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Originally published Tuesday, March 17, 2009 at 4:33 PM

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LRA chief says La. may not meet September deadline for Katrina cottage program

Louisiana's hurricane recovery chief said Tuesday that he's unsure if the state will meet a September deadline to build 500 "Katrina cottages" through a federal housing program for hurricane victims.

Associated Press Writer

BATON ROUGE, La. —

Louisiana's hurricane recovery chief said Tuesday that he's unsure if the state will meet a September deadline to build 500 "Katrina cottages" through a federal housing program for hurricane victims.

Paul Rainwater, executive director of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, said he expects most of the homes to be completed on time, and he told a legislative committee he didn't think Louisiana would forfeit the federal money if all the cottages weren't completed by Sept. 17.

"I don't think we're going to lose the money, because we have made significant progress," Rainwater told the Legislative Audit Advisory Council.

No cottages have been built so far, more than two years since the state received the nearly $75 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for the housing program, which was supposed to provide homes for people displaced by hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005.

Construction began last month on a cottage site in Baton Rouge, and the homes are planned for New Orleans, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge and the Jackson Barracks military base in New Orleans.

FEMA awarded the state a grant to build the cottages in December 2006. After he took office last year, Gov. Bobby Jindal shifted oversight of the program to the LRA in March 2008, amid complaints the state housing agency in charge was moving too slowly to erect the homes.

Rainwater said the environmental assessments required to meet federal regulations slowed the program since the LRA took control, along with the impact of hurricanes Gustav and Ike six months ago.

"FEMA said (to) show good faith and make as much progress as possible" by the September deadline, Rainwater said.

The state will ask for an extension if it can't meet the deadline, he said.

The developer building the cottages, Cypress Realty Partners LLC, wouldn't commit Tuesday to completing its work by September.

"That's a tough question to answer, and it's got a lot of variables that impact that," the president of the company, William Smith, said when asked whether Cypress would meet the deadline.

Some of the planned cottage sites don't yet have construction schedules because the environmental assessments and other prep work are ongoing, Smith said.

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Louisiana's Katrina cottages program has become an often referenced example of the slow pace of recovery from the destruction caused by Katrina and Rita. While no cottages are complete in the state, Mississippi has spent most of its $281 million grant in the alternative housing program, building thousands of cottages for families who were displaced by Katrina.

"You can imagine how frustrated the people who need these homes really are," said Sen. Ben Nevers, D-Bogalusa.

Rainwater said Mississippi was able to avoid lengthy and complicated environmental regulations by putting their homes on wheels.

"If the idea was to get housing in quickly, like they did in Mississippi, then we probably should have gone with a different design. But people were tired of seeing FEMA trailers," he said.

Lawmakers said they were frustrated with the pace of the program, but they placed the blame Tuesday largely on the housing agency and administration of former Gov. Kathleen Blanco and praised Rainwater's handling of the program.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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