Don Powell on the Federal Goverment and Katrina

In November 2005, FDIC Chairman Don Powell was placed in charge of federal efforts to coordinate a recovery plan for the Gulf Coast. He serves as the Bush administration's chief contact with state and local governments and private interests. Powell talks with Ed Gordon.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

For much of this week, we've taken a closer look at recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast region one year after Hurricane Katrina. In that year, the Bush administration has allocated $110 billion toward rebuilding, and $44 billion has reportedly been spent.

Yesterday on the program, Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi said very little of that money has actually reached residents.

(Soundbite of previous NEWS AND NOTES broadcast)

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California): It was only in June that the Republican Congress finally enacted needed housing money for homeowners in Louisiana, 10 months after Katrina, and none of that money has reached the homeowners. So it's a combination of the slow process exacerbated by the red tape, compounded by the layers of subcontracting that siphons off money that should be going directly to people.

GORDON: Joining us now is Don Powell, federal coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding. President Bush appointed Mr. Powell to the job last November. He joins us via phone from Washington. Mr. Powell, welcome.

Mr. DON POWELL (Federal Coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding): Greetings.

GORDON: You just heard from Nancy Pelosi. In a moment, I'll play a clip from Mayor Ray Nagin. You've got a three-year deadline given by the president to try to get everything up and going and in some sense back to normal. First take on what Nancy Pelosi said: money is going directly to people.

Mr. POWELL: Well, I'm happy to report that - I know that money in Mississippi and money in Louisiana has been dispersed to homeowners. It's important - it was important that the people in Mississippi have a plan, it's important that the people in Louisiana have a plan, and the citizens have developed a plan and hired an administrator that will be administering those monies. As I mentioned, that some people have already received money, and that that money would begin to flow quickly any time.

GORDON: Yet, Mr. Powell, from all accounts that I have heard, the bulk of the people have not received monies in hand to try to get themselves back on their feet to rebuild their homes and the like. What's been the logjam?

Mr. POWELL: Well, the money was approved by Congress early on in the year. And secretary of HUD, after receiving the plans in Mississippi, approved that plan in one day; and in Louisiana, it was approved in 19 days. So the federal government has responded very quickly, and as I mentioned both states have hired an administrator now - one man's red tape is another man's accountability. And I know both states are being very careful, that they're being good stewards of the money. But the money is flowing now.

GORDON: All right, you mentioned red tape. We had an opportunity to speak with Mayor Ray Nagin early in the week. I want to play a clip of what he had to say about red tape. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of previous NEWS AND NOTES broadcast)

Mayor RAY NAGIN (Mayor of New Orleans): We have operated over the past 12 months with about 25 percent of our pre-Katrina budget in just fixing things like our infrastructure, sewage and water. We have put in for $450 million worth of repairs, and we've only received back about 9 or 10 percent of that request. So it just takes some time to get through this bureaucracy.

GORDON: Nine to ten percent a year later would not necessarily - even another man's bureaucracy and accountability would not necessarily be seen as good numbers by most.

Mr. POWELL: Well, I think - I don't think those requests were made a year ago. I think those requests have been made over the one - over the year, so it's important that you understand that. As you know, New Orleans was underwater 57 days before anything could happen, and then the main concern was immediate relief for the people who were affected by this. So the requests coming from New Orleans was made to the state, not to federal government - so - and some of that has come to the federal government. But the federal government has also dispersed a large, large amount of money for infrastructure, something like $6 billion.

GORDON: Wondering whether or not you would concede the idea, as we know, bureaucracy in general has red tape attached to it, whether there is a need to cut through some of what would be the normal procedures?

Mr. POWELL: I think there's always a better way to do some things. You know, I have a sense of urgency about everything; I come from the private sector. But also I think it's important to be good stewards, so accountability is part of that balance that's (unintelligible) some of that tension that we all have. And I think it's important to get the money out quickly, get the money out fast, but I think it's also important to get the money out responsibly fast.

GORDON: All right, Don Powell, federal coordinator of Gulf Coast rebuilding for President Bush, we thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. POWELL: Thank you.

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