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Back in September, as floodwaters receded from New Orleans and residents returned to the ruined Gulf Coast to assess damage done by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, local officials and industry leaders were often headed in the other direction — north toward Washington. Platoons of Louisianans, Mississippians, Texans, and Alabamans made their way up to Washington to appeal to Congress — and to K Street — for financial aid in the rebuilding process. Outfits large and small, with issues ranging from food aid to demolition work, hired Washington’s top guns to help them navigate the curious shoals of the federal government. Now, seven months later, the lobby work has entered a distinctly different phase, one dominated by large construction companies, engineering firms, and real estate developers seeking federal contracts and Federal Emergency Management Agency work. It’s a a window into both the failures and successes of the Katrina recovery efforts. Even as the flow of disaster lobby work subsides and the emphasis in Congress shifts away from short-term recovery to long-term revival, the landscape in much of the Gulf region remains remarkably unchanged. Huge swaths in Louisiana and Mississippi remain strewn with wreckage. Abandoned cars, beached boats, and the remnants of houses still litter the streets in many neighborhoods in the region. Perhaps that’s why trash-hauling, construction, and engineering firms have signed up more lobbyists since the beginning of the year than have hospitals, schools, or local governments, according to Senate registration records. Practical issues, such as who will transport debris and get landfill contracts, are still the primary focus of much of the recovery effort. By contrast, matters such as zoning, property rights, and reimbursements — issues that lobbyists had thought would dominate the Katrina debate at this point in the recovery effort — remain secondary. Despite perceptions to the contrary, Congress has been fairly attentive to the region — at least as measured by dollars — authorizing $88 billion in appropriations, bridge loans, and tax incentives. But even with the windfall of congressionally appropriated cash, the primary economic driver in the recovery isn’t Congress but contracts doled out by FEMA. To land those deals clients are clamoring to hire lobbyists with New Orleans connections.
• Helping Others, Helping Themselves (January 9, 2006)• In the Wake of Katrina (November 28, 2005)• Learning From Katrina (November 7, 2005)• After the Deluge, Tax Relief? (October 17, 2005)• Reed Smith Attorneys Help Inmates Displaced by Katrina (October 10, 2005)

Livingston Group, whose founder is New Orleans ex-Rep. Robert Livingston (R), has signed up four Louisiana clients since Katrina mauled the state, including Riverbirch Inc., a landfill company. New Orleans-based law firm Adams & Reese has signed on five clients with hurricane-recovery issues, including three Mississippi construction companies, since September. It’s not entirely clear how much money lobbyists have taken in from Katrina-related representations. Most shops’ fees from the second half of 2005 have not yet been made available by the U.S. Senate, and lobbyists, understandably, are reluctant to discuss how much money they’re making from their work on the tragedy. But R. Christian Johnsen, managing partner of New Orleans-based Jones, Walker, Waechter, Poitevent, Carrere & Denegre‘s Washington office, says that despite working seven-day workweeks for four months to service his New Orleans clients, he didn’t raise fees. Coincidentally, Jones Walker is one of the few firms that landed new Katrina clients in 2005 that has its fee data available from the Senate. Historic Reconstruction Inc. paid the firm $20,000 after Katrina, according to Senate records. Orlando-based law firm Akerman Senterfitt, neither a lobbying powerhouse in Washington nor a firm with deep Gulf connections, saw an emerging need and in October started a disaster recovery practice. It hired Dan Craig, the former head of recovery for FEMA, to lead the roughly 12-person practice group. Akerman Senterfitt’s clients with a stake in the Katrina cleanup include R.W. Beck, an engineering company, and DRC Emergency Services, a debris-management company, both of which are seeking FEMA work. “What I’ve seen firms doing rather than setting up a disaster recovery practice is using the people they currently have,” says Craig. One Republican lobbyist says his firm is staying away from the reconstruction contracts because it is fearful of accusations of profiting from a tragedy. Such accusations, it should be noted, have been leveled at several shops working on hurricane-related FEMA contracts. “Most of the companies are out of state, and it’s a lot like the Iraqi [reconstruction] situation,” says the lobbyist. “They’re thinking, �These are big contracts; we can really cash in on this.’ That’s where a lot of the business development is coming from.” But Craig insists that with nearly all of the reconstruction yet to begin, FEMA contract work is not only necessary for the region’s recovery but also not a here-today-gone-tomorrow proposition. “FEMA is still in Northridge,” he says, referring to the 1994 earthquake that struck suburban Los Angeles. “And we’re possibly in the middle of an 18-year hurricane system.”

Andy Metzger can be contacted at [email protected].

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