EDITORIAL: Not on our feet yet
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
Residents of greater New Orleans have been holding out hope that President Bush will make our region's recovery from Hurricane Katrina a top priority this year.
Because of the failure of a flood-protection system built by the federal government, more than 1,000 people in our metro area lost their lives. Hundreds of thousands have yet to return home. Surely the catastrophe that befell this community should weigh on the president -- and on Congress, and on a nation that eats our seafood, warms itself with our oil and gas and uses all the products that pass through our ports.
Near the end of a State of the Union speech focused on foreign policy, the president did briefly stress the importance of rebuilding the storm-ravaged Gulf region. "A hopeful society comes to the aid of fellow citizens in times of suffering and emergency," he said, "and stays at it until they are back on their feet."
Our area needs more help from the federal government. Yet the president did not announce any new initiatives to speed our recovery. He does not seem to recognize that the long-term prospects for a beloved American community are still very much in question.
Without doubt, Congress has set aside billions of dollars to assist the Gulf region after Katrina and Rita. But the spending so far has been focused on short-term problems, and greater New Orleans is still waiting for President Bush to fulfill the promise he made to this community from Jackson Square in September.
In his speech Tuesday, the president touted the benefits of home ownership for those in New Orleans and elsewhere who feel "excluded from the promise of our country." But he has yet to propose an adequate solution for the owners of about 200,000 homes that were severely flooded during and after Katrina. These homeowners are now facing financial ruin, when their only mistake was to trust in the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. If the president doesn't like U.S. Rep. Richard Baker's plan for federally backed buyouts of ruined homes, the White House ought to offer an alternative that reflects the scale of the problem -- and the federal government's culpability for the failure of our levees.
The White House has committed to closing the mouths of three New Orleans drainage canals. This is an important step in making our metro area safer from hurricanes. But this region's future vitality will require a federal commitment to keep improving flood protection in greater New Orleans even after the three planned floodgates are complete.
Last year at this time, the president unveiled a plan to remake Social Security, a politically popular entitlement that cannot continue on its current course. His reform plan had its flaws and never gained a following, but the president deserved credit for taking on one of the greatest financial challenges facing this nation.
Tuesday's speech, by contrast, was far less ambitious, and not just because of a dearth of Katrina-related initiatives. The president did address some threats to the U.S. economy, such as the increasing cost of health insurance and uncertainty about the nation's energy supply in the future. But the solutions he offered -- tax credits to help self-employed people buy coverage, incentives for alternative fuel -- will likely be only marginally helpful.
To come back after a disaster of unprecedented scope, greater New Orleans needs bold leadership -- not just from state and local officials but also from the White House. President Bush vowed Tuesday that Americans "will renew the defining moral commitments of this land." In fact, he made just such a moral commitment to greater New Orleans in September.
He did not follow through on it Tuesday. If this region is to thrive again, President Bush will have to push harder for our recovery than he did in his State of the Union speech.