New Orleans Still Awaiting Hurricane Aid

By MICHAEL KUNZELMAN
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 19, 2006; 9:01 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Louisiana has distributed less than $2 billion in federal aid to communities hit by Hurricane Katrina, drawing complaints from some New Orleans officials that the state is slowing their recovery.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has paid Louisiana roughly $5.1 billion to reimburse communities for construction projects. But only 38 percent of that money has reached communities nearly 16 months after the storm, agency spokesman Aaron Walker said Tuesday.

By contrast, Mississippi has distributed nearly half of the $2.2 billion it received from FEMA.

St. Bernard Parish President Henry "Junior" Rodriguez complained last week that state officials were unnecessarily holding up money.

"It gets obligated in Washington, it gets back to the state and then it gets held up," he said Thursday at a meeting of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. "It's a state problem."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin stopped short of blaming the state but said the city cannot afford to start many projects without advance payments.

"We're out of money right now," Nagin said at the same meeting.

Mark Smith, a spokesman for the Louisiana governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said the state shares FEMA's responsibility to ensure federal funds are properly spent. He dismissed comparisons to Mississippi since the states have faced different issues in rebuilding.

"We cannot, dealing with this kind of money, simply take people at their word," he said. "We need documentation to back it up."

Mike Womack, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said much of the FEMA money is for projects that have not started.

"You've got to remember that very little permanent reconstruction work has started on the coast," he said. "You don't start awarding the money until the bids are done and the work begins."

Billy Skellie, mayor of Long Beach, Miss., said he is pleased with how quickly the state and federal governments are reimbursing his city for Katrina-related work, including a $13 million water-and-sewer project.

"We're not really waiting on anything that's got us in a crunch," he said.

FEMA's public assistance funding is awarded separately from a multibillion federal grant program that provides Louisiana and Mississippi homeowners with up to $150,000 to rebuild, repair or relocate their homes. Homeowners in both states have complained about delays in getting grants from that program as well.

© 2006 The Associated Press