Senate Studies Katrina Rebuilding

The Associated Press
Monday, January 29, 2007; 4:51 PM

NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Ray Nagin told a Senate committee Monday that the rebuilding of New Orleans is getting shortchanged in light of the billions poured into the war in Iraq, and he suggested racism is part of the explanation.

Seventeen months after Hurricane Katrina struck, Nagin said he doesn't see evidence of "the will to really fix New Orleans."

"I think it's more class than anything, but there's racial issues associated with it also," said the black mayor of this mostly black city.

Nagin told the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is looking into the federal government's hurricane response, that he has heard various explanations for why money is not flowing quickly enough to New Orleans.

"And then I look at what we're doing in Iraq and how we spend money at an unprecedented level there, how we can set up temporary hospitals and designate money to rebuild their economy, and we have this dance going on in New Orleans," he said.

He said he is not asking for more money, just that the money allocated get to the city faster.

As of Jan. 18, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had agreed to pay for $334 million for infrastructure repairs in New Orleans, but Louisiana had forwarded only $145 million to the city. State officials have said city leaders failed to provide required documentation, which Nagin called cumbersome.

"From my perspective, not having the resources at the local level is the absolute killer of this recovery," Nagin said.

The committee hearing came nearly a week after President Bush drew fire for failing to mention recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast in his State of the Union speech.

Sen. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat and presidential hopeful, told the committee the president's failure to mention the disaster contributes to questions about whether the government is committed to helping New Orleans rebuild.

"I hope we get some answers to the questions today because rebuilding the city of New Orleans is not just good for the Gulf Coast or the state of Louisiana, it's good for our nation," Obama said.

Donald Powell, the president's coordinator for the Gulf Coast recovery effort, pledged long-term support.

"President Bush is committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast and rebuilding it stronger and better than it was before hurricanes Katrina and Rita," Powell told the committee, but he added that it would take a time to finish the job.

The senators and staffers took a bus tour of the city including the flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, which is still largely uninhabited.

"Welcome to the isle of New Orleans!! Forgotten by our own country," read a sign carried by one of several demonstrators.

Earlier, as committee chairman Sen. Joseph Lieberman opened the hearing, he was interrupted by a protester shouting, "Stand up for justice!"

"It's hard to come back here more than a year after Katrina ... without feeling that emotion," the Connecticut Democrat said. "We're here to say that we understand the work is not done, to put it mildly."

© 2007 The Associated Press