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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 15, 2013

Added funding, new arbitration process advanced recovery goals

During the 2008 presidential campaign, one theme of Barack Obama's promises was that he would run a more effective disaster-recovery effort than his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama made 15 promises on issues related to Hurricane Katrina, which devastated portions of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 2005.

Obama said he would "ensure resources reach the communities that need it, … streamline the application process so that communities feel that FEMA is a partner in reconstruction, not an opponent, … elevate the federal rebuilding coordinator so that he or she reports directly to the president and so that rebuilding remains a national priority, … work closely with the state to distribute critical infrastructure dollars (and) ensure that no unnecessary red tape or burdensome regulations are holding up state and local plans, while retaining the need for public accountability."

This is a sprawling promise. We'll focus primarily on four key elements.

Streamline the application process. FEMA has repeatedly touted its efforts to streamline the application process, such as this Aug. 26, 2010, blog post in which FEMA administrator Craig Fugate said the agency had worked to "accelerate the recovery by cutting through red tape and get money moving to important projects on the ground.” But in extensive Internet searches, we didn't find any specific documentation about how the agency has changed its policies.

For instance, the Government Accountability Office has praised FEMA and its parent, the Department of Homeland Security, for taking actions to "streamline” application and award processes, but the grants in question were for preparedness efforts, not recovery. And in September 2011, the Obama administration released a landmark intergovernmental plan for handling future disasters titled, "National Disaster Recovery Framework: Strengthening Disaster Recovery for the Nation,” but it did not specify ways to streamline the application process.

Elevate the federal rebuilding coordinator. The Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding was established under President George W. Bush, but Obama extended the office's life twice before shutting its doors permanently in March 2010.

In reporting the impending closure in 2010, the New Orleans Times-Picayune found both federal and state officials in agreement that the office was no longer needed because the recovery was on track.

"It is no longer necessary to continue the Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding," said Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who had worked closely with the office's final director, Janet Woodka, when Woodka was Landrieu's legislative director. "President Obama has appointed Cabinet members who are fully engaged on Gulf Coast recovery issues, making that office a duplication that can be eliminated."

Paul Rainwater, the deputy chief of staff to Louisiana's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, agreed, telling the newspaper, "I don't think the position is needed."

According to the Christian Science Monitor, senior administration officials visited the Gulf Coast 155 times between Obama's inauguration and the fifth anniversary of the storm, including nearly four days on the ground by eight cabinet members and agency heads leading up to Obama's commemoration of the anniversary.

However, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., complained that under Obama, the rebuilding office had too little stature. Vitter said there was no reason to keep the office alive unless the president gave it "real power or regular access to the Oval Office. It never had the first and, if it ever had the second, it certainly doesn't now. So I guess we won't notice much of any difference."

Distribute critical infrastructure dollars. Nailing down the exact amount of federal money dedicated to post-Katrina recovery is tricky. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the federal government spent $142 billion for Gulf Coast recovery by 2010, the fifth anniversary of the storm, but we could not confirm this number in federal documents.

Whatever the total, the bulk of that money was spent under Bush. But some was allocated under Obama.

In marking the fifth anniversary of the hurricane, the administration said it had freed up $2.42 billion in FEMA public assistance dollars for Louisiana and Mississippi; provided $85 million in new housing vouchers; worked with and speed the expenditure of the New Orleans" unspent $411 million in federal Community Development Block Grants; and helped rebuild damaged hospitals in New Orleans.

The 2009 stimulus also provided significant federal dollars to the region. According to the White House, the law included $5.1 billion for Louisiana, $3.5 billion for Mississippi, $4.8 billion for Alabama and $24.5 billion for Texas, though not all of these dollars were specifically targeted to hurricane recovery efforts.

No unnecessary red tape. The most significant achievement on this front was the creation of an arbitration system in the stimulus bill to free up federal dollars that had been stalled due to legal disputes. Probably the biggest arbitration decision was the one that awarded $475 million for replacement, rather than renovation, of New Orleans' Charity Hospital, the major facility serving the city's poor residents.

The arbitration panels "really accelerated the spending of infrastructure dollars,” Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program told the Christian Science Monitor.

In all then, the administration carried through on its pledge to allocate additional recovery funds to the Gulf Coast and for unlocking money through the arbitration-panel system.

Ultimately, we consider the additional money and the creation of the arbitration system to be so significant that they outweigh the administration's more modest shortcomings in other areas of the promise. So we rate it a Promise Kept.

Robert Farley
By Robert Farley August 31, 2009

Praise from unlikely sources

The Obama administration has drawn positive reviews from unlikely sources with regard to this promise.

An Aug. 27, 2009, Associated Press article says Gov. Bobby Jindal, R-La., credited Obama's team with bringing a more practical and flexible approach to federal aid for the Gulf Coast region. Doug O'Dell, former President George W. Bush's recovery coordinator, talked about the Obama administration's "new vision" and said: "What people have said to me is that for whatever reason, problems that were insurmountable under previous leadership are getting resolved quickly."

On Aug. 24, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Louisiana Recovery Authority announced that total public assistance funds obligated for Louisiana recovery projects since Jan. 20, 2009, now exceed $1 billion. According to the White House, this money will go to schools, fire and police services, sewer and water systems and infrastructure.

"FEMA is working closely with our state and local partners to push money down into the hands of locals as quickly as possible," said FEMA's Louisiana Transitional Recovery Office acting director Tony Russell. "Our recent funding reflects these efforts to provide tremendous support so that projects can move toward completion."

So what has the Obama administration done differently?

"They are reading the FEMA regulations more liberally," said Allison Plyer, deputy director of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. "That has helped to shake loose some federal money."

For example, the administration recently reversed a FEMA rule that prohibited building fire stations and other projects in flood zones. They have allowed lump sum payments to projects with master plans. And in early August, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced an independent arbitration process to expedite resolution of outstanding, big-ticket public assistance projects. That puts a 60-day resolution timeframe on resolving longstanding disputes over projects like Charity Hospital, where state and federal officials have big disagreements over replacement costs.

Louisiana officials say it has helped that New Orleans has been visited repeatedly by some of the Obama administration's top officials, including Napolitano and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. According to the Times-Picayune, half of Obama's Cabinet has visited the Gulf Coast in the first six months of his term, with 19 senior administration officials making a total of 30 trips to the coast, 20 of them to Louisiana. And Obama said recently that he will visit New Orleans before the end of the year.

"There seems to be high level people working in significant ways," Plyer said. "They are trying to come up with solutions that all of us have been struggling with for three and a half years."

According to the White House, new dispute resolution teams have cleared 73 projects, including fire and police stations, health clinics, libraries and university buildings.

"We have seen an increase in payments for some of the most difficult problems with FEMA public assistance money," said Christina Stephens, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

There's still far too much work to do in New Orleans to rate this a Promise Kept. However, there has been enough progress to say it's In the Works.

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