Don Powell, Federal Coordinator, Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding

Don Powell, Federal Coordinator, Office of Gulf Coast Rebuilding

Philanthropy News Digest: Katrina affected an area the size of Great Britain, severely damaged or destroyed more than 200,000 houses, and displaced more than a million people, making it one of the most destructive natural disasters in the history of the United States. Congress has committed more than $87 billion for relief and recovery efforts, and your office has requested another $20 billion. How much of that money has been spent, and are you satisfied with the results to date?

Don Powell: Roughly $66 billion of the $87 billion committed by Congress and the Bush administration has been allocated, with the administration requesting another $20 billion in the current supplemental. Our office is directly engaged in spending about $26 billion of that — that includes money for repairing the levees and Community Development Block Grant money, which has not yet been approved. Assuming those funds are approved, I'm confident the monies requested and approved for improvements to the levee system and the CDBG funds will be money well spent. [Ed. note: The request for an additional $20 billion was approved on June 15.]

PND: What are the issues people in the Gulf Coast region are most anxious to have the federal government address?

DP: That depends on your particular perspective and where you're located. For people in the greater New Orleans area, the levees are very important. Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, releasing the advisory flood maps was very important. Housing is important in both Mississippi and Louisiana. It's also important to people in Texas and Alabama, but not as critical a concern in those two states as it is in Louisiana and Mississippi. Insurance is also important, as is the healthcare component — health care is a very important issue for folks in the Gulf Coast region. Education is important, too, but housing would probably be the number-one concern for people in Mississippi and Louisiana.

PND: Will the levee system in and around New Orleans be back to pre-Katrina strength by June 1, the official start of the hurricane season?

DP: The Army Corps of Engineers has advised us that the levees will be restored to pre-Katrina levels by June 1. That includes repairing the breeches and raising levees to levels authorized before Katrina hit. In addition, some money to pay for enhancing the design of the levees — replacing I-walls with T-walls, installing state-of-the-art pumps and floodgates, armoring, and so on — has been requested in the current supplemental and will be ongoing. Those changes, when completed, will make the system better and stronger.

PND: In remarks you made at the Council on Foundations' annual conference in Pittsburgh in May, you encouraged the philanthropic community to step up to the plate and become what you called "catalytic investors" in the rebuilding and renewal of the Gulf Coast. What do you mean by that?

DP: I believe that private foundations can make an impact immediately on some of these issues. They can make an immediate impact in terms of rebuilding the education infrastructure in the region. They can make an impact in terms of restoring social services, in the area of assisted living, and on mental health issues. In each of those areas, there are immediate needs, and in many cases there are legal or bureaucratic obstacles that prevent the federal government from jumping in. Foundations, on the other hand, can jump in and provide the catalytic push, in many areas, that is critical to the rebuilding of the regional economy.

PND: At the end of the day, any money foundations kick in for the rebuilding effort will be dwarfed by public-sector funds. Given that fact, can the philanthropic community really make a difference in solving some of the deeper systemic problems in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region?

DP: Absolutely. This is an effort we all have to participate in. The federal government needs to do its role. The state governments need to do their role. Local governments need to do their role. But the thing that's really going to determine whether we are successful or not is having the private sector and foundations step up as they have in the past after a disaster like Katrina.

Frankly, the Gulf Coast has been given a clean slate and a fresh start. The people in the region have a chance not only to build their communities back as they were before the storms — but to make them better. But that will not happen without a lot of enterprising leadership from the philanthropic community.

Government can help rebuild a house, but we can't make it a home. We can rebuild city streets, but we can't restore a sense of community. We can even rebuild levees and hospitals and schools; but we can't really offer security, comfort, or hope to troubled souls. Foundations can go beyond bricks and mortar to restoring hearts and lives. They can invest in the soft infrastructure that makes up the fabric of a community with the kind of investments that can truly be transforming for the Gulf Coast, and New Orleans in particular.

I'm talking about addressing some of our nation's most challenging social problems with our most creative, innovative, and proven solutions. Foundations need to see this as the opportunity that it is; they can make a tremendous difference. And our office is here to help in any way we can, whether by sharing needs and answering questions, or by giving access to more information.

— Mitch Nauffts