AMONTH after neglecting to mention New Orleans or the Gulf Coast in his State of the Union address, President Bush heads today to the city crippled by Hurricane Katrina. He's certain to get an earful during his listening tour of the region, which will start in Mississippi. But if the Crescent City's revival is to go from a crawl to a gallop, Bush must use the bully pulpit of the presidency to energize all levels of government. Despite $89 billion from the federal government to rebuild the devastated Gulf Coast, New Orleans's recovery has been slow. Painfully slow.
According to "The Katrina Index: Tracking Recovery of New Orleans & the Metro Area," a monthly report from the Brookings Institution and the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, public transportation is stagnant, "with only 17 percent of pre-Katrina buses in operation." More than half of the city's schools -- 56 percent -- remain closed. And rebuilding money from Baton Rouge under Louisiana's "Road Home" program seems to be distributed one coin at a time. Only 632 applications had been approved out of the 107,739 on file as of Feb. 12. Guarding against fraud is commendable, but it does not excuse the continual delay in helping those who lost everything and are eager to get on with their lives.
That's just the beginning of the challenges facing New Orleans. Murders, robberies and carjackings are some of the horrors visited upon a people who have suffered enough. Fear and uncertainty about the future have contributed to the acceleration of the departure of the middle class and educated professionals, who were already bidding the city adieu before Katrina blew ashore in 2005. And the population that has been left behind -- half of what it once was -- needs meaningful employment.
Solving these problems not only takes vision, it takes leadership. From the beginning, Mr. Bush wisely insisted that local officials plan and control their own destiny. Yet that does not absolve him of any role in fulfilling a vow he made to New Orleans in his speech in Jackson Square: "This great city will rise again." A presidential push is needed to tamp down partisan bickering and old rivalries among local, state and federal officials and to quash conspiracy theories that the decision not to rebuild flooded housing projects is an attempt to ethnically cleanse New Orleans.
One specific way Mr. Bush could show leadership is by directing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to waive the requirement that Louisiana contribute 10 percent to meeting disaster recovery costs; the federal government has issued similar waivers to other jurisdictions, including New York City after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Cutting that bit of red tape would allow the freed-up money to be used for other rebuilding purposes.