No Words for the Gulf

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, January 26, 2007

More infuriating than anything George W. Bush said in his State of the Union address was what he didn't say. Congress and the nation heard nothing, zilch, nada, not a single, solitary word about New Orleans, the Gulf Coast and the devastation that remains from the worst natural disaster in United States history.

A disaster that happened on his watch. How nice that the White House has been able to move beyond the trauma of September 2005 -- wind and water, death and destruction, poverty and race, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job." Too bad the people of New Orleans, St. Bernard Parish, Pass Christian, Biloxi and the rest of the coast will never have the luxury of forgetting.

They can't forget that, days after Hurricane Katrina made its tragic landfall, President Bush stood in New Orleans's historic Jackson Square, while most of the city still lay beneath brackish floodwaters, and said that nature's trials "remind us that we're tied together in this life, in this nation -- and that the despair of any touches us all."

Must have been a very light touch.

That night, Bush promised that "we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities." He vowed that "this great city will rise again." Then, as usual, he acted as if saying something were enough to make it true.

Bush said there was "no way to imagine America without New Orleans." No imagination is needed -- the New Orleans that we knew before the flood no longer exists. The remnant of a city that survives between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain has less than half the population of the New Orleans we used to know. Vast neighborhoods are full of houses abandoned to mold and decay.

Hundreds of thousands of residents still have no way to come home -- or no homes to return to. Vicious hoodlums have returned, however, and are preying on the diehards who never left and the pioneers who are doing their best to help the city rebuild. Yes, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have just bought a house in New Orleans and say they will make the city their home. But they're likely to have better security than their neighbors.

New Orleans was doomed not just by Hurricane Katrina but by the failure of levees and flood walls that should have provided ample protection. The Army Corps of Engineers has worked day and night to patch the flood control system, and if a Katrina hit again tomorrow, most of the city should stay dry. But if a similar hurricane hit from a different angle -- or, heaven forbid, a stronger hurricane hit from any angle -- what's left of New Orleans would probably be destroyed.

The man who inspired Bush's immortal "Brownie" remark, Michael Brown, will go down in history as the Federal Emergency Management Agency director who botched the federal response to Katrina. But he intends to take others in the White House down with him. Last week, speaking to a group of graduate students, Brown claimed that he recommended that the White House assert federal control of the disaster response in the whole affected area.

"Certain people in the White House," Brown said, wanted to "federalize" the response in Louisiana to embarrass Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, but avoid taking any steps in Mississippi that would cast Gov. Haley Barbour, a Republican, in an unfavorable light. Brown did not name the White House officials who were behind these alleged machinations; a White House spokesman denied his claims.

I'm about as cynical as anyone about George W. Bush and his administration, but what I mostly saw in the days after Katrina was incompetence, not political gamesmanship. The scale of the disaster was almost unimaginable, and even if the federal government had done its job, lives would have been lost and the Gulf Coast left in ruins.

What is unconscionable is that a president who fundamentally does not believe in government has allowed market forces to take the lead in the reconstruction effort, which ensures that the New Orleans he promised to rebuild is gone forever. The logjam of insurance claims, construction permits, flood maps and levee projects keeps things from moving forward; businesses can't function without workers, and workers can't come home if they have no place to live.

What kind of president can see one of the nation's greatest, most historic cities ruined and not make its rebirth his highest priority? What kind of president gives a State of the Union and doesn't even mention New Orleans?

© 2007 The Washington Post Company