Remember New Orleans

Friday, August 15, 2008

THREE YEARS have passed since Hurricane Katrina lashed the Gulf Coast. The people of New Orleans felt abandoned by their country then. And while they are optimistic about their future, they feel forgotten now.

In a survey of Orleans Parish released by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation this month, 65 percent of respondents said they thought "most Americans have forgotten about the challenges facing New Orleans." Sixty percent said no when asked, "Do you think the rebuilding of New Orleans is a priority for Congress and the president?" No surprise: The pace of recovery has been slow. Battles between Baton Rouge and Washington over red tape and funding have contributed to this. That doesn't mean progress isn't being made. It is. But the need for leadership and focus from Washington remains.

A survey by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center of the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program shows that New Orleans has recovered 72 percent of its pre-Katrina population. For the region as a whole, it's 87 percent. Tax revenue is at 89 percent of the pre-Katrina level in Orleans Parish. Revenue is surging past that level in surrounding parishes.

But the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) reports that less than half of the $33.2 billion in allocated federal rebuilding funds has been spent. The Brookings report shows that fair-market rents have climbed 46 percent since Katrina. Disbursements from the state-run home rebuilding fund, the Road Home Program, have slowed. According to the LRA, 84 percent of active applications had been closed as of Wednesday. The average grant is down to $58,527 from $72,669 in July 2007. Despite an increase in ridership, Brookings notes, only 50 percent of public transportation routes and 19 percent of buses are operational in New Orleans.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) both decry what they describe as the Bush administration's inadequate response during the worst natural disaster in U.S. history and vow never to be caught flat-flooted in the White House. Mr. McCain's plan concentrates on rebuilding the levees and other infrastructure, and on disaster preparedness and rapid response. Those are on Mr. Obama's list, along with sparking economic development and bolstering safety and security. The Kaiser Foundation notes that 74 percent of the people of New Orleans are optimistic about the future -- a remarkable outlook for a city that has longed for safety and security since the levees broke on Aug. 29, 2005.

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