It's been about three and a half years since Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast, leaving a devastating loss of human life and a largely demolished New Orleans in its wake. With much of the city still boarded up, and thousands of residents still stuck in trailers, however, some areas look as if the storm just hit months, not years, ago.
In early March, President Obama dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan to the region to assess and report back the rebuilding efforts. In the three weeks since their tour, the administration says it has freed hundreds of millions in federal aid for affordable housing and city construction projects. ESSENCE.com spoke with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano about what she found most disturbing during the trip, why money was kept from flowing to the local governments for so long, and how she believes this administration will make good on their promise to restore New Orleans.
ESSENCE.COM: What struck you the most about the needs in New Orleans?
SECRETARY JANET NAPOLITANO: This trip really evidenced why a picture is worth a thousand words. Until you see the entire area and what was leveled by Katrina, you don't really get a sense of the scope of this disaster. So many houses were simply destroyed, or infiltrated by mold. You see students trying to get a college education in temporary buildings because their college hasn't been rebuilt yet. Everywhere you have huge areas that are simply not yet touched by recovery funds. The second thing that struck me is that the recovery process was going too slowly. Things seem to be stuck in paperwork at different levels, and we needed to unclog that.
ESSENCE.COM: So how are you going to get around the bureaucratic red tape?
NAPOLITANO: We've done a number of things. We have moved special teams to Louisiana to speed up decisions on projects that need reimbursement or need to be paid for. We have consolidated management so projects don't have to go from one office to another to be approved. And we're working with state and local governments in their own recovery efforts. There will be some issues where we're not able to agree about what needs to be done, so we're setting up an arbitration panel to get that resolved. We're having an outside decision-maker brought in, so someone can make decisions and then people can adjust accordingly.
ESSENCE.COM: You mean decisions like who is responsible for what, between the federal and local governments?
NAPOLITANO: Yes, or how much the federal government is responsible for. I'll give you an example: The big hospital in New Orleans, Charity Hospital, has been a real bone of contention in part because there's a real difference of opinion about how much the federal government is responsible for, as opposed to what the condition of the hospital already was prior to the flood. There are also questions about restoration of health care in the lower income community in New Orleans. If it's going to have to be arbitrated, let's get it set up, and let's get it done.
ESSENCE.COM: What was President Obama's response to your findings when you came back?
NAPOLITANO: I did not meet with President Obama when I got back, so I didn't get an oral response. The view of the President is that this recovery needs to proceed as expeditiously as possible. It's also consistent with stimulating the economy, getting dollars out there to create jobs, schools, fire stations, and police stations. Getting the money out to get those rebuilt and replaced, that's what we're focused on now.
ESSENCE.COM: The administration certainly sounds enthusiastic about getting work done, but it feels like government officials have been spouting similar promises for the past three years. How soon will people in the region start seeing improvements?
NAPOLITANO: They already are. We've already sent down the teams to begin moving project monies through. We've already announced funding for police stations, schools, colleges and so forth, so they can begin or complete their rebuilding process. We're very close to being able to announce the arbitration process. The acting head of FEMA, Nancy Ward, is down there right now. I sent her to make sure that, administratively, we have smoothed things out and speeded things up, and that's exactly what she's doing.
ESSENCE.COM: How can we be assured that something like Katrina doesn't happen again—both with regard to engineering of the levee system and governmental response?
NAPOLITANO: The levees themselves are done by the Army Corps of Engineers. I don't know that there ever is a levee big enough to withstand a Katrina-size storm is the plain fact of it. But my understanding is the levees are being redone, and they will be much stronger than they were before. One thing we are doing, however—as I was going through New Orleans with Senator Landrieu, she told me there are canals through the city that need to be cleaned out so they don't risk flooding in the rain. I was able that day to arrange with the Coast Guard to come do that dredging. It's that kind of attitude we have: let's identify the problem, let's figure out what we need to do to fix it, and see how quickly we can move. If we can't resolve differences with the local government, then let's get things to a decision-maker who can.