Wednesday, March 28, 2007

EXTRA: Surge in homeless hits New Orleans ...

By Bill Sasser, Christian Science Monitor:

The city has double the homeless it had before hurricane Katrina – but far fewer emergency shelters.

Up to 40 people were believed to be living in the Economy Motor Lodge on Tulane Avenue when a fire struck the long-abandoned property on the night of March 7. Located six blocks from the mayor's office and just down the street from the Superdome, the fire was the fourth at the boarded-up motel since hurricane Katrina.

Rescue workers spent the next day searching the ashes for possible victims. None were found, though one man who had apparently slept though the blaze emerged from the building the next morning. The city has since ordered the property torn down.

Behind that four-alarm fire lies a disturbing trend: Hurricane-ravaged New Orleans faces a major crisis with homelessness. Already taxed to the breaking point on many fronts, the city has a homeless population that is now approximately double what existed before the storm – in a city half its previous size.

Facing a severe shortage of affordable housing, displaced residents returning to the city along with an influx of construction trade workers are being forced to sleep in everything from cars to flooded-out houses to long-abandoned motels, as Katrina relief workers from across the country still struggle to fill gaping holes in the city's social services.

"The vast majority of emergency shelters have not been reopened since Katrina," says Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY, a regional collaborative of 60 agencies serving the homeless. "There's an enormous shortage of housing and people are desperate. Do we have the resources to deal with this problem? No."

While New Orleans has long struggled with poverty, the face of homelessness has changed since Katrina, Ms. Kegel and other advocates say. The population now includes the chronically homeless who never left the city or have returned; residents who lost their homes to the flood and have run out of federal assistance – or may have never received assistance – and cannot afford higher rents; and thousands of Latino workers who came to rebuild the city, many of whom brought their spouses and children and cannot find a place to live.

"I've been into some of these buildings myself and seen dozens of people living in them, including very young children," Kegel says. "One of the most shocking things we're seeing now are the very elderly who are living in abandoned buildings and on the street – people in their late 80s living this way, who never in their lives expected to be homeless."


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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Obstacles to Recovery ...

By Russ Britt, MarketWatch:

Red tape, insurance, builder shortage pose roadblocks to road home

New Orleans' residents and businesses remain anxious to get back on their feet, but roadblocks remain in the Big Easy's path to recovery 18 months after Hurricane Katrina poked holes in the city's levee system and flooded three-fourths of it.

Any one of several challenges could derail attempts by the city, as well as areas around Louisiana afflicted by Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which hit the region a few weeks later.

They range from bureaucratic snafus over aid programs and skyrocketing insurance rates, to builder shortages and a perceived snubbing from federal officials toward the area. At the very least, these issues are slowing the recovery.

"We're making a little progress every day, taking a step forward. That about all we can hope for," said U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

The most pressing issue is Road Home, a program designed to provide up to $150,000 in grants to those living in the single-family homes they own, and want to rebuild. The $7.5 billion program, which got underway in the latter half of 2006, is federally funded via community block grants through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and administered by the state.

While some residents with insurance have rebuilt, the vast majority of property owners in the region will lean heavily on Road Home monies to get going again, particularly in the poorer Lower Ninth Ward, which still resembles a war zone. Since it's been more than a year and a half since the storm, most have grown impatient with the program's lack of progress.

Road Home has been beset by a series of problems and a volume of work that seems to have overwhelmed administrators ICF International. Among them are software problems, major disputes over property values and complaints of unresponsiveness from staff members.

More next time ...


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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

EXTRA: Differing Views on Houston and Katrina ...

Clinton praises Houston for Katrina aid

By Rasha Madkour for the Associated Press, via Yahoo! News.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton praised residents of Houston for their help in responding to Hurricane Katrina and said that if elected she would lead a more competent government than the Bush administration.

"We have to have leadership again that asks us to step up and show the world who Americans are and what we can do," Clinton said during her first visit to Texas since announcing her candidacy. She met with supporters at a breakfast before speaking at the Wesley African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Criticizing the Bush administration on a range of issues, the New York senator said she would create a universal pre-kindergarten program, provide health care for all Americans and generate jobs.

"During the 1990s, we lifted more people out of poverty than any time in American history and now they've fallen back in," she told church congregants. "We had more bankruptcies last year than college graduates."

She also called for immigration reform, saying the government needs to know who is in the country but adding that illegal immigrants need a path to citizenship.

Clinton repeated her pledge to bring home troops from Iraq if President Bush doesn't, yet she cautioned that troop withdrawals wouldn't happen overnight
"People want it done yesterday. It's going to take time," she said.

Asked if she would consider one of her rivals as a running mate, Clinton said, "I will certainly be honored to consider them and other extremely qualified and meritorious candidates because we are going to have a lot of work to do."

Clinton acknowledged that the Lone Star state is a Republican stronghold but said, "I love Texas too much to leave it to the other side."

New Orleans mayor sees plot to keep blacks away

From the Washington Post via the Houston Chronicle

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has suggested that the slow recovery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — which has prevented many black former residents from returning — is part of a plan to change the racial makeup and political leadership of his and other cities.

What happened in New Orleans could happen anywhere," Nagin said at a dinner sponsored by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group for newspapers that target black readers. "They are studying this model of natural disasters, dispersing the community and changing the electoral process."


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Sunday, March 18, 2007

Another Corruption Story ...

From AP, by way of the New York Times:

The former clerk of the criminal court in New Orleans improperly handled more than $364,000 in evidence-room money, failed to document her office’s credit card spending and used public money on her own nonprofit group, a possible violation of the Louisiana Constitution, according to a recently released auditor’s report.

The report, from the Office of the Legislative Auditor, included some of the same accusations against the former clerk, Kimberly Williamson Butler, as those cited earlier by the New Orleans district attorney, including that she misused public money and signed an $8 million contract for cleanup work after Hurricane Katrina that was never done.

These were among the accusations in the auditor’s report:

¶Ms. Butler signed the $8 million contract with BioDefense America, a little-known Florida company, for cleanup of flood damage, but no evidence exists that work was performed. The contract provided for an initial payment to BioDefense of $200,000 or $350,000; separate documents signed by Ms. Butler do not agree on the amount. BioDefense abandoned the project, and another company was hired last year for $4.3 million.

¶Ms. Butler used $364,665 in evidence-room money without the required approval from the city, which legally controls such money.

¶She failed to keep records when she and her employees used her office’s credit cards. For 279 purchases, totaling $41,804, Ms. Butler’s office had receipts or documentation for 75, or fewer than a third.

Ms. Butler, who did not run for re-election as clerk, dropped out of public life after a failed campaign for mayor last year.

She did not return a message seeking comment.

Her lawyer, John Reed, noted that previous criminal inquiries into Ms. Butler’s actions had come to nothing. Mr. Reed also said none of the accusations indicated that Ms. Butler had used her office to enrich herself.


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Sunday, March 11, 2007

New Orleans newspaper lampoons pols ...

From Cain Burdeau, Associated Press:

Mayor Ray Nagin announces a plan to rebuild the city with Legos. And the Army Corps of Engineers is thinking of a new slogan: "YOU try building things with government screwdrivers."

Those are some of the parody news stories in the New Orleans Levee, a wickedly satirical newspaper about this suffering city.

The free monthly makes fun of the slow pace of recovery from Hurricane Katrina and mocks the politicians in charge, including Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco and President Bush.

And there seems to be no shortage of material.

"The thing is, they keep bringing this on themselves. This is not me making fun of them; this is them doing it to themselves," said editor and publisher Rudy Vorkapic, a freelance journalist and Chicago native who married a local woman and moved to New Orleans two years ago. "Let's face it, you can do this daily, down in this town. Every day there's another day of ridiculousness trying to be passed on us as progress."

The paper — whose motto is "We don't hold anything back" (i.e., just like New Orleans' levees) — has circulated around New Orleans for the past five months. Vorkapic prints 25,000 copies.

"It's sort of helping people get through the drama with a little levity, a little comedy," said Otis Fennell, who runs a bookstore in Faubourg Marigny, a neighborhood next to the French Quarter. "It's a good rag."

The newspaper isn't making Vorkapic rich. So far, advertising has barely covered production costs, he said. He has won some loyal advertisers, though.

"It takes a certain amount of intelligence to appreciate that kind of writing," said one advertiser, Judith Whitty Jenkins, a real estate broker who sells land in the piney country north of New Orleans. "Smart people in New Orleans know there's something rotten in Gotham."

The monthly newspaper is modeled after The Onion, the popular national satirical newspaper. The way Vorkapic and his stable of writers see it, the politicians are botching the rebuilding of the city.

In the Levee, Nagin is referred to as the "so-called mayor," and repeatedly gets chastised for his MIA status. One issue contained a puzzle called "Where's Baldo?" (In the puzzle, the baldheaded mayor was nowhere to be found.)

The paper also said Blanco is remarkably similar to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, "from their top goals of maintaining power by any means necessary to the fact that neither can get President Bush to speak to them."

Other sources of delight are Allstate and Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. Last year, the FBI said it found $90,000 in bribe money in Jefferson's freezer. In the Levee, articles about the congressman are accompanied by doctored photographs of Jefferson grinning in front of a refrigerator overflowing with dollar bills.

"The paper's born out of tears," Vorkapic said. "Comedy comes out of tragedy. This sure did."


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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Mardi Gras as a Business ...

From AP:

The economic impact of the 2007 Carnival season was strong, if not quite up to the levels it reached before Hurricane Katrina, according to city officials.

The real financial effects of the two-week party that ended last week on Mardi Gras won't be known until sales tax figures are compiled in mid-March.

However, an enthusiastic Mayor Ray Nagin said he thinks the 2007 bash brought in about 80 percent of the $250 million that economic experts say Carnival generated before Katrina struck in 2005. That means about $200 million was spent this year.

"We had an incredible Mardi Gras season," Nagin said, touting the success of everything from hotel and restaurant business to police protection and sanitation.

The city reported that the number of permits and licenses for vendors during Carnival more than quadrupled from last year, when Mardi Gras arrived just months after Katrina's flood waters receded.

Nagin said restaurants reported business was strong, and hotel occupancy was at 90 percent or better both weekends leading into Fat Tuesday.

While hotel occupancy was strong last Mardi Gras as well, that was largely because thousands of rooms were still occupied by storm evacuees, said Fred Sawyers, president of the Greater New Orleans Hotel and Lodging Association.

"This year was pure Mardi Gras impact," Sawyers said.

At the start of February last year, 22,000 of the area's 38,000 pre-Katrina rooms were usable. Of those, 14,000 were taken by evacuees and relief workers.

The city is still down roughly 7,000 rooms, with 31,000 available.

"I think we're at a point now where we can handle pre-Katrina volumes," Nagin said.

There were about 800,000 people in town for Carnival this year. That would be at least 100,000 more than last year's estimate, but short of pre-storm estimates of more than 1 million, Nagin said. The estimates are based on factors such as hotel occupancy rates and approximate crowd sizes.


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Thursday, March 01, 2007

EXTRA: Boasso's Hat in the Ring ...

Press release from Boasso's camp:

MARCH 1, 2007


State Senator and candidate for governor Walter Boasso today sent a letter to 10,000 officials and community leaders throughout Louisiana announcing his intention to run for governor and seeking support.

Calling on current and former elected officials, Boasso asked for help in reforming state government through the support of his campaign.

"Louisiana is in trouble," Boasso wrote. "We must approach the future with a new and different set of ideas and personalities. The people who brought us to this point must be replaced by citizens who know how to get things done. The same old, same old hasn't worked, doesn't work, and won't work."

Boasso said he ran for Senate in 2003 to help revolutionize state government for the benefit of the citizens. "But the 'leaders' I found in Baton Rouge were not revolutionaries, but bureaucrats," Boasso wrote. "We the people must bring about the fundamental reform the people of Louisiana need, want, and deserve."

Boasso also unveiled his campaign theme, "Take Back Louisiana."

"I know this will be a rigorous, time-consuming, difficult task," Boasso wrote of the campaign and the necessary reforms in state government. "But I also know we cannot allow Louisiana to suffer as it has. The time for change is now. Our campaign will lead the way to replace the insiders with real people who have real ideas."

Boasso will formally kick off his campaign next Wednesday, March 7, with an announcement speech in Baton Rouge. A statewide tour will immediately follow.

Media contact: 1-888-926-2776 or 504-579-6385


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