Federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding, 2005-2008

Donald Powell

A guy like me understands stewardship. I'm a banker. We had shareholders, depositors, stockholders that were dependent [on our] being good stewards of the capital level which was given to us. We had oversight and regulators. I understood that. ...

I will confess to you this was an overwhelming challenge. I don't think when I first agreed to do this I had an appreciation of the complexity and how devastating this catastrophic event was. I remember coming down to New Orleans, maybe my second or third visit into the inner city. I'm calling my wife back and said, "I can't describe what I'm seeing."

The same thing was true in Mississippi. You've got to feel it. You can't read about it and feel it. ...

... Your boss [President Bush] said several times that this is going to be a free-market-led recovery. What does he mean by that?

What he means by that, and I could concur with this, is that government can do only so much; that the long-term recovery is going to be led by the private sector. And he has encouraged that, working very closely with Congress through tax credits, these zones where people can create a public-private partnership and take advantage of tax credits to build low-income housing and things of that nature.

I think we would all recognize that government does have limitations, and the real engine for the recoveries can be led by the private sector.

I see evidence of that. I think history says that, in other catastrophic events, capitalist system[s] have a wonderful way of [bringing areas back to] life. And I've said, look, if I were a young entrepreneur, ... I would be along the Gulf Coast, because there's a lot of opportunity here.

Tanya Harris
New Orleans ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now)

Tanya Harris

When we first evacuated, I went to a shelter in Gonzales, [La., between New Orelans and Baton Rouge]. At maximum capacity, the shelter held about 1,600 people, and on these floors I am with my neighbors and community and church members and people I know. I know that I was on the floors with electricians and carpenters and plumbers and tradespeople and laborers; I know that I'm on the floor with painters; I know I'm with roofers. I know these people are all in this building.

But yet every day, there was a bus at 7:00 a.m. promptly that was from some other state. ... These are people who are down to the last. These are people who don't know where their boss is, if the job is coming back. All they know is what they have in their pocket, maybe what they have in the jacket and maybe what they have in their savings accounts. They get on those buses. So I'm watching labor, I'm watching tradespeople leave.

Here we have a whole rebuilding effort that needs to get on the way. Why are these people leaving? They should be put to work with the rebuilding effort. Of course it's not going to happen, because obviously there was a drive to export all of our tradespeople, a drive to export our people, period. But in terms of having our people participate in the rebuilding process, it doesn't happen, and I don't understand why. ...

I think that's where the Gulf Coast Civil Works project is going to come in. I think it is going to be a hell of a program. The push for it is there. I don't think there's anybody who can disagree with this program. In terms of people who say the problem with New Orleans was that it was poor because people just weren't educated and didn't have skills -- well, if the federal government gets behind a program that provides skills for people in this region to come back with these skills, get skills and then use those skills to rebuild their own city, then we've taken care of that issue to some degree.

It doesn't make sense to most people, anybody who would just happen upon this situation, that the people who live here don't have that chance.

Bill Hines
Lawyer and civic leader

Bill Hines

One of the criticisms has been that all of the federal money coming into Louisiana is spent by out-of-state contractors. ... The money is not coming straight into the hands of Louisianans.

I hear the same thing. That is somewhat of an exaggeration, because I know a number of subcontractors in Louisiana, in New Orleans, that are getting some of that work. So we're getting some, but it really is interesting. ... It's like, "I'll hire you from California to come in and just fix my bridge." Maybe we need that on occasion, but there are people in Louisiana, in New Orleans and even the whole Gulf Coast that can fix bridges.

And the second part of this is, ... it's creating the economy, frankly, so that sooner or later we don't have to go to Congress anymore. ... I think the federal government is making an enormous mistake. ... They've focused on rebuilding the physical assets, whether it's rebuilding bridges and roads and things like that or the GO Zone [Gulf Opportunity Zone] bonds or the GO Zone tax incentives that are directed toward building physical structures. In that case the private sector does it, not the federal government, but [it's not going] to regenerate our economy.

Part of [it is] the post-Katrina damage to our economy; ... the single biggest [example] is the tourist industry. But then there's the pre-Katrina. ... I know it means some more money, but ... you can permanently fix, for example, our sewage and water system that has been maturing since the turn of the last century; it was built in the late 1800s. ...

Where is this going to end three years from now? There's no vision coming out of Washington from an experimental standpoint. You read all these articles about urban experiments; why not make New Orleans an urban experiment? ... I'm not saying we should be the only and last urban experiment, but try some things.

Walter Leger
Board member, Louisiana Recovery Authority; chairs the LRA's Housing Task Force

Walter Leger

In all candor, this Congress has been very receptive and understanding to the needs of rebuilding the community and the state, almost in a second-nature manner. There are others who are skeptical.

And who might these others be?

They might be people from inland states. They might be people who are not interested in rebuilding New Orleans. They might be people who wanted to be competitive, to take advantage of the fact that we're down to build their own communities.

But it comes from all kinds of places. A congressman from Colorado who was running for president [Republican Tom Tancredo] made a comment that the gravy train in New Orleans has to stop -- $1.6 billion in fraud is ridiculous. Well, the $1.6 billion that he has to be referring to [was] FEMA's inadequacy in executing their own program. It is not something that the state of Louisiana did. And by the way, we haven't seen a gravy train here. The money that they talk about, that they allocated to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, much of it hasn't gotten here. ...

... So when President Bush said in Jackson Square, however long it takes, whatever much it costs, we are going to be here, when you look at that now, what do you think?

We were happy to hear it when he said it, and we just hope to hold them to it. We are not seeing a tremendous amount of immediate response to that from the White House, that they'll do whatever it takes. ...

... Do you think that there is a fear in Washington that the money will just disappear, that corruption and graft would be an issue?

My response to that is to eliminate the corruption and graft in Washington; then you can talk about eliminating corruption and graft in all of the individual 50 states. We have done everything we could in Louisiana. Some people are critical of us because we have been too conscientious in avoiding corruption and graft.

Our goal was not to catch people who have stolen money, who have defrauded the program and the system, and then put them in jail. We want it prevented from happening from the beginning, and we think that we have been successful with that. On the other hand, Washington and the FEMA program lost $1.6 billion to fraud. They weren't so conscientious with the public [finances]. ...

We are saying that we'll take the higher standard and we'll meet it; we'll get it done. Give us the money and help us rebuild, Washington. Instead of having distrust for Americans, trust them, and we'll build a program that keeps it from happening. It can be done, and it has been done, and we've been doing it.

I don't think that there is a total distrust everywhere in Washington. It is just certain parts of Washington. But sometimes you wonder if it is just an excuse not to assist in building certain portions of the city or just being tight with the public [finances]. That's understandable, too. We feel the same way. We don't want to see one penny of waste. But we hurriedly want to get back people in homes.

posted january 6, 2009

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