MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
President Bush has been pilloried for not doing enough to rebuild the Gulf Coast since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He usually responds as he did last week in an interview with NPR.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: I worked with the Congress to get about $110 billion sent down to both Mississippi and Louisiana to help them on their reconstruction efforts.
SIEGEL: But many people say they aren't getting help fast enough, and they're blaming much of it on red tape.
NPR's Pam Fessler tells us what's happened with some of that money.
PAM FESSLER: Last summer I met Sydney Roux in St. Bernard Parish just outside of New Orleans. She was living in a FEMA trailer where her three-bedroom house once stood.
Ms. SIDNEY ROUX: Hi.
Ms. ROUX: You want something to drink? I have root beer, water.
FESSLER: Even then, Roux was dreaming of the new house she hoped to buy through a state-run program called the Road Home.
Ms. ROUX: I'm thinking about making my bedroom in peach and blue. Tell you the truth, I wouldn't mind building a shotgun house. It has your living room, your bedroom, another bedroom and your kitchen.
I really thought it wasn't going to take this long.
FESSLER: That's Sydney Roux today. She says she's spent the past six months filling out paperwork and making repeated calls to check on her application, but she's yet to get any money. In fact, so far, fewer than 500 people have received Road Home grants. That's out of more than 104,000 who've applied.
Ms. ROUX: I wish they'd hurry up. I wish somebody would get behind them to hurry up, hurry up, hurry up.
FESSLER: The Road Home experience is illustrative of what's happened with much of the $110 billion President Bush talks about. Less than half of that money has been spent so far. Some of it's waiting for long-term construction projects, which always take time. Other funds appear to be stuck in a morass of rules and red tape. For The Road Home program, the federal government has provided $7.5 billion, but officials say getting the money to homeowners is the state's responsibility.
Mr. DON POWELL (Federal Coordinator, Gulf Coast Recovery): We have visited with both the state and the contractor to see if there are any impediments that the federal government is doing that would slow this down.
FESSLER: Don Powell, the federal coordinator for Gulf Coast Recovery.
Mr. POWELL: And that assistance was given in a very fast and orderly way. This is a contract between the state and this contractor, and the federal role was when we gave them the money.
FESSLER: The state sees it differently. Andy Kopplin is executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority. He says providing housing aid to more than 100,000 people is a monumental task made even more so by all the federal rules.
Mr. ANDY KOPPLIN (Louisiana Recovery Authority): This was money that wasn't a check with the state of Louisiana's name on it, but it's community development block grant program money, which has a series of strings attached to it as well, leading right back to Washington, D.C.
FESSLER: One requirement is that all those who get Road Home money first pay off any outstanding Small Business Administration loans. The state also has to verify how much private insurance each applicant has received so it can deduct that amount from the grant.
Mr. KOPPLIN: Again, it's a federal requirement that we not duplicate benefits.
FESSLER: But some critics say the state has imposed its own excessive requirements, noting that a similar program in Mississippi has gone more smoothly. Some in Louisiana are pointing fingers at the contractor, ICF International, which was hired to administer the program. Carol Hector-Harris is a spokeswoman for ICF.
Ms. CAROL HECTOR-HARRIS (ICF International): We would love to be further along, but there are a number of factors that are outside of our control.
FESSLER: She says thousands of applicants have yet to come in for their first interview. Thousands more have been approved for grants but have yet to tell the company whether they plan to rebuild or move, which affects the size of their checks. There's also time consuming verification.
Ms. HECTOR-HARRIS: We have to verify that you are indeed the property owner, and there are homeowners who have succession issues with respect to the title. So there are a number of challenges in the program that have nothing to do with how quickly we work.
FESSLER: But the bottlenecks aren't limited to the Road Home. Andy Kopplin of the Louisiana Recovery Authority says other delays are due to a requirement that the state and parishes put up 10 percent matching funds and because of disputes with FEMA over some repair costs.
Mr. KOPPLIN: There's a lot of going back and forth, making sure that the price is right before the project can be begun.
FESSLER: Don Powell of the Gulf Coast Recovery Office says the federal government has bent over backward to waive requirements. He adds, though, that some are in place to protect taxpayer funds, that one man's red tape is another man's accountability.
But Senate Homeland Security Committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman says Hurricane Katrina was such a catastrophic disaster that the usual rules should be set aside.
Senator JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (Independent, Connecticut): Bureaucracy has to have the courage to make a decision to get something moving to the victims, as opposed to being nervous about making a mistake and therefore not making a decision.
FESSLER: He says his committee is looking right now at ways to change federal law so the funds can move more quickly.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
SIEGEL: And you can see what's actually been spent on Gulf Coast recovery at our Web site, NPR.org.
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