Much Long-Term Katrina Recovery Aid Unspent In the two years since Hurricane Katrina, the federal government has provided more than $114 billion in aid. About two-thirds went for immediate relief, but much of the money devoted to long-term rebuilding remains unspent.
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Much Long-Term Katrina Recovery Aid Unspent

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Much Long-Term Katrina Recovery Aid Unspent

Much Long-Term Katrina Recovery Aid Unspent

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This week we're marking the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina by looking at people and institutions that have made a difference since then.

The federal government has provided more than $114 billion in aid. Some people are surprised that hasn't made more of a difference. Walk the streets of the Gulf Coast and you might wonder where all that money went. In some areas there are signs of progress - new stores, freshly painted houses, even traffic jams. But in others there are still plenty of gutted homes and businesses - and very desperate people.

As NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Here's one place that the $114 billion in federal aid did not go.

Unidentified Man #1: Oh, that's good. That's good. That works.

(Soundbite of drilling)

FESSLER: In John and Dagmar Booth's small home in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, two volunteers install new kitchen cabinets. Sweat pours down their faces as a fan moves hot air from one side of the room to the other.

Unidentified Man #1: We have to put - we have to put a new bottom.

Unidentified Man #2: New bottom...

FESSLER: Completing this kitchen is the last thing that has to be done before the Booths can return home after almost two years living first in a tent, then in a FEMA trailer. Without the volunteers, says John Booth...

Mr. JOHN BOOTH: We would never been back. No way in a million years.

FESSLER: Booth says that 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.

Ms. DAGMAR BOOTH: We just started working on it ourselves because, I mean, we started seeing nothing was getting done fast.

FESSLER: Dagmar Booth is frustrated it's been such a struggle. In fact, she really can't understand why it's so hard to get help rebuilding in the community she loves.

Ms. BOOTH: I live in the United States of America. I figured within nine, at least a year, maybe a year and a half at max, we'd be out. But for this long? It's ridiculous.

FESSLER: The Booths are far from the only ones here who share such frustrations. In this parish of 67,000 people, fewer than half have returned.

Those who have have often had to rely on the kindness of strangers - strangers such as attorney Zack Rosenburg, who along with his friend Liz McCartney quit work and moved here early last year from Washington, D.C.

Mr. ZACK ROSENBURG (Director and Co-Founder, St. Bernard Project): We were shocked that six months after the storm folks truly couldn't live independently.

FESSLER: And 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. And they're working on two dozen more. Rosenburg is glad to help, but sad that he has to.

Mr. ROSENBURG: The National Guard should be rebuilding these houses rather than some high school kids from Kansas or a church group from Ottawa. 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.

FESSLER: Zero is a bit of an exaggeration. Of the $114 billion in aid, almost two-thirds went for immediate relief: temporary housing, evacuations, emergency repairs - the kinds of things 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 stalled by excessive red tape.

Mr. CRAIG TAFFARO (Councilman, St. Bernard Parish): Pigeon dung and hanging wires and ceiling frames and raw cement where floors used to be.

FESSLER: St. Bernard Parish councilman Craig Taffaro describes what he sees as he stands in the hollowed out first floor of the parish's government complex. Papers still lie scattered on the floor beneath desks and file cabinets overturned by the storm.

Mr. TAFFARO: 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 do we have and how much are they going to pay to have the building repaired.

FESSLER: And such discussions have occurred not only here, 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 didn't have. Congress only recently waived the rule.

Taffaro's fellow councilman, Mark Madary, says it's a chicken-and-egg kind of thing. Without services, citizens won't return, making it harder to rebuild.

Mr. MARK MADARY (Councilman, St. Bernard Parish): 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.

Mr. DON POWELL (Federal Coordinator): I think what's important is that we spend what we've got wisely and very responsibly.

FESSLER: Don Powell is President Bush's point man for Gulf Coast recovery. Powell likes to say that one man's red tape is another man's accountability. He's sympathetic to the plight of those trying to rebuild, but he says the federal government has made lots of money available, including $15 billion it plans for rebuilding levees.

Mr. POWELL: 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.

FESSLER: 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 more than 80 percent of the region's population has returned.

Mr. POWELL: 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.

FESSLER: And indeed, while getting help hasn't always been easy, there are signs of hope.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FESSLER: Several small children jump like crazy and hit their tambourines at the Royal Castle Child Development Center in New Orleans. Like many day care centers here, Royal Castle was severely damaged by Katrina.

It took owner Pearlie Harris over a year to reopen. Now she and her staff care for almost 80 children.

Ms. PEARLIE HARRIS (Owner, Royal Castle Child Development Center): Without a day care center, of course parents can't work.

FESSLER: Harris says she knew she was providing a service the city needed to recover. She sought government help but initially couldn't find any. Her application for a small business loan to rebuild the center was denied because she had no income. Instead, Harris cobbled together her own recovery package using personal savings and donations from nonprofits.

Ms. HARRIS: 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 got to just put your stake in the ground and you just got to build around your stake, and that's what we're doing.

FESSLER: But 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 aid. Harris says she hears there might be even more government help on the way, and like many here she hopes that's true.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: You can get a breakdown of Katrina-released money at

And tomorrow, you can hear about the changes the hurricane brought to New Orleans' juvenile justice system.

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