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Monday, December 19, 2005  

A holiday wish: Don't forget New Orleans

I think we need to take some time away from preparing for whatever holiday we may celebrate to reconsider the greatest American tragedy in a century, the displacement of thousands of people from the wonderful, historic city of New Orleans. Though less than four months have passed since the devastating impact of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the catastrophe is already moving away from the front pages of newspapers and out of our thoughts. Yes, there is breaking news that deserves our attention. The Bush administration's domestic spying on American citizens without court approval is the issue of the moment, and a very serious one. But, we must be able to consider more than one important issue at a time to understand the complex world we live in.

The editorial board of the New York Times recently said what needs to be said about rebuilding New Orleans.

We are about to lose New Orleans. Whether it is a conscious plan to let the city rot until no one is willing to move back or honest paralysis over difficult questions, the moment is upon us when a major American city will die, leaving nothing but a few shells for tourists to visit like a museum.

We said this wouldn't happen. President Bush said it wouldn't happen. He stood in Jackson Square and said, "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans." But it has been over three months since Hurricane Katrina struck and the city is in complete shambles.

There are many unanswered questions that will take years to work out, but one is make-or-break and needs to be dealt with immediately. It all boils down to the levee system. People will clear garbage, live in tents, work their fingers to the bone to reclaim homes and lives, but not if they don't believe they will be protected by more than patches to the same old system that failed during the deadly storm. Homeowners, businesses and insurance companies all need a commitment before they will stake their futures on the city.

At this moment the reconstruction is a rudderless ship. There is no effective leadership that we can identify. How many people could even name the president's liaison for the reconstruction effort, Donald Powell? Lawmakers need to understand that for New Orleans the words "pending in Congress" are a death warrant requiring no signature.

The rumbling from Washington that the proposed cost of better levees is too much has grown louder. Pretending we are going to do the necessary work eventually, while stalling until the next hurricane season is upon us, is dishonest and cowardly. Unless some clear, quick commitments are made, the displaced will have no choice but to sink roots in the alien communities where they landed.

The price tag for protection against a Category 5 hurricane, which would involve not just stronger and higher levees but also new drainage canals and environmental restoration, would very likely run to well over $32 billion. That is a lot of money. But that starting point represents just 1.2 percent of this year's estimated $2.6 trillion in federal spending, which actually overstates the case, since the cost would be spread over many years. And it is barely one-third the cost of the $95 billion in tax cuts passed just last week by the House of Representatives.

Total allocations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror have topped $300 billion. All that money has been appropriated as the cost of protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. But what was the worst possible case we fought to prevent?

Losing a major American city.

Losing an American city. We are told to believe the risk of losing an American city is so great that the U.S. must engage in torture of innocent people whisked off to foreign soil, and, illegal spying on its own citizens, to prevent the loss from occurring. But, at the same time, an American city can be lost to a natural disaster and disinterest. Cognitive dissonance is nothing new in American politics. However, this situation is worse than most because a clock is ticking. If the former residents of New Orleans are not provided with a viable plan for rebuilding their home city soon, they will have no reason to return. Currently, thousands of them remain housed in hotels throughout the country at government expense. Most of these people had both employment and houses they owned before being forced to flee. All along, the better option for them has been to return to where they have roots, not to be scattered to the winds.

As the editorial board of at the NYT said, now is the time for Congress to act, but it is continuing to drag its heels. The most meaningful gift many of us can give this year is an email or letter to our Congressmen and Congresswomen saying we believe the reconstruction of New Orleans to be the highest national priority. At most, giving that gift will cost you fifteen minutes and a postage stamp. Please do it.

What's the art?

The fleur de lys has long been considered a symbol of New Orleans.

8:45 PM