Katrina Recovery Progresses Amidst Criticism and Warnings

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana, September 13, 2005 (ENS) - President George W. Bush took a third closeup look at the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina on Monday and came away from his time in New Orleans and Gulfport saying that progress is being made. "There's a can-do attitude," the President said, "people are coming together, slowly but surely putting their life back together." But Congressional Democrats sent an "urgent request" to the U.S. Comptroller General asking for "immediate and intensive" oversight of federal hurricane relief funds.

After a briefing by the military commanders in charge of hurricane recovery, the President said, "There's a containment of an oil spill; the electricity is beginning to be turned back on. We just came through an area that had had substantial water in it, and the dewatering is an indication that the city is moving forward. But I'll repeat, we got a lot of work to do, a whole lot of work to do."

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President George W. Bush (left), joined by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, is given a briefing by U.S. Army Lt. General Russell Honore (seated right) and U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen (standing), Monday at the operations center in New Orleans. (Photo by Paul Morse courtesy The White House)
The President emphasized in both states that the recovery would be planned and conducted not by the federal government but by the people of Louisiana and Mississippi.

"The people of New Orleans can design the vision; the people of New Orleans can lay out what New Orleans ought to look like in the future; and the federal government will help," Bush said. "The people of Louisiana can lay out their vision of what Louisiana will look like, and the federal government can help.

"I think the best policy is one in which the federal government doesn't come down and say, here's what your city will look like. The best policy is one where the local folks say, here's what we want our city to look like and let's work together to achieve that vision," he said.

"The role of the people in Washington is to support the governors, and support the congressmen, support the mayors, as a vision for what this part of the world will look like. And it's important for people to understand that," President Bush said.

In all three hurricane-struck states, airports are reopening and planes are beginning to fly. The Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is open and so are the airports in Baton Rouge, Gulfport-Biloxi, and Mobile - all cities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta announced today that Mississippi will immediately receive $5 million in federal emergency relief funding as a down payment on the repair or replacement of damaged roads and bridges throughout the state.

Mineta made the announcement today during a visit to Mississippi. Mineta said Mississippi will receive $5 million through the Federal Highway Administration’s emergency relief program to reimburse the state for repairs to US 90, I-10 and other federally funded roads and bridges in the state damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Last Wednesday, a $5.1 million contract was signed to repair the I-10 Bridge in Pascagoula so that it may open to normal two-lane traffic. Work began on Saturday and should be completed within 30 days. A temporary road to handle U.S. 90’s two-way traffic – one lane in each direction - will be constructed in the next 90 days, Mineta said.

In New Orleans repairs began Monday on the damaged Twin Span Bridge that carries Interstate 10 traffic between New Orleans and Slidell across Lake Pontchartrain. “Restoring this critical eastward link for New Orleans will speed recovery of the city and the entire Gulf region,” Mineta said. “Every day we’re getting road work started to reconnect the region and help people rebuild.”

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Crews with cranes pull railway tracks from the bottom of Lake Pontchartrain. (Photo courtesy Norfolk Southern)
Today, 16 days after Hurricane Katrina struck, Norfolk Southern restored rail freight service to New Orleans, completing repairs to its Lake Pontchartrain Bridge and reopening interchange points with western rail carriers.

Norfolk Southern Chairman and CEO David Goode said, "The resumption of rail service following this disaster is a tribute to the dedication and efforts of Norfolk Southern people. They did the job in record time - safely and under extremely challenging conditions - in order to bring rail service back to New Orleans."

Nearly five miles of track were washed from the top of the 5.8 mile long rail bridge and into the lake. Nine cranes on barges were used to lift the track out of the water and back onto the bridge. Nine miles of track running through New Orleans itself required major repairs due to washouts and other water-related problems.

Emergency management officials on the ground are making progress. The Mississippi Emergency Management Agency says More than 182,302 Mississippi disaster victims have registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a total of 82,567 payments have been made for a total of $167.16 million.

According to FEMA, in total, nearly $690 million in federal aid has been distributed.

Back in Washington, Congressional Democrats have sent an "urgent request" to David Walker, Comptroller General of the United States who heads the Government Accountability Office, the investigative branch of Congress, asking for immediate and intensive" oversight of federal funds spent for hurricane relief.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Whip Steny Hoyer, and the Ranking Minority Members of six committees Congressmen Henry Waxman, James Oberstar, Bennie Thompson, David Obey, John Dingell, and George Miller, wrote, "GAO oversight is essential to protect the interests of the taxpayer and to ensure that hurricane relief funds actually reach the victims of Hurricane Katrina."

Pointing to what they call the Bush administration's "persistent and costly mismanagement" in Iraq and at home, the Democrats wrote, "Already there are danger signs involving the contracts for recovery and rebuilding of the devastated Gulf Coast."

"Last week, the administration signed two $100 million contracts with the Shaw Group, a client of former FEMA Director Joe Allbaugh, to assist in recovery efforts. Halliburton, which has repeatedly overcharged the taxpayer in Iraq, has already received contracts for repair work at three Navy facilities in Mississippi," the Democrats wrote. "And the emergency relief bill passed last week allows federal officials to make purchases worth up to $250,000 per transaction on government-issued credit cards."

"Moreover, the first set of contracts relating to Hurricane Katrina was awarded without competition and on a cost-plus basis. This is the same flawed contracting strategy that produced disastrous results in Iraq," they wrote.

"Compounding these problems are contracting weaknesses at FEMA," the Democrats wrote. "In March 2004, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General found that FEMA’s "numerous deficiencies in its recording keeping" may have adversely impacted the agency’s "ability to adequately account for new contracts awards and other acquisitions."

Today is a new day at FEMA, however. Former FEMA head Michael Brown resigned Monday and was replaced by an experienced emergency manager, Chief R. David Paulison, administrator of the U.S. Fire Administration, to be acting under secretary of homeland security for emergency preparedness and response and head of FEMA. Paulison is a 30 year veteran of fire and emergency services.

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Chief R. David Paulison accepts his new position Monday in Washington accompanied by his immediate superior Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. (Photo by Bill Koplitz courtesy FEMA)
More criticism of the recovery effort is coming from another quarter. The pumping of New Orleans floodwaters into Lake Pontchartrain by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will create "long-term, harmful implications for the lake ecosystem and future human use of the area," warns Duke University environmental engineer Karl Linden.

Linden acknowledged that Louisiana officials faced terrible choices in handling the polluted floodwaters in New Orleans. Trying to balance the immediate, overwhelming needs of its people against damaging the environment, Louisiana is now pumping floodwater into Lake Pontchartrain.

"According to the government authorities, the alternatives were only concerned with where to pump - into the lake or into the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico. They did not consider water treatment to help minimize the impacts of pumping," said Linden, associate professor of environmental engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering.

"Sacrificing the lake perhaps seemed like a better way to contain the pollution and make the eventual remediation effort at least conceivable."

The possibility of even more serious harm may be avoided by extensive testing of waters in the industrial zone for toxic chemicals and developing a plan to treat those waters before disposal, Linden said. So far, there has been no sampling performed in any of the city's industrial areas, unlike the residential areas.

"While pumping floodwaters into the lake may seem better than pumping pollution into the river or Gulf, make no mistake, this choice is only the lesser evil," said Linden.

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U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Anthony Bertucci calls in the status of the floodwall at London Canal’s second breach. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps)
Based on the data available so far, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency did not find any priority pollutants - those that persist in the environment - that exceeded health levels in the residential areas that have been tested.

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality plans to send teams to conduct in-depth reconnaissance at the four accessible sites on the Superfund List - Madisonville Creosote Works, Delatte Metals, Southern Ship, and Bayou Bonfouca.

The EPA will do over-flight assessment of a fifth Superfund site on Agriculture Street, since it is still underwater.

"Before any pumping from industrial areas occurs, it is imperative that an assessment be made of the level and types of pollutants present," Linden urged. "Once the status of these areas is known, a plan needs to be put in place to minimize the environmental damage from these sites, as many of them could be extremely hazardous. It would be irresponsible to simply pump the water from these areas into the lake or gulf without an attempt to remove and stabilize the toxic chemicals first."

Floodwater test results to date done in residential areas show the public and emergency responders should avoid contact with the standing water as it is contaminated with bacteria.

"According to EPA sampling, the types and levels of harmful bacteria in the floodwaters from residential areas are similar to raw sewage. Affected areas of Lake Pontchartrain will likely experience an extended period of low oxygen levels, elevated nutrients and high microbial loads, all leading to fish kills, algae blooms and the need to prevent human contact with the water," Linden said.

Daily sampling is ongoing and the EPA, in coordination with federal, state and local agencies, will release data as it becomes available, the agency said. EPA teams continue collection of household hazardous wastes and orphan containers. EPA personnel continue to offer technical assistance in the disposal of hazardous waste and other debris left behind by the storm.