Katrina, 18 Months Later

President Bush made a quick tour of Gulf Coast yesterday to check on the status of the region's recovery, eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina struck shores. He probably needed the refresher: the president hadn't set foot in the still-hobbled region in six months, and didn't even mention the Gulf in his January State of the Union address.

But if anyone should be paying attention to the Gulf Coast, it’s the White House and Capitol Hill leadership. Gulf residents know that officials at all levels of government must share blame, but there's a strong sense that Washington is most responsible for the crisis facing the region today.

It was the collapse of ramshackle levees -- built and overseen by the US Army Corps of Engineers -- that flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, wiping out thousands of homes, hospitals and schools. It was the botched emergency response, "coordinated" by now-departed FEMA officials in DC, that contributed to the deaths of hundreds trying to flee the storm.

Now, a year and half after Katrina, a failed policy at the highest levels of government is the major reason for the "second tragedy" of Katrina: a stalled recovery that keeps thousands of Gulf residents in limbo, and has left neighborhoods from the Lower Ninth Ward to East Biloxi looking like the storm hit yesterday.

And only bold leadership from Congress and the President can turn the situation around.

When Bush came to New Orleans, locals were remembering the pledge he delivered two weeks after the storm from Jackson Square: "Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives," he said. "And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again."

But much of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast haven't come back. Indeed, for thousands of people, the Katrina disaster never ended.

More than 100,000 displaced Gulf residents still live in FEMA trailers or receive "temporary" housing aid. Bush chose a thriving charter school for his New Orleans photo op, but 44 percent of public schools remain closed – in January, children were put on waiting lists. Hospitals and clinics across the coast are still shuttered.

City officials tried to be upbeat during Mardi Gras last week, but Bill Quigley, a public-interest lawyer in New Orleans, said the reality was visible to anyone who wandered out of the French Quarter: "Visitors to New Orleans can still stay in fine hotels and dine at great restaurants," he said. "But less than a five-minute drive away lie miles of devastated neighborhoods that shock visitors. Locals call it 'the Grand Canyon effect'--you know about it, you have seen it on TV, but when you see it in person it can take your breath away."

There’s no question that the Katrina crisis demands national action – right now. But Washington’s failures to date have shattered many people’s faith that the federal government can get it right. Congress and the President must prove they can and will help those in need.

Many in the newly elected Congress have promised to right the wrongs in the Gulf, but people in the Gulf are skeptical. Rep. Nancy Pelosi waited until six months after one of the country's biggest disasters to visit the region. Gulf residents notice that Katrina hasn't been a big policy issue in Congress so far, but they hope that will change.

"For our future to be strong, all of our communities must be strong," Pelosi said in a January 19 speech at the National Press Club. "It says in the Bible, ‘when there is injustice in the world, the poorest people, those with the least power, are injured the most.’ That was certainly true for the people of Hurricane Katrina. Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster compounded by a man-made disaster. It is now eighteen months past time to get our response right."

There is plenty the new Congress and the President can do to help revive the Gulf Coast. In a report released this week, "A New Agenda for the Gulf Coast," the Institute for Southern Studies Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch offers dozens of practical proposals--put forward by Gulf leaders and policy experts--that Washington can act on now to put the region back on the road to recovery. For example:

• Lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest barriers. Washington can help Gulf residents get back into homes by speeding up compensation to homeowners, extending aid to renters, cracking down on insurance companies that deny coverage and reversing the Department of Housing and Urban Development's decision to raze 5,000 barely damaged public housing units in New Orleans.

• Plans to repair Louisiana's broken healthcare system through a Medicaid waiver and Medicare pilot project have been delayed. Washington can help by reviving these efforts, by linking displaced patients with care and injecting resources into community-based clinics.

• The region's economy is still hobbling and good jobs are scarce, yet efforts like the Bush Administration's "Gulf Opportunity Zones" have been scattershot and ineffective. Attaching accountability standards to federal subsidies--as well as launching a Gulf Civic Works Program to hire 100,000 displaced people to rebuild their own communities--could transform the region.

• The 2007 hurricane season is less than four months away, but the Gulf's storm defenses are still inadequate. Watchdogs are calling for prompt building of levees that can withstand a Category 5 hurricane, and for Congress to create a commission to investigate levee failures and cancel wasteful projects like the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, which helped magnify Katrina's intensity.

The solutions are there, and it's not too late. All that's required is for Congress and the President to live up to their promises and responsibility to build a brighter future for the Gulf Coast.