If you read any of the articles, I'm sure you will agree, Louisiana politicians and citizens are doing everything they can to rebuild their city, their homes and their lives. However, they are met with continual Federal Road Blocks. Call your Congressperson.
Nagin begs feds to send doctors
'It shouldn't be this hard,' mayor says
Thursday, August 02, 2007
By Bruce Alpert
WASHINGTON -- New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin found support from members of Congress, both Republicans and Democrats, in a public venting Wednesday over what he said is a lack of urgency in the federal government's response to a continuing health-care crisis in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Conceding that he always seems to get in trouble when he goes "off script," an emotional Nagin said he wasn't going to read his prepared remarks because he's so frustrated with the lack of progress on health care in New Orleans.
The city is suffering higher mortality rates, Nagin told a House subcommittee, and yet he has seen little federal help to alleviate a shortage of specialty physicians such as oncologists, hematologists, orthopedists and cardiologists, and an acute shortage of mental health professionals.
"It shouldn't be this hard in the greatest country of the world and I'm pretty sick about it," Nagin told the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
28th visit to Congress
Nagin, who noted that Wednesday's testimony marked his 28th lobbying visit to the Capitol since the 2005 hurricanes, said he was forgoing the usual formal rhetoric in making requests for financial aid.
"I implore. I ask. I beg this committee to really do something to help us," Nagin said. The city is "suffering from financial malnutrition" from the federal government, he said.
Diane Rowland, executive vice president of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, said the health care problems in New Orleans recounted by Nagin are real. A Kaiser survey of New Orleans residents last year, Rowland said, found that 27 percent of adults had no regular source of care other than an emergency room.
A serious shortage
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said he can't understand why the federal government hasn't sent in members of the physicians corps to supplement health-care services in New Orleans, given the acute shortage of medical personnel.
Rear Adm. Kenneth P. Moritsugu, the acting U.S. surgeon general, said he's willing to work with state and local officials but doesn't want to be put in the position of having the federal physician corps seen as competing with existing health providers, or do anything to discourage physicians from returning or moving to New Orleans. But Stupak asked Moritsugu if he agreed the current situation is an emergency, and the surgeon general said he did.
He promised to work with Nagin to see if at least some mental health professionals from the federal physician corps can be sent to the city, although he added he didn't know how many were currently available.
Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, sharply questioned officials from the Department of Veterans Affairs on why it is even considering a location in Jefferson Parish for a replacement for its severely damaged hospital in New Orleans, when virtually the entire state political establishment from the governor and mayor on down believe it is imperative for the city's future that the VA hospital remain downtown as part of a joint venture with the replacement for Charity Hospital.
Robert Neary, executive-in-charge of the Office of Construction and Facilities at the Department of Management at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the agency can't make a decision on where to build a replacement VA hospital until after a scheduled September completion of an environmental impact assessment of the two proposed sites, the New Orleans location preferred by Nagin or an alternative in Jefferson Parish.
'Shake up the system'
Nagin told the subcommittee that choosing the Jefferson Parish site would have a "devastating" effect on the city's recovery efforts.
Stupak, chairman of the subcommittee, urged Neary to work out a way to get the hospital built as soon as possible.
Neary said current plans call for construction of the new VA hospital to begin in February 2009, with completion in July 2012.
Stupak said Neary should "shake up the system," if needed, and find a way to get it done quicker.
Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., said that last fall, VA Secretary Jim Nicholson committed to building a replacement VA hospital in downtown New Orleans and wondered why an alternative site was added to the mix. Neary said that in March, "out of concern that the originally planned location of VA and state facilities might not be workable," the department decided to consider another option.
Melancon also questioned why the federal Department of Health and Human Services hasn't found a way to help New Orleans area hospitals deal with financial losses caused by labor cost increases and a federal reimbursement formula based on pre-Katrina data.
Elizabeth Richter, acting director of the Center for Medicare Management at the agency, said the agency has been working with New Orleans hospital officials for about a year and did approve about $100 million in emergency money to cover higher labor costs, but its lawyers believe it doesn't have the authority to change reimbursement rates.
Melancon said he didn't understand why it should take more than a year to find a solution.
"You can have a baby in nine months," he said.
Melancon told Rector that the agency should lock its lawyers in a room and not allow them out until they come up with a solution. If the lawyers believe the agency lacks legal authority to act, they should dispatch Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt to the Capitol with a proposed legislative fix, he said.
But not all members of the subcommittee pegged the blame on the federal government alone.
Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said his constituents criticize him for voting to send so much money to Louisiana. Burgess said he'd have an easier time defending the allocations if local officials had a better record of using the money more quickly.
350 of over 1,300 medical positions advertised in the New Orleans area in the past WEEK!
I live in Calgary, AB, Canada.. a city of just of over 1 million people, with a BOOMING oil based economy. Every business sector in the city is struggling to find staff. Anyone who wants a job has one.
The health care system is overseen my the government (socialized medicine).... and though maybe slightly less severe, there is the same shortage of medical practioners. They are advertising world wide to attempt to attract these people to move here... with limited success.
And this to a city with full infrastructure and services in place, along with all the amenities that might be attractive to potential medical practitioners. So... the problem attracting them to New Orleans, where as you say daily life is a struggle, has to be incredibly difficult.
New Orleans needs water to rebuild, but an antiquated, dying system and a lack of money to fix it threaten the recovery
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
By Michelle Krupa
Turning the spigot outside her empty house in early 2006, Tanya Harris expected another disappointment.
Safe drinking water had been restored months earlier to every other neighborhood in New Orleans. But because of the catastrophic damage in the Lower 9th Ward, faucets there still ran dry.
So when Harris felt the gush as she cranked the small handle attached to the water meter, she let out a scream. Then she danced around her muddy yard.
"Of course, all my copper pipes were broken, so it was flowing all over the house. It was a shower inside the house," recalled Harris, a community organizer. "But it was a welcome sight. I was just thinking: This is the beginning of me coming back home."
It would take another six months or so before the water running through Harris' faucet would be certified as safe to drink, marking a significant milestone in the patchwork restoration of an east bank system totally disabled by Hurricane Katrina for the first time since its construction began in 1906.
Today, water continues to flow to every corner of Orleans Parish, suggesting perhaps that trouble has waned. But local and federal officials say the system, which limped along before the storm with aging equipment and leaky pipes, is nearing its breaking point.
Water pressure throughout the city can plummet without warning, forcing coffee shops to close and hotel showers to trickle. When the river level drops, officials say, the system gets dangerously close to sucking too little raw water into the purification plant, meaning the city's water supply could simply vanish. And with underground pipes already highly pressurized to compensate for thousands of leaks, it may be impossible to produce a "surge" to fight a major fire.
"We are operating today on what we call 'little miracles,' " Sewerage & Water Board executive director Marcia St. Martin said last month.
A water board consultant estimates it will cost $3.2 billion over 25 years to replace the pipe network, one-third of which is almost 100 years old. The agency needs $100 million more for the east bank purification plant to update pumps, filters and equipment that processes chemicals to clarify and disinfect raw water. A separate plant that serves Algiers needs $4 million in upgrades.
The city's reduced population, however, means that revenue from water fees has dropped by a third, cutting into the S&WB's budget for repairs and maintenance, and forcing the agency to run overtaxed machinery beyond its limit.
To compensate, S&WB officials have asked the City Council to raise water rates for the first time since 1984, but Mayor Ray Nagin and several council members have expressed concerns about hiking yet another monthly bill. A vote on the increase could come before the City Council as soon as Thursday.
Helping matters somewhat is a recent decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for some damages that owe to post-storm deferred maintenance. But details of the payments, which will not begin to meet the entire need, are still being worked out, and a top federal official working with the S&WB said he expects FEMA to be "involved intimately" with water system repairs for at least a year longer. FEMA is legally obligated to reimburse the city for disaster-related repairs.
Speaking to a City Council committee last month, water board president pro tempore Tommie Vassel summarized the situation, saying the agency's ability to produce and deliver tap water relies on an inefficient patchwork of temporary repairs that, at worst, could arrest the water supply to whole neighborhoods in seconds.
"We cannot juggle anymore. The balls are dropped," he said. "We're coming down to water (or) no water."
Underground pipes snapped
From the first gusts of Katrina, the 1,600-mile network of subterranean pipes was doomed. Because water pipes must be pressurized to stave off bacteria growth, they succumbed more easily to the wrenching than sewer or drainage pipes did.
As the hurricane's winds toppled trees, roots pried loose adjacent water pipes and hydrants. Indoor pipes snapped as houses floated away. Underground flooding unearthed chunks of mushy soil, contorting pipes that had nestled in the dirt.
Despite the fractured network, the east bank purification plant, sprawled atop a levee plateau near the Mississippi River and the Jefferson Parish line, kept pumping out clean tap water. Then two days after the storm, the flood inundated the S&WB's electrical plant on South Claiborne Avenue, cutting off the only power supply left to run water pumps and equipment.
The system's failure immediately severed one of the few lifelines in a wrecked metropolis sinking deep into chaos.
Stranded victims, many dehydrated after days in the flood, found waterless faucets when they reached high ground. Helpless firefighters watched ironic scenes of structures burning to the ground in a flooded city.
It took more than a week for crews to restart the system. A month passed before state officials, testing for chemicals and pressure through the pipes, certified the tap water in areas west of the Industrial Canal as safe to drink.
The restoration of drinking water became an important milestone for the health, safety and psychology of evacuees trickling back to New Orleans.
Residents could move back confident they would have water to fill the tub, or at least to wash mold and muck out of the living room. Fire crews could battle blazes. Restaurants, including some that had trucked in water to operate their kitchens, could reopen. Hospitals could treat patients.
Potable water also meant that FEMA, which refused to deliver trailers to sites that lack water service, could begin installing the temporary homes.
Thousands of leaks
As the recovery plodded forward, S&WB crews went to work surveying damage and trying to figure out how to repair the water system.
In the two years since the storm, workers have patched 50,000 leaks -- and counting, St. Martin said. The cost of damage to pipes and valves has been estimated at $1 billion, according to a report issued in December 2006 by consultant Black & Veatch.
But while the system of underground pipes was shattered, the east bank water purification plant survived the storm relatively unscathed.
Other than wrecking quality-control instruments for 44 water purification filters, the damage was minor and caused mostly by wind.
Compared with $76.6 million in eligible damages at the city's sewer treatment plant, the water purification plant tallied only $4 million in damages that could be reimbursable under the Stafford Act, according to Black & Veatch. The federal emergency-assistance law requires FEMA to reimburse disaster-related costs, but bars the agency from paying to upgrade facilities or to fix problems that resulted from poor maintenance.
But if the purification plant's relative fortune drew any sighs of relief, the comfort would not last.
Because of the cracked pipes, the plant quickly had to increase the amount of water it sucks from the river and process it through equipment already in decline, said Marvin Russell, the S&WB's water purification superintendent.
The extra water not only compensated for an estimated 85 million gallons per day leaking from the distribution network -- more than double the pre-storm volume of leaks -- but also helped maintain pressure through the porous pipes, a public health mandate of the state Department of Health and Hospitals.
Running on empty
The load quickly took a toll on purification equipment.
Ten months after the storm, a 100 million-gallon tank designed to remove sludge from river water shut down because the rudders that scrape muck off the bottom broke during a daily run, leaving a layer of fertile mud that soon turned the machine into an enormous flower bed.
Last July, one of three enormous pumps, each sucking 70 million gallons of water daily from the Mississippi River, ground to a halt, its pump apparatus busted. Then in May, on what St. Martin described as "the day that we feared most," a motor in one of the two remaining pumps at the New River Station crashed.
"Workers were able to effect a repair before critical pressure was lost in the system," she said, explaining that crews pilfered the motor from the pump that broke last year and got the system running within hours.
High river water on that day also allowed crews to head to an older intake station, built around 1928, and flip on one of its four antique pumps, which cannot generate enough suction to operate at capacity but can draw some water if the river is not too low.
"If the river had not been high that day or we were not able to cannibalize a replacement pump for its parts, the system would have failed," she said. "So the fact is, there would have been no water available to ensure public health and safety."
Recognizing that equipment was not in top shape, water board officials traced both breakdowns to Katrina, a pronouncement that raised the specter of whether the S&WB or FEMA would be on the hook for repairs.
John Connolly, the top official overseeing FEMA's infrastructure repair program in southeast Louisiana, said the connection between the increased demand for water and the failure of purification equipment is undeniable.
"They're completely related to each other," he said.
Until the demand for water drops enough to allow equipment to come out of service for repairs, the purification plant will continue to operate with a flimsy safety net, particularly if more components break down, said Vincent Fouchi, the assistant superintendent of water purification.
"Where we hurt is where we have been (running) full-tilt continuously since the storm," he said. "We are in a position now where we have very little or no redundancy in our system."
Connolly agreed that the lack of backup poses a serious risk.
"Because of the absence of redundancy, it could literally reach a point where they are in a crisis mode," he said. "They're hanging by a shoestring now."
Wrangling with FEMA
In an important step toward fixing both elements of the water system, FEMA officials agreed this summer to repair the pipe network "as a whole," rather than isolating each leak and trying to determine whether it broke because of Katrina or shoddy upkeep.
For more than a year after Katrina, local officials criticized FEMA's previous method as an exhausting and possibly endless means of nickel-and-diming the project.
Under the new policy, FEMA will pay for radio-wave testing to find leaks in underground pipes. It also has authorized payment for a contractor to remove an estimated 50,000 water meters at uninhabited properties, which federal officials surmise is a major source of leaks.
When the surveys are complete, FEMA will reimburse the water board for repairs to the largest water mains first, then for fixing distribution pipes in order of priority, regardless of how they broke, until the system can handle its pre-storm capacity.
After months of haggling, FEMA also is trying to figure out how to reimburse the water board for repairs to equipment that broke gradually after Katrina, as it worked to supply the increased demand for water because of the hemorrhaging pipes, Connolly said.
"Because they have been running their system beyond their regular maintenance schedules, there are going to be some things that we're going to look at and say, 'What do we need to do to get it back to capacity?' " he said.
Connolly said FEMA will use pre-storm pipe leakage as one measure of the federal obligation. But he said that the leakage -- estimated by federal officials recently at 60 million gallons a day, while local leaders claim it's 20 million gallons a day -- will not be "a line in the sand."
He said FEMA also will pay to restore the backup equipment that vanished as S&WB crews, operating like "wizards," stole parts from backup or idle machines to cobble together a functioning plant.
"They're doing it by having to cannibalize one part of the system to make another part of the system work," Connolly said, pointing to the intake pumps. "We're going to be looking at things like: Have the pumps been brought back to a pre-disaster level? Have the components (of the equipment) been fixed?"
More money is needed
But the federal agency will not be a salve for all wounds.
Connolly said the drinking water system has outlasted its natural life, owing in large part to the water board's stagnant rate schedule, which for years has lagged far behind the escalating costs of chemicals, parts and labor.
At least 10 components of the purification plant -- from intake pumps and chemical storage units to huge in-ground filters, corrosion control devices and an in-house communications system -- required replacement or major work before the storm, according to the Black & Veatch report.
And for years before Katrina, about 30 percent of the 120 million gallons that the plant pumped out daily seeped out through underground pipes, officials say.
Connolly would not speculate on how much money FEMA will invest in the water system, or how long it will take until the repairs are complete. But he said New Orleans' drinking water infrastructure will require a "substantial" injection of cash to reach the basic standards of modern urban infrastructure.
"The issues they face are really more significant than what FEMA is going to be involved with," he said. "The system was extremely fragile before the event, and kind of like someone that has very poor health, Katrina has not helped."
Vassel, the water board member, acknowledged that point at the recent council session, noting that the S&WB expects to run a $24 million deficit this year for water operations, which by law must be financed separately from the drainage and sewer systems. The 2007 water capital budget anticipates a $54 million shortfall.
But approving a rate increase can be a perilous political move.
The water board -- composed of 12 mayoral appointees, including three City Council members, plus the mayor as president -- traditionally has put off the issue while keeping quiet about its increasingly deficient water system.
Though the board finally took a stand this year, none of the seven council members has indicated how he or she will vote. If the proposal gets through the council, it still would need authorization from the Board of Liquidation-City Debt, which authorizes City Hall borrowing.
Vassel said that since Katrina, the S&WB has tried to live within its means for the greater good of the recovery.
"If we had sounded this alarm early on, we would not be populated to the degree we are currently," he said.
But that course, he said, cannot continue.
"We continue to spend more money than we take in," Vassel said. "Everybody understands that, whether you do that in your home or in your business, you can't stay afloat."
ON THE STREETS
New Orleans has more homeless people than ever before, advocates say, and fewer services to help them out
Monday, August 06, 2007
By Katy Reckdahl
Each day, just after daybreak, the man in the red T-shirt leaves the piece of cardboard and blanket he calls home. Before he walks to a nearby day-labor agency, Kenneth Thomas, 44, sometimes takes one look back at City Hall, which rises into the sky across Perdido Street.
"I just need shelter over my head," he said.
He wishes that someone in power could help him with that.
Thomas now beds down on a concrete floor inside the gazebo in Duncan Plaza, across from City Hall. He keeps his bedding and a bag of possessions there, in an encampment that started last fall and now holds more than 50 people each night, many of them elderly or mentally ill.
Partially hidden from view by steep berms of grassy earth, the Duncan Plaza gazebo offers a small measure of privacy. At night, the bedrolls and heaps of belongings spill out beyond the gazebo toward the berms, sometimes covering the surrounding sidewalk.
The homeless in Duncan Plaza represent just a sliver of the growing number of homeless in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, now estimated at about 12,000 people -- double the estimate homeless advocates made before the flood, despite the drastic loss in city population as a whole.
At the same time, agencies that used to provide crucial services to the homeless have closed. Local advocates have sought money from Congress for permanent housing vouchers and other services, but still await action on such measures.
Like the vagrants laying on newspaper-lined benches in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., the homeless sleeping in the shadow of New Orleans City Hall, embody a larger problem: New Orleans is failing to house -- and often even acknowledge -- its poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
Nationally, at some point during each year, up to 10 percent of all poor people become homeless, according to Urban Institute research. In New Orleans, homeless advocates are seeing "not just the traditional homeless but a whole new population of people who never imagined they'd be homeless," people who once owned homes and worked their whole lives, said Martha Kegel, who heads up Unity for the Homeless, a collaborative of 70 nonprofit and government agencies in Orleans and Jefferson parishes.
Each has a story
Every morning, Kenneth Thomas peels himself from the concrete floor in Duncan Plaza to trudge a few blocks down Gravier Street to Temps Today. But during the summer months, he's been finding himself in a line with four-dozen other men, all of them looking for work, he said. Sometimes only four or five land jobs, usually at $6 an hour.
Seeking anything beyond a sweat-and-muscle labor job is nearly impossible, said Thomas, because he can't make himself presentable without bathroom or shower. The Immaculate Conception Day Center on Baronne Street used to offer homeless people showers and laundry, but it closed after Hurricane Katrina.
He smoothed the wrinkled shirt that he slept in and rubbed his hand along his chin, which bristled with a few days' stubble. "Nobody wants you on their job looking like this," said Thomas, a native New Orleanian who grew up nearby in the 6th Ward and worked as a cook offshore before the storm.
About a year ago, Thomas returned to New Orleans, got hooked on drugs and ended up in a rehabilitation center. He said he's now clean and working whenever he can, but temp jobs that pay $6 an hour won't pay for an apartment anymore in a city with skyrocketing rents and utility bills.
"There's a reason all of us landed here," he said. "But we're trying to bring ourselves back up."
He blamed himself for his own missteps. He said some others in the makeshift camp merely fell victim to sad circumstance, pointing at each bedroll: he had lost steady work; her relatives could no longer house her; he was evicted when his longtime apartment was sold to a real-estate speculator; he's an old-timer who had a mental breakdown 10 years ago but hasn't been able to qualify for "a crazy check" Social Security benefits for the disabled.
One shelter left
Thomas has found that employers are wary of people without mailing addresses. He could use 843 Camp St., the address for the Ozanam Inn, but employers know that address and see it as a red flag. Still, "the Oz," as it's called, is the only adult shelter that's currently up and running.
"It's really a mess," said Clarence Adams, an administrator at the Ozanam and an active member of Unity for the Homeless. "Unity is probably moving more of the homeless into permanent housing faster than before," he said. "But every time you house one, there are five more to take his place."
Not far from the Ozanam, once-familiar private businesses also evaporated, including Mari-Clean, a 24-hour temporary agency in the Central Business District that hired thousands of homeless over the years to clean ships docked at the Port of New Orleans.
Thurston Wells, 36, was a regular at Mari-Clean. A native of Kansas City, Mo., Wells came through to New Orleans in 2000 as a "ride jockey," running the rides for a traveling carnival. He's lived here ever since, drifting in and out of homelessness. He likes the Duncan Plaza quarters, he said, because he believes that Mayor Ray Nagin protects the homeless people who sleep there.
Wells continued, with several other unrealistic details about Nagin's protection. Not far away, an older man ranted, spouting gibberish. Nationally, about 1 in 5 homeless people suffers from some form of severe mental illness. The ratio at Duncan Plaza seems higher, said Shamus Rohn, a Unity outreach worker.
"The people at Duncan Plaza tend to be often severely disabled or elderly," Rohn said.
People tell him they chose Duncan Plaza because the National Guard parks just across Loyola Avenue, in the Holiday Inn's lot. "Some of these people wouldn't necessarily make it in the squatters' camp under the overpass," he said, referring to a slightly crowded area under the freeway, near Canal Street and Claiborne Avenue. "Older folks tell me, 'I can sleep here because I know if I yell out, National Guard troops will come running.' "
Seeking federal initiatives
Before Hurricane Katrina, advocates seldom saw a homeless person older than 50 or 60. No longer, said Kegel. "We're seeing far more elderly people than we saw before the storm," she said. "We've found people as old as 88 living in abandoned buildings."
Since an estimated 10,000 of the area's homeless people live in abandoned buildings, out of sight, the post-storm spike in homelessness has largely gone unnoticed, Kegel said.
Kegel would like to see two federal initiatives -- low-income housing tax credits earmarked for hurricane-affected areas like New Orleans, along with rental subsidies -- to prevent homelessness.
So far, the federal government has financed the rebuilding of only a small portion of the area's devastated affordable-housing stock, she said, calling that response "a national embarrassment."
For months now, Kegel has lobbied Congress for something she places "at the top of the list" in terms of importance: 3,000 permanent federal housing vouchers for "the most vulnerable." They would go to Louisiana people with disabilities who are homeless, at risk of being homeless or otherwise vulnerable.
Such a measure may pass soon, after the August recess, according to Scott Schneider, spokesman for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's office. Schneider said those vouchers and affordable-housing initiatives are part of the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act, which he called a "major priority" for Landrieu, D-New Orleans, after Congress returns from its August recess. If the Senate bill and a similar House bill pass in August, the money could come from a supplemental appropriations bill later this fall, he said.
To fight homelessness, local officials are dependent on federal purse strings, said Michael Stoops, who directs the National Coalition for the Homeless.
"But Mayor Ray Nagin and other city officials need to provide leadership even if they can't provide money. (Democratic Presidential hopefuls) Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards are talking a lot about poverty as an issue. Officials in New Orleans could do the same -- they could become spokespeople for people living in poverty."
Nagin already fills that role, said city spokesman James D. Ross. For example, he said, the mayor has been supportive of the Gulf Coast Housing Recovery Act, has urged Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson to open more public-housing units and has helped individual homeless people through caseworkers in the Mayor's Office of Public Advocacy, Ross said. Nagin has also requested for New Orleans an additional $10 million from the pot of federal homeless-assistance money.
"We are working every day to address this problem," he said, noting that "Mayor Nagin and his staff are of course saddened that New Orleans, like virtually every urban community, faces issues of homelessness."
Housing, not jail cells
Near places where increasing numbers of homeless congregate, some neighbors have demanded that anyone sleeping in public be arrested. Historically, the New Orleans Police Department cuffed all napping homeless people under a municipal charge barring "public habitation," however, a federal judge ruled that unconstitutional in 1986.
For the past several years, NOPD's Homeless Assistance Collaborative has taken a different approach, doing street outreach instead of arrests and working with Unity to move even chronically homeless people into permanent housing.
Research has found that jailing the homeless can actually worsen the problem. Some are separated from their bags, containing necessary prescription medication. Others lose hard-fought Social Security disability benefits, which are suspended after a certain amount of time in jail.
"Arresting the homeless is extremely costly to taxpayers," Kegel said. "It does nothing to remove people from their current situation and put them into the stable housing they need."
Behind the berms at Duncan Plaza, Thomas talked about solutions. He's deft at construction, he said, as were several others who slept in Duncan Plaza.
"We could do the work and fix up housing for ourselves," he suggested. "I'm not asking for anything for free -- I'm asking for another chance."
A man standing across the way nodded.
"Sheetrock, drywall, painting, I can do it all," said Emile Thomas Gaspard, 45, who grew up watching the craftsmen in his 7th Ward neighborhood.
Thomas gestured around him, at the dozen or so other men he'd gotten to know while sleeping at Duncan Plaza. He knew they were visible from Nagin's second-story City Hall window.
So he wanted the mayor to know one thing: the men in the plaza, at least most of them, were neither lazy nor content with their situation.
"If we had housing," Thomas said. "We could be as productive as any citizen around here."
Key water bill hits snag in Senate
But SBA changes pass before break
Sunday, August 05, 2007
By Bruce Alpert
WASHINGTON -- Senators headed home Saturday for a monthlong summer recess without passing a water resources bill that authorizes key flood control and coastal restoration projects in Louisiana.
The Senate, however, by voice vote late Friday night approved a long-stalled Small Business Administration reform bill that will let the agency turn to private financial institutions to speed its loan process after a major disaster such as Hurricane Katrina.
Senate action on the $21 billion water resources bill, which passed the House 381-20 on Wednesday, was blocked by Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis. He objected to a recent change in the oversight provisions for the Army Corps of Engineers that had been part of the Senate version of the bill. A conference committee of House and Senate members made the change while trying to resolve differences between the two chambers' versions.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., expressed disappointment that the vote was blocked but said a delay was inevitable, given that President Bush threatened a veto.
"With nearly a fifth of this bill dedicated to Louisiana coastal restoration, hurricane protection, flood control and navigation projects, its swift enactment is vital to our state," Landrieu said. "That said, the president has promised to veto these projects in a game of dangerous political brinkmanship, and September would nonetheless be the earliest opportunity for Congress to overturn this misjudgment."
Instead of the Senate bill's requirement that corps projects worth more than $40 million receive independent oversight, the compromise bill called for the corps to conduct an internal review of costly projects and allowed the agency to skip a review altogether for projects the agency deemed noncontroversial, Feingold said.
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., however, said the bill included provisions, such as a special Louisiana council, to provide independent review of major corps projects.
"The Louisiana congressional delegation has more experience with corps reform than any other delegation in the country," Vitter said. "The water resources bill contains the Louisiana Water Resources Council and the 'integration team' to ensure that there is independent review of both the plans and designs and the construction and maintenance processes." The integration team would analyze construction plans and ensure that projects are coordinated with other flood-control and hurricane-protection work.
Feingold said, however, that now is the time to insist on full independent oversight, especially in light of the failure of federal levees during Katrina and questions about whether the corps has pursued costly projects that harmed the environment. .
Pocket veto averted
Feingold was able to block a vote on the bill because the Senate acted Friday under a procedure that required unanimous consent.
Though Feingold's move stalled the water resources measure for now, some saw strategic value in delaying action until September so President Bush cannot issue a pocket veto, which would block an immediate veto-override attempt.
A pocket veto would require both the House and Senate to pass the bill again, likely drawing another Bush veto; only then would members of both chambers be allowed to try an override vote.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Thursday that Bush is threatening a veto because he considers the legislation, which authorizes but does not finance water projects, too costly.
Although Senate legal experts said the president could not issue a pocket veto during the Senate's August recess, Rep. Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge, said the rules are ambiguous enough that the Senate would be wise to hold off a vote until September.
The House vote last week in favor of the compromise bill far exceeded the two-thirds margin that would be needed to override a presidential veto. Supporters predicted the legislation, which authorizes spending in all 50 states, would have passed the Senate with more than the 67 votes needed for a Senate override.
All nine members of Louisiana's congressional delegation, including the six Republican members, have written to President Bush saying they would support a veto override because the water bill is so important to the state's recovery after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Among other things, the water bill would authorize a 72-mile system of levees and floodwalls to shield Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes from storm surges and as much as $1.9 billion for coastal restoration projects in Louisiana. It would fortify levees in the New Orleans area to withstand a 100-year storm and authorize $100 million for hurricane protection in Jean Lafitte and lower Jefferson Parish.
SBA loan program
The SBA package, which had been approved unanimously by the Senate Small Business Committee, is designed to deal with widespread problems that surfaced after Katrina, when the agency failed to process applications quickly and provide short-term aid to help businesses reopen. It passed with concessions made to meet objections by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who feared a huge expansion of the loan program.
Senate aides said the changes included making some staffing increases optional and clarifying that private lenders will be involved in issuing SBA loans only after major disasters.
A similar bill has passed the House and still must be reconciled with the Senate version during Senate-House negotiations. Among the major provisions of the Senate bill are:
-- Providing short-term relief to businesses damaged or destroyed in catastrophic disasters while they await other federal assistance or insurance payments.
-- Creating a new presidential declaration of a "catastrophic national disaster" to allow the SBA to issue nationwide economic injury loans to disaster-affected small businesses.
-- Letting the SBA hire qualified private contractors to process loans and requiring the agency to recommend improvements to the application process to Congress.
-- Increasing the maximum size of a disaster loan from $1.5 million to $2 million and making nonprofit groups eligible for disaster loans.
The bill does not deal with the SBA's insistence that recipients of federally financed Road Home grants use the proceeds to repay existing small business loans.
Landrieu has written a separate bill that would block the SBA from requiring Road Home grant proceeds to be used for loan repayments. She has written a similar provision into a housing bill. Both bills are pending in Senate committees.
Both of Louisiana's senators hailed passage of the SBA bill.
"It will greatly improve the loan process for business owners and homeowners, ensuring that essential recovery dollars quickly move into the hands of disaster victims," Landrieu said.
Added Vitter: "Small businesses are a vital part of Louisiana's economy, and after the hurricanes of 2005, small businesses suffered greatly. This legislation will help make SBA better prepared for the next disaster."
Changes proposed to fix flaws in U.S. disaster response law
La. legislators focus on major catastrophes
Saturday, August 04, 2007
By Bruce Alpert
WASHINGTON -- Two years after Hurricane Katrina exposed severe shortcomings in the law that regulates how the federal government allots money and resources to deal with major disasters, efforts are under way to make significant changes.
The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this week approved a bill to modify the 19-year-old Stafford Act, including measures to limit financial penalties for communities that seek to relocate or consolidate damaged schools and other facilities to meet post-disaster needs and realities.
And Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., is drafting legislation that would set up a new category of disaster assistance for major catastrophes like Katrina, or earthquakes, when damage is so extensive and geographically widespread that normal disaster remedies are insufficient.
"When a disaster crosses into catastrophic proportions, the federal disaster system as currently conceived begins to collapse under its own weight," said Landrieu, who is expected to propose fewer limits on federal assistance, and more flexibility for local governments on how they can spend federal disaster assistance.
Louisiana officials, including Gov. Kathleen Blanco, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and officials from Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard parishes, have been regular visitors to Capitol Hill since the weeks after Katrina to complain that rigid Stafford Act regulations, or at least the interpretation of them by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, are slowing recovery efforts.
Facing new realities
Officials complained that when they wanted to upgrade designs for buildings that needed to be replaced or consolidate schools to accommodate post-hurricane shifts in population, FEMA officials raised the likelihood of reduced federal financing.
The House bill would change a Stafford Act rule that mandates only 75 percent of FEMA public assistance money for so-called alternate projects, or projects that do not simply restore destroyed buildings.
Under the bill, such projects would be eligible for 90 percent of FEMA public assistance dollars.
In some cases, officials in New Orleans, which lost almost its entire tax base overnight after Katrina hit Aug. 29, 2005, were told that the city would have to come up with the local share of a project before FEMA money could flow. Nagin said such requirements were a major early impediment to recovery, although FEMA later relaxed some of the prepayment requirements.
At a recent hearing, U.S. Rep. Bobby Jindal, R-Kenner, told colleagues that the Madisonville Branch Library in St. Tammany Parish was told by FEMA it could qualify for $187,000 to restore the building on the condition it was restored to its previous condition. If library officials use the money for another purpose, such as construction of a new library (which Jindal said was the best option because the old library was "barely functional") the parish was told FEMA would rescind the offer, the congressman said.
Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-Napoleonville, said that St. Bernard Parish School Superintendent Doris Voitier correctly decided that it made no sense to rebuild in place the four schools destroyed by Katrina. But trying to "rebuild smarter," Melancon said, means local taxpayers have to pick up a larger share of the costs.
The changes envisioned by Landrieu and sponsors of the House bill, including Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans, Jindal and Melancon, would be in addition to changes made last year by Congress.
Among last year's changes: authorization of transportation assistance to evacuees returning to their homes; authority to appoint a single federal coordinator for a multistate disaster such as Katrina; elimination of a $5,000 cap on FEMA individual assistance and creation of a pilot program that rewards states that lock in lower rates for debris removal before a disaster strikes.
Earlier this year, Congress also eliminated a 10 percent matching requirement for FEMA disaster recovery assistance, a change that saves Louisiana taxpayers more than $1 billion.
'Smarter system' sought
Landrieu, supported by Melancon, Jindal and Jefferson, says the biggest change now needed is designation of super-disaster status for a catastrophic event.
"I intend to work with my colleagues to push through much-needed reforms and a new approach to catastrophic preparedness and response," Landrieu said. "We have seen all too readily since Katrina, Rita and the federal levee breaks what can happen when mountains of red tape obstruct the path to recovery and we need a smarter system in place when the next disaster strikes."
Andy Kopplin, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said the Stafford Act needs to be overhauled for catastrophic disasters so that in a city like New Orleans, which lacked the tax base to pay vital workers, direct assistance can be provided immediately. Provisions, he said, should be in place so that employees who need to fill out the FEMA paperwork to qualify for assistance can get their salaries immediately covered.
On the House side, the bill also would allow FEMA to provide temporary housing for volunteers helping with recovery efforts, and reduce bureaucratic paperwork for communities by raising the definition of a small project not subject to as much bureaucratic oversight from $55,000 to $100,000.
The bill doesn't include a provision sought by utilities, including the Entergy Corp., that would make them eligible for FEMA emergency money after a major disaster.
Wary of FEMA
Melancon said he's pleased with many of the changes in the House bill, although he's quick to add that they aren't a guarantee of a better federal response to a disaster.
"I do not know if it has been the Stafford Act itself, or FEMA's interpretation of the Stafford Act, that has most hindered Gulf Coast rebuilding," Melancon said.
Jindal agreed. In some instances, Jindal said, it wasn't so much the Stafford Act that slowed federal help from flowing to Louisiana, but an overly rigid interpretation of the law by agency attorneys.
"What they should have been doing is seeing how they could make the law work to help our communities, but sometimes they used it as an obstacle to provide badly needed assistance," Jindal said.
David Paulison, FEMA's administrator, said that Jindal and Melancon are alluding to the "old FEMA," and that the agency is being transformed to be much more responsive.
"You can see the impact of those changes in our response this year to Florida, Georgia Alabama and Kansas tornadoes, the Nor'easter that affected states across the Mid-Atlantic and New England and the recent flooding in the central plains," Paulison said.
Local hospitals seek help coping with rising costs
Labor shortage after Katrina bumps salaries across board
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
By Bruce Alpert
and Kate Moran%%par%%Staff writers
New Orleans area hospitals are struggling to survive financially in part because government reimbursement rates are not in line with the cost of providing care after Hurricane Katrina, hospital executives are expected to tell members of the U.S. House today.
Dr. Mark Peters, president and CEO of East Jefferson General Hospital, said a financial report to be presented to the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations will show that five local hospitals -- East Jefferson General Hospital, West Jefferson General Hospital, Ochsner Medical Center, Tulane University Hospital and Touro Infirmary -- made a combined profit of $12 million during the first five months of 2005, but together lost $60 million during the same period in 2007.
The major culprit, he said, is rising salaries for employees, ranging from doctors and nurses to food-service workers, reflecting a labor shortage throughout the local economy after Katrina. And rates for Medicare, which reimburses hospitals for the care of the elderly and disabled, are based on data before the hurricane, Peters said.
"Our message is that we appreciate what has been done both on the federal and state level, but the bottom line is it isn't enough," Peters said.
The federal government provided $99 million in extra money to compensate for Medicare shortfalls, Peters said, but that was distributed to about 60 hospitals in 31 parishes. East Jefferson got $5 million, far short of what Peters says is needed.
Dr. Alan Miller, interim senior vice president for health sciences at Tulane University Health Sciences Center, said he will ask the House subcommittee to find a way to reimburse doctors, who he says are seeing a lot more patients without insurance because of the continued shutdown of Charity Hospital.
Still, not all the news is bad, Miller said.
With the help of some federal incentives, which allow medical facilities to provide cash inducements to recruit and retain health professionals, Miller said, Tulane has been able to make some "excellent" hires in recent months. The financial awards can go to cover relocation costs or pay student loans.
While there is still a shortage of medical personnel in New Orleans, with the problem particularly acute for patients without insurance, Miller said doctors affiliated with Tulane have openings for new patients or patients whose doctors have left the area since the 2005 hurricane.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he has made a commitment to continue working "through the many daunting health care challenges facing the New Orleans region."
"While we have some progress in restoring parts of a devastated health care system, considerable work remains," Stupak said. "People still lack access to mental health treatment, bureaucratic red tape is choking the medical education programs, and community hospitals are left with mounting debt."
Stupak said he's concerned that "not a shovel of dirt has been turned toward rebuilding the region's major public hospital," a replacement for Charity connected to a new Veterans Affairs hospital on a single campus.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin plans to tell subcommittee members how critical it is to the city's future that the Veterans Affairs hospital be built in downtown New Orleans, close to the LSU and Tulane medical schools and to a biosciences research corridor the universities are trying to develop.
He and other New Orleans leaders have been uneasy for weeks as the federal government considers whether to build the Veterans Affairs hospital downtown, where it could share laundry and laboratory space with the proposed LSU system-run teaching hospital, or on a site in Jefferson Parish owned by Ochsner Health System.
Call for unity
Nagin called a press conference Tuesday to promote the economic benefits of a joint LSU-VA hospital for the city. Such a complex, he said, would create thousands of jobs in construction, research and clinical care and would pump billions of dollars into the local economy.
"Our message today is that we are in motion," Nagin said. "This is reality. This is not a drill. We are building a medical district that will be able to sustain this entire community for many years to come."
Nagin summoned the presidents of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes to the news conference to show that suburban leaders support the construction of the Veterans Affairs hospital downtown. Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard sent an assistant who said the Parish Council had not taken a position on whether it prefers the hospital downtown or on the Ochsner campus.
"We are here to support a robust health care system across the area," Cherreen Gegenheimer said.
While much of the House hearing will focus on the strain Katrina placed on community hospitals, at least one speaker will discuss efforts to boost the availability of primary care in the New Orleans area, which has high rates of diabetes, high blood pressure and other chronic conditions that can be brought under control with regular access to doctors.
Clayton Williams, executive director of a clinic network called the Partnership for Access to Health Care, said he plans to thank the federal government for making available a $100 million grant to help broaden access to doctors and clinics over the next three years. Applications for shares of that grant went up on the Web site of the Louisiana Public Health Institute last week.
"One of the goals that we would really like to achieve with these dollars is to encourage the development of an organized system of care for the uninsured that not only includes access to primary care but also provides linkages to other necessary services, like specialty care and inpatient care," Williams said.
Good grief... Quit spooling already.. you made your point..
Life is too short to let the ship of your dreams sail without you.
Carnival Destiny Feb. 2006
Carnival Fascination Feb. 2007
Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Seas Feb. 2008 The DTW & MsBJ tour
Carnival Valor MsBJ and Dina Feb. 2009
Carnival Glory MsBJ and Dina Feb. 2010
Carnival Dream MsBJ and Dina Feb. 2011
Your passion is admirable, and the struggle of beauocracy daunting, with just the day to day living for many, still in flux. While statistics overwhelm, I wish the people responsible for getting the monies back to the people, could walk a mile in their shoes. Sitting behind a desk, 1000's of miles away from the reality of it all, is sad.
One bright note I have heard about twice, in the last few days, was the area called, Musicians Village, an area of beutiful brightly painted homes, with a Caribbean flair, for musicians to call home..... So much part of the fabric of the great city, New Orleans.
Trip, with her book & tea!
Chat Hostess & Board Moderator
Yes there is a great rebuilding effort going on in that community to rebuild homes for displaced musicians. It is bright and colorful and a really neat place! Music is such an integral part of New Orleans, we couldn't lose that.
If you are going to walk on thin ice, you may as well dance!
While I agree with everything posted here, I love the city of New orleans and I don't want to spread any more bad stuff about it.
I was talking to someone in the Las Vegas hotel business who said "unfortunately, Katrina was great for Vegas. New Orleans used to be the number two visited vacation city in the U.S., now it's Las Vegas."
New Orleans is struggling very hard to come back and tourism is VITAL to that, so let us not put too much negatove info about the great city on this travel related message board.
Thanks for your passion Melody. Let's leave it at this
I am the editor, but I also speculate, ask questions and play devil's advocate. I reserve the right to change my mind.