CHALMETTE, La. (AP) - FEMA learned from Hurricane Katrina to be more flexible in reviewing and approving federal funding for storm repair and rebuilding projects, the agency's head told a congressional panel on the eve of the storm's fifth anniversary.
Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate told the panel, led by U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., that the agency became "too oriented on process" after the 2005 hurricane, prolonging a backlog of projects awaiting money.
"We were spending too much time going back and forth over procedures," he said, adding that FEMA has learned to "focus on outcomes" since the Obama administration put him in charge of the agency, which was vilified for its slow response in Katrina's aftermath.
Several members of Louisiana's congressional delegation also heard testimony from two other federal agency heads: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan and Lt. Gen. Robert Van Antwerp of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Donovan said nearly 40,000 families displaced by the 2005 storms were still relying on government housing assistance when the Obama administration took office. Today, he added, 98 percent of them have moved into permanent housing.
"But we will not rest until we've completed the job for the remaining 883 families," he said. "One of the reasons we've made progress is that we realized early on that far too many Gulf Coast residents, through no fault of their own, have become stuck in the recovery process due to numerous challenges and barriers that left them unable to complete the rebuilding of their homes and their lives."
Van Antwerp said the Corps has spent billions of dollars to repair and strengthen the region's levee protection system andremains "totally committed to providing a system that will defend against the effects of a 100-year storm in June 2011."
"Work will continue beyond 2011 for some of the assistance features, like the permanent pumps, but won't affect our ability to withstand that 100-year storm," he added.
The hearing for the Senate Subcommittee on Disaster Recovery, which Landrieu chairs, was held at an elementary school in Chalmette built on the site of a middle school that was heavily damaged by Katrina.
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who sat on the same panel as Fugate, said he still sees a gap between the amount of Katrina damage and the amount of money set aside for repairing it.
"In the city of New Orleans, we're rebuilding everything," he said. "I think you've seen some successes there, but we have a long way to go."
Mayor Landrieu said the city has developed a "great relationship" with FEMA. His sister, Sen. Landrieu, also praised FEMA for improving its performance, describing the agency as "smarter" and "more agile."
"Despite the many things that have been changed, the federal government today ... is not well positioned still to respond to catastrophic disasters," she said. "That is what we need to work on."