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Louisiana Officials Are Worried As Federal Relief Money Wanes

By James Dao
THE NEW YORK TIMES


BATON ROUGE, LA.

Less than three months after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, relief legislation remains dormant in Washington and despair is growing among state and local officials here who fear that Congress and the Bush administration are losing interest in their plight.

As evidence, the officials cite an array of stalled bills and policy changes they say are crucial to rebuilding the city and persuading some of its hundreds of thousands of evacuated residents to return, including measures to finance long-term hurricane protection, revive small businesses and compensate the uninsured.

“There is a real concern that we will lose the nation’s attention the longer this takes,” said Rep. Bobby Jindal, a Republican from Metairie, just west of New Orleans. “People are making decisions now about whether to come back. And every day that passes, it will be a little harder to get things done.”

Officials from both parties say the bottlenecks have occurred in large part because of a leadership vacuum in Washington, where President Bush and Congress have been preoccupied for weeks with Iraq, deficit reduction, the CIA leak investigation and the Supreme Court.

Congressional leaders have been scrambling to rein in spending, and many in Washington have grumbled that Louisiana’s leaders have asked for too much, while failing to guarantee that the money will be spent efficiently and honestly.

By contrast, many say, Washington’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks seemed more focused and sustained.

Now, with the holiday season days away and the 2006 midterm elections just around the bend, many Louisiana officials say they fear the sense of urgency that spurred action in September is swiftly draining away.

Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, said recently on CNN, “We feel like we are citizens of the United States who are nearly forgotten.”

Walter Isaacson, vice chairman of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, drew a parallel between the governmental dithering in the immediate aftermath of the flood and the current situation, saying a lack of action now would be devastating to New Orleans’ economy.

“It’s like when FEMA wasn’t really that creative, and the water was rising and people were stranded,” Isaacson said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “Once again, people are being stranded and businesses are starting to die.”

But Donald Powell, who began work this week as President Bush’s liaison for the reconstruction effort, said that while the sense of urgency about Hurricane Katrina might have faded somewhat, “The president is committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast.”

“He is engaged,” Powell added. “He receives daily briefings about the current status of projects.”

Few people in Congress are openly threatening to block money for reconstruction. More typical are sotto voce complaints about whether federal money will be squandered through incompetence or graft by Louisiana officials. And some lawmakers have openly wondered whether each neighborhood in New Orleans needs to be rebuilt and protected with vastly expensive floodwalls.