By LARA JAKES JORDAN
Much of New Orleans’ rebirth from Hurricane Katrina hinges on factors beyond the government’s control and could take up to a quarter-century to complete, the Bush administration’s Gulf Coast recovery chief said Thursday.
More immediately, as much as $5.9 billion more for work on levees might need to be approved to clear the way for widespread rebuilding, Don Powell said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The call for an additional funding requirement infuriated Louisiana lawmakers who said they fear the levees won’t be ready to protect New Orleans by the June 1 start of the 2006 hurricane season.
Powell said luring homeowners and businesses back to the hurricane-ravaged city "depends on a lot of factors that, I think, are out of our control." Issues with housing, public safety and private investment are largely being decided by local authorities who Powell said "will be in control of their destiny."
"We kind of want it to happen overnight, or I do, but it’s going to take some time," he said. "This could be five to 25 years for it all to fit into place."
Powell said it was unclear how much of the $5.9 billion Washington will agree to pay for levee work as the Army Corps of Engineers seeks to build them higher and stronger. The Corps’ certification of the levees is crucial for drawing new city flood maps, which will determine insurance rates. Without the flood maps, many homeowners and businesses have been reluctant to rebuild.
The new funds, which the Army Corps now estimates will be needed, would come on top of $108 billion the White House has requested in aid _ including $3.5 billion to repair and strengthen levees battered by Katrina.
"We haven’t decided what to ask for," Powell said, leaving open the possibility that the federal government may not agree to fund the entire bill, and will look to Louisiana and New Orleans to share some of the costs.
But he said that decision and the release of new flood maps would probably happen in a "relatively short period of time _ in a matter of days."
Louisiana officials fumed over the talk of a new funding requirement, coming 60 days before the hurricane season begins.
"This is enormously frustrating to me," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La. "I’ve been telling them since last November that they’ve sought way too little money for essential levee work, and this finally confirms that. Only it comes after months of stonewalling, with the new hurricane season right around the corner."
In Baton Rouge, Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, called the new costs "an outrage" and demanded that Congress come up with the money.
Without the additional cash, Blanco said, some of the hardest-hit areas probably wouldn’t receive the levee repairs needed to give them the protection they had before Katrina.
"Obviously all sections will not be secure," she said.
But Powell said all levees will be rebuilt at least to pre-Katrina levels, and perhaps even stronger, by June 1. Over the next 60 days, he said, the Corps will put armor on levees and build storm-proof pumping stations and flood gates that would close certain parts of New Orleans’ canals if there were a major storm.
"If another Katrina (level) storm hit after that work’s done, there would be some topping … but the flooding would be all manageable," Powell said. "I think New Orleans is always subject to some kind of flooding, but it would not be catastrophic-type flooding."
In a conference call with reporters, Army Corps of Engineers Maj. Gen. Don Riley said the new costs are the result of ongoing repairs and studies of the levees.
"As we learn, we will adjust our methodology and our estimate," Riley said. "To do it properly, it takes time. Our main interest is in getting this right for the people of New Orleans."
What the storm-ravaged region will look like in coming years is largely up to state and local officials, Powell said, though the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will have authority to "tweak" some of the housing plans.
He also said he hoped the city’s full recovery would take far less than 25 years, "but to be realistic and very honest, I don’t know."
"It really depends upon the local people in the area and how they plan their destiny," he said. "It could be much shorter than that, depending upon how they plan their future."
Associated Press Writers Brett Martel in New Orleans and Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge contributed to this story.
© 2006 The Associated Press