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 CNS Story:

DEMS-KATRINA Aug-27-2008 (750 words) With photo. xxxn

Panel urges greater federal role in Gulf Coast recovery after Katrina

By Jim Myers
Catholic News Service

DENVER (CNS) -- The next presidential administration needs to play a larger role in helping the city of New Orleans and the surrounding Gulf Coast continue their recovery from Hurricane Katrina, according to speakers at a side event to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.

"The first major failure at the federal government (in response to Katrina) was their failure to understand the scope of the disaster," said U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La. "It was also a major collapse of the federal emergency system."

Landrieu spoke at an Aug. 26 round table at the Denver Public Library sponsored by Oxfam America, an international disaster relief organization that has been involved in rebuilding New Orleans, shortly before the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall. The city and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi were devastated by the storm.

Landrieu was among several participants who blamed President George W. Bush for the failure to react and rebuild New Orleans properly. Douglas Brinkley, a history professor at Houston's Rice University and author of the book "The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast," was visibly emotional in his critique.

The Bush administration has "politicized Katrina since Day One," said Brinkley, who accused federal authorities of refusing to participate in many recovery projects unless Republican contractors were used. "It's a policy of disingenuousness. It's a policy of abandonment. ... They've given up on New Orleans except for the above-sea-level portions."

However, not every participant was so quick to place all the blame on Bush. Ted Koppel, former anchor of ABC's "Nightline" program, hosted the round table and expressed skepticism at the notion that a Barack Obama presidency would immediately fix institutional problems associated with the Gulf Coast. (Obama, U.S. senator from Illinois, was set to accept the Democratic Party's presidential nomination Aug. 28.)

Tyronne Edwards, executive director of the Zion Traveler Cooperative Center of Plaquemines Parish, La., said local politicians shoulder a good portion of the blame for not helping New Orleans residents.

"A lot of people want to talk about the Bush administration. I want to talk about the (New Orleans) politicians. Our local government, which is Democratic, could have done something but didn't," said Edwards, highlighting the fact that local politicians set Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in a cluster instead of placing them on the properties of homeowners with destroyed houses.

"They spent millions of dollars to create a FEMA concentration camp," he said. "The money spent on that, they could have put the trailers on people's properties. We still have to put the pressure on everyone in government to take responsibility."

Martin Gutierrez, executive director of Neighborhood Community Services of Catholic Charities of New Orleans, said immigrant communities rebounded quickly from Hurricane Katrina.

"Immigrants for the most part have experienced many tragedies. Even though it is the worst of times for the Latino and immigrant community, it is the best of times," said Gutierrez, noting that the local Vietnamese Catholic community reported an immediate rebound from Katrina in 2005 and the Hispanic population has grown from between 80,000-100,000 before Hurricane Katrina to approximately 150,000 in 2008. "We are very quick to spread the blame, but we are very slow to share the credit."

Gutierrez, who came to Louisiana with his parents from Nicaragua 30 years ago, said his father was relatively unshaken by losing the family's home in New Orleans since he had already left everything behind in Nicaragua when moving to the United States. Gutierrez's parents relocated to Metairie, La., following Katrina.

Landrieu took to task media reporting on the natural disaster that concentrated on the poor affected by Hurricane Katrina; she noted that middle-class and wealthy New Orleans residents lost their homes, too.

"It was really an equal opportunity destroyer," she said.

Round-table participants acknowledged that individuals and organizations nationwide and globally have stepped up to help victims of Hurricane Katrina, resulting in many improvements. Landrieu pointed to vouchers that allow students to choose public or private schools.

Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, said tens of thousands of volunteers continue to volunteer in New Orleans and return home with stories on projects in the area.

Gutierrez said the hurricane was a blessing in disguise for the community.

"There are many wonderful things happening after Katrina," he said. "I think the people of the Gulf Coast will be better people for having gone through Katrina. It is something the entire country will benefit from."


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