In the two years since Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the federal government has provided Mississippi $23 billion to assist recovery. But tales of hope and renewal are far outweighed by horror stories of crippling bureaucracy and red tape, and residents say FEMA is to blame.
On Monday, Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas joked that FEMA should really stand for "forget expecting meaningful answers." But answers were what we were looking for when "Good Morning America's" Robin Roberts spoke recently with the agency's leader, David Paulison.
DeLisle Elementary was one of the few schools in Pass Christian, Miss., to survive the storm, though it was devastated by wind and rain. And when it rains now, school officials said it feels like someone is adding insult to injury.
Now students from three schools attend classes there -- 600 extra students going to class in 60 trailers supplied by FEMA. Because none of the trailers have indoor bathrooms, students must go outside to portable toilets rented by the government.
DeLisle Elementary, which is not connected to the city water system, needs FEMA to help pay for a new well. But approval for the $300,000 system has been bogged down in red tape and regulation for nearly two years.
"I think of FEMA as the Wizard, you know, in the 'Wizard of Oz'," Superintendent Sue Matheson said. "FEMA is out there somewhere behind a curtain, but we just can't seem to get to the right person that will tell us, 'Yes,' and put the water well in."
It is a complaint heard all along the Gulf Coast.
"It is frustrating the amount of time it has taken to get approval for the project," said Kevin Coggin, executive director of the Coastal Transit Authority. He's been trying for nearly two years to get public bus stations and restrooms approved. He said FEMA approved one plan, but then changed its mind.
FEMA, which was blasted for bungling its initial response to Katrina, has come under increasing scrutiny for the way it has handled rebuilding.
Cutting Through the Red Tape
One recent report showed only 43 percent of the money initially set aside for infrastructure has been handed out. And there are concerns about families still living in temporary trailers supplied by the agency.
And while there have been many successes, people here wonder if complicated rules are trumping common sense.
"We are appreciative. Very, very appreciative of the help that we've gotten from FEMA," Matheson said. "But we just wish that they could do away with some of the bureaucracy so we could actually get the job done as 'Good Morning America' does."
In an effort to help the people of Robin's hometown, "Good Morning America" cut through the red tape and spoke directly to the head of FEMA, David Paulison.
"If there's a well problem there, I can fix that," Paulison said. "We want to cut through that bureaucracy. And we're putting people down there who can do that. We've got people down there that can make decisions. And if it's getting to them, then I need to find out why."
Paulison said that the trailers along the Gulf Coast are the same ones that FEMA has been using for over 20 years. He admits they are the short-term solution, but said it was all they had to work with at the time. "We are working very hard to get you out of there," he said to Pass Christian's residents.
"I think while we, again, don't have a crystal, but what I suspect will be different, a lot more building will be going on, we'll have a lot more people out of the travel trailers, those mobile homes," Paulison said.
"The business is starting to come back. You see the hotels starting to be rebuilt, the casinos being rebuilt. Restaurants are opening up. So it is coming back, and it does take a while."