Pam Fessler, NPR
Volunteers Michael Chang (left) and Paul Clark work in the kitchen of John and Dagmar Booth's house in St. Bernard Parish, La. Completing the kitchen is the last thing that needs to be done before the couple can move back in.
Volunteers Michael Chang (left) and Paul Clark work in the kitchen of John and Dagmar Booth's house in St. Bernard Parish, La. Completing the kitchen is the last thing that needs to be done before the couple can move back in. Pam Fessler, NPR
Pam Fessler, NPR
Washington, D.C., attorney Zack Rosenburg and his friend Liz McCartney quit work and moved to the Gulf Coast early last year. They founded a volunteer group, the St. Bernard Project, and have helped rebuild almost 70 homes.
Washington, D.C., attorney Zack Rosenburg and his friend Liz McCartney quit work and moved to the Gulf Coast early last year. They founded a volunteer group, the St. Bernard Project, and have helped rebuild almost 70 homes. Pam Fessler, NPR
Pam Fessler, NPR
St. Bernard Parish Councilman Craig Taffaro stands in the parish's still-wrecked government complex.
St. Bernard Parish Councilman Craig Taffaro stands in the parish's still-wrecked government complex. Pam Fessler, NPR
Pam Fessler, NPR
A gutted fire station stands in St. Bernard Parish. Local officials say money for rebuilding things such as schools, hospitals and police stations has been hung up by excessive red tape.
A gutted fire station stands in St. Bernard Parish. Local officials say money for rebuilding things such as schools, hospitals and police stations has been hung up by excessive red tape. Pam Fessler, NPR
In the two years since Hurricane Katrina, the federal government has provided more than $114 billion in aid. But walk the streets of the Gulf Coast, and you might wonder where all that money has gone.
In some areas, there are signs of progress — new stores, freshly painted houses, even traffic jams. But in other areas, there are still plenty of gutted homes and businesses — and very desperate people.
One place the $114 billion in federal aid did not go was into John and Dagmar Booth's small home in St. Bernard Parish, La. Two volunteers are installing new kitchen cabinets on a recent day. Sweat pours down their faces as a fan moves hot air from one side of the room to the other.
Completing the kitchen is the last thing that has to be done before the Booths can return to their home after almost two years. They lived first in a tent, then in a FEMA trailer.
Without the volunteers, John Booth says, "We would never be back. No way in a million years."
Booth says he and his wife applied for rebuilding funds from the state but have yet to receive a penny. Insurance paid for only a few supplies. And now, their FEMA trailer park is about to close.
"We just started working on [the house] ourselves because, I mean, we started seeing nothing was getting done fast," Dagmar Booth says.
Dagmar Booth is frustrated that it's been such a struggle. In fact, she says, she can't really understand why it's so hard to get help rebuilding in a community she loves.
"I live in the United States of America! I figured within ... at least a year, maybe a year and a half at max, we'd be out. But for this long? It's ridiculous," she says.
Rebuilding Residents Rely on Volunteers for Help
The Booths are far from the only ones with such frustrations. Less than half of the parish's 67,000 people have returned. Those who have returned often have to rely on the kindness of strangers, such as Washington, D.C., attorney Zack Rosenburg, who, along with his friend Liz McCartney, quit work and moved here early last year.
"We were shocked that, six months after the storm, folks truly couldn't live independently," Rosenberg says.
That was a year and a half ago. Since then, Rosenburg and McCartney — with the help of thousands of volunteers and donations — have rebuilt almost 70 homes in St. Bernard Parish. They are working on two dozen more. Rosenburg says he is glad to help but sad that he has to.
"National Guard should be rebuilding these houses rather than some high school kids from Kansas or a church group from Ottawa," Rosenburg says. "President Bush made a promise. He said we will rebuild and we will rebuild quickly. It's two years later, and the government has done zero rebuilding."
Local Officials Complain of Excessive Red Tape
"Zero" is a bit of an exaggeration. Of the $114 billion in aid, about two-thirds went for immediate relief — temporary housing, evacuations, emergency repairs — the kinds of help provided right after the storm. But much of the money devoted to long-term rebuilding remains unspent. Billions of dollars in housing aid have been delayed because Louisiana had difficulty getting what it calls its Road Home program up and running — although that money is now starting to flow. Local officials say other money — for rebuilding things such as schools, hospitals and police stations — has been hung up by excessive red tape.
St. Bernard Parish's government complex is still not repaired. Papers still lie scattered on the floor beneath desks and file cabinets overturned by the storm.
"Two years later, we have yet to start construction or repairs. ... We got into a two-year-long debate with FEMA about how much damage did we have and how much are they going to pay to have the building repaired," says parish Councilman Craig Taffaro.
These lengthy discussions have occurred not only in St. Bernard Parish but in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast. The result is police and firefighters still working out of trailers, sewage systems in disrepair, a deficit of hospital beds and buses. To make matters worse, local governments had been required to put up 10 percent in matching funds for recovery projects — money some of them just didn't have. Congress only recently waived the rule.
Taffaro's fellow councilman, Mark Madary, says it is a chicken-and-egg kind of situation. Without services, citizens won't return, making it harder to rebuild.
"Local government's income is sales tax and property tax. So, you know, we're limited on what we can even borrow for our future. I just really believe if the government didn't ... they seem to be more in the way than helping," he says.
Federal Official Says Recovery Going Well
Don Powell, President Bush's point man for Gulf Coast recovery, likes to say that one man's red tape is another man's accountability. He is sympathetic to the plight of those trying to rebuild, but he says the federal government has made a lot of money available, including $15 billion it plans for rebuilding levees.
"I think what's important is that we spend what we've got wisely and very responsibly," he says. "If there is a need for more money, our office will sit down and talk to the people, whatever that need may be, and try to understand that need and take that back to Washington."
But Powell says many of the holdups are at the state and local level — or just the result of so much rebuilding going on at once, making it difficult to get contractors and supplies. In fact, as Powell sees it, the recovery is going quite well. He notes that schools are reopening and that more than 80 percent of the region's population has returned.
"The port is 100 percent back. All of the energy, the oil and gas, is 100 percent back. Eighty-five percent of all the hotels are open. Eighty percent of all the restaurants are open," Powell says.
And, indeed, while getting help hasn't always been easy, there are signs of hope.
The Royal Castle Child Development Center in New Orleans, which, like many day care centers, was severely damaged by Katrina, has reopened — although it took more than a year. Now, owner Pearlie Harris and her staff care for almost 80 children.
Harris says she knew she was providing a service that the city needed to recover.
"Without a day care center, of course, parents can't work," Harris says.
She tried for government help but initially couldn't find any. Her application for a small business loan to rebuild her center was denied because she had no income. Instead, Harris cobbled together her own recovery package, using personal savings and donations from nonprofit organizations.
"And I feel like I'm a pioneer. That's what I tell my kids. We're kind of like pioneers. You know, you kind of just got to put your stake in the ground and you just got to build around your stake, and that's what we're doing," Harris says.
Recently, Harris got some good news. She received a $20,000 small business grant from the state, paid for with some of the $114 billion in federal recovery aid. Harris says she hears there might be even more government help on the way, and, like many others, she hopes that's true.