Rebuilding New Orleans from the Levees Up

President Bush has nearly doubled the funds promised to rebuild New Orleans' levees. Will it be enough? What else is being done to safeguard the return of New Orleans' residents and businesses? U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings joins Ed Gordon for a discussion.

ED GORDON, host:

Yesterday, the acting director of FEMA, David Paulison, met with members of the Congressional Black Caucus. They discussed steps being taken to secure housing and other vital resources for New Orleans evacuees. Among those at the table was US Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland's 7th District. He joins us now.

Congressman Cummings, thanks for joining us. Good to talk to you.

Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, Maryland): It's good talking to you.

GORDON: Let's talk a little bit about what you heard yesterday from, among others, the acting director of FEMA. And you also heard from the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin. Give us an overview.

Rep. CUMMINGS: Mr. Paulison, the acting director of FEMA, basically said to the Congressional Black Caucus that they could do better with regard to putting people out on February 7th. You know, a lot of people are still in hotels from Hurricane Katrina, and they had announced that folks would be put out of these hotels on February 7th. He made it clear that no one would be put out and that they would be working out arrangements whereby people would be able to apply for the $26,000 of rental assistance during that 18-month period. In other words, they'll be in the hotels, but then they can apply for rental assistance, and that's the key.

And as far as Mayor Nagin is concerned, it was a major victory for him yesterday with regard to the president agreeing to add an additional $1.5 billion to add up to some three billion for the repair of the levees. A lot of people don't want to come back because they are afraid that their property is going to be flooded. And so this gives some assurances that a levee system will be able to withstand a storm such as the one that we saw in Katrina, and then people have a comfort level coming back.

GORDON: Let me ask you this. There has been talk about whether or not this money--some people say it's about 30-plus billion short in rebuilding the levees to sustain a Category 4. Is there concern on your part that perhaps pumping this kind of money still may not be able to withstand what meteorologists and others certainly say will be on the way in the future?

Rep. CUMMINGS: Certainly there is concern and--but I do believe, Ed, that as we move along with this process and as the Congressional Black Caucus and others continue to put pressure on this administration to do the right thing, I think that if it's seen that that additional money is needed that we will get it. I mean, I look at the way we spend on Iraq without the blink of an eye. And the president consistently says `stay the course.' And what we're saying is, `Mr. President, stay the course for Americans, hardworking, taxpaying Americans who simply have been placed in a situation of peril and now we have to stay the course to make sure that they're OK.'

GORDON: Let me ask you this as relates to substantial need, immediate need for those who are displaced outside of just housing. There's the question of whether or not they will be able to become employed or re-employed, etc. We just heard from a state senator there who talked about the problems on the ground. How concerned are you about trying to make sure that the individuals find not only housing but livelihood?

Rep. CUMMINGS: Well, we're very concerned about that. But in talking to Mayor Nagin, one of the things that--you know, it's the chicken and the egg. You don't know which comes first. Mayor Nagin seems to think that if they can get the housing, they can then supply businesses with the workers that they need. And he believes that when you have a combination of the levee system being built with people having an opportunity now, by the way, to get trailers, and I think that--and businesses, according to Nagin, are coming back. So it's going to be a slow process, but the key is to stay the course and keep pressure on this administration.

GORDON: Congressman, let me ask you this. Congress heard from many black residents over the course of the last week or so talking about the problems with the aftermath of Katrina. The state of Louisiana released preliminary death statistics yesterday suggesting that more whites died than blacks in all of this. Now much of the media is trying to say--suggest, I should say--that perhaps this belies the fact that there wasn't prejudice or concern of race in this aftermath. How do you read these numbers?

Rep. CUMMINGS: Well, it's hard to say, but any loss of a life is significant, be it black, white or other. But the fact still remains that the pictures that we saw on our television screens were mainly African-Americans, many of whom were poor, crying for a piece of bread and a glass of water after five days. That should never happen in this country. And I think that there was some race issue here, and I have no doubt about it. But, I mean, people can debate one way or the other. The fact still remains is that we've got a lot of people, they're going to be coming up on a Christmas where they're going to be on very, very shaky ground trying to figure out what their futures might be, and this country that prides itself with coming to our weak links when they become weak so that we can have a strong chain called the United States of America, we need to strengthen that link. Now we can strengthen the links all around the world, then we ought to be able to strengthen them in our country.

GORDON: Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, always good to talk to you. Thanks for coming on.

Rep. CUMMINGS: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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