Slow-Motion Disaster

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 29, 2005; 11:33 AM

For once, I don't think I can blame the media.

Journalists keep writing stories about how awful things are in New Orleans. Time did a cover story last week: "It's Worse Than You Think." And yet three months after Katrina struck, the administration hasn't done much, Congress seems distracted by other issues, and there seems to be no sense of national urgency about the slow destruction of a major American city.

Is this inevitable, given today's MTV attention spans? What about all the lofty rhetoric, the presidential visits, the media hand-wringing amid the devastation of the hurricane and flooding? People are no longer drowning, but what remains of the city is slowly being strangled. Isn't that as big a story as when the levees broke?

Here is some of what I've been reading: About 250,000 devastated businesses have applied to SBA loans, while only a couple hundred have been approved. Isn't that as lackadaisical a response as FEMA's? If these businesses can't get short-term loans, they're going to close up, and there go the jobs that might enable more folks to return.

Some 284,000 homes were destroyed by the hurricane. Some people got flood-insurance payments, while others in the same neighborhood were denied. Major portions of the area have no power, and the local electric utility is bankrupt. The health care system has been crippled, with only two hospitals partially reopened. The first regular public school reopened only yesterday. Some banks can't decide whether to rebuild. Companies like UPS and Burger King have jobs available, but few takers because there is no housing. Much of the $62 billion okayed by Congress remains unspent.

Meanwhile, FEMA's brilliant plan was to kick out most of the 150,000 evacuees still living in hotel rooms, as of this week. After a huge uproar in the affected states, the deadline was pushed back to Jan. 7. But what happens then? FEMA has even tried to block cities like Houston from signing apartment leases for the displaced.

Donna Brazile, a Nawlins native, says in Time she's worried about "Katrina Fatigue."

As I've said, many journalists have remained on the case. But the disaster's aftermath is hardly getting the kind of constant coverage that Tom DeLay's indictment or Harriet Miers' nomination or the Valerie Plame investigation commanded. The hurricane hit in late August, but hundreds of thousands are still suffering, and it's entirely possible that much of the city will never be rebuilt and many of its residents will never come home. Isn't that as important as anything else going on in this country right now?

Watching Duke Cunningham's teary news conference today about pleading guilty to bribery, it was hard not to be moved by his sadness and remorse. But after looking at reports about the plea, I'm thinking: How on earth did the California congressman think he was going to get away with it?

"Cunningham admitted to receiving at least $2.4 million in bribes -- checks for over $1 million, cash, rugs, antiques, furniture, yacht club fees and vacations, according to prosecutors," says the LAT . " . . . Cunningham sold his home to a defense contractor at an inflated price, sparking a wide-ranging federal corruption investigation."

George W. Bush is trying to turn the political debate to immigration:

"President Bush kicked off a new effort on Monday to unite Republicans behind an overhaul of immigration laws," says the NYT . "He emphasized the need to choke off the flow of illegal immigrants while trying to address conservatives' concerns about his plan to grant temporary legal status to millions of illegal workers already in the United States.

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