your connection to The Boston Globe

Mayor says New Orleans shortchanged

Sees Iraq war as higher priority

A man holding a sign yesterday disrupted the start of a Senate committee meeting on hurricane recovery efforts. Steven C. Preston (left), Small Business Administration chief, and Pamela Patenaude, HUD assistant secretary, waited to speak. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

NEW ORLEANS -- Mayor Ray Nagin told a Senate committee yesterday that the rebuilding of New Orleans is getting shortchanged in light of the billions poured into the war in Iraq, and he suggested racism is part of the explanation.

Seventeen months after Hurricane Katrina struck, Nagin said he doesn't see evidence of "the will to really fix New Orleans."

"I think it's more class than anything, but there's racial issues associated with it also," said the black mayor of this mostly black city.

Nagin told the Senate's Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which is looking into the federal government's hurricane response, that he has heard various explanations for why money is not flowing quickly enough to New Orleans.

"And then I look at what we're doing in Iraq and how we spend money at an unprecedented level there, how we can set up temporary hospitals and designate money to rebuild their economy, and we have this dance going on in New Orleans," he said.

He said he is not asking for more money, just that the money allocated get to the city faster.

As of Jan. 18, the Federal Emergency Management Agency had agreed to pay $334 million for infrastructure repairs in New Orleans, but Louisiana had forwarded only $145 million to the city. State officials have said city leaders failed to provide required documentation, which Nagin called cumbersome.

The committee hearing came nearly a week after President Bush drew fire for failing to mention recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast in his State of the Union speech.

Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat and presidential contender, told the panel that Bush's omission contributes to questions about whether the government is committed to helping the city rebuild.

"I hope we get some answers to the questions today because rebuilding the city of New Orleans is not just good for the Gulf Coast or the state of Louisiana, it's good for our nation," Obama said.

Donald Powell, the president's coordinator for the Gulf Coast recovery, said Bush "is committed to rebuilding the Gulf Coast and rebuilding it stronger and better than it was before hurricanes Katrina and Rita," but it would take time to finish the job.

The senators and staff took a bus tour of the city, including the flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward, which is still largely uninhabited.

"Welcome to the isle of New Orleans!! Forgotten by our own country," read a sign carried by one of several demonstrators.

Earlier, as committee chairman Senator Joseph Lieberman opened the hearing, he was interrupted by a protester shouting, "Stand up for justice!"

"It's hard to come back here more than a year after Katrina. . .without feeling that emotion," the Connecticut independent said. "We're here to say that we understand the work is not done, to put it mildly."