Tuesday, April 29, 2008

La. parish president still facing lawsuits over Katrina

METAIRIE, La. (AP) — On the eve of Hurricane Katrina, massive pumps that keep water out of this New Orleans suburb went silent when the roughly 100 workers who run them were allowed to flee under a "doomsday" evacuation plan.

With the storm raging, backflow from levee breaks in New Orleans had nowhere to go, damaging thousands of homes, shopping malls and businesses between Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River in Jefferson Parish.

For parish President Aaron Broussard, a populist Democrat who rose to power over three decades, the evacuation of the workers could be make-or-break politically and legally.

While other government officials and agencies have persuaded courts they are immune from liability for Katrina damage or deaths, Broussard seems to be the last still dogged in public and in court.

After the storm, parish residents along the lake's east bank dried out and scraped the muck from their middle class and upscale homes. Then they went to court against Broussard, with a judge recently refusing to dismiss him from lawsuits that hold him personally responsible.

At first, Broussard publicly accepted responsibility for the evacuation decision in August 2005. Over the years, he went about rebuilding a rapport with angry voters with support from residents who suffered less hurricane damage. In October 2007, Broussard managed to narrowly win re-election over a little-known challenger.

But about a month after the election, he swore under oath in lawsuit depositions that he didn't know of the doomsday evacuation plan before Katrina, saying he learned the pump operators had gone only after the fact.

Many constituents wonder where the truth lies.

"He's changing his story to fit the legal situation," said Debbie Settoon, a civil engineer and president of the civic group Citizens for a Safer Jefferson.

Why would Broussard defend a plan he didn't know about? Because it "preserved life," he said last week. And why shoulder the blame for a decision he swears he didn't make? That's the "burden of leadership," he said.

Both sides of the lawsuits agree on this: For nearly 12 hours after Katrina struck, Jefferson's network of canals overflowed because pump operators were evacuated. In refusing to dismiss Broussard, state District Judge John Peytavin cited "unanswered" questions posed by storm victims' lawyers during a November deposition.

"Would you have agreed with that decision?" attorney Darleen Jacobs asked Broussard at that session.

"I don't know," he answered.

Could you, as parish president, have vetoed the decision to remove the pump operators?" Jacobs asked.

"I don't know the answer to that," Broussard said.

Broussard, 59, downplays comparisons between his public rhetoric and sworn testimony.

"Part of the burden of leadership is accepting the public sentiment with respect," he said. "Legal accountability is a different standard."

The parish's former emergency director, Walter Maestri, who retired about a year after Katrina, told victims' lawyers this month that he hadn't discussed evacuation of pump operators with Broussard on Aug. 28, 2005, the eve of the storm. But he contradicted Broussard's claim of ignorance of the doomsday plan.

Maestri, who drafted the original plan in 1998, revised the document in 2005 to identify a new hurricane shelter for parish employees. Maestri said Broussard sought the change through a deputy, who quoted the parish president as saying he "wanted no one to die on his watch."

Broussard said he didn't recall voting on the plan in 1998, when he chaired the parish council. Maestri, however, said the council approved the plan as part of a larger emergency operations strategy that Broussard voted for in 2001, according to parish records.

Blaine LeCesne, a Loyola University law professor, said despite the progression of several lawsuits, plaintiffs against Broussard face long odds given legal protection afforded public officials.

"Unless they commit some grossly negligent, highly reckless conduct, generally the courts are not quick to hold them responsible for those discretionary acts," LeCesne said.

Danny Buckman, a Broussard supporter, said his flood-damaged Metairie neighborhood used to be filled with lawn signs calling for his ouster.

"I see him as a human being who had to make tough decisions," said Buckman, 47, a school custodian.

Others are less forgiving. Reading accounts of Broussard's sworn statements reminded Settoon of a placard in Broussard's office: "The Buck Stops Here."

"The buck slipped right past him," she said.

Monday, April 28, 2008

McCain's False FEMA Promise

While touring New Orleans yesterday, John McCain declared the government's response to the Katrina disaster "terrible and disgraceful" and pledged that it would never happen again. But McCain also demonstrated precisely the mindset that caused FEMA to revert from what both Republicans and Democrats in the 1990s had called a model agency back into the turkey farm it had been before the Clinton administration. He said: "Too often, government has its own peculiar way of doing things, following practices that in the private sector would invite financial ruin or worse." McCain reiterated the talking point of Newt Gingrich and every other purveyor of right-wing sound bites that UPS, FedEx, and Wal-Mart can tell you where packages are in real time, but FEMA couldn't even locate its own assets or people.

But it's the belief system that the private sector inherently does things better than government that impelled Bush's first FEMA head, Joseph Allbaugh, to dismantle the agency, notwithstanding its greatly improved performance in the 1990s, by farming out many of its activities to purportedly more efficient contractors.

Allbaugh, acting on the right-wing's hostility toward civil servants, politicized its top leadership with like-minded ideologues to bypass much more qualified and experienced personnel who had demonstrated their effectiveness in the 1990s. He cut programs, like the Project Impact disaster mitigation initiative, even though it had been widely considered to be cost-effective. And he told the states that they would have to bear a greater share of the responsibility for responding to disasters. That's the right-wing approach to government management, applied to virtually every domestic agency throughout the Bush years: politicize, privatize, devolve, and cut.

John McCain's comments give every indication that he would follow the same approach, which isn't surprising since conservatives have little else to say about government other than that the private sector is inherently better. In the Senate, he consistently voted against more funds for FEMA, against making it an independent agency as it had been in the 1990s, and even against the creation of a commission to investigate how the government failed after Katrina. That indifference to learning from experience and adjusting accordingly is a central characteristic of movement conservatism. No matter how many times, say, tax cuts for the rich have failed to provide promised broad economic benefits while exploding federal deficits, it remains a central element of the right-wing --and McCain's--platform. The same rigidity applies to neoconservative arguments about foreign policy, regardless of its self-evident failures.

At the very least, anyone who generally cared about preventing a repeat of FEMA's Katrina failures would want to start by looking at how it improved in the 1990s. Simply restating the right-wing incantations about government's inferiority is sure to cause nothing more than the same failures that conservatism produced in this decade.

Friday, April 25, 2008

BAKER, La. — It was not long after Hurricane Katrina, in late 2005, that local governments all over Louisiana started saying no to clusters of the tinny white shelters now known, infamously, as FEMA trailers.

They did not ban all the trailers, of course; just the ones for people who did not own land, who had no place else to go, who were mainly poor and black and from New Orleans’s toughest neighborhoods. Just the trailers for the hurricane’s most desperate victims.

But when everyone else said no, Harold M. Rideau, the mayor of this small city outside Baton Rouge, said yes.

“We agreed we’d do what’s right,” Mr. Rideau said recently. “It was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned.” Of course, it was not as simple as that.

But in large part because of the mayor, this city — nestled rather uneasily between farm country and the state capital — became home to Renaissance Village. With almost 600 trailers lined up like big tombstones, it was by far the largest encampment for hurricane victims run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Now, almost three years after the storm that left New Orleans under water, the trailer park is closing. FEMA’s deadline is May 31. The number of trailers in the “village” is dwindling, to fewer than 200. White pipes mark trailer sites, but more than half of the pipes just poke up out of the weeds, with only muddy tire tracks or old Mardi Gras beads to show that anyone lived there.

As the remaining residents worry about where they will go next, the mayor took time before a recent Rotary Club lunch to talk about the lessons he had learned and how he had become a champion for people who sometimes seemed to get a kinder welcome in Houston than they did in their home state.

The biggest lesson from Baker’s experience may be how few of the predicted problems actually materialized, which Mr. Rideau attributes to lots of planning. Early on, he came up with a long list of things that he felt the trailer community would need, including laundry facilities and legal services.

Some of them he got, like bus service to and from town, job training and a shaded picnic area. But telephones were never installed, and he could never persuade anyone to open a small store so residents would have an easier time buying necessities like milk.

There were struggles, he said, to get the federal government to reimburse the city for its costs, to get post office boxes installed at the trailer park, to ease traffic jams in town, to get the dusty gravel roads around the park paved, and — oddly — to find a home for a new playground donated by the Baton Rouge Rotary Club and Rosie O’Donnell’s For All Kids Foundation. The state and federal governments did not want the liability, Mr. Rideau said, so the playground was installed in a park next to the municipal building, one of the few tangible changes that will remain in Baker after the trailer park closes.

Baker’s City Hall and its churches opened shelters before Hurricane Katrina hit, “with no thought that New Orleans would flood,” Mr. Rideau said. More than 2,000 evacuees poured into a city with a population of less than 14,000; about 500 children enrolled in Baker’s already struggling schools, he said.

He had expected to house people for two days; they stayed in the shelters for two months.
Traffic jammed the city’s streets, grocery stores were packed, lines at Wal-Mart seemed endless. Residents remember a lot of tension between the 504s (people with New Orleans area codes) and the 225s (those with Baker-Baton Rouge area codes).

Meanwhile, the mayor had been approached by a federal contractor about building a trailer park on state-owned property just outside the city limits. The city was asked to provide water and fire protection.

Not everyone in Baker was welcoming; there was a lot of worry about crime, the mayor recalled. Race may have played a role; Mr. Rideau, who is black, said that he was first elected in 2004 in part because of his vow to heal the racial divide in Baker, which before the storm was split almost evenly between whites and blacks.

But the mayor, a Vietnam veteran and graduate of Southern University at Baton Rouge who had retired after working for decades at the Exxon Mobil chemical plant here, said he felt compelled to help evacuees the way he had been helped when he was growing up poor in Bunkie, La.

“I’m going to die, I’m going to have to stand before the good lord and account for what I’ve done,” the mayor said. Besides, the evacuees “had nowhere to go — what are you going to do?”

Nobody who has visited the camp, much less lived in it, thinks it was an ideal place for evacuees, especially after it turned out that many trailers were tainted by formaldehyde fumes. But many people who have worked there credit the mayor with making it a more humane place than it otherwise would have been.

“I’m his biggest fan,” said Sister Judith Brun, executive director of the Community Initiatives Foundation.

Wilbert L. Ross Sr., a member of the residents’ council at the trailer park, said the mayor had intervened in crises, like when water was shut off to some trailers on the Fourth of July. Mr. Rideau also helped with some nagging problems, Mr. Ross said, like telling the police to back off when residents were getting tickets for trespassing or jaywalking because there were no sidewalks on which to walk to town.

In fact, Mr. Ross said, “I really care more about the mayor of Baker than I do about Ray Nagin,” the mayor of New Orleans.

For his part, Mayor Rideau said he thought that the federal government should have done more to rebuild housing in New Orleans, and more to help poor residents of the trailer park move on with their lives. But in general, he said, “I have no regrets.”

Neither, apparently, do most of his constituents; in February, Mr. Rideau was re-elected, by a margin of two to one.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

It's official: Hurricane Katrina chased out a huge chunk of N.O. voters, remaking the region's electoral landscape

A new study by a political scientist confirms what election-watchers have suspected since Hurricane Katrina: The number of voters in the New Orleans area has fallen sharply, with African-Americans and registered Democrats losing the most ground.

The political landscape has shifted, especially in New Orleans.

Though voter rolls have remained virtually untouched since the flood, the comparison of voter turnout in the 2003 and 2007 gubernatorial contests shows that about 100,000 fewer people cast ballots last year in New Orleans and seven surrounding parishes than in the 2003 race.

Losses weren't borne equally by racial and party-affiliated groups, according to the analysis by University of New Orleans political scientist Ed Chervenak. For instance, a disproportionate loss among black voters across the region helped drive up white voters' share of the electorate, from two-thirds in 2003 to nearly three-quarterslast year.

Democrats also lost ground, with their participation sliding from 58 percent of the electorate in 2003 to 51 percent in 2007, the report shows. Republicans, meanwhile, saw their share of the voting population jump from 28 percent to 33 percent during the period.

With the number of voters across the rest of the state staying about even during the four-year span, the drop in turnout in the New Orleans area suggests the region has lost political clout since the 2005 storm, Chervenak writes in the report.

"The city's political voice was weaker in the last gubernatorial contest as voters here comprised only 6 percent of the state's overall electorate," compared with an average of 10 percent in the previous six races for governor, according to the report.

The study also offers a far clearer picture of how the voting population has shifted within city limits.

Reflecting patterns of damage from Katrina, turnout across Gentilly, eastern New Orleans and the Lower 9th Ward dropped nearly 60 percent from 2003 to 2007, while turnout across the rest of the city dipped between 27 percent and 36 percent, depending on the neighborhood, the study concluded.

Reshuffling the deck

After reviewing the report, Silas Lee, a local pollster and political strategist, said that although it's impossible to know how New Orleans' repopulation will affect future elections, the UNO study portends new dynamics in regional and statewide races.

"Anytime you lose 100,000 voters, it impacts influence," Lee said. "New Orleans will still be significant. However, you have somewhat of a different political ideology than you had pre-Katrina -- different kinds of voters with respect to social and economic and demographic status and political affiliation."

Christine Day, chairwoman of UNO's political science department, said the report offers a glimpse into how the region's politics might change after the 2010 U.S. census.

"It has really important implications for the redrawing of districts -- congressional districts and all the way down," she said. "Presumably, when districts are redrawn, Orleans Parish could lose clout. That said, the suburban areas probably will gain some clout, especially Jefferson and St. Tammany."

Unlike previous analyses of voter turnout, which generally have relied on precinct estimates to gauge participation based on race and party affiliation, the UNO study uses hard numbers compiled by the secretary of state. Records of who showed up to vote are matched with information provided in voter registration documents; which candidate each voter chose remains a secret.

Chervenak reviewed voter turnout data from 2003 and 2007 for eight parishes in the New Orleans area: Jefferson, Orleans, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. Tammany and Tangipahoa.

The decline of more than 100,000 voters between the two elections represented a 23 percent drop across the region.

Not surprisingly, change figures varied widely by parish.

Faring best was St. Tammany, where 3 percent more voters turned out last year than in 2003, a bump that likely owes to the migration of residents from more flood-ravaged parishes. All other parishes saw drops in voter participation, ranging from a 2 percent dip in St. Charles to a 53 percent plummet in St. Bernard.

'More racially balanced'

In hard numbers, Orleans Parish showed the largest decline, with 60,000 fewer voters heading to the polls. That loss, Chervenak writes, accounted for most of the region's decline.

Across the eight parishes, the number of black voters dropped 41 percent between the 2003 and 2007 gubernatorial races, while the number of white voters dropped just 15 percent, the report states.

The analysis suggests there has been a sharp change in the racial composition of the region, particularly in Orleans Parish. In City Council districts B and C, a black majority in the electorate slipped away, and the districts are now almost evenly divided by race.

The city now has a more racially balanced electorate," Chervenak writes. "The days when local candidates could appeal to Orleans' overwhelmingly black electorate and receive a handful of white votes to win office may be a thing of the past."

He acknowledges that the analysis excludes children and teenagers who are too young to vote. But the "precise nature of the data makes it a robust measure of the population decline," he writes.

However, Allison Plyer, deputy director of the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, cautioned against using the numbers to estimate population shifts across the region. With many variables affecting whether voters go to the polls, the measure can be wildly uncertain, she said.

"You can imagine that media spending and/or enthusiasm would differ greatly among certain populations," Plyer said. "It could be raining that day. Literally, weather on the day of the election could have an effect on turnout."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Panel questions law as solution to homeless colony

Councilwoman Shelley Midura on Monday summarized why Mayor Ray Nagin's administration wanted a new public habitation law to move vagrants to a bunkhouse at the New Orleans Mission.

"What you're saying is that we need a way to round them up and get them into the bunk beds. Is that a fair statement?" Midura asked Anthony Faciane, deputy director of neighborhood stabilization for the city's Office of Recovery Development and Administration.

That was fair, he told the council's Housing and Human Needs Committee.

But more than a month after city officials announced an initiative to enact a new law, which outlaws people living in public spaces and replaces one declared unconstitutional more than 20 years ago, the homeless compound under the elevated section of Interstate 10 remains entrenched.

"Is it legal? Has it worked?" Midura asked.

"Has the method worked anywhere?" Councilman James Carter asked.

When told by Faciane that the city couldn't yet afford to house and provide social services to Claiborne Avenue denizens, Carter responded, "So, the ordinance is premature?"

The meeting was punctuated with expressions of impatience about the visible homeless colony, a collection of people and bedrolls just off Canal Street. "What button needs to be pushed -- what needs to happen?" Midura asked Faciane.

Discussion about the public-habitation ordinance gave way to its underlying motive: making the Claiborne Avenue tent city disappear.

In the end, Faciane and Martha Kegel, head of the homeless-services collaborative UNITY of Greater New Orleans, agreed: The colony's days are numbered. Within three months, it'll be gone, said Kegel, who said state funds expected within the next few weeks will help move many of the homeless from under the bridge into government-subsidized apartments.

Moving many of the homeless awaited completion of a city-financed renovation of the dayroom at the New Orleans Mission, Faciane said. Finished Monday, it transformed the shelter from nights-only to a round-the-clock operation. Next week, the mission also will open a family center, for women with children, he said.

What the mission calls its "bunkhouse," an air-conditioned, heated Quonset-style tent erected at the back of its property, can hold 140 men. About 100 more men can sleep on the mission's second floor, but only if the shelter hires a "firewatch," because of its building's current fire hazards. Women stay in a separate house, which has space for eight more, said Ron Gonzales, the shelter's director.

But the Nagin administration insists that the proposed ordinance is intimately connected to the fate of Claiborne Avenue's tent city.

"The public-habitation ordinance is a critical tool that will greatly enhance our ability to address issues of homelessness in New Orleans .¤.¤. such as what is occurring near the intersection of Claiborne Avenue and Canal Street," Nagin said in a statement released during the committee meeting.

In February, Nagin announced a plan to move the camp to the mission. New Orleans would begin enforcing its "habitation laws," he told WWL-TV. "We have beds for these folks and they just don't want to take them. ... So we're going to try to push the issue, if you will," he said.

But in 1986, a federal judge found the city's public-habitation ordinance unconstitutional. It was stricken from municipal code six years ago.

As drafted, this ordinance is different, in several ways. The newly proposed law mandates that no one will be arrested for inhabiting public spaces if all local shelter beds are filled. Neither Faciane nor the city attorney's office lawyers could provide detail about ordinance-described "safe" zones: public places to sleep lawfully on public property.

Still, a long line of citizens spoke against the ordinance. Offering shelter beds in lieu of arrests won't work for those suffering from mental illness, who typically cannot tolerate the crowded, noisy conditions in a shelter, said Kathleen North, a social worker who works with the homeless. "To many mentally ill people, saying, 'You have to go to a shelter,' is like saying to someone in a wheelchair, 'You have to go up those stairs.' "

Monday, April 21, 2008

Scandalized HUD Chief Got Royal Send Off

How do you say goodbye to a HUD chief who ineptly presided over the worst national housing crisis in recent memory, who made HUD a byword for cronyism, and who resigned under the cloud of a federal criminal investigation?

Last Wednesday, Alphonso Jackson got the send off he deserved, as you can see from the cover of the program for the event obtained by TPMmuckraker. The event, which was held in the main auditorium at HUD, included an overflow crowd of about 1,000 HUD employees, said HUD spokesman Jerry Brown. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the special guest speaker at the event, Brown said.

Despite the regal appearance of the program, Brown said that the event mainly involved "a slide show and a person who sang the national anthem." It was "pretty much the standard fare when a secretary departs." You can bet that the slide show contained plenty of pictures of Jackson -- and maybe even a painting or two.

You can see the full program here.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

As HUD Chief Quits, a Look at Close Ties

HILTON HEAD, S.C. — Most of the time, the prominent men hovered in different orbits and different cities. Yet for years now, their lives have converged here on this resort island of white beaches and rippling sea.

There was William Hairston, a local builder whose wife is active in Republican circles here. There was Michael R. Hollis, an Atlanta lawyer, entrepreneur and presidential history buff who vacations here.

And there was President Bush’s housing secretary, Alphonso R. Jackson, who golfed and socialized here and led the federal agency that gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in business to friends and acquaintances, including Mr. Hairston and Mr. Hollis.

One such friend, an Atlanta developer, received a $127 million contract last year as part of a joint venture to rebuild a New Orleans public housing project. That developer’s company has paid Mr. Jackson more than $250,000 in fees since Mr. Jackson joined the Bush administration in 2001, for work done before Mr. Jackson joined government, the developer’s lawyer said.

Mr. Jackson, who announced his resignation in March, leaves office on Friday as federal authorities continue to investigate whether he enriched himself and friends with lucrative contracts. The inquiry has also laid bare the connections between Mr. Jackson, who was determined to expand opportunities for minority contractors, and the ambitious men who benefited from those opportunities.

It is the story of a small circle of black businessmen linked by their financial interests in the revitalization of troubled public housing and, in most cases, a shared affinity for conservative politics, and how those connections may have helped force the housing secretary from public life.
In 2003, the year before Mr. Jackson was named secretary, 14 percent — or $134 million — of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s contracts went to black-owned firms, officials say. By 2007, black-owned businesses were receiving 25 percent of the department’s contracts, or $195.6 million.

Mr. Jackson has proudly promoted such statistics, saying that “a good bottom line with small and minority businesses helps to build a stronger America.”

Indeed, some of Mr. Jackson’s supporters deride the scrutiny of his casual friendships as a racist effort to undermine a prominent black official and several respected black businessmen, noting that no one has been charged with a crime.

Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, said he believed the investigation was fueled by officials determined to derail Mr. Jackson’s efforts to expand affirmative action.

“Is there something wrong with trying to make sure African-Americans participate in the contracting program with the American government?” asked Mr. Clyburn, who vacations here regularly and knows Mr. Jackson, Mr. Hairston and Mr. Hollis.

But over time, concerns have grown — first among some housing officials and later among federal investigators — as it became clear several men who interacted with and had business deals with Mr. Jackson became beneficiaries of his efforts to further integrate the contracting corps.

Mr. Hairston, who golfed with Mr. Jackson here, received at least $610,000 in contracts from the New Orleans housing authority, which HUD took over in 2002, for reconstruction work on public housing complexes that were battered by Hurricane Katrina, officials say. (Mr. Hairston did not shy from talking up his personal ties to Mr. Jackson, according to housing officials who worked with him. And Mr. Jackson rebuked department employees who challenged Mr. Hairston’s contracts and authority, the officials said.)

Mr. Hollis, an acquaintance of the housing secretary, owns a law firm that was paid at least $1 million by HUD for running the Virgin Islands housing authority, government contracting records show. (Maynard H. Jackson Jr., the former mayor of Atlanta who died in 2003, introduced Mr. Hollis to Alphonso Jackson more than a decade ago.)

The Atlanta developer, Noel Khalil, who occasionally dined with Mr. Jackson in Atlanta and in Washington, runs Columbia Residential, a development company that received the $127 million contract from the New Orleans housing authority last year as part of a joint venture hired to redevelop the St. Bernard housing project.

Mr. Khalil, who does not vacation on Hilton Head, hired Mr. Jackson as a partner in 1998 for development deals in Texas, before Mr. Jackson joined HUD as deputy secretary in 2001. (The two men met in 1994, also via an introduction from former Mayor Jackson, when Mr. Jackson was running the housing authority in Dallas.)

From 2001 to 2007, Columbia Residential paid Mr. Jackson over $250,000 in developer fees on three housing complexes for work that he completed before he entered government, said Mr. Khalil’s lawyer, Buddy Parker.

Mr. Jackson listed only one payment — of $35,000 — from Columbia Residential in the financial disclosure forms he filed for 2001 to 2006. Investigators have been looking into whether Mr. Jackson steered contracts to Mr. Khalil to ensure that Mr. Khalil could make those payments.
Mr. Jackson declined to comment on his ties to the three men, citing the ongoing investigation. Mr. Hairston did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Pressuring subordinates to award contracts to specific firms could be a crime, according to government officials briefed on the inquiry. The officials said investigators were also trying to determine if Mr. Jackson received payments in exchange for any help he gave friends. But the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said investigators had not found evidence of such an arrangement.

Mr. Hollis and Mr. Khalil denied that they asked for or were offered any special treatment because they were friendly with Mr. Jackson. They say they believe federal investigators know that their contracts were legitimate.

Mr. Parker said he had turned over documents and spoken with investigators. He said a Justice Department official told him that his client was considered a witness in the investigation.

“When you pay money that’s clearly traceable to a sitting secretary of the cabinet,” Mr. Parker said, “it’s not a shocking idea that you’re going to be investigated.”

“But the fact is that he has nothing to hide,” he said. “I feel comfortable in saying that they’ve checked our facts out.”

Mr. Hollis said federal investigators had not contacted him about his contracts to manage the Virgin Islands housing authority, which extended from February 2006 to May 2007. The authorities have subpoenaed records from Smith Real Estate Services, an Atlanta firm that retained him as a special adviser for a Virgin Islands contract with the department in 2004.
Pamela Smith, president of Smith Real Estate Services, declined to comment. Her lawyer, Ralph Caccia, said she cooperated fully with the authorities.

But Mr. Hollis said he had improved the troubled Virgin Islands housing authority, imposing financial accountability, rehabbing 300 public housing units, negotiating for efficient and cost-effective water service and removing hundreds of abandoned cars from the properties, among other steps.

Carmen Valenti, a HUD official who oversaw Mr. Hollis’s work, called him “dedicated, very conscientious and really hard-working.” Mr. Valenti said Mr. Hollis’s contract required several approvals and was extended several times by HUD officials.

“I’m very proud of what we did,” Mr. Hollis said. “We pulled together a team that improved the housing conditions for nearly 15 percent of the people who live in the Virgin Islands, as well as the working conditions of nearly 300 public housing employees.”

“When our engagement started, V.I.H.A. was a highly troubled agency,” he said, referring to the Virgin Islands agency. “When our engagement was over, V.I.H.A. was a much stronger agency and poised for economic recovery.”

Senior Democrats in Congress, who urged Mr. Jackson to resign, say the deals smell of cronyism. Mr. Parker said there was nothing nefarious in the fact that several of the businessmen were acquainted with each other.

“There are a substantial number of successful African-Americans who know each other through business and politics,” Mr. Parker said. “That’s how Noel Khalil knows Michael Hollis and Alphonso Jackson.”

Some African-Americans here bristle at the notion that Mr. Jackson’s casual friendships with the black professionals who flock to this resort town have become part of a federal investigation.

“You get an African-American in a position where he can help black folks, and people just don’t like it,” said Larry Holman, president of the Beaufort County Black Chamber of Commerce, who knows Mr. Jackson and Mr. Hairston.

“It’s unfortunate,” Mr. Holman said. “We have a lot of respect for Secretary Jackson here.”
Property records show that Mr. Jackson bought a house in an exclusive gated community here in 2004. Since then, local residents in this town of 33,000 people have watched his comings and goings with interest.

Mr. Jackson hobnobs with local businessmen, golfs, dines with friends and chats with neighbors who live alongside his vacation home, a cream-colored colonial with columns. He socialized with Mr. Hairston, who had been looking for work beyond South Carolina after his stucco business withered in the face of competition from Hispanic-owned companies here, according to people who know Mr. Hairston.

And he would occasionally bump into Mr. Hollis at parties or gatherings hosted by mutual friends.

Clifford Bush, a local lawyer, said Mr. Jackson made a point of mingling with black businessmen, even stopping by an event organized by the county’s black chamber of commerce.

As a prominent black conservative, Mr. Jackson certainly stood out. Mr. Hairston and Mr. Khalil also share an affinity for the Republican Party. Mr. Hairston’s wife, Starletta, is running for a seat in the South Carolina House, on the Republican ticket.

Mr. Hollis said he still admired Mr. Jackson, despite the housing secretary’s troubles, because he climbed out of poverty to become a lawyer and a member of President Bush’s cabinet. “He pulled himself up by his bootstraps,” he said.

Mr. Khalil said through his lawyer that he “regrets the circumstances that Alphonso Jackson finds himself in.”

As for Mr. Jackson, he is planning on “a few months of rest and relaxation” after stepping down from office, said a HUD spokesman, Stephen C. O’Halloran.

Mr. O’Halloran said Mr. Jackson planned to continue vacationing here in Hilton Head.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Lawsuits surprise some trailer users

42 are sued as parish launches 1st wave of cases

If Thursday was moving day, no one told Craig Furden.

He has been living in a FEMA travel trailer at 713 Causeway Blvd. in the Shrewsbury community since Hurricane Katrina. Despite monthly visits from a federal inspector, he said he had no idea his address appeared in one of 42 fresh lawsuits against owners of property that still harbor the mobile box dwellings.

"Mine's on the list?" Furden said. "They didn't tell me nothing."

Jefferson Parish filed the suits Thursday to start the final push to rid unincorporated areas of what some officials have dubbed persistent eyesores. Though all the properties identified in the initial round of suits are located in East Jefferson, code enforcement officers have targeted as many as 600 trailers parishwide, including 421 in West Jefferson. More suits are planned.

The parish has long banned trailers in many of its zoning districts. But after Katrina-related flooding damaged thousands of houses in August 2005, the Parish Council suspended the law.

In March 2007, the ban was reinstated, and Parish President Aaron Broussard's administration began pressuring residents to leave the trailers and move into houses. The deadline was March 1.

Though some trailers remain, authorities have excised almost 17,000 of them since the summer of 2006. Andrew Thomas, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it removes more than 50 trailers each week from Jefferson Parish and its six municipalities.

Eliminating the final trailers could prove a Byzantine process. Code enforcers must find them, some of which are hidden behind high backyard fences. Property owners must be located through title searches. FEMA administrators must be consulted. Then legal action can kick in.

Residents do have options, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Bert Smith said. With the help of FEMA administrators, parish attorneys will weed out property owners who have applied for home repair money -- but are still waiting for it -- from FEMA or the National Flood Insurance Program, he said. For instance, Assistant Parish Attorney Matthew Friedman cut eight potential lawsuits from Thursday's batch after conferring with federal authorities, Smith said.

Trailer residents with questions are encouraged to contact FEMA or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Smith warned that once a lawsuit is filed, court costs will begin to accrue. It will be a judge's decision whether to charge a defendant with the fees.

The suit filings could become a weekly habit for Friedman, Smith said. "How many he'll file next, and when that will be, depends on how complicated the lawsuits will be."

Complicated could define Furden's situation
His trailer has a cozy look that transcends a temporary shelter. Potted flowers in full bloom hang in baskets from an attached awning. A glass terrarium is on display by the front stairs. Padded chairs invite visitors to sit a while.

When Katrina evicted Furden and his then-wife from a house they rented in Metairie, they moved into the trailer on Causeway. Their landlords, David and Angela Celentano, rented Furden the lot, which houses a large warehouse that once doubled as a flea market.

Furden and his wife divorced a year ago, and he kept the trailer. As a renter, however, he was unsure what effect the new lawsuit would have on him.

"They really shouldn't be bothering me," he said.

A call to a New Orleans address listed for the Celentanos went unanswered Thursday.

Louis Kabel's family also could find themselves immersed in a head-scratcher of a situation. His brother-in-law, John Sternberger, owns the property at 3801 Bauvais St. in Metairie, the target of another parish trailer suit. The Kabels live in the house.

A FEMA inspector examined the abandoned trailer in the front yard Monday, Kabel said, but no one has come to cart it away. Nonetheless, Kabel said he understood the Broussard administration's abhorrence toward the trailers.

"It's been plenty of time," Kabel said. "People should be settled in now."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

EJ, St. Charles levees' strength in question

Study shatters faith in levee strength

Substantial work planned in East Jeff

Despite withstanding Hurricane Katrina and being poised to become the area's first levee to reach the vaunted 100-year storm elevation, the East Jefferson lakefront levee might not be adequate and may need to be totally rebuilt or substantially enlarged.

Stunning new data spit out by a complex geotechnical computer model has concluded that lake levees in East Jefferson and St. Charles Parish could be at risk for catastrophic failure.

Though Army Corps of Engineers officials said some experts doubt the accuracy of the new analysis, the agency intends to identify and implement solutions -- which could range from entirely rebuilding the levees to constructing a huge rock jetty in front of them.

"Our new method of analysis has given us (data) that we don't intend to ignore," said Lt. Col. Murray Starkel, deputy commander of the corps' New Orleans District.

Because the corps is under the gun to provide an improved hurricane protection system by 2011, officials said they can't wait for the results of additional studies that might ultimately debunk this new finding of the "Spencer's method" analysis.

"There will come a point at which we go forward with (contracts), even if they produce an overly conservative design," said geotechnical engineer John Grieshaber, technical support chief for the corps' Hurricane Protection Office.

"We will award contracts to meet that 2011 date, and if we find out later that we can do with a less conservative design, we can modify a contract in the field," he said.

Design standards updated

The computer-generated data, which blindsided even those engineers overseeing planned improvements to the region's hurricane protection system, are the result of applying more conservative design standards adopted since Katrina.

Key to that corps effort to ratchet up reliability, complex computer software was specially adapted over the past year that enabled the Spencer's analysis to identify any type of failure that could possibly occur in tricky south Louisiana soils.

As recently as January, engineers overseeing planned improvements to the East Jefferson lakefront predicted that it would be the first to attain the new elevations needed to help provide a stepped-up 100-year level of storm surge protection by 2011.

But the very next month, the Spencer's software began unspooling the news that it had identified a failure potential not detected by previous computer analyses in the Lake Pontchartrain levees of East Jefferson and St. Charles Parish.

"No, we absolutely did not expect this result," Rich Varuso, geotechnical chief for the district's engineering division, said of the geometry-based calculations that resulted.

Improving stability

In response to the Spencer findings, a team of consulting engineers already are analyzing methods of providing additional stability in the two areas that have been red-flagged.

In both cases, the deficiency stems from the size of geosynthetic materials -- heavy-duty fabrics, often made of polyester or polypropylene -- that were buried beneath the levees and berms to help stop levees from moving and failing.

Because the materials were used primarily in East Jefferson and St. Charles Parish, corps officials said the dilemma appears limited to the two parishes.

Spencer's analysis concluded that the geosynthetic material currently in place is about 20 feet too short to prevent the kind of "rotational failure" that the stuff is designed to prevent.

The previous analysis, called Method of Planes, or MOP, did not identify such a failure potential, Varuso said.

Varuso and Starkel say no earthen hurricane protection levee has ever suffered a rotational failure, which generally occurs when levee movement creates a crack near the crown and total collapse follows.

Experts disagree

Varuso said geotechnical engineers who have reviewed Spencer's geometry-based calculations at the lakefront disagree on whether they are valid findings or a fluke created by reconfigured software.

"Some experienced engineers in this field say there's no way that this (kind of failure) can happen under these circumstances, that physics won't allow it .¤.¤. and other experienced engineers feel that it could happen," he said.

Varuso said the new findings already have been passed along to other corps districts and some academicians for their opinions, and additional in-depth analyses and testing are being planned. Those findings will then be peer-reviewed by experts outside the agency.

But for now, Varuso and others said the corps can't wait for those results to endorse or debunk the findings.

"We're going to consider that it's legitimate, valid, until our own studies show otherwise unless they show otherwise," Varuso said.

Corps decision-makers said they will take no chances: If the calculations turn out to have been wrong, Starkel said, the corps's path of prudence will result in an overdesigned protection system for the two parishes.

"Is this really an issue we need to be concerned with, or is it an anomaly?" asked Starkel. "We're going to err on the side of caution and proceed with our evaluation of designs to address it. .¤.¤. We're being uber-conservative."

Although levees and floodwalls throughout the region are being reassessed using Spencer's method, it is the geosynthetic fabrics located mainly in East Jefferson and St. Charles that threw up the red flag.

"I don't think it's going to be a major factor anywhere else, but we'll have to see when the (complete analysis) is finished," Starkel said.

Each of the options being evaluated would alter the face of the lakefront in varying degrees, just as each will have varying effects on the environment and the neighborhoods that nestle up to the levees.

"We well understand the impact that expanding the footprint of the levees will have on humans and the environment," Starkel said. "Our goal has always been to design more robust levees in the same footprint if at all possible."

Starkel said all the alternatives will be publicly aired in a variety of venues once the geotechnical team finishes its analysis, possibly in June.

The options also will be included in Independent Environmental Reports, due out later this year, that will identify the corps' preferred method of addressing the stability issue.

Options to fortify the levees in East Jefferson and St. Charles include degrading the existing levees to bury and anchor wider lengths of the heavy-duty geosynthetic fabric, then rebuilding the levees. During hurricane season, no more than 300 feet of levee would be degraded at any one time.

Another option is ignoring the use of geosynthetic fabric and instead enlarging the levees and berm.

In East Jefferson only, additional options include building a large rock breakwater on the wave berm or even replacing the earthen levees with a floodwall.

Length of construction is particularly dicey against the backdrop of providing a higher level of protection by 2011.

"I would suggest to you that is a sacred date, and there will be protection by then," Grieshaber said.

Starkel said it's too soon to estimate additional costs, but said the corps hopes to mine any extra money needed from the contingency and escalation dollars built into the 100-year budget.

Ironically, the use of geosynthetic fabric was a concept pioneered in the New Orleans district, Varuso said, as a way of strengthening levees in highly developed, urban areas where right of way is at a premium.

"If we follow that (Spencer's) analysis, we're talking about drastic changes in EJ," Grieshaber concluded. "Maybe we'll end up getting information that allows us to tweak things so that the solution won't be as drastic as those (now) being considered.

"But at the end of the day, there will have to be some type of change out there, and we're not just going to add more (dirt) to the top of the levee," he said. "That won't do it."

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Parish to start FEMA trailer lawsuits

After 16 months of administrative cajoling, Jefferson Parish officials said Tuesday that they will begin filing lawsuits this week against any persistent denizens of FEMA trailers.

Inspectors found 600 illegal trailers lingering in unincorporated areas during the weekend: 421 in West Jefferson and 179 in East Jefferson. That's down from a peak of more than 17,000 in the summer of 2006.

Parish attorneys will go to court Thursday with the first 30 lawsuits against property owners with FEMA-issued trailers on their land, Parish President Aaron Broussard's administration said. The process will continue until all trailers have been targeted.
The threat of lawsuits is the latest and most aggressive effort to date in the public campaign to return Jefferson's neighborhoods to their appearances before Hurricane Katrina.

"It's been long enough," said Kennith Lassalle, president of the Civic League of East Jefferson. "There may be a few people with extenuating circumstances, but not as many as there are trailers."

Soon after the Aug. 29, 2005, hurricane, the Parish Council suspended the law banning travel trailers in single-family zoning districts. By January 2007, parish officials were pressing to remove them, and code-enforcement inspectors started combing neighborhoods to post warning signs on trailer doors. As residents continued to rebuild their storm-damaged houses, the Broussard administration granted several extensions for the trailers' removal, then drew a line in the sand: March 1 was the deadline for the parish to begin considering lawsuits.

Kenner has taken a similar approach, with a deadline of May 31. After that, property owners could be subject to lawsuits, city officials say. According to the latest estimates, about 400 trailers remain in Kenner, down from a post-Katrina high of about 4,000.

Gretna this month counted 40 trailers, all but eight deactivated and awaiting FEMA pickup. Though its deadline for removing trailers was Jan. 1, residents could secure an extension if they could prove they were still repairing their houses. At last week's City Council meeting, Gretna officials said they will start issuing citations for remaining trailers in upcoming weeks.

Westwego has only a handful of trailers, and officials are pressing FEMA to remove them. The city has not renewed permits for residents with trailers.

A single trailer awaiting FEMA collection remains in Harahan, a city once home to about 200, Mayor Paul Johnston said.
In unincorporated areas, parish officials said any property owner who has asked FEMA to remove a trailer, but is still waiting for it to be hauled away, may avoid a lawsuit by submitting a signed and notarized affidavit to the parish attorney's office. Information about the process is available on the parish's Web site: www.jeffparish.net.

Lassalle, the Civic League president, said FEMA is partly to blame for trailers still in Jefferson Parish.

"At two of the trailers in my neighborhood, there's been no one living in them for eight or nine months, but FEMA just hasn't picked them up," said Lassalle, who lives in the Suburban Terrace neighborhood in Old Jefferson.
Parish officials said FEMA is trying to provide rental assistance and other help for trailer residents. FEMA's rental-resources phone number is (888) 294-2822. Its Web site is www.fema.gov.

Help also is available from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at www.hud.gov and (866) 373-9509.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

What would you do with 3 Trillion dollars?

This has everything to do with New Orleans and Kanye West was correct, W doesn't give a fuck about black people.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Agency Is Under Pressure to Develop Disaster Housing

GULFPORT, Miss. — After the federal government announced in February that it would no longer use travel trailers to house the victims of future disasters, there was an initial sense of relief along the hurricane-scarred Gulf Coast.

The flimsy little white boxes are unpleasant to live in and tainted with toxic formaldehyde fumes. And they cost the federal government billions of dollars.

But that relief quickly turned to exasperation when it became clear that the government did not have an immediate backup plan. Without the trailers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has no reliable way to rush immediate shelter to thousands of victims of an earthquake, or a wildfire, or another catastrophic hurricane.

Though FEMA is considering several new ideas, including a so-called panelized home partially built at a factory, the agency’s effort to develop a trailer replacement has not impressed many housing experts.

“FEMA seems like a babe in the woods on this stuff,” said John Henneberger, co-director of the Texas Low-Income Housing Information Service, which is working on trailer alternatives. “They seem to be clueless.”

The view in Washington is not much different. “It just sounds like they still don’t know what they’re talking about, to be frank,” said Ronald D. Utt, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “To say, O.K., we didn’t get it right with trailers so we’ll move on to something more exotic like prefab housing is a bizarre suggestion.”

There are several proposals that FEMA may try in future disasters, including houses made of shipping containers and one that can be shipped flat and unfolded upon delivery. Here in Gulfport, the state has designed and built what are known as the Mississippi Cottages — skinny but sturdy little houses that can be seen lined up by the hundreds in a staging area here.

But while the cottages are the only alternative that has been fully tested and appear popular with those who live in them, they have proved hard to place because of local government resistance. And they were produced through an effort that FEMA may have a hard time replicating.

FEMA is under increasing pressure from Congress to develop disaster housing. Senator Mary L. Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who leads a subcommittee on disaster recovery, has begun an investigation into the agency’s policies, and, at a hearing this month, castigated agency officials for failing to develop a strategic plan. Congress had set a deadline for the plan of July 1, 2007; the agency now says it hopes to have one by June 1.

Her goal, Ms. Landrieu said in an e-mail message, is to “make sure the next time a disaster strikes, housing — a basic human need — will be safe for all our families.”

FEMA officials say they are pushing hard to move the last 30,000 families out of temporary housing, most of which is made up of trailers. (There were almost 119,000 trailers in use at the peak.) As the trailers are emptied, they will probably be sold for scrap, said David Garratt, acting assistant administrator for disaster assistance at FEMA.

As for the pace of the hunt for a replacement, “we recognize, to some extent, this is an urgent need,” Mr. Garratt said. “But we don’t want to treat disaster victims as guinea pigs.”

In the meantime, FEMA is planning to order formaldehyde-free mobile homes and a little-used mini-mobile home, called a “park model,” to house disaster victims. But it is far harder to find sites for the bigger units; last fall, for example, the agency had more than 57,000 trailers in use along the Gulf Coast, but fewer than 7,000 mobile homes, and only 1,600 park units.

After the California wildfires last fall, FEMA was able to install only 50 mobile homes; it found them hard to transport on winding roads and hard to install on steep sites, said Jack Schuback, who runs the agency’s joint housing solutions group.

Many experts have long urged FEMA to work closely with federal housing officials to find existing apartments for disaster victims, rather than focus on trailers. The agency insists that it does so whenever possible, although its efforts along those lines in New Orleans and Mississippi have been roundly criticized. But after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, there was no existing housing nearby.

Relocating families might mean sending them far from their jobs and the houses they hope to rebuild.

One of FEMA’s criteria in evaluating trailer alternatives is that they have a smaller footprint than mobile homes, Mr. Schuback said.

The agency is also looking for housing that can accommodate families and people with disabilities, that can be delivered quickly, that can be installed in different environments, and that will not be too costly. The travel trailers cost as little as $11,000 apiece, but installing and maintaining them averaged $30,000, and sometimes far more, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Using a lengthy checklist, FEMA has evaluated about 66 proposals, Mr. Schuback said, and visited 37 sites. But only half a dozen have been deemed promising enough to try during a disaster.

“I want to emphasize that we have not yet found the golden unit that will solve all disaster housing,” he said. “The process has ruled out far more units than it has yielded.”

The agency is being cagey about which proposals made the cut, but it did say that it is evaluating two that are being tried by states under a $400 million pilot project that Congress required FEMA to undertake in June 2006.

Texas is supposed to try the panelized home. It has signed a contract with an international company called Heston, but none of the houses have been built.

The only units FEMA says it is planning to test are the Mississippi Cottages, which have tin roofs, small porches and are colored like Easter eggs — rose-hip pink, malted mint, cloudless blue. The cottages are on wheels, but the larger models can be put on permanent foundations. All are equipped with appliances, beds, a table and chairs, ceiling fans, even pots and pans, and cost an average of $32,000 apiece to build.

With its built-in closets and spacious kitchen cupboards, their cottage feels like a mansion, said Vicki Ladner Meshell and her husband, Rickey, whose apartment in Long Beach was washed away by Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge.

“We love it — except when all four of us are trying to get ready at once,” Ms. Meshell said of the little aqua-colored cottage, which her family eventually hopes to buy. The cottage is rent-free, although they pay $210 a month for the trailer site, plus utilities.

The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency has installed more than 2,000 of them throughout southern Mississippi, and plans to put in 3,500.

But local governments in Mississippi have resisted the cottages. They fear people who get cottages will simply live in them and not rebuild their houses, said Mike Womack, executive director of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.

“They’re too nice,” he said. “I’ve heard this over and over again.”

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Losing Our Will

wonder what the answers would be if each American asked himself or herself the question: “How is the war in Iraq helping me?”

While the U.S. government continues to pour precious human treasure and vast financial resources into this ugly war without end, it is all but ignoring deeply entrenched problems that are weakening the country here at home.

On the same day that President Bush was announcing an indefinite suspension of troop withdrawals from Iraq, the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt was telling us a sad story about how the middle class has fared during the Bush years.

The economic boom so highly touted by the president and his supporters “was, for most Americans,” said Mr. Leonhardt, “nothing of the sort.” Despite the sustained expansion of the past few years, the middle class — for the first time on record — failed to grow with the economy.

And now, of course, we’re sinking into a nasty recession.

The U.S., once the greatest can-do country on the planet, now can’t seem to do anything right. The great middle class has maxed out its credit cards and drained dangerous amounts of equity from family homes. No one can seem to figure out how to generate the growth in good-paying jobs that is the only legitimate way of putting strapped families back on their feet.

The nation’s infrastructure is aging and in many places decrepit. Rebuilding it would be an important source of job creation, but nothing on the scale that is needed is in sight. To get a sense of how important an issue this is, consider New Orleans.

The historian Douglas Brinkley, who lives in New Orleans, has written: “What people didn’t yet fully comprehend was that the overall disaster, the sinking of New Orleans, was a man-made debacle, resulting from poorly designed levees and floodwalls.”

We could have saved the victims of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, but we didn’t. And now, more than 2 ½ years after the tragedy, we are still unable to lift the stricken city off its knees.

Other nations can provide health care for everyone. The United States cannot. In an era in which a college degree is becoming a prerequisite for a middle-class quality of life, we are having big trouble getting our kids through high school. And despite being the wealthiest of all nations, nearly 10 percent of Americans are resorting to food stamps to maintain an adequate diet, and 4 in every 10 American children are growing up in families that are poor or near-poor.

The U.S. seems almost paralyzed, mesmerized by Iraq and unable to generate the energy or the will to handle the myriad problems festering at home. The war will eventually cost a staggering $3 trillion or more, according to the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. When he was asked on “Democracy Now!” about who is profiting from the war, he said the two big gainers were the oil companies and the defense contractors.

This is the pathetic state of affairs in the U.S. as we approach the end of the first decade of the 21st century. Whatever happened to the dynamic country that flexed its muscles after World War II and gave us the G.I. Bill, the Marshall Plan, the United Nations (in a quest for peace, not war), the interstate highway system, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the finest higher education system the world has known, and a standard of living that was the envy of all?

America’s commanding general in Iraq, David Petraeus, and our ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, went up to Capitol Hill this week but were unable to give any real answers as to when the U.S. might be able to disengage, or when a corner might be turned, or when a faint, flickering hopeful light might be glimpsed at the end of the long, horrific Iraqi tunnel.

A country that used to act like Babe Ruth now swings like a minor-leaguer. The all-American can-do philosophy has been smothered by the hapless can’t-do performances of the people who have been in charge for the past several years. It’s both tragic and embarrassing.

The war in Iraq stands like a boulder in the road, blocking progress on so many other important issues that are crucial to our viability as a society. We’ve seen this before. Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, which included the war on poverty, was crippled by the war in Vietnam.

On the evening of April 4, 1967, one year to the day before he was assassinated, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went into Riverside Church in Manhattan and said of the war in Vietnam: “This madness must cease.”

Forty-one years later, we can still hear the echo of Dr. King’s call. The only sane response is: “Amen.”

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

FEMA to close Renaissance Village trailer site May 31

BAKER -- Margaret Chopin is quick to share her photograph of an East Baton Rouge Parish garden home, highlighting its well-kept lawn, ample garage and generous space for her husband, son and granddaughter.

But the New Orleans native and former Gentilly resident won't call it home any time soon.

Because a possible lease on the property fell through, Chopin shows it off only to illustrate the frustration and longing that come with living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency trailer in Renaissance Village, which opened in October 2005 in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

For Chopin and her neighbors, most of them from the New Orleans area and most having lived in Renaissance Village since it opened, the angst magnifies daily with the approach of FEMA's May 31 deadline to close all its remaining group trailer sites.

At one time the largest concentration of the travel trailers along the Gulf Coast, Renaissance's fences now envelop fewer than 190 trailers. This is down from the 580 that once filled the expansive gravel lot, which is just a short drive from the Louisiana Capitol. Residents have no monthly rent but do pay for propane.

Those who are left essentially have two choices: Find permanent housing or move to a hotel for 30 days on the federal government's dime while continuing their hunt.

Most would qualify for subsidized rent under a program financed by FEMA and run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Residents would have to contribute $50 rent the first month, with their share increasing by $50 each month thereafter. The subsidy would end when the beneficiary covers the full rent amount or in March 2009, whichever comes first.

"I think some people think FEMA is going to come down out of the sky and give a lump sum to the people still here," said resident Bonnie Vernon, originally from Metairie, as she folded clothing in the communal laundry facility before hauling it back to her trailer in a red wagon with only three wheels. "I don't see how anybody who's lived through the last two years could believe that."

Manuel Broussard, spokesman for FEMA's Gulf Coast Recovery Office, described the situation as an opportunity for flood victims to couple self-reliance with the aid of FEMA case workers and the financial boost from the HUD-FEMA Disaster Housing Assistance Program to resume their lives.

'There's no way'

Statewide, group sites account for about 900 of the 20,146 FEMA trailers that were occupied as of April 4. More than 80 percent of those still in group sites were renters before the storms.

All residents are assigned a FEMA case worker to provide rental listings and put them in touch with potential landlords, but residents must secure the leases.

Broussard expressed concerns about meeting the closure deadline for parks in places such as Plaquemines Parish and southwest Louisiana, where he said trailer occupants outnumber viable rental units. But, he said, "we believe we're going to be in pretty good shape" getting the last 185-plus households out of Renaissance.

A more pessimistic view pervades among Renaissance residents, employees and Catholic Charities case managers who work in the park alongside FEMA's case workers. Citing a web of aggravating factors, they said the transition from a trailer is easier to talk about than to accomplish.

Wilbert Ross, displaced from the Lower 9th Ward, said "there's no way" FEMA will meet its deadline at Renaissance. Ross already has left the park once, but could not keep up with his rent.

Sam Sammartino, disaster response director for the Diocese of Baton Rouge, noted that FEMA has failed to meet previous deadlines for other Baton Rouge-area parks -- Mount Olive, Granberry, Sugar Hill -- typically by several months. He said Catholic Charities even attempts to slow down some residents who might be signing a lease they won't be able to afford once the subsidy runs out.

"It's easy to sit there and say, 'These people ought to get a job, get it together and move out,'" said Sammartino, who supervises more than a dozen recovery case workers for more than 900 client households in 12 parishes. "We would want everyone to consider that each case is complex, each case different."

The peak population for Renaissance was estimated in excess of 1,600 -- with more than 3,000 people residing there at some point since its opening. Sammartino said the current number of residents likely is at least double the 188 trailers. Most of the remaining households have children or senior citizens, or both.

Broussard said FEMA does not keep statistics on whether evacuees return to their original home parishes or neighborhoods. He said a majority have settled around Baton Rouge. New Orleanians who want to return mostly can do so, he said, provided they do not insist on returning to their previous neighborhood.

High local rents

The chief complaint about housing for those still looking is the rising rents of post-storm East Baton Rouge Parish, which was growing before the 2005 hurricanes and has absorbed a net gain of at least 25,000 people since.

Chopin, who works three part-time jobs inside the park, said her search for a home in East Baton Rouge Parish had been mostly discouraging. "If you can afford it, you don't want to live there," she said.

The disaster housing assistance will pay as much as 125 percent of the average fair market value for a residence in a given parish. Carol Spruell, spokeswoman for Catholic Charities, estimated that in East Baton Rouge, this is $800 to $900 for a two-bedroom apartment, more for a house. Both figures are considerably higher in Orleans Parish, she said.

Spruell said her organization estimates it would take at least a $17-an-hour, full-time job to make that rent in Baton Rouge with two dependents.

Transportation troubles

Residents say the lack of transportation also hampers their housing search.

Chopin said she and her husband have one car, but he uses it to get to his job on the support staff at a local school. That makes it difficult, she said, to balance her typical 11- to 12-hour work days with trips to find housing. "A case worker might take you or might not," she said.

A bus route, paid for by FEMA, runs about every hour from the park to the local Wal-Mart, Baker Library and central public bus terminal in Baton Rouge. But the last bus typically returns to the park at 9 to 10 p.m., residents said, limiting late-shift employment options.

For Renaissance residents who can find a place, additional barriers come in the form of utility and lease deposits, transporting trailer belongings to an apartment and buying appliances that none of them has now.

FEMA pays some deposits, and Catholic Charities fills some additional needs not covered by FEMA. But help with furniture and appliances falls entirely on private organizations.

One of the most frustrating gaps in service, Sammartino said, is transportation for moving. FEMA has a relocation assistance program, but the Renaissance residents who hail from the New Orleans area but settle around Baton Rouge do not qualify because they are not returning close enough to home.

"I've asked FEMA just to send trucks up here," he said. "I've gotten no response."

Mood of 'despair'

In some respects, FEMA officials said, Renaissance Village represents success stories. Empty trailer spots, marked by water pipes and other infrastructure rising from the gravel, dwarf the number of temporary residences still set up.

In the rear of the park are a playground and classroom buildings housing early childhood learning centers. The project was financed by actress-comic Rosie O'Donnell's foundation. Arcenia Crayton, a resident of the park from its opening until October 2007, staffs another building that serves as a community center in the morning before shifting to an after-school program.

But Chopin said the overriding mood still is "depression, ... despair." Sammartino said he daily fights "fear of the unknown" and "paralysis even among people who know what they need to do." And "FEMA" remains a four-letter word in most conversations.

Sammartino and others, meanwhile, said they worry FEMA will begin urging residents into hotels come June.

"Their job is not necessarily to get people into the right situation," said Crayton, who before the storm lived in Marrero with her husband and three sons. "Their job," she said, "is to get people out of that trailer."

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Road Home appeals proving productive

More than half of all Road Home applicants who file formal appeals succeed in persuading the state homeowner aid program to give them more money, according to new statistics.

The Road Home had reviewed a total of 8,770 written appeals from homeowners by March 27, reaching final decisions on 4,834 of them, the program's latest weekly report said.

After reviewing the applicants' contentions, the program agreed its calculations or eligibility determinations were wrong 58 percent of the time: 43 percent deserved more money, 8 percent should have been ruled eligible for awards that they were denied and 7 percent got too much money, the report said.

The Road Home ruled its award was correct 41 percent of the time.

The statistics about appeals were released as the Road Home began an effort to collect overpayments from some applicants, the number of which could range from 1,000 to 5,000, officials have said. The Road Home appeals staff already decided, as of March 27, that 362 of the applicants who appealed formally should have their grants reduced by an average of $14,986. Overpayments to the appealing applicants totaled $5.4 million.

But far more often, the Road Home determined the homeowner did in fact deserve a higher grant. The program reports that as of March 27, it was on the hook to pay a total of $51.4 million in additional disbursements to 2,078 applicants, an average of $23,726.

As of that date, 645 of the homeowners already had received additional disbursements totaling $20.3 million.

The state has set aside $218.4 million in its Road Home budget to handle additional payments to all appealing homeowners.

About 2,000 applicants were still waiting for decisions on their appeals for larger grants, and another 2,000 dispute the Road Home's ruling that they are ineligible, the report said. It also said that 486 applicants who didn't like the Road Home's ruling on their appeal have lodged an appeal with the state Office of Community Development, which oversees the program.

The appeal numbers do not include thousands of applicant complaints that went into the Road Home's dispute resolution process. Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, recently used his newly expanded authority over Road Home to eliminate dispute resolution from the program, mandating instead that all substantive issues go through formal appeals.

A pair of Road Home applicants filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court last week contending that the Office of Community Development violates their constitutional due-process rights when it declares in closing papers that its grant determinations are "final" and "non-appealable."

Some appealing applicants are represented by pro bono attorneys who say the Road Home doesn't comply with its own deadlines for deciding appeals cases. Also, applicants say they can't contact the Road Home appeals team once they file their formal complaint. Rainwater has said that will change, too, so appealing homeowners can answer the appeals team's queries or provide more supporting documentation when needed.

Rainwater's spokeswoman, Christina Stephens, said he has rejected three drafts of changes to the appeals process.

"He's looking for anything to increase responsiveness and cut the wait time," Stephens said.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Road Home subcontractors make hundreds of millions

While ICF International's expanding Road Home contract has led to high-profile inquiries and lots of hand-wringing, there are also three dozen subcontractors that have made hundreds of millions of dollars off the program.

Sixty-two percent of the $592.7 million the state paid ICF as of March 10 was spread among 38 other companies or nonprofits, 22 of them identified as having a base of operations in Louisiana. They do most of the legwork in the state's $10.3 billion Road Home effort and, according to ICF's latest projections, could end up collecting $569 million. That equates to 6 percent of the money Congress sent to Louisiana for homeowner relief.

"We haven't been looking at payments to and performance of the subcontractors," said David Greer, director of performance auditing under Legislative Auditor Steve Theriot. "Now, we'll be looking globally at the Road Home contract to see how services are delivered, and that will get us, partially at least, to the subs issue."

The state Office of Community Development provides monthly updates of subcontractor pay to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, but the documents were released to The Times-Picayune for the first time last week.

They show that, as of March 10, three of the 33 for-profit subcontractors had made 56 percent of the money, while two of five nonprofits or educational institutions had yet to see a dime for services they provided homeowners.

Shaw top moneymaker

The recipient of the most money is the Shaw Group, whose founder and chairman Jim Bernhard once led the state Democratic Party and who was a leading contributor to former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, architect of the Road Home program. Shaw has collected $84.9 million of a contract projected in February to total $127.6 million, by far the largest of the bunch.

The Baton Rouge company is in charge of equipment and facilities, supporting the Road Home headquarters and 12 housing assistance centers, including one in Texas. The company also runs a call center in Baton Rouge that Shaw bought out when another subcontractor, West Telecommunications, threatened to move it out of state.

Sean Clancy, a spokesman for Shaw, declined to comment about Bernhard's ties to Blanco. He said Shaw is in the third and final phase of its work, has been paid on time and is in the process of closing facilities and scaling back its Road Home work force of 200.

"Shaw is proud of the work it did in the program and believes it helped a considerable number of Louisiana residents through its efforts," Clancy said.

The second-highest paid firm is First American, a financial services company based in Powtay, Calif., that has a Louisiana subsidiary title company. ICF hired it to do $109.3 million worth of title searches, Road Home closings and appraisals, according to a February projection of the contract's value. It has been paid $62.3 million so far but has seen its pay slow during the past year as it has been replaced as the appraisal coordination firm and its allocation of title work has declined.

First American has been largely supplanted by HGI Catastrophe Services, a tiny LaPlace company ICF originally hired for a minor contract but turned into the third-highest earner with no-bid change orders. HGI, a subsidiary of Hammerman & Gainer, was brought on to do about $8 million worth of home damage inspections but has already been paid seven times that much because lucrative appraisal and title work was tacked on to its existing contract last spring. The assignment of additional work came even though the firm has just three years of experience in title work and struggled to pay appraisers in a timely manner.

Hammerman & Gainer's owner, Larry Oney, also contributed to Blanco. A spokesman for Oney declined to comment this week, referring all questions to ICF spokeswoman Gentry Brann.

Subcontractors get bulk

Brann has said decisions about how to distribute closing work between First American, a giant of the industry, and HGI, a relatively unknown firm, change based on the flow of files. A third title company, Bayou Title of Gretna, also was added to the mix, getting a contract estimated in February to be worth $1 million but collecting nearly three times that by March 10.

First American, which early on promoted its ability to handle hundreds of files a day but later had to lay off employees because of a downturn in workload, declined to comment, citing a section of its contract forbidding it to do so.

ICF chose which subcontractors to hire, generally using open bidding processes, although at times -- as with HGI -- the state ordered ICF to sign emergency, no-bid contracts to increase program capacity. Some subcontractors, including Shaw and First American, were part of ICF's original bid package to the state when it sought the full Road Home contract.

Brann said that when ICF's Road Home contract ends in June 2009, the company expects to pay subcontractors about two-thirds of the money ICF gets from the state. The other third of Road Home revenue should stay with ICF, although Brann has said the company expects only 3 to 5 percent will be profit. The rest must pay for ICF's 850 employees, computer systems, office equipment, utilities and insurance, Brann said.

The company's most recent projection that the subcontracts will be worth $569 million indicates that ICF would max out its own $912 million contract.

ICF has said the $912 million is a cap and that it may not have to bill for that much, and Brann said Friday that some subcontractors are not expected to bill for as much as the original projections. State auditors and legislators say they are scouring the contract for ways to reduce costs.

K.C. King, a Road Home applicant who sits on the Louisiana Recovery Authority's housing task force and has 16 years' experience designing computer systems for Boeing, has often criticized ICF for not following best practices, particularly with disclosure to stakeholders. He said the subcontractor pay reports are a step in the right direction, but still do not tell the whole story.

"This ability to outsource tasks reflects well on ICF's overall ability to define and organize its work," King said. "What I don't see, of course, are the outsourcing rationales that show that it saves money."

Greer says that is precisely why he and his auditing team will be looking at subcontractor pay, to see if billing is justifiable and if it properly reflects the performance of each company.

Greer said he could not comment about the performance of any subcontractor until he has had more time to review their billing and work.

Some remain unpaid

On the flip side of the large subcontracts are nonprofits and educational institutions. The Loyola University Law Clinic was hired to provide mediation services for applicants having problems with their construction contractors. ACORN Housing Services got a $600,000 contract to help low-income homeowners work through the grant process. Neither has been paid, according to the March 10 report.

"Many of these relationships are relatively new," Brann said, adding that ICF is current in paying all invoices.

Loyola Law Clinic director Majeeda Snead declined to comment about the lack of payment.

ACORN's contract began six months ago and the nonprofit has worked with applicants and mortgage lenders to stop 86 foreclosures, helping modify the homeowners' loans so they can fix their homes and keep them, said Bruce Dorpalen, ACORN Housing Services' director of housing counseling in Philadelphia. He said ACORN has one outstanding invoice, but he attributes that to confusion about some of the contract terms.

"I'm OK with it because we had some contract issues to sort out," Dorpalen said. "I'm not ready to say it isn't working."

A third nonprofit, Easter Seals of Louisiana, was hired to help disabled hurricane victims get their grants. It collected a fraction of its $1.1 million contract before being dismissed in February.

Richard Phelps, a blind homeowner from Lafayette, said Easter Seals was helping him by reading documents to him and processing his application, but when the contract ended he was back to square one, dealing with call center employees who did not understand his limitations and often asked him to do things he had already done.

"Had they not broken that chain, I'm sure I would have gotten my issues resolved about the estimate on the roof repair. Easter Seals is very well known and highly regarded when it comes to disability issues, and I don't understand why they'd cut off the contract," he said.

Dan Underwood, chief executive officer of Easter Seals, said ICF gave no explanation for terminating the contract. But he said the work was marred from the beginning by the changing nature of the program and a lack of clarity from ICF about what services it wanted.

"They kept making everything a moving target," Underwood said. "These were very difficult people to contract with and difficult people to get money from for work performed and on a timely basis. It was common that they would short us on the bill, and the decisions would be arbitrary because one month a service was approved and next month it was denied."

Brann said Easter Seals has been paid in full for its work. ICF personnel and another subcontractor, EAD & Associates of Brooklyn, N.Y., are handling special needs services, she said.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Nearly 40,000 Katrina families still in mobile homes

ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - Almost three years after Hurricane Katrina, nearly 40,000 families still are living in vulnerable mobile homes and trailers across the U.S. Gulf Coast with another hurricane season just two months away, the top U.S. disaster official said on Wednesday.

The number is down from about 100,000 families, or some 300,000 people, in April 2006. At one point following the devastating 2005 hurricane season, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency was housing 143,000 families in mobile homes and trailers.

FEMA Administrator David Paulison said the agency, which was heavily criticized for its hapless response when Katrina swamped New Orleans, is moving about 800 families a week into hotels, motels or apartments.

The families are either living at group sites or in trailers in the driveways of their homes as they rebuild.

The six-month Atlantic hurricane season begins on June 1. Forecasters are expecting above-average storm activity.

"As far as rebuilding, I did expect it to take this long," Paulison told a small group of reporters at the National Hurricane Conference in Orlando. "But as far as housing people, I did not foresee that they would be there almost three years later."

Katrina killed 1,500 people and caused $80 billion in damage when it swept ashore in late August 2005 near New Orleans, shattering the levees protecting the low-lying city and swamping entire neighborhoods.

The three worst storms of 2005 -- Katrina, Rita and Wilma -- together caused about $110 billion in damages. The record-shattering season produced 28 tropical storms.

The presence of so many people in the flimsy temporary housing complicates preparations for the hurricane season because those families must be evacuated in the event of a threatening storm.

Paulison said the agency was on target to move everyone from the group sites by June 1 but was having "a lot of trouble" getting some of those displaced by Katrina to move again, even from cramped mobile homes that are often reduced to rubble in big storms.

"People simply don't want to move," he said. "It hasn't been as easy a task to get people out as we thought it might be."

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Filling holes dug to build levees could cost $2.5 billion

It could cost as much as $2.5 billion to refill all the clay pits that might be dug during construction of levee improvements in southeast Louisiana, according to recent estimates by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Not only would backfilling add a huge expense, some of which would likely be billed to the state and local levee districts, it also could double the number of trucks using regional roadways and local streets to travel between the pits and construction sites, corps representatives said.

If it takes 50,000 dump truck trips, for example, to haul levee-building clay away from one fully excavated 40-acre pit, it would take twice that many round trips total to haul sand or some other material back in to refill the cavity.

Then there's the issue of where to get the material to refill the pits, once they are excavated for the levee-building clay needed to construct a more robust hurricane flood defense system by 2011.

"Some of the (backfill) could come from the river ... but it could result in more pits being dug in the region," said Col. Al Lee, corps' commander in New Orleans.

"Policies are typically set up for normal circumstances," he said. "The situation here is anything but normal. The enormity of this situation is such that we're hoping they'll revisit the policy to see if there is any flexibility for us to respond to this issue," he said, referring to national corps officials.

The effects of backfilling versus leaving behind 20-foot craters are being spelled out in an issue paper Lee's staff is drafting and will soon send to corps headquarters for review.

The document also will discuss the extra cost of backfilling, which could range from a $500 million to $2.5 billion.

"There are a lot of potential problems with trying to backfill ... including the fact that the president's proposed fiscal year '09 budget includes no money to backfill," said corps section chief Brett Herr.

Maj. Gen. Don Riley, the corps' deputy chief of engineers and deputy commanding general, said Wednesday that the issue is getting serious attention.

"We are clearly considering it, but we're looking at more than just the economics of it," Riley said. "We're looking at the ecology of it, the environmental impacts, where all this would come from," referring to the backfill.

The issue of backfilling the so-called "borrow" pits surfaced last year as residents and local governments learned that in keeping with past practice, the corps did not plan to refill the pits.

But the sheer volume of material needed for post-Katrina construction -- estimated to be enough clay to fill more than 20 Superdomes -- means digging an unprecedented number of borrow pits in some of the communities hit hardest by the 2005 hurricane.

If left open, critics say the pits could hold standing water, potentially breed mosquitoes and become liabilities for landowners.

Local governments in at least three jurisdictions, including Jefferson and St. Bernard parishes, have either already passed or are considering ordinances that would require the pits to be refilled once all useable clay is removed.

Although the corps is searching for ways to import as much clay as possible from outside the region, officials said the demand is so great that several regional pits also will be needed.

Ongoing environmental assessments indicate the noise, vibration and dust that will be generated by digging and hauling clay will have a negative impact on immediate neighbors and, to a lesser degree, those living along the routes trucks will travel between pits and construction sites.

Backfilling could easily double truck traffic to and from those pits that can be filled only with hauled materials.

For pits near the Mississippi River, Herr said it could be possible to use hydraulically pumped sand at a cost estimated at $5 to $10 a cubic yard.

But for those farther out, from 10 to 20 miles away from the river, he said trucks would have to haul in fill at a cost of $15 to $25 a cubic yard.

Sheila Grissett can be reached at sgrissett@timespicayune.com or (504) 717-7700.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

FEMA allows report deadline to pass

WASHINGTON -- FEMA on Tuesday missed a second deadline for producing its plan, in the works since the 2005 hurricanes, for housing displaced victims of the next major American disaster.

The congressionally mandated report was supposed to be finished last June. Criticized for the delay, a top FEMA official promised at a hearing last month that it would be ready by April 1. It is now unclear when it will be done.

The overdue housing report is the latest in a string of busted deadlines that had been imposed by Congress in landmark disaster legislation passed in 2006. The law was designed to remake the nation's disaster response and prevent a repeat of the mistakes exposed by Hurricane Katrina.

This has ramifications much greater than south Louisiana or Mississippi or the Gulf Coast," Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said. "This dragging the feet, incompetence and lack of focus has serious consequences for future disasters where people think they are safe and are not."

'New FEMA'

FEMA officials acknowledge they have fallen behind in complying with some congressional mandates since Katrina -- more than 250 by their estimate -- that sought to rebuild the agency. They estimate 70 percent of the tasks have been completed and 15 percent await regulatory approval.

But they also say that focusing on missed report deadlines obscures real progress the agency has made in improving on-the-ground response capabilities since its much-maligned performance in Katrina.

Drawing on White House, congressional and other governmental reviews, "New FEMA," as they call it, is better prepared to respond to a disaster than at any time in the agency's 29-year history, they say.

"There is a tremendous amount of stuff in place," said Marko Bourne, FEMA's director of policy and program analysis. "By the time we hit summer, the only thing that should be outstanding are the things that need regulatory action."

Frustration mounts

Still, the slow pace has irritated lawmakers, particularly those along the Gulf Coast.

Last April, Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, complained to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff about the department's "failure to meet numerous reporting deadlines" contained in the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act, which President Bush signed Oct. 4, 2006.

He listed a dozen overdue reports in a letter to Chertoff. At the time, Thompson said the committee had sent "numerous letters" to the Homeland Security Department, which oversees FEMA, but "has yet to get an adequate response."

Chertoff sympathized, saying, "I understand your frustration." He assured Thompson that all of the late reports were "in varying stages of internal review," but seemed to chafe at the number of the congressional assignments -- 393 required by the Department of Homeland Security in 2007.

"The very high volume of congressional reports all must be approved by the Department's appropriate leadership team and must all receive further administration coordination," Chertoff wrote.

FEMA's Bourne said the agency has picked up the pace of complying with congressional mandates since it has hired new people. FEMA had about 1,800 employees in 2006. The workforce is now more than 3,100 and headed toward 4,300.

"As we gain capability, we are getting more of the harder things accomplished," Bourne said.

Landrieu, who is chairwoman of a disaster subcommittee and a member of the Appropriations Committee, said that if the Homeland Security Department or FEMA needs additional resources to comply with congressional mandates, it should ask.

"We would be happy to give it," she said.

'Few simple answers'

Few overdue plans are seen as critical as housing. The federal and state governments were overwhelmed when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita caused major or severe damage to 204,500 homes in Louisiana. Some storm victims were housed in apartments or hotels. Others took up residence in FEMA-provided travel trailers.

Deadlines for hotel and apartment stays were repeatedly extended to contend with the large number of displaced residents. Some trailer residents began complaining about respiratory problems and unusually high levels of formaldehyde, a possible carcinogen, were detected.

At a hearing March 4 before Landrieu's disaster subcommittee, FEMA's acting deputy administrator, Harvey Johnson, said the delay in developing a housing strategy for future disasters was caused by disagreement within the administration about what to do about the formaldehyde in trailers.

There are few simple answers," Johnson said at the hearing and promised the housing strategy by April 1.

As of Tuesday, FEMA has also failed to report on a congressionally mandated "surge capacity force" of disaster specialists who would be dispatched to the scene of a calamity quickly to assess the damage and map out the initial needs on the ground.

Also past due is a report on FEMA's strategy for helping communities recover after a disaster. The damage caused by Katrina and Rita was so widespread that the region is still struggling to regain a normal semblance of life.

FEMA's Bourne called the "National Recovery Strategy" a "big animal" that must plan for incidents large and small. He said the agency has been working on it, but that the recovery plan can't be completed before the unfinished housing strategy is in place.

"We needed housing strategy done," he said. "We couldn't get cart before the horse."