Breaking Down the Government Response

Stan Czerwinski, director for strategic issues with the Government Accountability Office, testified in August before the House Budget Committee about the federal government's role in the Gulf Coast rebuilding effort. Czerwinski talks about what the government is doing right and what it can learn from mistakes made in the wake of Katrina.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And though few people in Washington dispute Mr. Buchanan's math, it's the interpretation of the numbers, and what's really happening on the ground in the Gulf Coast that's got people disagreeing.

People like Stan Czerwinski, director for strategic issues with the Government Accountability Office, also known as the GAO.

Welcome.

Mr. STAN CZERWINSKI (Director for Strategic Issues, Government Accountability Office): Thank you, Ms. Chideya. It's my pleasure.

CHIDEYA: So, well, Mr. Czerwinski, what role does the GAO play in this whole Gulf Coast rebuilding?

Mr. CZERWINSKI: Our job, Ms. Chideya, is to help the Congress to provide information for the policymakers.

CHIDEYA: And so what's the normal breakdown in relief situations between money that goes to immediate, emergency help and money for a long-term rebuilding?

Mr. CZERWINSKI: Well, to start with, Katrina is not the usual. What you have to look at is this storm and this damage it caused in perspective with others, in terms of Katrina probably the midrange of estimates of damages, which is probably $150 billion. And that dwarfs anything else that we know.

CHIDEYA: Now, do you personally think that the money allocated to help the Gulf Coast is enough to actually rebuild it?

Mr. CZERWINSKI: What you have to do is you have to put the amounts of money that have been appropriated in the context to the size of disaster. As I mentioned, we're talking about $150 billion worth of damage - some say high, some say low. But it's really not the issue as to whether it's more or less it's the magnitude, and then to compare that with the appropriation.

As we've reported, about $116 billion have been appropriated so far. And as Brookings, rightly notes, about 35 billion of that has gone to rebuilding. That obviously means there's a lot more that needs to be done, and the key becomes how we go about doing that. It's not just a federal responsibility. The state and local governments need to come to the table as well as the private sector, both for profit and nonprofit, with the federal government playing a key role in terms of funding and leadership.

CHIDEYA: So you said this is not a normal situation, if there's such a thing as a normal disaster, so take me inside what your thought processes were as an organization when Katrina hit, when the levees broke. How do you even begin, from your point of view, to address an issue like this?

Mr. CZERWINSKI: That's a really good question. We were asked by the Congress in the aftermath of Katrina to send three teams down to the Gulf Coast to take a look at what's going on there in terms of the response, and to come back with recommendations as to what needs to be done. We then have been asked, since then, to follow on in terms of rebuilding and look at, again, what is going on, what can be done to make things go better. This is a unique occurrence. The mass(ph), as I've mentioned is just tremendously different than anything we've seen. And what it really calls for is a different paradigm in terms of the way the nation approaches this kind of disaster, of the catastrophic proportion has proposed to the, let's say, garden variety disasters.

CHIDEYA: Now, you, on August 2nd, were asked to testify before the House Budget committee in regards to the Gulf Coast rebuilding. So in a nutshell, what did you tell the committee?

Mr. CZERWINSKI: What we told them is that it's very, very difficult to account for the precise numbers of funds that have gone to the disaster rebuilding. Part of it is because of the way the government does its business. NGOs issued reports on this. We've made recommendations to approve the accounting procedures. In addition to that, what we did try to do is to then take a look at the major areas in which the rebuilding funds went. And there are two major areas that we start with. One is public assistance, which is somewhat a misnomer because it goes to rebuilding of the public infrastructure. The other is the community (unintelligible) grant which infused quite a bit of money -about 16 to $17 billion into the Gulf Coast with very few strings attached for the state and locals to decide what they wanted to do with it.

CHIDEYA: So you told Congress that the nation's system for accounting for disasters is flawed. So why do think that is and how could you improve that?

Mr. CZERWINSKI: Actually, we did make recommendations also for improving that. And it really comes from a couple of areas. One is the way that we have established the disaster relief fund. Money is appropriated by Congress. It goes into a fund. And then it plays out, not just for disaster in which it's facing currently, but the past disasters. For example, we were just wrapping up the payoffs for Hurricane Andrew work and for the Northridge earthquakes, which were 13 and 14 years ago. And this money becomes very hard to distinguish whether which has been going to which. The other is that, as you know, there are multiple players involved. So it's not just FEMA. But there's also the DOD, DOT, HUD. And FEMA's accounting systems could do a better job of keeping track of that money, too.

CHIDEYA: So I asked Mr. Buchanan if you had one wish what would you wish for the Gulf. What about you?

Mr. CZERWINSKI: Partnerships. And partnerships depend upon leadership, vision, strategic planning and cooperation among all the players. And when I talk about partnerships. The key is that it's not just a Louisiana on this city program is the problem. It's not just a New Orleans problem. It's not just a federal problem, it's all together. And frankly, the private sector has to be a key player too because they provide a lot of the industrial engine that you need. As well as the non-profits who have a very good handle on what is going on with their clientele and in the area. So everybody has to come together both in terms of the approach and also with funds.

CHIDEYA: Well, Mr. Czerwinski, thank you so much.

Mr. CZERWINSKI: Okay. Thank you. My pleasure.

CHIDEYA: Stan Czerwinski is director for strategic issues with the Government Accountability Office. And he came to us from NPR headquarters in Washington.

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