AS SEEN IN USA TODAY’S NEWS SECTION, AUGUST 29, 2007
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
her door to neighbors. She persuaded the local cable companyto run a single Internet line down the oak tree in her front yardand into her house. Neighbors gathered at her home to accessfree wireless Internet.She kept a three-ring binder in her living room filled withtips on navigating the complex maze of contractors andinsurance claims. She brewed coffee."I realized very early on that people needed help," saysThornton, 49, who owns a room-fragrance business. "And Ineeded them. I wanted my neighborhood back."Thornton's efforts soon became a registered non-profitcalled Beacon of Hope. It drew on volunteers and cashdonations by groups such as the United Way and dispatchedteams to cut the lawns of abandoned homes, rebuild areaparks and keep streets clear of debris. The activity drewresidents back.Today, 11 Beacon of Hope offices are spread across northernNew Orleans, performing services usually done by the city."If disaster strikes another city, the best thing they could dois realize that the government will not do anything for you,"Thornton says."We are in this for ourselves."In the third-floor offices of a University of New Orleanscampus building, thigh-high piles of folders and papers arestacked next to a wall in the DNA department of the NewOrleans Police crime lab. Backlog cases, senior analyst JenniferSchroeder says.The crime lab's original building was destroyed under 4 1/2feet of water during Katrina. The floods also destroyed the"wet labs" used by DNA analysts to match samples of suspects,mostly in rape cases.If police need an urgent match, the case is outsourced tostate or private labs, says Anna Duggar, the crime lab's director.But without wet labs, in-house analysis has ceased. "DNAreally can't function without their lab spaces," she says.The city estimates it'll need $3million to replace the crimelab. So far, FEMA has obligated $673,000 for the building, saysCynthia Sylvain-Lear, the city's deputy chief administrativeofficer.The crime lab moved out of temporary trailers and into itscurrent location in April, in offices leased with FEMA funds,Duggar says. Architectural drawings were done so the spacecould be retrofitted with wet labs. But it's not clear when thecrime lab will move into permanent facilities.Part of the delay in municipal projects stems from FEMA'srequirement that the city pay for projects up front, then getreimbursed by the federal government. That's money the citydoesn't have, Sylvain-Lear says. There was an estimated $1billion in damage to city buildings and infrastructure, such asroads and bridges, but only $45million in federal funds hasreached city hands, she says. This does not include funds forpublic schools or the city's Sewerage and Water Board."I can't sign the contract without money, and the state can'tgive us the federal money without a contract," Sylvain-Learsays. "I have what some would call a cash-flow nightmare."FEMA officials say the strict rules guard against the misuseof federal money. Projects costing more than $1 million needcongressional review, further delaying the process, FEMA's Jamieson says."There's a lot that can be done to streamline the process," hesays. "The issue is: How much do you want to sacrifice interms of accountability and control over the funds?"Emergency federal funding is governed by the Stafford Act,whose rules require cities and states to match a certainpercentage of federal disaster funds. The U.S. governmentquickly waived the match requirement after previousdisasters, such as Hurricane Andrew in South Florida in 1992and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to the U.S.Government Accountability Office.
By H. Darr Beiser, USATODAY