Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Orleans and the Obama Administration: We Won't Receive What We Don't Ask For

Deon Roberts of the City Business blog tossed out an interesting concept for a blog post recently where he examined who was to blame for the slow pace of New Orleans' recovery.

(I've never met Deon Roberts, I've heard that he's a great guy and was a decent reporter when he stayed on beat, but his blog leaves a lot to be desired. He never seems to actually analyze or interpret, he just pastes quotes from articles and summarizes.)

Anyway, in his two part post, Roberts introduces quotes from different local and federal officials blaming each other for the slow pace of recovery.

Though the quotes apply to specific recovery-related programs, it's worthwhile to consider them in the context of the big picture because I think we can create some pretty interesting hypotheses to explain the different layers of our recovery's slowness.

On one hand, you have Doug O'Dell, the Federal Recovery Czar. The AP summarized his view of things: (emphasis mine)

The Bush administration says more than $126 billion has been earmarked for Gulf Coast rebuilding following the 2005 hurricanes. Retired Maj. Gen. Doug O'Dell, who began in the job earlier this year, said he never believed the pace of recovery was about lack of resources and he said Thursday he couldn't identify any need for additional federal funds immediately.

Mayor Nagin, on the other hand, recently ordered FEMA officials out of his office: (emphasis mine)

"I had FEMA in my office yesterday and almost, kind of, threw them out," the mayor said. "They're just not aggressively helping us."

Mayor Nagin is correct that FEMA has routinely shortchanged the city for different recovery-related reimbursements. But let's also recall how our local state and municipal governments have tended to prioritize economic development over recovery. (Using CDBG money on the LSU/VA project and Reinventing the Crescent instead of for affordable housing or main street redevelopment, for instance.)

But let's see if we can zoom out a little bit.

The quotes are indicative of the long-standing disconnect between local and federal officials dating back to the storm itself. Our local officials have tended to blame the slow pace of recovery on federal red tape. Federal officials, in turn, put it back on the laps of local officials, claiming that funds have been approved and are ready to be spent.

Our local officials complain about FEMA shortchanging reimbursements for things like the rehabilitation of Charity and for slowing down the blight removal process, etc. Federal officials point the mirror back at state officials for the failure to do things like build Katrina Cottages or quickly distribute money through the Road Home program.

I'm sure one could parse out who's right and who's wrong about reimbursements and existing aid programs, etc. But would solving these typical complaints about the programs that were designed to address short term rebuilding do anything for our long term recovery?

Even if local and federal officials were working harmoniously to make these programs hum, would New Orleans' long term prospects be appreciably less pessimistic?

I'm not so sure. It would seem to me that if FEMA capitulated to all of Mayor Nagin's reimbursement requests, the only things that would be different would be the estimate for Charity and the speed with which FEMA agrees to repay for other demolitions. That would give us half of a hospital that local officials don't want to rebuild anyway and a bunch more empty lots.

Let's also go back to O'Dell's apparent inability to identify the need for any more immediate additional federal funds. One could take a look at his statement and think that he must be disengaged and unaware of our community's needs. However, I don't think that's the case. Recall his poignant criticism of the leadership of Mayor Nagin and Ed Blakely from last August. His position has been consistent - that until the city and state can intelligently spend what has already been allocated, then the federal government will not distribute additional funds.

(You may disagree with the Bush administration's decision to take a hands-off approach to local recovery failures, but that policy has been remarkably consistent. Replacing Blanco with Jindal did not appreciably alter federal policy, for instance.)

The problem seems to be that our local officials don't know what kind of help to ask for.

The argument that the federal government is failing Louisiana would be a lot more credible if local officials had a long list of things that the federal government was refusing to fund. The squabbles over FEMA reimbursement amounts are small potatoes compared to the overall needs of the region.


Consider that Obama is pledging an unprecedented trillion dollar stimulus package for infrastructure projects. Yet, if you read this AP article, it would seem that Louisiana is woefully unprepared to request a game-changing share:

Louisiana's post-Katrina wish list for the next Congress and incoming Obama administration, lengthened by 2008 hurricanes Gustav and Ike, boiled down in a transition brief to one essential message: Don't forget us.

While progress has been made since Katrina and Rita lashed Louisiana in 2005, "our state still suffers an extreme housing crisis with affordable rental property hard to come by and billions of housing and infrastructure repairs yet to be completed," the Louisiana Recovery Authority said in the brief dated Dec. 8 and which the LRA provided a copy of last week.

The state's wish list for the Katrina and Rita aftermath include an extension of federal disaster housing assistance, including rental subsidies, set to expire March 1.

It also includes a call to push back by two years, to December 2012, a deadline to finish housing projects benefiting from tax credits due to the sour national economy. And there's also a call for establishment of a "blight removal fund" to help speed cleanup of thousands of derelict properties that are seen as stalling reinvestment in some devastated communities.

Louisiana also may seek a congressional appropriation if it can't come to more favorable terms with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the level of Katrina damage to New Orleans' former public hospital for the poor, Charity. The state believes it's due $492 million; FEMA's offered $150 million.

A few things about this. First of all, the LRA's insistence that the federal government help the state address the massive affordable housing crisis is straight-up laughable given all of the state and municipal policies put in place since the storm that have directly limited the construction of affordable housing. The other things on the LRA wish list are deadline extensions and a better reimbursement figure from FEMA for Charity. That's just not a very ambitious target for the nation's neediest state.

It might explain why the AP encapsulated the Louisiana pitch to the Obama administration as a helpless and flailing "don't forget us."

Have we not drawn up even preliminary plans for any of the following?

Replacing the energy grid

Rail service along the coast

Category Five levees, sea walls, wetlands restoration

Comprehensive metro streetcar system

Granted, the first phase of any Obama stimulus package would fund projects that are immediately ready for construction. But there simply aren't a trillion dollars worth of projects around the country that are "shovel-ready." So I wonder why we haven't put forth targets for the second, third, and forth phases of the stimulus.

Obama transition officials are already reaching out to states and municipalities so that a stimulus bill is submitted to Congress immediately after he takes office. I'd be willing to wager that when they sat down with the numbers from New Orleans and Louisiana, they called back our local officials and whoever else in the planning community and stated somewhat incredulously something along the lines of: "you guys aren't asking for nearly enough."

It will be quite interesting to see how our officials scramble for New Orleans' share of the stimulus pie over the next several months.


Anonymous said...

I also work for a public agency which is dealing with FEMA, and I have to say that I don't think the slow pace of recovery for City projects is entirely FEMA's fault. Yes, dealing with FEMA is complicated. They have multiple levels of officials, who are often moved around; there is a ton of paperwork; policies sometimes change without warning; and everything has to pass through several layers of administration. That said, almost all of the FEMA personnel I have worked with have been helpful, friendly folks who are interested in moving things along. They communicate well and visit often, help with the paperwork, etc. From frustrated veiled comments FEMA folks have made, I gather that the City doesn't provide POCs, doesn't meet with them, respond to email, complete paperwork on time, have clear goals, etc. I'm willing to believe that's the case because I've had similar experiences with City departments. Recovery is a daunting, difficult job, and I don't think too many City officials are working very hard on it. Doubtless both sides have faults, but I'd like to see more effort from the Mayor than just posturing.

David said...

In terms of coastal restoration and Category Five protection, the state has a plan, and is waiting on the Feds (i.e. the Corps). Unfortunately, we've been waiting more than three years for the Corps' plan, and when Louisiana is finally allowed to see it, it's not going to be what Congress mandated:

E said...

Great info, Anon.

Sounds a lot like pretty much what I've been hearing from others with similar experience w both city and fema.

Jeffrey said...

I couldn't agree more. When we're talking about recovery in southeast LA and in NOLA in particular, we certainly aren't going to receive what we don't ask for. The should certainly be:
-Coastal restoration
-Flood protection to cat 5/10,000 year protection
-light rail/streetcar system (there is actually a growing consensus around this, and we have to make sure that the current master planning process gives us a transit-oriented plan, which will make getting federal money for light rail a relative cake-walk--see soon) and also high speed rail, where NOLA is the hub of the Gulf Coast line (see
-affordable housing
-healthcare (Charity, like you said, but also mitigating the impacts on Lower Mid-City by providing much more in the way of relocation assistance and workforce development $)
-and potentially funding for projects even further out of left field, such as the turbines in the Mississippi River, although that would obviously have to come at the bottom of the list after everything else is funded (

Great piece--we need to make sure that our leaders are asking, or we have to somehow ask for them!

E said...

That's real talk Jeffrey. Good shit.

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