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Nicole Gelinas
Solving the President’s New Orleans Problem
Feds should set the direction for recovery.
11 November 2005

Congressional Democrats, plus DNC chief Howard Dean, are already making noises about holding their party’s 2008 presidential convention in New Orleans. The White House and Capitol-Hill Republicans who want to stay in power should consider a threat that looms even earlier: the Democrats, if they’re remotely smart, will frame the mid-term elections as a referendum on how much progress President Bush has made over the course of 14 months in overcoming the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, and the national media will efficiently dispatch images from the Big Easy of how things are going there. Will the president be ready?

The early indications from the White House aren’t convincing. Despite a flurry of mid-September rhetoric, most notably the speech from New Orleans on the 15th, President Bush hasn’t yet taken a decisive, sustained lead on rebuilding a historic American city that was shattered by a four-fold cataclysm.

Cataclysm #1: New Orleans’s state and local leaders’ failure to prepare for an inevitable hurricane. Cataclysm #2: the hurricane. Cataclysm #3: the catastrophic failure of New Orleans’s levees, designed by the federal Army Corps of Engineers. Cataclysm #4: the initially inept federal non-response to Cataclysms #1, #2 and #3, under the irrefutably incompetent leadership of FEMA within the president’s Department of Homeland Security—all drawn out in slow motion over the course of one week for the entire world to watch.

No, the White House didn’t cause Katrina, nor was it was responsible for the state and local failure to prepare for the storm—but guess which cataclysm voters will be reminded of over and over next fall, if the White House fails to help New Orleans make obvious progress in regaining what was lost by then. The president needs a plan to blunt this line of attack before it begins.

But thus far, the president’s rebuilding strategy is too small-scale to accomplish this: the White House has proposed things like school vouchers for displaced children, and federal tax breaks for those who set up shop in New Orleans. These are fine ideas as far as they go . . . which isn’t far enough. Vouchers and tax cuts will never capture the public’s imagination against acre after acre of decaying wasteland in New Orleans sure to be shown on television during next year’s Congressional campaign season.

Of course, officials in New Orleans and Louisiana should have taken much of the lead on rationally planning their own rebuilt city by now. At a minimum, they should have determined what precise federal rebuilding funds to request—just as New York did after 9/11. But the region’s Congressional delegation can’t seem to ask the nation for a reasonable reconstruction package.

Compounding this failure is the fact that Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu and Democratic Representative William Jefferson, fearful that they’ll lose their electoral base in New Orleans for good, doubtless want federal money to rebuild their own party in New Orleans, not to build a sustainable new city. They’ll do this by continuing to ask for billions in federal community-development block grants, which would allow them to rebuild a New Orleans designed to lure a dysfunctional underclass back to the city. A New Orleans rebuilt on failed leftist principles will be just like the failing city that existed before Katrina: a place racked by horrific violent crime, and one that offered few economic opportunities for its working-class and middle-class residents.

Meanwhile, the local business leaders and residents trying to rebuild on their own still haven’t heard much in terms of an actual plan from Mayor Ray Nagin or Governor Kathleen Blanco. None other than New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton summed the situation up best earlier this week at a federal hearing: “Someone has to be in charge, and I don't know who that is. At what point does the rubber hit the road and someone says, ‘This is what we are going to do?’ ”

Here, of course, is why the White House must take the lead before it, not local and state officials, gets blamed again for a massive failure in New Orleans—this time, the failure to rebuild.

But is it actually the president’s job to lead New Orleans’s renaissance, as the Dems and the media will insist it was if not much gets done there by next fall?

In large part, yes. In contrast to 9/11, when the feds simply awarded money to New York earmarked under broad categories and allowed New York’s pols to bicker fruitlessly for years about what to build downtown, the White House has a larger role to play in New Orleans in directing specific efforts. In New York, the federal government had no place in telling New York what to rebuild at Ground Zero; the World Trade Center was never a federal responsibility. But in New Orleans, for more than 40 years, the feds have held the lead role in designing and overseeing the construction of a piece of key infrastructure that didn’t hold up under Katrina and that must be rebuilt better and stronger: the levees and floodwalls.

This role makes it easy for the White House to take the lead now in pledging to build levees in south Louisiana to Category-5-hurricane strength. The president should request adequate funds from Congress to start carrying out such a plan right now, leaving no room for critics to complain next year that the White House’s isn’t doing enough. Measurable progress on the levees will help give evacuated business owners and residents the confidence they need to come back to New Orleans—and those private-sector players then can then do much of the rebuilding of the local economy on their own.

If the White House doesn’t do this, it can expect the drip-drip-drip political torture of the results of various commissions being set up to study the catastrophic post-Katrina failure of the levees. An ongoing forensic investigation is already revealing that the levees did not perform to their own specifications, due to a combination of design and construction flaws. The only way for the president to dodge the fallout from this particular failure—in reality, likely a combination of federal, state, and local failures in design, construction, and maintenance—is to say: We’re already on top of the problem—and we’re the administration that’s making up for decades of mistakes here.

Also, in contrast to New York after 9/11, New Orleans’s tax base was destroyed after Katrina left most of the city under water. This is a fiscal first in modern times—and clearly, New Orleans needs long-term help in jump-starting and sustaining its day-to-day operations in order to lure scattered evacuees back to the city.

The feds have done a competent enough job on some vital tasks in New Orleans over the two months, including helping the beleaguered police department to maintain public safety, and starting to clean up millions of tons of debris. But New Orleans, with little tax revenue coming in, cannot itself carry out the normal functions of city government—and thus give its evacuees the confidence to move back—unless it receives a predictable flow of federal cash to pay for things like policing, courts, and schools, possibly even over several years.

The White House should ask for Congressional funds to jump-start New Orleans’s civic infrastructure—but make clear that it will use the money only to work with the city to build sustainable civic institutions that actually work, unlike New Orleans’s historically dysfunctional police department and Louisiana’s historically dysfunctional criminal-justice system, which have never protected citizens from the nation’s worst levels of violent urban crime.

Conservatives in cities have taught liberals over the past two decades: keep your citizens safe, and they will do much of the rest themselves. Conservatives in the White House can teach New Orleans and Louisiana this same valuable lesson—and the economic results will follow.

But unless the White House ties federal money for rebuilding to specific policies with measurable results, the money will be wasted. The president’s critics will doubtless judge the federal effort by how much money Washington spends, but all that matters is results—which modest but well-directed spending can achieve. Getting New Orleans to respond rationally to well-designed federal incentives may not be as hard as it seems: already, New Orleans and Louisiana officials have shown a willingness to exchange old ideas for new federal money. For example, the state and city recently made plans to convert a dozen public schools to charter status to receive federal grants.

What if the president doesn’t take the lead on rebuilding New Orleans? It’s simple: national Democrats will have the perfect opening to tell an extended version of their story of Katrina by next year’s first anniversary of the storm. Black Democratic leaders, too, will have another opportunity to repeat their disgraceful lie that the president ignored New Orleans because its pre-Katrina population was predominantly black. The White House instead must show Americans that it was gracious enough to rise above this rabid partisan criticism to show a still-flailing New Orleans a new way forward.

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to City Journal. For more information, see Who’s Killing New Orleans?

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More by Nicole Gelinas:
Choosing Citi Bike
Too Soon for Answers in Harlem
West Side Story
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