The sense of wholesale apocalypse is beginning to ebb along with the floodwaters. Some streets that were underwater a week ago are dry. There's no problem with law and order now that almost everybody is gone. National Guard troops and helping-hand police units from as far away as Denver drive around aimlessly with nothing to do.
It's even possible to hope that the toll in human life is less awful than once feared. The truth is still hidden in flooded attics and beneath murky waters, but some local officials have begun hinting at final numbers in the low thousands, not the five-figure totals that once seemed inevitable. Maybe they're just being optimistic, but even the capacity for optimism is a welcome sign.
We still can't begin to see the end of this tragic mess, though. Now it falls to the Bush administration, so heavy on limited-government ideology and so light on effective follow-through, to launch a massive, latter-day Marshall Plan for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.
I wish I had confidence that this White House was up to the job. I wish I had confidence that this White House would even try.
Make no mistake, nothing less than an all-out effort by the federal government will do -- state and local governments can't possibly deal with this devastation on their own. I saw that when I spent an afternoon with colleagues cruising the ghostly, abandoned city by boat, motoring through the Broadmoor and Central City neighborhoods on the waterway that once was Claiborne Avenue.
In some places we visited, the water was three or four feet deep; in others, it lapped at the rooflines of cars. Virtually all the homes were so battered by Hurricane Katrina's winds and so thoroughly invaded by toxic, septic floodwaters that they will almost certainly have to be condemned. The same was true of the businesses -- the nail salons, barber shops and po' boy shacks, all of them a total loss.
A hospital stood in the middle of the neighborhood, and now it's drowned. Is it possible to save a flooded hospital? Or do you have to bulldoze the place and start over? The badly damaged Superdome rose in the distance. Local officials have already clashed over whether it can be cleaned up and pressed back into service or has to be demolished.
The picture is similar in many other parts of the city -- but not all. Some areas, such as the relatively elevated Fairgrounds neighborhood, suffered flooding and wind damage but are probably salvageable. By now the whole world knows that notable others, such as the French Quarter and the Garden District, are virtually intact.
What happens next? New Orleans is under a mandatory evacuation order. The few holdouts in the flooded sectors are giving up. A woman named Carolina was being evacuated from Central City by boat. When asked why she had stayed, she said she wanted "to let the crowd go down." But the holdouts in the dry areas say they won't go, and those from dry areas who were evacuated are going to start clamoring to come back and resume their lives.
Assuming the city is going to be rebuilt on its present site -- and every politician from the mayor to the president says it will -- the system of levees, pumps and canals will have to be greatly upgraded to keep such a disaster from happening again -- a multibillion-dollar prospect. The environmental hazards left behind in the post-flood muck will have to be remediated -- again, at enormous cost.
When rebuilding of the flooded areas begins, there will be wrenching political and emotional conflict over which neighborhoods will go first and which will have to stand in line, over which structures will get razed and which won't, and over what will be built to replace the parts of the city that are lost. This process will be hugely complicated by the fact that the people of New Orleans are dispersed throughout the area and the nation in shelters, hotels, motels and strangers' extra bedrooms.
Most of those whose lives were smashed by Hurricane Katrina are poor, because Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama are three of the nation's poorest states. There is no way they can recover without a committed, effective federal government leading the way.
Getting the clueless FEMA director, Michael Brown, out of the way is a good start. But the task ahead is enormous, and before I succumb to optimism I'd like to see some sign that George W. Bush understands that the ultimate responsibility has to be his.