Reckless Abandonment

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By Douglas Brinkley
Sunday, August 26, 2007

Over the past two years since Hurricane Katrina, I've seen waves of hardworking volunteers from nonprofits, faith-based groups and college campuses descend on New Orleans, full of compassion and hope.

They arrive in the city's Ninth Ward to painstakingly gut houses one by one. Their jaws drop as they wander around afflicted zones, gazing at the towering mounds of debris and uprooted infrastructure.

After weeks of grueling labor, they realize that they are running in place, toiling in a surreal vacuum.

Two full years after the hurricane, the Big Easy is barely limping along, unable to make truly meaningful reconstruction progress. The most important issues concerning the city's long-term survival are still up in the air. Why is no Herculean clean-up effort underway? Why hasn't President Bush named a high-profile czar such as Colin Powell or James Baker to oversee the ongoing disaster? Where is the U.S. government's participation in the rebuilding?

And why are volunteers practically the only ones working to reconstruct homes in communities that may never again have sewage service, garbage collection or electricity?

Eventually, the volunteers' altruism turns to bewilderment and finally to outrage. They've been hoodwinked. The stalled recovery can't be blamed on bureaucratic inertia or red tape alone. Many volunteers come to understand what I've concluded is the heartless reality: The Bush administration actually wants these neighborhoods below sea level to die on the vine.

These days a stiff Caribbean breeze causes residents to jerk into a high-alert state of anxiety. Still unfinished is the overhaul of what some call the "Lego levees," the notoriously flawed 350-mile "flood protection system" that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers starting building in 1965.

The Corps has been busy fixing the three principal holes that opened in August 2005. Its hard work has, in fact, paid a partial dividend. A decent defensive floodwall is now on the east side of the Industrial Canal, attempting to protect the Lower Ninth Ward.

Unfortunately, that is where the upbeat news nosedives. The federal government has refused to shut the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet canal that helped cause the Katrina "funnel effect" flooding two years ago. In addition, entire neglected neighborhoods still have no adequate flood control.

The answer to New Orleans's levee woes is painfully obvious: money and willpower. Common sense dictates that the endangered areas -- if repopulated (and that is a big if) -- demand levees that can sustain Category 5 storms. It's a national obligation. Entire blocks are moldering away while the federal government lifts only a cursory hand to reverse the desultory trend.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest misperceptions the American public harbors is that Katrina was a week-long catastrophe. In truth, it's better to view it as an era. Remember, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s lasted eight or nine years. We're still in the middle of the Katrina saga.

Bold action has been needed for two years now, yet all that the White House has offered is an inadequate trickle of billion-dollar Band-aids and placebo directives. Too often in the United States we forget that "inaction" can be a policy initiative. Every day the White House must decide what not to do.


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