A 'Road Home' to Lunacy
NEW ORLEANS -- It's beyond frustrating to hear well-meaning bureaucrats cite all the reasons that so little has been done to rebuild this ruined city and the rest of the Gulf Coast -- why, for example, out of more than 100,000 Louisiana households that have applied to the state government for their share of $7 billion in federal reconstruction funds, fewer than 400 have received their money.
That's no misprint, and I'm being generous. As of last week, when I attended a Senate Homeland Security Committee hearing at the Louisiana Supreme Court building in the historic French Quarter, the actual number of homeowners who had gotten reconstruction money from this program, called Road Home, was 331. My hopeful assumption is that a few more checks have trickled out since then.
The three senators who flew down to conduct the hearing -- committee Chairman Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), home-state champion Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and presidential hopeful Barack Obama (D-Ill.) -- were remarkably focused and patient, given the circumstances. I got so exasperated that I had to let my mind wander, and it settled on Brownian motion.
That's not a reference to Michael Brown, the ridiculous former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brownian motion is a natural phenomenon that bewildered 19th-century physicists. Looking through their microscopes, they could see that a tiny particle suspended in a fluid -- a mote of dust, say -- didn't just float in place. It did a jittery little dance, abruptly jerking left and right and forward and back, always in motion.
It took Albert Einstein to figure out what was going on. Einstein explained that the infinitesimal molecules of the fluid, randomly zooming to and fro, are colliding with the relatively gargantuan piece of dust. If, at a given instant, more molecules hit it from the right than from the left, it moves left. The next instant, if more molecules hit it from the south than from the north, it moves north. The buffeted particle just zigzags aimlessly, never really getting anywhere.
That's where the recovery of New Orleans stands, or floats. Factors such as subparagraph-level provisions of federal programs, fine-print details of a contract signed by the state government and shifting alliances in municipal politics -- minuscule things, compared with the size of the job that must be done -- push from all sides, and the result is a frenzied stasis.
One example: Almost a year ago, Congress appropriated $10.4 billion in special housing funds for reconstruction in Louisiana. Federal bureaucrats at the hearing last week were at pains to tell the senators why the requirement that the state ante up 10 percent of that total in matching funds was being enforced, since this statutory provision was waived in other recent disasters such as the Sept. 11 attacks and several Florida hurricanes.
And no one even tried to explain why Washington won't just let Louisiana write a check for its 10 percent share, and instead wants the state to write, justify and track a separate 10 percent check for each individual rebuilding project -- thousands upon thousands of checks.
Everyone knows this is insanity. Nobody does anything about it.
Another example: Remember those lucky homeowners who have gotten their Road Home checks? The first thing they're being required to do is pay back, in full, any loans they previously received under a special Small Business Administration rebuilding program. Anything else we can do for you?
Washington complains that the state and local governments were painfully slow to develop their reconstruction plans -- and that's true. State and local officials respond that it took months to understand and comply with all the federal rules their projects must follow to qualify for funding -- and that's true, too.
Donald E. Powell, the Texas banker whom President Bush appointed to coordinate the federal post-Katrina recovery effort, was the committee hearing's opening witness. When Obama asked in plain language what the prospects were for an ordinary homeowner who wanted to rebuild and come home, Powell said thoughtfully, "That's a tough question . . . a complex question." Then he spoke about new tax incentives, which he is certain will persuade developers to build affordable housing.
Tax incentives? With most of the city still in ruins? Hello?
To escape the death dance of Brownian motion, New Orleans needs force applied in one coherent direction. I have an idea: If Gen. David H. Petraeus is as smart and tough as the president says he is, if he's good enough to save Baghdad, the president should immediately send him to New Orleans instead -- or explain why policing a civil war in Iraq takes priority over resurrecting a great American city.