Far From Victory in New Orleans

Neither Congress nor the Bush administration show signs of following through with helping to rebuild the city.

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President Bush spoke before the Council on Foreign Relations last week and urged Americans once again to stay the course in Iraq, arguing that we must now “win the battle after the battle” and focus on building sewer lines, roads, and other municipal structures. What tremendous optimism on the part of the Bush administration that we will be able to rebuild Baghdad when New Orleans, formerly one of America’s largest and most prominent cities, remains largely closed for business more than 100 days after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.

It has been nearly three months since President Bush stood in New Orleans’ historic Jackson Square and promised “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.” Yet, to date less than $20 million in emergency aid has reached the region, and there has been little indication of any plan for rebuilding New Orleans and the surrounding areas.

According to a New York Times op-ed by Bruce Katz and Matt Fellowes of the Brookings Institution, 50 percent of the city still has no gas; only 10 percent of bus lines are running; and only one public school has re-opened. According to other sources, 40 percent of the city remains in the dark. Disappointing results, to say the least. If the federal government cannot provide the aid to electrify New Orleans under the most peaceful of conditions, how high can our expectations be for Baghdad and the rest of Iraq?

President Bush’s series of speeches on rebuilding Iraq while some half a million New Orleans and Gulf Coast families remain homeless or under threat of eviction forces us to acknowledge our nation’s priorities. Since his September 15 speech in Jackson Square, President Bush has said little about Katrina. There have been no grand “strategies for victory” for rebuilding and resettling the Gulf Coast. While Congress approved $60 billion in aid to the region, states and residents affected have received virtually none of it.

While it is perhaps easy to attribute the slow rebuilding efforts in New Orleans to its unique geographical situation and the fact that it was under water for so many days, no other areas of the Gulf Coast are rebuilding either. Even Republican Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who often was at Bush’s side during the president’s few visits to the affected region, recently testified that his state cannot rebuild because it lacks the federal funds to do so.

The rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast does not have to dictate our strategy in Iraq. These are separate issues. But the American people must acknowledge that choices are being made: While President Bush drafts plans to rebuild roads in Baghdad, the administration has rejected recommendations to fortify the levee system around New Orleans. While Congress approved $56 billion in tax cuts over the next five years, with the “overwhelming bulk of dividends [going] to the top 5 percent of income earners,” FEMA has restricted aid to Katrina victims, with many receiving just a few thousand dollars in assistance. While Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice travels the world making the administration’s case for continued troop presence in Iraq, few Bush administration officials have made it down to Louisiana recently. While more than $200 billion has been spent in Iraq, just $21 million has been allocated to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

When President Bush spoke from Jackson Square on September 15, he promised to “do what it takes . . . stay as long as it takes.” Now, more than 100 days later, the administration has not even begun to do what it will take to rebuild. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast need the attention of the president. It is time for a victory strategy for New Orleans.


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