Donald Powell is a tall, courtly Texan who holds one of the most important but thankless jobs in the federal government.
In November 2005, President Bush named Mr. Powell to be Federal Coordinator of Gulf Coast Rebuilding. In that role, the former banker is Uncle Sam's point person on rebuilding the portions of Louisiana and Mississippi that were devastated by hurricane Katrina. The one-year anniversary of the storm is Aug. 29.
The scope of the rebuilding effort is massive and the people who saw their homes and businesses destroyed by the disaster are naturally impatient. The area affected by Katrina "is seven times larger than Manhattan," Powell reminded reporters at a Monitor-sponsored luncheon on Tuesday. "More than 1.5 million people were affected ... 800,000 citizens were forced to live outside their homes. This was the largest displacement of people since the great Dust Bowl."
Before being named to his current post, Powell was Chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC). The agency insures more than $3 trillion of deposits in virtually every bank and thrift in the country. Running the FDIC was a natural outgrowth of his nearly four decades of experience as a financial services executive. Before coming to Washington, Powell was President and CEO of the First National Bank of Amarillo.
Powell says his current assignment has touched him deeply. "Psychologists tell us we have about seven or eight defining moments in life," he says. Speaking slowly and softly he adds, "This has been a defining moment in my life. When I come up here [to Washington], I feel like I need to get back down there....When I am down and wondering if we are really making a difference, I go to the area and I think we are in some small way making a difference in their lives."
While there is an ongoing debate about the adequacy of the government's efforts to rebuild the levees in New Orleans, Powell contends the city is safe. "I would move my family to New Orleans – better still, most important, my grandchildren. I would also make sure that I understood the evacuation plan. I would also probably look at how I am going to rebuild my home. Do I want to build it higher? I mean, I would be prudent and responsible in how I build."
The Stafford Act, which governs federal disaster relief efforts, needs revision, Powell contends. "We need to have the political will to change some of the restrictions that were placed upon us that were not applicable or realistic to the situation....We need a close look at the Stafford Act," he says.
Powell is optimistic that there will be enough workers to rebuild homes in Louisiana that were damaged by Katrina despite reports of labor shortages. "It is a challenge. But the capitalistic system is pretty remarkable. Workers are beginning to flow in there and those workers are making ... some of them are making $20 an hour," Powell says. "With $20 an hour, a lot of people come into the marketplace.... I think the work force is going to be there."