A Bush Loyalist Tackles Katrina Recovery

Donald E. Powell was FDIC chairman when the president made him federal coordinator of the rebuilding effort.
Donald E. Powell was FDIC chairman when the president made him federal coordinator of the rebuilding effort. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Spencer S. Hsu and Terence O'Hara
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 21, 2005

As he takes charge of rebuilding the Gulf Coast after the nation's most costly natural disaster, Donald E. Powell, federal coordinator of Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts, makes two points clear: Part of his job is being tough enough to say no -- and when he does so, he speaks for President Bush.

In an interview last week, for example, the former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation contradicted an assertion by Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) that he had committed the Bush administration to local leaders' $20 billion priority, strengthening the New Orleans levee system to withstand a Category 5 hurricane instead of the current Category 3.

"He was pretty clear about it," Blanco said.

But Powell, 64, a tall, low-key Texan who wears a cattleman's belt with a lone star under his suit, demurred. "The commitment is to build the levees back to a three . . . and then to study the five."

"My accountability is to the president," he added later. "I report to the president."

A wealthy Bush backer and former banker from Amarillo, Tex., Powell acknowledged that the high points of a 30-year business career are not quite the same as the job description for facilitating reconstruction of the Gulf Coast at a cost to taxpayers of more than $100 billion.

"This job is not a chief executive," he said. "This job is more of listening . . . getting opposites together and motivating folks to do the right thing. It's being able to say yes when appropriate and being able to say no when appropriate -- and having the will to do that."

Whether Powell is the right person for that job is an urgent concern from Washington to Baton Rouge, La. To some, the conflict with Blanco illustrates the tightrope he must walk.

Appointed by an administration that initially rebuffed calls for a Katrina "czar" or "Marshall plan" for rebuilding, Powell is charged instead to help state and local leaders reach a consensus plan; bridge regional, racial and partisan divides; and persuade a debt-leery and gridlocked Washington to pay for it.

The task is enormous. Katrina destroyed perhaps 250,000 homes, prompted more than 500,000 unemployment claims and caused as much as $60 billion in insured damage and $200 billion in government losses. Powell's job is to set goals and policies for everything from restarting the New Orleans economy to rebuilding infrastructure.

Few question Powell's financial expertise or his ties to two Bush presidents, the first whose legacy he helped burnish in Texas and the current chief executive whom he helped elect. Leaders in the battered Gulf states and Congress, who praise his integrity and workhorse reputation, say they hope he has the background and management skills to complete the huge undertaking.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) praised Powell's credentials, but added, "I also hope he brings with him a passion and sense of urgency about the need for action, versus more unfulfilled promises."

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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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