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New Orleans looks beyond State of the Union snub

Unfazed, Mayor C. Ray Nagin kicks off a two-year loan program.

January 25, 2007|Ann M. Simmons | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Mayor C. Ray Nagin is way beyond caring whether President Bush mentioned New Orleans in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

"We're 18 months into this thing. I'm tired of complaining and bellyaching," Nagin said Wednesday when asked about the speech at a news conference.

The city continues its struggle to recover from Hurricane Katrina, which pummeled New Orleans in August 2005, and some observers thought the absence of Katrina recovery from Bush's speech was telling.

Nagin was unfazed. "We're going to take whatever nickels we have, whatever pennies we have, whatever dollars we have, and we're going to stretch it, and we're going to make this recovery work," he said.

The mayor made his remarks as he announced a two-year pilot program that would offer loans -- interest-free for six months -- to homeowners waiting to receive aid from the sluggish Road Home recovery initiative, a state program that distributes federal funds. Almost 101,700 families have applied to the program, but as of Monday, money had been made available to 258.

City officials and residents are frustrated by the slow pace; many homeowners doubt they will ever receive Road Home assistance.

Other Louisiana lawmakers and residents took exception to the omission of the state's continued plight from Bush's speech, which focused on Iraq and domestic issues such as healthcare reform and energy consumption.

"Last year we were disappointed that the administration mentioned Katrina almost as an afterthought," Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.), said in a phone interview. "This year ... we are shocked that there was no mention at all of it, as if the problem has been solved, or simply gone away."

Also Wednesday, Jefferson and other Louisiana lawmakers introduced a bill that would allow the federal government to forgive loans made to local governments after disasters.

"I guess the pain of the hurricane is yesterday's news in Washington," Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco told a news conference in New Orleans, according to the Associated Press.

"But for us, it's still very real, very real, and it's something that we live with every single day."

Some critics have blamed Blanco's administration for the slow disbursement of the Road Home money.

Nagin's "gap-loan" plan -- which is funded by $11 million in federal grants and will be administered by Chase and Liberty Banks -- will initially allow up to 1,000 homeowners who lived in Orleans Parish when Katrina hit to borrow up to $50,000, interest-free for six months, while waiting for Road Home grants. The fund would gradually be replenished as homeowners received Road Home grants and paid off their loans, Nagin said.

Among the eligibility requirements, loan applicants must agree to live in their renovated home for at least three years after it has been repaired.

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ann.simmons@latimes.com

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