Where's Bush? Not in New Orleans.

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, December 16, 2005

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has been guilty of hyperbole in the past, with his exaggerated reports of mayhem and death in the days after Hurricane Katrina made its tragic landfall. But his plea to Congress this week that his city "is being allowed to die as we speak" may have been an understatement. Three months after President Bush stood in Jackson Square and vowed that "this great city will rise again," New Orleans instead appears to be circling the drain.

The president promised that "we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives." It was a great sound bite and a great photo op, but where the hell is he now?

At the moment, in what's left of New Orleans, citizens are waging a spirited debate over how big a Mardi Gras they should try to stage next spring. There's also a sideshow legal battle over trademarking the name Katrina for a cocktail, presumably one that leaves you with an awful hangover. I see the virtue of laughing in the face of adversity, but what I'm hearing sounds like serious denial. How does the city plan its big annual party when most of the would-be revelers are scattered to the four winds and can't come home because there's nowhere for them to live or work or send their children to school?

The Gray Line sightseeing company has an idea for luring tourists back: a new bus tour, to be launched in January, called "Hurricane Katrina -- America's Worst Catastrophe!" According to Gray Line's Web site, visitors will learn about the city's precarious geography, see ruined neighborhoods, hear an eyewitness account of the flood and even "drive past an actual levee that 'breached.' "

The old New Orleans is effectively gone. If the new New Orleans is to be more than a few port facilities and a sad little "sin and decadence" theme park for liquored-up conventioneers, you need the people to come back. The Congressional Black Caucus has introduced a comprehensive bill designed to attend to the needs of evacuees from the entire Gulf Coast and give them the resources they need to go home, but the Bush administration and the congressional leadership have preferred a scattershot, largely ineffective approach.

"I really get the feeling sometimes that our government would like for these people to remain scattered around the nation and not come back and rebuild," said Rep. Melvin Watt (D-N.C.), chairman of the caucus. "Trying to do it in a piecemeal way is just going to prolong the agony for the people."

It may or may not be wise to rebuild New Orleans on a grand scale -- we may be talking about a much smaller city. But if it's going to be rebuilt on any scale, there has to be some assurance that the next big hurricane won't flood the city again. That means you need upgraded levees, flood walls, pumps -- a whole system of hydraulic protection. The additional $1.5 billion that the White House pledged to spend on the levees yesterday is a start, but just a start. To go any further, you have to know what areas to protect.

Does it make sense to rebuild the devastated Lower Ninth Ward? Even if it is rebuilt, are the people who lived there before the flood really going to come back?

All the issues involved in reconstruction are so interlocked that nothing much is moving, and the longer the city sits empty and ruined, the less likely its renaissance becomes. Who but the president can break the logjam?

It's the responsibility of local officials to design the new New Orleans, but only the federal government is big enough to guarantee the money and provide the determination to make any plan a reality. What institution but the federal government can restore the wetlands south and east of the city into a buffer that will absorb much of the impact of the next hurricane? What institution but the federal government can break through all the jurisdictional barriers and push this halting process forward?

Bush ended his Sept. 15 speech in Jackson Square by pledging that "the streetcars will once again rumble down St. Charles and the passionate soul of a great city will return." Half of that prediction may soon come true -- they're talking about resuming token service on one of the streetcar lines. But the soul of New Orleans is its people, and that soul is being lost forever. Where is the president now?

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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