Monday, January 30, 2006

Louisiana in Limbo

This editorial is from todays New York Times. A good overview of the situation in New Orleans.


New Orleans waits. While some heroic efforts at rebuilding are taking place, hundreds of thousands of residents have put their lives on hold until they know what the government's next steps will be, leaving the shells of their houses as placeholders. But the Bush administration has now rejected the most broadly supported plan for rebuilding communities while offering nothing to take its place.

It has been five months since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and for many the norm is still the claustrophobic new reality of tiny trailers and multiple families crammed into single apartments. Louisiana is trying. You can hear jackhammers pounding and buzz saws whirring on Canal Street in New Orleans. Dedicated workers endure a grinding daily commute from points north, like Baton Rouge, as they try to make the city and the region whole again. But the mission is far from complete and the challenge is beyond the scope of a broken city and a poor state.

New Orleans's crisis has little relation to anything the nation has faced in modern memory, and traditional solutions will simply not help. Homeowners — many very poor people whose houses had been in their families for generations — had varying degrees of insurance before the disaster. When entire neighborhoods are devastated, their mildewed furniture and drywall piled on the roadsides, it's impossible to tell the people who are well insured to rebuild and hope that the houses all around them will somehow be reclaimed somewhere down the line.

But the Bush administration refuses to support the plan of Representative Richard Baker, Republican of Louisiana, which would give everyone the capacity to rebuild and which had the backing of the mayor, the governor and the state's Congressional delegation. (To add insult to injury, two days after the White House shot down Mr. Baker's proposal, President Bush suggested at a news conference that Louisiana's problem was the lack of a plan.)

Instead of an alternate solution, the president's Katrina czar, Donald Powell, has offered sleight of hand, touting $6.2 billion in development money for Louisiana passed last year by Congress as if it were somehow a substitute. And in an attempt to narrow the scope of the problem, Mr. Powell says the government first needs to care for the roughly 20,000 homeowners without flood insurance who lived outside the federally designated flood plain. The real tally of destroyed or damaged homes in the region is well over 200,000. And the real need is housing for residents, whether they were renters or owners, insured or uninsured, living above the flood plain or trusting the federal government's levees to protect them from storms.

Perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on the wreckage of poor, low-lying New Orleans neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward. That has sparked the unproductive, blame-the-victim debate revolving around whether people should have lived there in the first place. The Ninth Ward provides a misleading picture of the city, as do the relatively unscathed tourist areas like the French Quarter and the Garden District. Huge swaths of the city have the empty quality of a ghost town. Stores wait for residents to reopen; residents wait to see if neighbors will return. The city and surrounding parishes will not meet Mr. Powell's neat categories, when renters lived beside owners, insured next to uninsured. He is talking like an actuary when a leader is needed to rescue this region.

Now, Congress has a responsibility to follow its own lead rather than the president's. We were outraged once, shocked at the images on our television sets, at the poverty in our collective backyard and at the devastation of a great city. As the disaster threatens to become permanent, we have every reason to remain so.