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Local leaders tout progress rebuilding New Orleans

Officials cite ‘desperate’ need to rewrite law governing federal role in future disasters.

A panel of New Orleans business leaders speaking at the National Press Club in Washington Thursday said there has been significant progress in rebuilding local infrastructure and rectifying some of the social ills that plagued the city before hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast in the late summer and fall of 2005.

"Recovery has been painful and sometimes halting," said Bob Brown, managing director of the New Orleans Business Council and the former vice chancellor at the University of New Orleans. "But the strides being made now are tangible."

Katrina devastated New Orleans, flooding an area seven times the size of Manhattan and displacing virtually all the city's 454,000 residents. More than 105,000 homes were classified with major or severe damage, and the health care and criminal justice systems were rendered inoperable.

Brown lauded the role played by Donald Powell, the federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding, saying Powell has been key to breaking bureaucratic logjams that have stalled recovery efforts, which is largely being funded by federal taxpayers. "We owe him a profound debt of gratitude," Brown said.

Powell emphasized that while the federal government can provide funding, successful recovery will depend more on the activism and engagement of ordinary citizens, not politicians or bureaucrats. "It's clear to me that there are limits to what government can do," he said.

To date, 280,000 residents have returned to New Orleans; the port is fully operable; and the airport is 80 percent back, according to Jay Lapeyre, council chairman. But while New Orleans continues to rebuild, officials said Congress needs to rewrite the Stafford Act, the law governing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its response to national disasters, before the next large-scale disaster occurs.

"The law never envisioned anything of the magnitude of Katrina," said Leslie Jacobs, a member of the council as well as the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. "There's a desperate need to rewrite the Stafford Act. People want to blame FEMA, but they're just implementing the [law]."

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., in an interview with Government Executive last month, agreed the act needs to be "completely overhauled" and said Congress plans to tackle the issue early next year.

"It is wholly insufficient for the task at hand. The Stafford Act may work for your garden-variety tornado or even a relatively small hurricane, but for the catastrophic disaster that happened in south Louisiana, it is wholly inadequate," Landrieu said.

A study by New York University last month found that the law does not adequately recognize 21st century threats. "For example, the definition of a major disaster does not cover chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear attacks or accidents," the report noted.

The New Orleans Business Council has taken a leadership role in addressing some of the issues that contributed to the city's vulnerability before Katrina, including the region's notoriously corrupt levee boards and a tax assessment system (which helped fund levee protection) that was inconsistent and overly politicized.

Additionally, the council has taken on some of the quality of life issues that have long plagued New Orleans, such as failing public schools, rampant crime and government corruption. Fixing those problems is widely viewed as being vital for improving the city's long-term outlook.

Prior to Katrina, the New Orleans school district was the worst performing in the state and in such financial disarray that the FBI had opened a field office there to investigate widespread fraud and corruption, said Lapeyre.

The city essentially started a new school district from scratch, rebuilding infrastructure as well as hiring administrators and faculty and creating a system of charter schools.

"The people back in New Orleans now had to make a conscious decision to be there. They're engaged [in the recovery]," said council member Jacobs.