Apr 12, 2010 7:03 AM by Letitia Walker
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
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
"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
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
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.