DHS keeping close eye on rebuilding funds, official says

Federal, state and local government officials are balancing the need to distribute funds for rebuilding the Gulf Coast against their responsibility to ensure that the fraud and waste that plagued the initial Hurricane Katrina recovery effort is not repeated, a high-ranking DHS official overseeing reconstruction said Wednesday.

But Donald Powell, federal coordinator for DHS' Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding, said parts of the 2000 Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, which governs reconstruction efforts, might need to be revised. "Part of the law is restrictive," he said in a teleconference with reporters.

Powell declined to elaborate on specific changes he'd like to see, but repeated criticism from officials in the Gulf Coast that the law has slowed the rebuilding process by adding cumbersome red tape.

Under the provisions of the act, Powell said, "I can assure you that there's lots of oversight. A lot of it takes time."

Powell commended the efforts of government and contract workers who are tackling the seemingly endless task of clearing out the wreckage spread by Hurricane Katrina. "The debris in Mississippi is gone," he said. "Seventy-five percent of the debris in New Orleans is gone."

As federal agencies seek to resurrect the Gulf Coast, they are challenged by a looming retirement wave combined with inadequate hiring capabilities, said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, which hosted the teleconference at which Powell spoke. For Gulf Coast residents, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's "broken process" for hiring exacerbates the problems faced during reconstruction, Stier said.

Recent vacancies in high-ranking positions at FEMA have been filled by lower-level employees, Stier said, "and they've got those positions to fill again."

FEMA Director R. David Paulison sought to boost FEMA's staff to 95 percent of its capacity by the onset of this year's hurricane season on June 1, but did not meet that target. He later abandoned his push to fill the positions by a specific deadline.

"Director Paulison has worked very hard to hire experienced emergency managers to assist in reshaping and leading the agency," said Aaron Walker, a FEMA spokesman. "We continue to close the gap in our staffing efforts."

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