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Big-ticket Katrina costs yet to come

$18 billion already spent on recovery

WASHINGTON -- The federal government has spent or obligated through contracts more than $18 billion in Hurricane Katrina relief, meaning that in just more than two months, storm recovery costs have drawn even with the record spending package the United States has been using to fund Iraq reconstruction for the past two years.

But local, state, and federal officials say that number pales in comparison with the ultimate price tag for rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Until now, major expenses have come in the form of debris removal, temporary housing, and direct assistance to victims of the storm. The real big-ticket items, they say, will not come until months and years down the line as the government attempts to recreate a public infrastructure network -- including roads, bridges, hospitals, schools, sewers, power lines, ports, and levees -- that was all but decimated when Katrina swept in at the end of August.

''I hate to use the term 'drop in the bucket,' but that's pretty much what it's been," said Arthur Jones, who heads Louisiana's disaster recovery division. ''This is going to be expensive. My mental calculator doesn't go that high."

No one else has come up with a definitive estimate, either. Guesses tend to range well above $100 billion, but vary wildly from there.

Rebuilding the levees in New Orleans to the level that state and local leaders want is expected to cost $20 billion or more. Many roads -- including a bridge that forms part of Interstate 10 -- have to be rebuilt entirely. Labyrinths of underground cables, wires, and pipes that spent weeks corroding amid the dank flood water have to be ripped out and replaced. And thousands of buildings have to be leveled to make way for fresh construction.

''Things were just obliterated, so the majority of the money is going to be used to rebuild," said Pete Smith, press secretary for Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, a Republican.

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