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The long slog after Katrina

STRUGGLING RESIDENTS of the Gulf Coast can take comfort in the relative dearth of hurricane activity so far this year, for it's hardly clear that New Orleans and other communities hit hard by Katrina could survive another blow of similar proportions. Sadly, forecasts of a busy hurricane season aren't the only predictions that have failed to pan out. Two years on, as Katrina begins to fade in many Americans' memories, much of the help promised to the storm's victims still has not materialized.

While the Bush administration has talked of more than $110 billion in aid, much of that has yet to be spent. The money has been spread across several states -- even though damage was concentrated in Louisiana. The benefits that weren't misdirected have flowed too slowly and pale in comparison with the scope of the damage. The Louisiana Recovery Authority estimates that Katrina caused more than $100 billion in damage to public and private property in that state, of which $34 billion is uncovered by federal aid, flood insurance, or private insurance.

Meanwhile, in once-prosperous New Orleans residential neighborhoods, renovated homes sit uneasily amid newly vacant lots -- and ugly hulks that have scarcely been touched since Katrina hit. If Congress comes to understand this, members will feel obligated to honor Katrina victims' requests for more help. Congress can start by kicking in more money for the Road Home, a joint federal and state initiative to help homeowners with their losses.

Mired in politics

The paralysis in New Orleans, to be sure, is partly the result of self-inflicted wounds. Louisiana's governor is under fire for handling Road Home money ineptly. Other leaders have been compromised by troubles unrelated to Katrina. A congressman is under indictment for influence peddling, and other officials have been targets of recent bribery investigations. Yet there are far more important reasons why the recovery has been so slow; many residents and businesses are still wrestling with their insurance companies.

Meanwhile, policy makers are grappling with more existential questions that would bedevil any government: How heavy a hand should communities use to guide development? How much slack should poor property owners get if their neglect endangers their neighbors? Should healthcare be provided solely by extending private insurance, or do government-run hospitals still have a place? Should public housing projects be preserved as is or replaced with vouchers and scattered-site developments? Officials in Gulf Coast communities must somehow settle or straddle these divides at every step of the reconstruction effort.

Crescent City residents are desperate to keep the nation as a whole from ignoring their city's plight. They diligently remind outsiders that the Army Corps of Engineers, a rogue federal agency if there ever was one, built the levees that failed and caused more than 1,000 deaths. And it would be hard to overstate how much importance residents placed on the promise President Bush made from the darkened city not long after the storm: "this great city will rise again." That, at any rate, was what Bush said when Americans were still flabbergasted by his administration's limp, indifferent response to Katrina.

Questions for the candidates

New Orleans wants to play host to one of next year's presidential debates. It deserves the opportunity, because many American metropolitan areas are vulnerable to earthquakes, storms, fires, floods, and terrorist attacks. A question for each presidential candidate is: What would you do if another catastrophe strikes US soil? For days, the Bush administration largely abandoned New Orleanians to their fate. So when Bill White, the hero mayor of Houston, opened his city and found care and shelter for evacuees with nowhere else to go, activist government never looked so good.

In the initial months after the hurricane, national Democrats roused themselves to complain when Bush sought to exempt post-hurricane reconstruction projects from the Davis-Bacon Act, a prevailing-wage law sacred to labor unions -- but failed to press for quick help for owners and residents of tens of thousands of ruined homes. When Bush effectively killed a bill to do just that, congressional Democrats barely made a peep.

Fortunately for New Orleans, leading Democratic presidential candidates are waking up to the continuing resonance of the Katrina disaster. John Edwards launched his campaign there. He, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are among those touting their own plans for Gulf Coast recovery. Obama's in particular is praiseworthy: It covers everything from levee reconstruction to crimefighting to restoration of coastal wetlands, and takes a nuts-and-bolts approach devoid of cheap political gestures.

While some GOP candidates have visited New Orleans, the Republicans, as a group, have so far been much less specific about what they would do to speed the region's recovery. They would be wise to say more -- if only to reassure voters that, in a domestic crisis that demands leadership, they, unlike Bush, will not fall down on the job.

Homeowners on the verge of drowning in their attics; aimless flood victims wandering the elevated expressways; senior citizens expiring for lack of medical attention; the murk of floodwater; the furnace-like heat -- sadly, the cinematic horror of those early days after the storm does not mean that a Hollywood-style happy ending will necessarily follow. It would be lovely if, in the vast areas of Louisiana and Mississippi ravaged by Katrina, everyone could rally together and fix everything just right. But it is hardly surprising when the survivors of a catatastrophe merely scrape along afterward.

Katrina illustrated the need for a government that can act firmly when events turn hard and cruel. Whether we have one remains to be seen, even now.

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