DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano queried by FONO on the future of South Louisiana - June 3, 2009
On June 3rd Janet Napolitano, Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, spoke at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC. The talk "Homeland Security Today: Progress Made; Challenges Remain", was moderated by Clark Kent Ervin, a former FONO board member and current Director of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program. Before attending the event, FONO Acting Executive Director Denise Byrne solicited ideas for appropriate questions/comments from several Louisiana leaders working on coastal rebuilding and levee protection, and got suggestions from Ann Milling (founder, Women of the Storm) and John Barry (author, Rising Tide and FONO board member). Based on their feedback, Denise asked the following questions to the DHS Secretary: "Is keeping the New Orleans and surrounding parish residents safe a priority for you? Why hasn't the current administration shown that rebuilding New Orleans is important? The president has not visited New Orleans since he was elected. And right now there are $6-$8 billion in protection and rebuilding projects in the state, within 2 years of turning shovel, yet the administration has only committed $25 million for this specific purpose." Secretary Napolitano answered by describing her last trip to New Orleans with the HUD secretary, and she spoke about removing bottle necks to the federal dollars, the monies being put into housing and getting people out of trailers, etc. Unfortunately, not much was said about coastal restoration, levees or the Corps.
After the Napolitano talk, Denise Byrne and FONO Founder, Walter Isaacson, met with Tim Fraser from the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding which is part of DHS. Tim informed them that his office is reaching out to the local people, neighborhood organizations and nonprofits first, in order to learn from them directly. The new Federal Coordinator, Janet Woodka, started in this position at the beginning of April. The good news is that she was formerly on Sen. Landrieu's staff and she is from New Orleans. Nevertheless, Walter urged Tim to recognize that the federal government must remove the barriers to the funding for levee rebuilding and coastal restoration, and that this was an urgent matter.
A big concern that many in New Orleans have is that Ms. Woodka's office (the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding) is funded through September of 2009. Tim Fraser said that feedback is very promising that it will continue to exist and be funded past September. Let's keep our fingers crossed. As Denise Byrne remarked, "We need to be patient. If this is the government's "go to" agency when it comes to New Orleans, I would rather deal with a group of people who want to reach out and listen to the local leaders." Anne Milling followed up with the following email comments back to Denise: "One of the major problems we all experience is the lack of real "power" in this Gulf Coast office. If we could get someone like Valerie Jarrett to have coastal restoration and hurricane protection in her portfolio...we might get the ear of the president. We must make the administration wake-up to the importance of south Louisiana and coastal restoration to the entire nation."