Still Drowning in New Orleans

By Jennifer Moses
Sunday, February 12, 2006

BATON ROUGE -- Though most of New Orleans resembles Nagasaki after the bomb, President Bush and the Republican-controlled Congress appear to have all but forgotten about it. In his State of the Union address, the president mentioned New Orleans only briefly, and at a news conference five days earlier, he declared in reference to promised federal reconstruction funds, "I want to remind the people in that part of the world, $85 billion is a lot."

Unfortunately, nothing close to $85 billion has been spent, and that's because most of it is tied up with something called the Stafford Act, which restricts the use of federal money for precisely the kind of things that Louisiana needs to recover, particularly housing relief. It's like giving a kid a dollar to spend on anything he likes as long as it's broccoli. In the meantime, most members of Congress -- 87 percent of the House and 70 percent of the Senate -- haven't bothered to come on down to the Big Easy at all.

The devastation isn't about race, either: Though the Lower Ninth Ward, a largely low-income African American neighborhood, was a favorite among the national press, every other area that wasn't on "high ground" got devastated as well. Pick any subgroup: White yuppies? Immigrant Asians? Wealthy blacks? Their former neighborhoods are now piles of rubble and mud, too.

With hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Mother Nature wiped out or critically damaged 45 percent of Louisiana's housing. As the president might say: "Forty-five percent is a lot."

At the same time -- and this is so pathetic that it makes you want to weep -- those residents who have returned to New Orleans are agonizing over the question of how best to project the city's image to strike a balance between begging mode (and declaring, quite rightly, that the city is a disaster area) and presenting their city as a place that's worth coming back to, investing in and visiting.

My opinion is that it doesn't much matter what image the city tries to project, because the Bush administration has largely written New Orleans off. It's not big news in Washington, but here in Louisiana, where the state is not only penniless but in hock to the feds to the tune of some $4 billion for hurricane-related expenses, the president's rejection of the bipartisan Baker plan, which hoped to create a federal agency that would use a $30 billion line of credit through Treasury bonds to buy back damaged property, was tantamount to a death sentence. The Baker plan remains the only viable recovery plan on the table, and yet Bush said that its price tag, $30 billion, is too high. Unlike, say, the cost of the war in Iraq, $250 billion so far, and the White House just asked for $120 billion more.

In an instance of double bind so mind-numbingly stupid that you have to think that Washington is run by a mob of sadists, the president's point man for Gulf Coast recovery, Donald Powell, recently urged Louisiana to use its share of federal funds to buy out uninsured homeowners living outside the flood plain, rationalizing that those inside the flood plain should have had flood insurance. The only problem is that all of New Orleans, as well as most of South Louisiana as a whole, is both below sea level and within the federal levee system, meaning, again, that New Orleans-area homeowners get diddly squat.

"We will do whatever it takes to rebuild New Orleans," the president promised the nation in September. Really? How about acknowledging that, while hurricanes make the front pages, an even more insidious natural disaster is already well underway? For decades, Louisiana's wetlands -- which greatly reduce the impact of storms -- have been disappearing at the rate of two football fields an hour, amounting to 1 million acres over the past half-century washing into the sea, victim of the human penchant for tinkering with the landscape and exploiting it for profit. At the rate we're going, in a generation or two most of South Louisiana will simply be gone, along with the Louisiana fisheries, gas and shipping industries.

The good news is that the damage is reversible under a long-term plan to restore the wetlands using a system of pumps and pipelines. The cost of the plan, which for years has been supported by a broad swath of scientists, environmentalists and oil interests, is estimated to be about $14 billion -- or the same as six weeks in Iraq -- but the Bush administration, apparently under the impression that no one's watching, isn't interested.

Mr. President, we're on life support down here. Don't pull the plug.

Jennifer Moses is a writer.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company