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First Katrina, now red tape

La. region still beset with public works problems

MERAUX, La. -- Even before Hurricane Katrina ruined it, St. Bernard Parish Fire Station No. 6 was not much to look at, just a cinder block and sheet-metal cube whose contents included a firetruck, a kitchen, and a paint-bynumber rendering of the Last Supper.

Nineteen months after the storm sent nine feet of water through it, the fire station remains unusable. One wall is missing; the ceiling has fallen in; a uniform still on its hanger lies crumpled amid the dried mud and tumbled furniture.

None of St. Bernard Parish's 10 firehouses have been rebuilt, even though local officials estimate that 26,000 people have returned to the area, just east of New Orleans. In fact, across southern Louisiana and Mississippi, many school buildings remain closed, public water systems leak, roads crumble, and libraries molder. Local governments cannot afford to fix them, and billions of dollars in recovery assistance promised by the federal government have only started to trickle to the region.

Local and state government officials have blamed a federal law for the failure to invest in these public works. They associate the problem with the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act of 1988, the federal law that finances the rebuilding of local government infrastructure. It imposes requirements for receiving money that many towns and parishes in the area say they cannot meet.

The Stafford law, intended to prevent fraud, requires cash-strapped governments to put up 10 percent of the cost of building projects and to advance money for repairs and rebuilding in the hope of being reimbursed .

But state and local officials say they have no money to put up for the match, which the federal government has refused to waive for Hurricane Katrina recovery, even though it did so for New York City after Sept. 11 and for Florida after Hurricane Andrew.

There is plenty of finger-pointing between Washington and local governments over the slow pace of rebuilding, and clearly Louisiana's tattered reputation for financial accountability has played a role in Washington's refusal to bend the rules.

But local officials also complain of skeins of red tape that complicate efforts to meet the law, and describe a system so geared to ensuring that federal taxpayers do not pay for "improvements" in local infrastructure that it is hard to achieve goals, like making aging sewer systems functional or merging schools to adapt to changed population patterns.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency's stated goal is to return the area to the way it was before the storm. Mark C. Smith, the public information officer for the Louisiana agency that distributes federal infrastructure rebuilding aid to local governments, uses this analogy to explain the situation: "If you had a 1981 Chevrolet Chevette with a leaky radiator, FEMA will buy you a 1981 Chevrolet Chevette and poke a hole in the radiator."

"I'm not sure the Stafford Act anticipated a catastrophic event such as Katrina," said Donald E. Powell, President Bush's coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding.

He said he would like to see the law allow for more flexibility and faster decision-making, as well as some simple common sense: " being able to adjust to the situation at hand, like you would in the private sector," he explained.

FEMA officials , however, said they do not need any new legal authority. R. David Paulison, agency director, has made FEMA better prepared to deal with disasters and more financially and legally accountable for the money it has spent, Aaron Walker, the agency press secretary, wrote in an e-mail.