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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Donald Powell
Federal Coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding

August 25, 2006

Donald Powell
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to answer questions. First, I’d like to put Hurricane Katrina and Rita into some historical context, focusing on the scope and scale of these catastrophic events.

Katrina, followed by Rita one month later, were two of the most intense hurricanes ever recorded in the nation’s history. The storms had a massive physical impact on the land, affecting 90,000 square miles – an area the size of Great Britain. Over 80 percent of the city of New Orleans flooded – an area seven times the size of Manhattan. More than 1.5 million people were directly affected and more than 800,000 citizens were forced to live outside of their homes – the largest displacement of people since the great Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s. Since the storms hit, government, private and voluntary organizations have worked in concert to help rebuild the region. President Bush continues to follow through with the Federal commitment to do what it takes to help residents of the Gulf Coast rebuild their lives in the wake of this disaster, with $110.6 billion in Federal aid going towards relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts.

So you can see this really captures how large this catastrophic event was. The President is fulfilling his commitment to rebuild the Gulf Coast better and stronger. And this commitment in demonstrated in several critical areas: stronger hurricane protection, housing, education, debris removal, and economic recovery and stimulation.

Dan, from UK writes:
I would like to start by thanking you, Mr. Powell, for giving up your precious time to answer our questions today. Correct me if I'm wrong, President Bush was accused by a large section of America and the world for neglecting the devastating damages of Hurricane Katrina, mainly to do with the high Black population of the area affected. I was wondering whether the efforts of the Bush administration since have shown these accusations to be incorrect and that the President cares about all areas of the nation as equal. Thank you, Dan

Donald Powell
The Bush Administration has made concerted efforts nationally and in the Gulf Coast region to help minorities and low-income individuals by not only using direct federal resources but also by encouraging volunteerism and community outreach.

One of the best ways to lift people up out of poverty is by empowering them to join what the President calls the ownership society. That’s why, in 2002, President Bush set a goal to help increase the number of minority, low- and moderate-income homeowners by 5.5 million by the year 2010. The Administration is committed to raising the minority, low- and moderate-income homeownership rate because homeownership strengthens families and communities, and is critical to the country's economic health. The initiative is run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

HUD has also been a lead agency in rebuilding the Gulf Coast. HUD is working closely with state and local officials to craft smart recovery plans that will break the chain of chronic poverty and depression so that families on the Gulf Coast have safe, secure, and productive lives. At President Bush’s request, Congress has provided a total of $16.7 billion in Federal funds under HUD’s Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) program to help rebuild damaged housing and other infrastructure. This unprecedented program represents the largest single housing recovery program in U.S. history.

In addition, in New Orleans specifically, HUD has brought 1,800 public housing units back online, and by the end of September this number will increase to over 2,000 units. This is almost half of the public housing units that were occupied prior to the storm.

HUD has also offered the New Orleans Mayor, City Council, and resident leaders a redevelopment plan for four major public housing complexes. As part of this plan, HUD contributed $500,000 to the city's "Neighborhoods Rebuilding Plan," which is a community-driven effort to help guide the revitalization of city neighborhoods. As part of the overall revitalization effort, earlier this week, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson welcomed 20 families to the new Fischer public housing complex, which will eventually house 123 families by the end of September.

In addition to housing, the President is also committed to rebuilding and reinvigorating other important community services such as education. The Administration has committed nearly $2 billion towards educating displaced students and rebuilding and reopening schools in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. All K-12 schools in Mississippi have reopened on original grounds or elsewhere. New Orleans public schools, which suffered from one of the highest dropout rates in the nation, have "undergone a complete overhaul," in the words of Time Magazine. The U.S. Department of Education also capped interest rates and reduced loan fees to Historically Black Colleges and Universities damaged by the storms. Reforming education – another key to reducing poverty -- is a large task and it will not happen overnight, but I'm convinced that we are laying the groundwork for a better and stronger future for young people of all backgrounds in the Gulf Coast area.

Furthermore, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency has assisted over 340 displaced minority firms to prepare and submit applications for disaster relief, emergency loans and insurance claims, and to reconstruct business plans and other key business documents. Commerce has assisted approximately 1,275 minority business entrepreneurs with the identification of procurement opportunities and conducted education and outreach activities reaching more than 4,000 of these entrepreneurs.

Shelagh, from Austin, Texas writes:
...down in Galveston after the big hurricane they had the turn of the century (not this one but the privious century)...they rebuilt houses on stilts..I was wondering if they will be doing some of that in New Orleans..maybe in the more flood-prone areas? While that might not protect people from storm might help with the flood problems. Floods could still happen in New Orleans just from the river flooding

Donald Powell
FEMA issued advisory base flood elevations which offer guidance to encourage responsible rebuilding, and they are based on the best available information about the many variables that dictate risk. New Orleanians understand this risk better than anyone else -- they know that when it comes to protecting lives and property, they should err on the side of caution and safety every time. FEMA’s advisories represent minimum requirements for safety.

In fact, across the country, about 2/3 of all National Flood Insurance Program policyholders choose to exceed these requirements because they understand that their areas face greater risk than others. Federal, state, and local governments, along with individual citizens, have an opportunity to make their homes, businesses, and communities less vulnerable to flooding by elevating them to these advisories or higher. Residents of coastal areas can face devastating consequences if they make building decisions without regard to the fact that floods exceeding protection levels can occur or if they assume every component of a flood protection system will function flawlessly. Indeed, some people are building their homes on stilts in order to minimize their risk even further.

ethan, from Parma ID writes:
If another huricane comes during the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, will the levies hold and will everyone be better prepared if the do.

Donald Powell
Today, almost the entire New Orleans area has pre-Katrina levels of hurricane protection or better, and the entire hurricane protection system will be better and stronger than it has ever been by 2010. That being said, while New Orleans is safer, we can only engineer Mother Nature so much. Hurricane and flood protection systems have one purpose — to reduce risk — but it is simply impossible to design a system that will eliminate all risk of flooding from every conceivable storm or track of storm imaginable. Each storm has its own unique characteristics, from storm surge to wind speed to length of storm. That's why it’s crucial for citizens to take precautions with respect to safe building standards, property insurance and, most importantly, evacuation plans.

The Federal government's ability to respond this hurricane season can be summed up in a single word: better. We've learned from the lessons of Katrina, and we’re doing everything possible to be prepared for the next storm. FEMA has improved its response — coordination processes have been streamlined so that state and local governments know who their primary points of contact are before a disaster hits. More supplies are on hand, as is the ability to track them. There's four times more ice and emergency meals, and two and one half times more water, as last year. These supplies have the capacity to sustain one million people for one week. The Federal government supports state and local leaders: they are the first to respond because they know their people and their geography, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has worked closely with communities to identify any weaknesses in their response plans and find ways to improve them.

dave, from somerdale new jersey writes:
how difficult is it to tell if someone genuinely needs help compared to the people who notoriously are looking for hand outs.

Donald Powell
The Federal Government will distribute more money to more recipients for hurricane relief following Katrina and Rita than ever before in the history of our nation which is why the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) created the Hurricane Katrina Fraud Task Force to deter, investigate, and prosecute disaster-related Federal crimes. Task Force members and partners include Inspectors General (IGs) from participating agencies, Federal law enforcement, Federal regulators, state and local law enforcement, and other community partners. The Task Force works closely with Federal law enforcement and the IG community, particularly the IG of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who leads the Homeland Security Roundtable of the President's Council on Efficiency and Integrity (the body charged with coordinating the IG response to Katrina fraud, waste and abuse).

The Task Force's Command Center in Baton Rouge has received and referred almost 7,000 complaints to various Federal agencies nationwide, and the Task Force continues to receive approximately 200 calls a week related to disaster benefit fraud. In addition, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has referred over 6,000 matters to the Task Force for investigation. Similarly, the American Red Cross is in the process of referring over 2,000 matters to the FBI Field Office in Louisiana and over 300 matters to the FBI Field Office in Jackson, Mississippi.

In addition to its efforts through the Task Force, DOJ is currently working with various IGs, FEMA, and other agencies to facilitate to identify so-called "double dipping." Though there are a number of sensitive privacy issues that must be addressed in connection with such determinations, this ongoing effort remains a priority in DOJ's response to Katrina.

Another example is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) efforts to prevent fraud in the long-term housing programs for hurricane victims. HUD's IG has developed and currently participates in a far-reaching fraud prevention program in the affected states of the Gulf Coast Region, sponsoring training courses and workshops in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. These presentations and workshops are designed to educate state agencies, as well as Federal, state, and local law enforcement in identifying fraud in HUD grant programs.

Bobby, from Lubbock, Texas writes:
Dear Mr. Powell, I am intrested in volunteer positions avaliable to help in the restoration of Louisiana. Thank you for any response you may have.

Donald Powell
Volunteers and faith-based groups have played a vital role in the recovery and rebuilding, and volunteers will be needed for years to come. To find ways to help and to connect with organizations working on the Gulf Coast, visit the USA Freedom Corps website at In the year since Katrina, there have been more than 4 million volunteer opportunities listed on the site, including almost 100,000 in the affected region.

Here are some examples of the work these armies of compassion have been doing: The Baptist Crossroads Foundation coordinated over 2,500 volunteers to construct 30 Habitat for Humanity homes in 10 weeks. Through Catholic Charities, about 4,000 volunteers have given more than 100,000 hours of service and have gutted 786 residences. The Salvation Army helped 1.7 million people in at least 30 states.

Thank you for your interest in helping those in need.

Daniel, from Great Barrington, MA writes:
How are businesses doing on the Gulf Coast? Thank you for all you do.

Donald Powell
I have often said if Louisiana was a country, the engines of its economy would be tourism, energy and the port. The port of New Orleans is up and going, and handling more tonnage post-Katrina than it did pre-Katrina. The ports in the Gulf are very important to the rest of America – for example, the goods that flow through the Port of New Orleans touches 33 states. Almost two-thirds of all American consumers are affected by this port. It creates, directly or indirectly, 365,000 jobs. The Port is back.

And the energy sector is back, which is also very, very important to America. Both gas and oil production is back to pre-Katrina levels. Pipelines are back to pre-Katrina levels. Refineries are producing.

And tourism is coming back: 80% of the hotels in New Orleans are open; 62% of the restaurants are open. In Mississippi, sales tax revenue is in double-digit increases over last year. Economic activity in Mississippi, as it relates to employment, is very strong. Businesses are open. I was in a retail store in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, last Thursday, and I talked with the owner. He said he's having the best year he has ever had and he has been at that place for 15 years. So there is lots of strong economic activity.

Full recovery and rebuilding won't happen overnight, but we are making progress.

Edgar, from New York writes:
Is it there any jobs available for American citizens in the Gulf Coast? And if there are some, what are those jobs that are available? Sincerely.

Donald Powell
Although many jobs were initially lost after the storm, the employment outlook gets stronger every day as the relief and recovery efforts are ending and the longer-term rebuilding gets into full-gear. So, while jobs are filling, there are still many jobs available on the Gulf Coast. Here are some statistics: In Mississippi, non-farm employment eclipsed the pre-Katrina level earlier this year (in February), and employment levels continue to rise. The unemployment rate is down in Louisiana as well. Louisiana’s unemployment rate was 2.9% in July 2006, down 1.7% from the previous month, and significantly lower than its peak of 12.1% in the three months following Katrina. The unemployment rate is now 2.7 percentage points below its level one year ago.

josh, from milwaukee wisconsin writes:
is there enough money to rebuild new orleans

Donald Powell
The Federal government has provided more than $110 billion in resources – $118 billion if you include tax relief and economic incentives – to the region. This funding is helping fulfill vital needs, including relocation, rental assistance, infrastructure repair such as levees and housing, flood insurance payments, education, and debris removal.

About 70% of the funds ($77 billion of the $110 billion) has either been spent or is available for the states to draw from. Louisiana alone has received approximately $25 billion for long-term rebuilding, in addition to billions of dollars for response and recovery. The state will invest these funds in the rebuilding of New Orleans and other hurricane damaged communities.

We are working with state and local leaders to help them rebuild the region, and more funding will become available to individuals as states roll out their housing plans to the public.

Daniel, from Fairlawn, NJ writes:
Mr Powell, How can Pres Bush say every thing is good one year after Katrina. People are still waiting for trailers, homes are condemed and money was wasted.

Donald Powell
The President earlier this week stated that the one-year anniversary of Katrina should be a time to remember. He also said it should be a time to recommit ourselves to helping storm victims. He noted that the one-year anniversary certainly shouldn't mean that the job is done, and he has never said that we were finished. In fact, he has repeatedly said that the Federal government would do what it takes to help the region and her people get back on their feet. It is going to take a long time to rebuild. But progress is being made. For example:

  • Stronger levees: For 98 percent of the New Orleans metropolitan area population, the levees are at pre-Katrina levels or better.

  • Housing: Under the leadership of the President, Congress has provided almost $17 billion to rebuild damaged housing and other critical infrastructure across the Gulf Coast. This money, which will fund the states' housing and infrastructure plans, is beginning to flow in the area. It is expected to help some 100,000 homeowners and renters in the region.

  • Debris removal: We've already cleared more than 100 million cubic yards of debris. It's hard for some people to imagine the amount of debris that these storms caused. For some perspective: there was more debris in the three counties in Mississippi that Katrina hit alone (Harrison, Hancock, and Jackson) than all of Hurricane Andrew and the World Trade Center combined -- and that took years to clean up. Again, that's just in Mississippi. 100% of the dry debris in Mississippi has been cleaned up and 75% of the debris in Louisiana is gone. That's remarkable progress and it means the true long-term rebuilding can commence.

  • Economic recovery: Again, because of the leadership of the President, GO Zone legislation has passed; New Markets tax credits have passed; other business incentives have begun to be developed in the area. There is an environment for the private sector to be part of this rebuilding effort. The Small Business Administration has administered $10.3 billion in loans to homeowners, renters and business owners along the Gulf Coast. So we're supporting existing small businesses and attracting new investments to the region.

It's also important to remember that a sustained, long-term recovery can't be accomplished by the Federal government alone. Fortunately, the private sector is actively engaged. Jobs are being created. Revenue streams are being created – for example, sales tax revenue in both Louisiana and Mississippi are at record highs. I'm a former banker, so I always look to that sector for a sign of economic health, and bank deposits are 26 percent higher than they were this time last year. That means there is a lot of liquidity in the area. And credit is available. All these signs point to lots of economic activity.

So the President is fulfilling his commitment. As I mentioned, it won't happen overnight, but I'm convinced that the groundwork is being laid for a vibrant Gulf Coast area.

Jennifer, from Cleveland writes:
I think it is horrible that i have read that the levies in the gulf coast still cant not withstand another terrible storm.Why aren't we investing more money into a new system that is safer and more modern like other countries?

Donald Powell
Almost the entire New Orleans area has pre-Katrina levels of hurricane protection or better. President Bush promised a better and stronger hurricane protection system—and secured nearly $6 billion for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to repair and enhance the New Orleans levees, and to make the entire hurricane protection system better and stronger by 2010. He has also secured funds to begin to restore the wetlands surrounding the greater New Orleans area. These funds are important because we need to think about the entire protection system – not just what we can engineer but what nature has provided. The whole systems must work in concert.

That being said, while New Orleans is safer, we can only engineer Mother Nature so much. It is impossible to completely eliminate risk.

Bear in mind, the nation has limited financial resources, and while Congress appropriated $20 million to commission a study to determine how to build an even more comprehensive hurricane protection system, any further projects have to be approved and funded by Congress in order to be built.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Coordinator Powell: What do you see as the biggest HURDLE we still have to address one year after the Gulf Coast Hurricane? Thank You

Donald Powell
I would say time. I have a sense of urgency about everything, but rebuilding in a sustainable manner is going to take time. If I could snap my fingers and make things go faster, I would. We are making tremendous progress given the size and scope of the disaster. Clearing debris is the first major step and I feel very good about those efforts. Now that the debris is almost gone, we can move on to the second phase – truly building up.

Kim, from Kentucky writes:
Hi Mr. Powell, I am in shock, by viewing some documentaries about Katrina, that show a lot of devastation and debri still scattered around the countryside. There is one picture that gives me hope, however. This is a still image of church workers helping a home owner clear and rebuild his home. What impact do church groups and volunteers currently have in the rebuilding effort? Thank You.

Donald Powell
First off, let me reiterate the tremendous progress that has been made on clearing debris. Since Hurricane Katrina, FEMA has funded the removal of about 100 million cubic yards of debris in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. That’s FIVE TIMES more than all the debris from Hurricane Andrew – and it took years to clean that up. We’re almost done in one year’s time. All the debris has been removed in Texas (from Rita) and Alabama (from Katrina), while 99% of debris has been removed in Mississippi. Louisiana is 72% completed. All told, there is about another 20 million cubic yards to remove.

As to the second part of your question, volunteer groups have been tremendously helpful in the recovery and rebuilding efforts. The nation’s armies of compassion have contributed more resources to the Gulf Coast – over $3.5 billion in cash and in-kind donations – than at any other time in our nation’s history. Five charities account for more than 85% of the money raised: the Red Cross ($2.1 billion); the Salvation Army ($365 million); Catholic Charities USA ($146 million); the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund ($129 million) and Habitat for Humanity ($122 million).

In addition to these private efforts, the Federal government’s national service arms have contributed to relief and rebuilding through the Peace Corps and the Corporation for National and Community Service (the Senior Corps, AmeriCorps, and Learn and Serve America).

Carolyn, from Bay St. Louis, Ms writes:
Could you please tell me what is taking so long for the homeowner's grant to come out....I understand the money has been there since December 2005... Could you also tell me where I can get water that's not stocking up for this year storms when we're not over last year's. Thank you

Donald Powell
Under the leadership of the President, Congress has allocated about $17 billion in community development grants for housing and infrastructure. The program is run through HUD, which approved the states' plans for how they wanted to spend the money – an important accountability measure. HUD Secretary Jackson approved those plans in record time. So those plans have been approved by the Secretary of HUD, on behalf of the federal government, for some time.

Now, as you might expect, there is always a balance between getting the money out fast and getting the money out responsibly fast. Both Louisiana and Mississippi have an administrator that is charged with the responsibility of making sure the plans are fulfilled when they give the money to the applicant or to the homeowner in Louisiana and in Mississippi. And at the beginning, as you might expect, there is some sense of frustration and a balancing act as they go forward. But in Mississippi, I'm happy to report to you that there are some homeowners that have received money already. In Louisiana I know the governor is working hard to get the Road Home program checks cut and I expect the funds to start flowing any time now.

I am in contact with these administrators from time to time. I can assure you that leaders in both Mississippi and Louisiana want that money to get out into the marketplace as fast as possible. But, again, keep in mind that they are going to be good stewards of that money and that the plans had to be submitted to Washington to ensure they were sound and that the states are using Federal taxpayer dollars responsibly.

Donald Powell
Thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to respond to these internet questions. I have great hope in my heart for the good people of the Gulf Coast and I am confident that the region will bounce back. We can return the Gulf Coast to its rightful place in the American landscape. While the hurricanes caused much tragedy, I believe, as my father used to say, good things can come from the bad.

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