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Apr 12, 2010 7:03 AM by Letitia Walker

Chile Looking to Learn from New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Chile's new president toured New Orleans on

Sunday for a lesson on disaster relief, saying he hoped his

government would quickly approve a financial plan to begin that

country's recovery from a devastating earthquake and tsunami.

"We have come here to learn from you," President Sebastian

Pinera told Mayor Ray Nagin during a tour of New Orleans, which was

devastated by Hurricane Katrina on Aug. 29, 2005. "The rebuilding

process will take years."

He urged Chile's congress to approve a financial package "in

weeks, not years" to fund the recovery. Chilean congressional

members traveled with Pinera to the U.S.

Chile was struck by a magnitude-8.8 quake on Feb. 27, one of the

biggest ever measured. The quake also spawned a tsunami that

devastated many coastal areas. Pinera was sworn in March 11 while

the country was still being rocked by aftershocks.

Pinera put the catastrophe's cost at $30 billion. He said 342

people were killed and 95 others are presumed dead. He said the

catastrophe destroyed 4,000 schools and left 800,000 victims in its

wake.

Pinera, who calls himself Chile's "reconstruction president,

said his South American nation was in a "race against winter" to

find temporary shelter for those left homeless and hoped to get

every displaced child into school by the end of April.

Pinera visited New Orleans during his first U.S. trip since

taking office. The Chilean delegation will go to Washington after

New Orleans, where Pinera will speak at the Brookings Institution

on Monday before joining a White House summit on nuclear security.

President Barack Obama is expected to highlight Chile's

cooperation in keeping highly enriched uranium from the hands of

potential terrorists.

"The main risk with nuclear weapons I think is not those

weapons that are in the hands of states of government, but the risk

those weapons might fall in the hands of terrorists or anarchists

or groups like that," Pinera said Sunday.

Recently, as aftershocks shook their equipment, U.S. and Chilean

engineers extracted the last of Chile's enriched uranium and

shipped it to South Carolina, where it will likely be converted to

safer fuel and resold for use in reactors.

In New Orleans, Pinera spent much of his visit in the Lower 9th

Ward, a neighborhood devastated when a floodwall was breached

during Katrina.

The neighborhood still has not been rebuilt and is covered in

empty lots where homes once stood. Many people have been unable to

rebuild because of money problems and inadequate government

rebuilding programs, while others have abandoned the area,

considering it too unsafe.

The neighborhood has drawn a lot of money from philanthropic

groups such as the Make It Right foundation, a group backed by

actor Brad Pitt that is building homes for hurricane victims.

Pinera visited the homes Sunday.

Nagin told Pinera to expect a long and difficult recovery. Nagin

said the average recovery from a catastrophe takes between 10 and

15 years.

He said the key pieces of rebuilding would be to get the money

to do the work, cobbling together a rebuilding plan to the

satisfaction of divergent groups.

"Most people want to see their community back to the way it was

immediately, and that's just not reality," Nagin said.

Nagin, who leaves office on May 3, advised Pinera to "hear the

consultant, but really listen to the people."

Nagin is one of the last politicians left in office in Louisiana

who was in charge when Katrina hit, but he leaves office with very

low approval ratings after his administration was blamed for

incompetence and hit by allegations of corruption.

The mayor, though, can point to successes in New Orleans. The

city's population has returned to about 80 percent of its

pre-Katrina size and the economy, buoyed by rebuilding dollars, is

enjoying low unemployment.

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