Following the Katrina Recovery Money Trail

Over half the money Washington has set aside to rebuild the Gulf Coast has yet to be spent, according to a new report by The RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights and the Institute for Southern Studies. Jeffrey Buchanan, co-author of the study and Program Officer with the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights, breaks down the numbers.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Over half the money Washington set aside to rebuild New Orleans is still sitting. That's according to a new report by the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights and the Institute for Southern Studies. Most of the 116 billion federal dollars targeted for the Gulf Coast was targeted for emergency relief only. That means almost two years after Katrina the region is still picking up the pieces and having a hard time paying for it.

For more, we've got Jeffrey Buchanan, co-author of the study. He's a program officer with the RFK Memorial Center for Human Rights.

Welcome.

Mr. JEFFREY BUCHANAN (Program Officer, Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights): Great to be here.

CHIDEYA: So why do you feel it's important to differentiate that the funds promised by the government were mainly for emergency relief?

Mr. BUCHANAN: Well, now, we're in the rebuilding phase in the region. Most of the emergency response has been completed. So I think it's - for a fair public dialogue, we really need to talk about how much money is there to rebuild these Gulf Coast communities, not how much have we spent in emergency relief but how much is available to really rebuild the schools, rebuild the homes, make sure that medical facilities are available, infrastructure for transportation. All the things that are really required for someone to know if they're going to come home. Are they going to be able to live their lives? Are they going to be able to come home and know their family is going to be safe?

We should really just have an honest public dialogue. We found that there's only $35 billion available for programs to actually rebuild the region. And we just hope that we can put these numbers out there and have a real honest discussion going forward.

CHIDEYA: So your study says that the portion of the budget allocated for public infrastructure repair would only cover an eighth of the infrastructure in Louisiana alone. Why do you think this is the case?

Mr. BUCHANAN: Well, when you look at how the money has been spent, the main program for rebuilding public infrastructure, FEMA's public assistance program, a big chunk of that money that has been allocated by Congress is actually money that needs to do things like, you know, clear roads, sandbag low-lying areas, these kinds of things, and not so much of the money that's been left over to actually rebuild hard infrastructure to date.

We found that only $3.6 billion is available, you know, based on a GAO reports by the gentleman who's actually following me in this interview, Stan Czerwinski. Basically we found that there is just not been a realistic discussion of what needs to be invested in our public infrastructure going forward in the Gulf Coast region.

CHIDEYA: So should the government try to rebuild the Gulf Coast to its former self or even make it better?

Mr. BUCHANAN: We think that the federal government has an obligation under international human rights law to really help the region rebuild in a way that assures all of the people displaced by the storm and by the failure of the federal-constructed levee system have the ability to come home if they wanted to. That means we have to make an initial investment. A really - a renewed effort to rebuild the region, and to look at new possible ways to get money into the region and to do these rebuilding projects.

To date, there's been a laissez faire kind of policy within the administration that they send the check out. They say they've sent the big check. Even though the numbers that they use is a little bit false in effect that it's not all for rebuilding. But they say they sent the big check and that it's the local and state problem at this point, to do the rebuilding.

These are institutions - city and state governments that have been really wrecked by the storm. Their tax based has been eviscerated. They're not really able to do the logistics to carry out these projects quickly. That's been our finding. So we believe that there needs to be a renewed partnership with the federal government. You know, using some of its muscle to really push these programs forth if they want these to actually happen and rebuild the region.

CHIDEYA: So you mentioned one specific case of tax breaks and a million-dollar deal to build luxury condos next to the University of Alabama football stadium, which is four hours from the Gulf Coast. Now, that's a very specific, targeted issue. What do you think really is the biggest issue out of what you've covered?

Mr. BUCHANAN: Well, we think that, really, the biggest issue moving forward will be public infrastructure investment. And the reason really - there's a lot of areas that haven't able to recover but then there's a lot of working class areas, you know, like the Ninth Ward, like (unintelligible). There's a number of communities across the Mississippi Gulf Coast that still need significant investment in their public infrastructures - things like schools, like - we're talking about poor hospitals with health care about being such an issue degrading after the storms, public safety.

Even things just like police stations and firehouses in the region really need that solid federal investment and a commitment from the federal government to rebuild. So people know they're going to be able to come back and have those essential services in place. And, you know, businesses are going to know if they're going to be able to come back and have access to the things that they would expect in other places to really makes sure that the rebuilding, you know, happens and going forward.

CHIDEYA: So finally and briefly, if you have to make one wish and wish it upon the recovery of the Gulf Coast, what would it be?

Mr. BUCHANAN: I would say for a renewed public works program, really focused on the families and the survivors of the storm and their communities. Looking to bring back displaced people to do the work, to get trained in the jobs to rebuild the public infrastructure, and really a federal policy that is focused on helping these families to come back, rebuild their communities and rebuild their lives.

Right now, we have a project. We're working with some folks on the ground called the Gulf Coast Civic Works Program. For people that are interested, they can check it out. The Web site address is www.solvingpoverty.org. It's a cooperative of a number of groups on the ground and some national groups looking at advocating for a policy at WPA, like public works program, to really rebuild the infrastructure and rebuild the lives and communities in the Gulf Coast.

CHIDEYA: Well, Mr. Buchanan, thanks for joining us.

Mr. BUCHANAN: It's great to be here.

CHIDEYA: Jeffrey Buchanan is program officer with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. He spoke with us from NPR Headquarters in Washington.

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