DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano queried on the future of south Louisiana
Denise M. Byrne is an impressive woman who I first met at the Jazz Fest several years ago. She lives in Arlington, Virginia but spends considerable time in NOLA and is the Acting Executive Director and Board Member, Friends of New Orleans (FONO).
On June 3rd she attended a talk by Janet Napolitano, Secretary, Department of Homeland Security, at theAspen 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 now Director of the Aspen Institute Homeland Security Program.
Before attending the event, Denise solicited ideas for appropriate questions from several Louisiana leaders knowledgable about coastal rebuilding and levee protection. She reports that Anne Milling (founder, Women of the Storm) and John Barry (author, Rising Tide and FONO board member) gave her some good suggestions and background information.
After the talk Denise circulated the following comments to the folks** she had originally approached for questions and context:
The event was small (about 50 people) but several national media reps were there, and it was filmed. I was the only person to ask about New Orleans. My questions were as follows:
1. Is keeping the New Orleans and surrounding parish residents safe a priority for you?
2. Why hasn’t the 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.
The Secretary started to answer by describing her last trip down there with the HUD secretary, and she talked a lot about the dollars they are pumping into rebuilding but it was mostly about housing, getting people out of trailers, etc. Nothing was said about coastal restoration, levees or the Corps.
Although Napolitano’s answer was disappointing, my meeting afterwards with Tim Fraser* from the Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding (Don Powell’s old office) was encouraging. He said they are actually putting time into reaching out to the local people, neighborhood organizations and nonprofits first, in order to learn from them directly, which is really, really good.
The new Federal Coordinator, Janet Woodka, just started in this position at the beginning of April, so we need to be patient. The good news is that she has been on Landrieu’s staff and she is from New Orleans.
My goal now is to make sure that these folks get in touch with each of you directly. Tim Fraser and I spent about two hours talking. He now wants me to send him a list of all the local NOLA leaders he needs to get to know and who he needs to introduce to his boss.The other good thing that happened was that Walter Isaacson (proud New Orleans native and founding board member of FONO) walked in at the beginning of our meeting and spent about ten minutes urging Tim to recognize that the federal government must remove the barriers to the funding for levee rebuilding and coastal restoration.Anyway, it’s a start. A big concern is that Ms. Woodka’s office (the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding) is funded only through September. Tim said that feedback is very promising that it will continue to exist and be funded past September. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. 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.
Anne Milling followed up with the following 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 go up the food chain and make the administration wake-up to the importance of south Louisiana and coastal restoration to the entire nation.
John Barry added the following information in another email:
Janet Woodka, who was Landrieu’s legislative director and has a background as, I believe, an energy attorney and lobbyist worked in the office as the legislative liasion for (Donald) Powell. At least one other senior staff person, Drue Banta, is a hold over who used to go everywhere with Powell.
Denise’s account sounds like an important step in the right direction and I strongly agree with Anne’s comments. I suspect that the intervention of NGO’s such as the Aspen Institute will play a huge role in attracting the serious involvement with Louisiana coastal issues on the part of the Obama administration.
*Associate Director for Public Liaison, Office of the Federal Coordinator for Gulf Coast Rebuilding. Denise reports that he had asked her for information and feedback on New Orleans.
**CC Lockwood (also a FONO board member), John Barry, Anne and King Milling, and yours truly.