CHALMETTE, La. --
Federal, local and state leaders met on Thursday in a hearing to talk about lessons learned in disaster response since Hurricane Katrina.
The St. Bernard Parish school system was one of the school districts hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina.
On Thursday, five years after the storm, school officials said they've made progress, and so has the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
From the inside to the outside, Chalmette Elementary School is a sure sign of recovery.
"Well, we lost an entire school district and a community," said St. Bernard Parish Public Schools Superintendent Doris Voitier. "We were totally underwater. There were no schools that were not damaged."
Voitier said Chalmette Elementary is the last of 12 schools to rebuild post-Katrina, but she said she vividly recalls the struggles after the storm.
"In the beginning, there was chaos," she said. "There was no one really empowered by FEMA on the ground to assist us and getting that process accomplished within the first 60 to 90 days."
Rep. Steve Scalise said locals led the recovery effort.
"The FEMA that you see today, the improvements that we've all had to fight through over the last five years, have come because our local leaders on the ground, those people that are on the frontlines and having to fight these battles, have actually pointed out areas of rules and regulations that needed to be improved," Scalise said.
Sen. Mary Landrieu said offering long-term recovery assistance remains a problem for the federal government.
"What do you do with the three months or three years? Is there a rebuilding agency at the federal level that's helping all rebuild the many things that have to be rebuild?" Landrieu said. "That is the challenge, and FEMA has to help us figure that out."
Landrieu also said FEMA has made improvements. She said FEMA officials would do a better job if another catastrophic natural disaster were to ever happen again.
Since 2005, FEMA has doled out more than $5.1 billion for projects in the New Orleans metro area.
"What I'm finally glad to see, which I think has been a long time coming, is actually construction, completed schools that are now open, that were destroyed or weren't there before the hurricane (and) fire stations. I'm not saying the work is done. What's important is that we are focusing on rebuilding," said FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate.
Fugate said the agency he now heads up made some mistakes after Hurricane Katrina -- one he said won't be repeated under his watch.
"We can't make promises that we can't demonstrate," he said. "We just have to get ready and make sure that when disaster strikes, we remember who we are working for, and that's the survivors. Meeting their needs quickly as a team, that's what we are working toward."
He said he has worked to streamline the emergency response and speed up the flow of recovery dollars, getting rid of red tape that made getting help hard to come by.
On Thursday, Fugate toured the LSU Medical Center and the Regional Transit Authority to see just how FEMA money has been put to use.
In addition to the billions that FEMA has already sent to the metro area for recovery projects, Fugate said there is $3 billion more in the pipeline.