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Hurricane Recovery Gains Momentum on Gulf Coast

Hurricane Recovery Gains Momentum on Gulf Coast

President promises aid; some New Orleans residents headed home

By Charlene Porter
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast of the United States with a brutal blow on August 29. Less than three weeks later, the region is rising to its feet, and starting work to build anew.

The commitment of the federal government in aiding the massive recovery and reconstruction project has helped boost the spirits of the region. In a nationally televised speech September 15, President Bush pledged Washington’s support for revival of a 230,000 square kilometer area wrecked by the storm; at the same time he pointed out the rapid pace of progress.

“In nearly all of Mississippi, electric power has been restored,” Bush said the speech broadcast from New Orleans' historic Jackson Square. “Trade is starting to return to the Port of New Orleans, and agricultural shipments are moving down the Mississippi River. All major gasoline pipelines are now in operation, preventing the supply disruptions that many feared.”

A number of recovery activities, especially in New Orleans, are unfolding at a faster pace than what officials had predicted at the height of the disaster.

REOPENING THE "BIG EASY"

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin announced September 15 that conditions in his city, sometimes called the Big Easy, have improved sufficiently for some evacuated businesses and residents to return.

“The city of New Orleans, starting on Monday, starting this weekend, will start to breathe again,” said Nagin at a news conference. “We will have life. We will have commerce. We will have people getting back into their normal modes of operation and the normal rhythm of the city of New Orleans that is so unique.”

“These areas that I’m outlining to you,” Nagin said, “represent a population of 182,000 residents,” almost 40 percent of the city's overall population.

The return is limited to certain sections of the city on high ground. Most of them were touched lightly or not at all by the flood waters that reached rooftops in other areas after levees protecting the low-lying city succumbed to the pressure of the storm surge that struck New Orleans when the Category 4 hurricane hammered into the coast.

Residents will return to a city where electricity and water have been restored, though water quality in some neighborhoods will mean the water is not suitable for drinking or washing. Residents will have trash pickup, fire service and hospitals -- services now restored after being paralyzed by the city’s inundation and loss of power.

Business owners in the historic, tourist-oriented French Quarter widely have been quoted about their eagerness to go back to work in their largely unharmed district, but Nagin is unsure whether retailers are ready to open up to supply residents with the ordinary goods they need to return to normal life. He announced a contingency plan.

“We’re in the process of commandeering the convention center,” he said. “The convention center would become three major retail centers for people to come in and buy food and supplies and wood and things that they would need to start their lives and make this city come back much quicker.”

DRAINING NEW ORLEANS

Rapid revival of the Big Easy is possible because the floodwaters have been drained more rapidly than initially was predicted.

“We are having very good success,” said Lieutenant General Carl Strock, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, September 15 at a press briefing outlining the accelerated timetable for draining the city.

About 40 percent of the city remains flooded, compared with about 80 percent at the height of the flooding. Strock now estimates that the floodwaters will be drained completely by October 2, contrasted with initial estimates that the project would take about 80 days.

Health warnings remain in effect for anyone who comes in contact with the floodwaters, which were polluted with sewage, petroleum and debris. Water analysis conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is showing that the water is not as toxic as was feared when it still swirled through the streets.

“So far we do not see alarming water quality concerns here,” Strock said.

EPA tests show the presence of E. coli bacteria, which upon direct contact can cause bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. Chemical contaminants in the water at the levels detected are not expected to cause adverse health effects, the agency reported September 16.

Storm-related damage to the urban water and sewer system was a factor in diminished water quality, Nagin said. “We’re working feverishly to make sure that the water quality gets much better," he added.

For the Army Corps of Engineers, an entirely new phase of work will begin when the “de-watering mission” is complete. Strock said the levees will be closely inspected to determine how the breaches occurred and how they should be repaired.

“As the decisions are made to move back in to these parishes, we need to understand the level of vulnerability that our citizens have moving back in,” Strock said. “So we’ve got a very intense effort going out to assess the condition of the levee systems and put in repairs where it makes sense.”

THE WAY FORWARD

Rebuilding the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Katrina looms as one of the largest projects the nation ever has undertaken.

President Bush characterized it that way in his September 15 speech, and he pledged that federal funds would be available to pay for construction of infrastructure critical to regional development -- roads, bridges, schools and water systems.

He also outlined several major initiatives to push the revival forward. He proposed creation of the Gulf Opportunity Zone, granting incentives for entrepreneurs to invest in job creation and economic development. He also proposed a program to help workers advance their careers by providing funds for training and education.

Mindful of the tens of thousands of homes that have been or will be destroyed because of the hurricane, Bush also proposed an Urban Homesteading Act to give low-income citizens some support in acquiring a home and the increased financial stability that entails.

“Home ownership is one of the great strengths of any community, and it must be a central part of our vision for the revival of this region,” Bush said in the New Orleans speech.

Most of the president’s proposals will undergo congressional debate, and considerable dissent already has emerged among lawmakers about the proper strategies to apply in the massive rebuilding effort.

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