From New Orleans, an earful of reforms

Katrina survivors to the Homeland Security chief on how to improve FEMA: Answer the bell faster.

If Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff wants to know how to make more improvements in beleaguered FEMA, New Orleans residents, who have been dealing with the emergency response agency for nearly six months, have plenty of ideas for him.

Some advise common sense. Others suggest ways of helping people without much money save some cents. If there's any single theme that stands out, it's that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) needs to speed up its response time.

"I asked for a trailer on Nov. 5 and just got it in mid-January," says Manuel Thibodeaux as he takes a break from putting a new roof on his mother's house. Just down the street from Mr. Thibodeaux, David Manning and Stanley Smith would like to suggest that FEMA help them save money on their reconstruction bills.

"Maybe they could make a deal with Home Depot or Lowe's so we could get a price discount on sheetrock, paint, new insulation," says Mr. Manning.

Probably it would be no surprise to Mr. Chertoff that many suggestions have to do with money. Tens of thousands of New Orleans residents have seen their life savings - if they had any - disappear. For many, FEMA became a kind of mysterious bank that they would like to know more about. "I know people are getting $10,000 or $20,000 from them, but I don't know how that goes," says Thibodeaux.

Many Katrina survivors are so busy trying to resurrect their own lives that they have only a vague idea of Chertoff's reform efforts, announced earlier this week. Homeland Security's own suggestions include adding 1,500 employees, doing a better job of tracking emergency supplies such as ice and water, and setting up "recon" teams to report back more quickly on the effects of a disaster. FEMA workers would visit emergency shelters such as the Superdome to register people, instead of asking them to try to reach FEMA on over-worked phone lines.

But for some residents, FEMA's problems go deeper than doing a better job of moving bags of ice. As he waits outside a city of New Orleans office, Victor Davis, a contractor and local resident, says FEMA needs to help provide some momentum in the recovery process by expediting the review of what constitutes the local flood plain.

Like tens of thousands here, he's waiting to find out how high off the ground houses will have to be built.

The federal government is expected to release this information for New Orleans within two months. But that does not help the rebuilders, says Mr. Davis.

"We're in limbo, and we need to know the new rules."

To many residents the delay in remapping New Orleans is one of their biggest complaints. Lisa Schmidt owns two rental properties in the Gentilly district on the eastern side of New Orleans. She wants to rebuild them, and her tenants have been calling to ask when they can move back. "But we still don't know if we can rebuild or will have to tear it down," she says. "This is absurd."

Not all the delays are the result of FEMA problems, residents acknowledge. For example, many complain that insurance companies have been slow in getting them checks. Until they get their insurance payments, they can't get aid from FEMA. "It's all part of the limbo," says Davis. "I know the insurance companies are private, and have nothing to do with FEMA.

Some residents suggestions are pure common sense. As she supervises the rebuilding of her home in eastern New Orleans, Karen Edwards says the agency just needs to "prepare in advance."

Her own experience with FEMA has been good, she says. The agency called her in November to offer her a trailer which she accepted. "I don't think it has anything to do with the fact I work for the federal government," she adds.

Of course not all New Orleans residents have suggestions for the agency. Lorine Foster, walking through City Hall, says FEMA sent her a form to fill out for living expenses and mailed the check to her new address in Memphis, Tenn. "I have no problems with FEMA," she says.

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